Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Summer Reading Suggestions?

I am preparing my annual summer reading column, and I need your help.    I've got some great titles to highlight, including two from local authors, but I can always use more.

Any suggestions for great summer reading?  I plan to feature books for children as well as adults.  Share away!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Help a Newman Center Group Go To World Youth Day

I had what I thought was a little trouble getting the song to embed on the blog here, but I want get the word out about a local Newman Center Group, this one at Illinois State University in Normal, IL, that has a chance to go to World Youth Day to perform this original song.  I've had a chance to listen to the song quite a few times as I try to figure out what I'm doing wrong, and it really is well done.

You can go to this link to vote for the group, and read more about the group, the song, and the contest in the excellent Catholic Post article here.   In the meantime, be sure to vote for the song and spread the word!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Penderwicks: Family-Friendly Books for Real Families

I’ve saved for years a quote I read about the notorious Mitford sisters, authors & social butterflies in mid-20th century Britain. When in the 1960s Decca was asked to comment on Nancy's statement, ''Sisters are a shield against life's cruel adversity,'' Decca replied, ''But sisters are life's cruel adversity!”

Anyone with a sister can laugh and agree with both statements; I should know, because I have four sisters (and a brother, but that’s a different kind of cruel adversity).  I was inspired last week to go look up and share that quote when the prolific and inimitable Faith & Family editor Danielle Bean “tweeted” about a phone conversation with her sister. 

And then I thought about that quote, and sisters, again, as our family anxiously awaited the 3rd Penderwicks book, The Penderwicks at Pointe Mouette, released today.  I have not started reading it yet, but as I mentioned previously, we have a hardback that should arrive in today’s mail and already multiple Kindle-App versions to read, and I’m hoping that will provide peace in our house as it did for the wonderful final installment in the Ranger’s Apprentice series.  I’m pretty sure with the demands of the rest of the week ahead, it will be the weekend before I take my turn with the sisters Penderwick and their adventures.  But that won’t stop me being happy just to have it around, and enjoy hearing about it from the younger readers at our house.

So, if you are not familiar with them, what is so great about the Penderwicks? 

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy is the first book in the series that I dearly hope will be long and wonderful

Jeanne Birdsall “gets” the joy of family life, as well as its “cruel adversity.”  It’s annoying to have sisters, and yet there is nothing better.  Her books are a modern version of all the best sort of timeless family-friendly books about family, from E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It to The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright, to Half-Magic by Edward Eager, Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, and a host of others.

There’s a kind of wry acknowledgment in this genre of book that being part of a family is one of the best things and worst things ever, at the same time.  It’s not quite as nice, and therefore more true-life, than Little House on the Prairie, but not depressing as the hype-realism I so dislike in modern fiction for kids. 

Indeed, Birdsall’s website has quotes on every page from some of these books and other authors, and she writes of being influenced by them.   To be brief, reading Jeanne Birdsall books makes you a better, happier person.  If you haven’t had the great good fortune to discover this author, please do so.  And to Jeanne Birdsall, consider this a personal plea from a family who loves your writing—please keep writing Penderwicks books!

Until I can get a chance to read what I’m sure is the wonderful new book by (because Pragmatic Mom, lucky her and her girls, had an early, review copy, loved it) , here are some choice quotes from the first two books, The Penderwicks, and The Penderwicks on Gardam Street:

“Maybe it's fate that Hound ate the map.  Maybe we'll discover something wonderful while we're lost,” said Jane.

We'll discover that when I'm in the backseat for too long with my younger sisters, I go insane and murder them."

"Steady, troops," said Mr. Penderwick.  “Rosalind, how about a game?"

Just like that, Skye's temper was gone, and she didn’t care. For what good was a temper if you couldn't throw it away when your sister was being kneed in the ribs?
"Then I guess I'm ready. I who am about to die salute you,” said Mr. Penderwick.  

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Q&A with Dr. Meg Meeker, author of The 10 Habits of Happy Moms

I'm so grateful to Dr. Meg Meeker, author of May's featured book, The 10 Habits of Happy Moms, for so promptly answering my questions for this interview so this could be a Mother's Day weekend treat for Catholic Post Book Group readers.   To all mothers and those who have mothers, have a blessed and terrific Mother's Day!

Q.  First, thanks for a great book!  I found it encouraging and challenging in a great combination.  How did you get the tone “just right?”

I’ve listened to literally thousands of mothers over the years, so I think that I have my hand on the pulse of their struggles. Additionally, I’m a mother of four children myself and I understand where many stressed, worried mothers are coming from.

Q.  Of all the 10 Habits, which one would you say is the most important for Moms, and why?

I consider faith to be the most important habit. Why do I feel this way? Because I believe that if we keep our eyes focused on God, our hearts aligned with his and our wills in concert with the work that He has for us each day, the rest of our lives all fall into place. Life for us mothers works better with God at the center and the rest of the habits follow quite naturally. For instance, when we feel closer to God, we compete less with other mothers, we live out of strength rather than fear and we have an easier time simplifying our lives because we live with different priorities.

Q.  You don’t shy away from encouraging moms to embrace faith and make it central in their lives.  Can you share how your Catholic faith informs your work?

Catholicism has taught me that not only is God holy, He is extraordinarily loving and kind.  I feel that the intense love that God has poured into my life has prompted me to do the work that I do. I am a mother and a pediatrician, and importantly, I feel that my Christian faith calls me to spread God’s truth and love to those who are struggling and hurting- mothers across America. My work is really my mission. Many people feel that mission work occurs everywhere else, but to me, the most important work that I can do is to encourage and help strengthen families in America.

 Q. Of the 10 Habits, which one do you personally find most challenging? 

The truth is, I want to practice every habit, but at different times in my life, each has been hard. Specifically, I struggle most with knowing my value as a mother. My children are older now and tell me that I have been a good mother, but I always want to do better. Being a Mom has always been my top priority and I think that wanting to be better (even when our kids are grown and gone) never leaves us. And we mothers struggle constantly with having a positive and healthy sense of our worth. Perhaps it’s just part of the human condition.

Q.  Do you find that moms are better at one than another?   How does a mom get “good” at all of them, or is it even possible (or desirable)? 

The purpose of the habits really isn’t meant to make mothers feel that they have to be good at one more thing; rather, they are meant to help mothers find deep satisfaction in their lives. Some habits feel more natural to some mothers than to others. For instance, mothers who are introverts will love spending more time in solitude, whereas mothers who gravitate toward being extroverts, will find nurturing friendships with women easier.

My intention in outlining the habits is to help mothers take small “bites” of each. All ten habits, if practiced regularly, really will help mothers enjoy life more. But, even if a mother tries one or two, she will find relief from the stresses which make her feel that she is ready to topple over the edge.

Q.   Your first three books were about kids.  What made you turn to moms for this book? 

I have realized one truth as a pediatrician. If mothers are healthy, happy and strong, then I don’t have to worry about the kids. Really, The old adage, “If Mom ain’t happy, then no one’s happy” is very true. I felt that If I could address the issues that are pulling mothers down and help them enjoy life more, that it would have a profoundly positive impact on their families.

Q.  To me, the common thread in your 3 previous books about kids is about connecting with them and the importance of parents in the lives of children.  Could you share a little bit of why connection is so important?  How do think “connection” relates to your book for moms?

I stress connecting with our children for several reasons. First, research shows that parents who have solid, strong relationships with their kids raise children that are much less likely to get into trouble and much healthier psychologically. Second, we’re moving farther away from connecting with our kids. Our relationships are getting splintered and mothers and fathers aren’t spending enough time with our kids. We just aren’t. Electronics get in the way. Sports events divide families. We have been duped into believing that our kids benefit more from being in dance, music lessons or any number of sports than they do by spending time with us. They need more of us and less stuff to do. Finally, I think that disciplining ourselves to work harder at relating to our kids in healthy ways is just plain hard. We need encouragement and reminders.

Q.  How are you able to write books at the same time that you practice pediatrics actively?

When I’m actively writing or book touring, I cut back on my hours in the office. I can do this, because I am a senior partner (with my husband) and can control my hours.

Q.   What’s your next book or project?

Next year, Random House will release a book that I am starting on Mothers and Sons.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Meet a Reader: Johnathan Steffen

There's such a funny story to go with how I found this month's reader.

The deadline for this month's print Catholic Post book page fell during Holy Week (prompting many "Catholic" jokes between my editor and me), and I was really scrambling to get everything completed.  As usually happens, I seem to have some trouble lining up a person to be a "Meet a Reader," and in my haste to finish my column, I had completely let it slip again.  I was at our diocese's Chrism Mass, held on Tuesday of Holy Week at the lovely Cathedral of St. Mary, because my three children were among the students representing our Catholic school.  In front of our pew sat a group of young men, and they struck me as seminarians.  I thought during the Mass, I bet I can get one of these guys to be my "Meet a Reader."  Turns out they were high school students (our family runs pretty short, and they were tall). 

But the idea of finding a seminarian for "Meet a Reader" had taken hold, so after the Mass I enlisted the help of a bolder-than-I, dear, and talented friend also at the Mass to help me find one.  She assured me she knew several, so we walked around the cathedral looking for a likely candidate.  We found the absolutely delightful young man featured here. 

Thanks, Johnathan, for being such a good sport and providing such thoughtful answers to the four Meet-A-Reader questions!  We will be praying for you as you prepare for ordination.

How you know me:  I am a seminarian for the Diocese of Peoria studying at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio.  I have been in seminary for five years and am looking forward to being ordained to the transitional diaconate on Sunday, May 22, 2011, at the Cathedral.  Before entering seminary, I taught high school English for five years and practiced law for 4 years.

Why I love reading:  Mostly, I enjoy reading because I like watching what an author can do with words.  Without ever having seen the 19th century unsettled prairieland of the Midwest, Willa Cather in My Antonia can place that prairie with its scents and colors and sounds directly in my mind simply by arranging letters on a page.  James Joyce in Ulysses can expand a single day with his words in a novel that takes a couple weeks of sustained and deliberate reading.  Truman Capote, Nathaniel Hawthorne, A.S. Byatt, and hundreds more all have special gifts:  keen description, shrewd commentary, textured characters….  Books are just wonderful places for readers to hide in for a while, and then reappear in the real world hours later with a sort of secret knowledge. 

What I'm reading now:  Currently, I am making my way through the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction 7th ed., a compendium of shorter titles from the American and English literary canons.  Short fiction—or poetry—works well for me during the academic terms in seminary since I am frequently interrupted with other classroom projects and don’t always have the leisure for longer works.  So far, my favorite stories from the collection include “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin;  “Death by Landscape,” by Margaret Atwood;  and “Heart of Darkness,” by Joseph Conrad.

My favorite book: I have never quite been able to convince myself of established criteria for determining what makes a novel a “good novel,” but if I find myself still thinking about the book, its characters or plot, months or even years after I’ve finished it, the story must have impressed me in some way.  

Of the novels I have physically laid down years ago but have never quite been able to put away from my own thoughts, two stand out:  Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet and Of Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham.  Jealousy is an experimental French novel that subordinates plot and character to the details of the world perceived through the obsessive mind of the jilted narrator.  Its genius is that while the author explores so thoroughly the theme of jealousy and goes so far as to name his entire work with the word, the story never once describes any emotion at all.  Of Human Bondage is a more conventional novel in form that introduces the reader to a main character who struggles with grinding poverty, finding his vocation, and resolving philosophical ideals, but ultimately finds that the most perfect patterns in life are often the simplest.

Monday, May 2, 2011

One Book for Mom, and Three for Mary

“If every mother in the United States could wrap her mind around her true value as a woman and mother, her life would never be the same.”

So begins the first chapter of The 10 Habits of Happy Mothers: Reclaiming Our Passion, Purpose and Sanity by Dr. Meg Meeker.  The Catholic pediatrician and author has also written the popular and practical books Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters and Let Boys Be Boys.   Her newest book is both a deeply refreshing and comforting read for moms who feel stretched by the demands of life.  And what mom doesn’t feel that way, at least occasionally?

10 Habits of Happy Mothers is not about completing a list of items, but truly basking in a sense of the enormous worth of a mom and a woman.   Yes, each chapter ends with three or four practical “ways to make the habit stick” but those are not so much to-dos as a call for a mom to reflect and challenge herself to think, and then act, differently, a little at a time.

Meeker is candid with her own struggles in some of these areas, like Habit 4, “Say No to Competition.”   It’s really about progress, not perfection, in any of the areas, Meeker attests through stories of her own and others’ lives.

I tend to be a do-er, so reading a book with a title like 10 Habits would normally make me want to tackle every area at once to revamp my life, then burn out and hate the book.  Meeker’s style is so relaxed and, well, friendly, I soaked up her themes and stories.  Instead of feeling guilty I wasn’t implementing the entire book, I found myself almost unconsciously following ideas.  A few days ago, I found myself practicing Habit #2, “Maintain Key Friendships,” when I neglected finishing this column to agree to an impromptu meal and laugh-fest with a group of moms I’ve known and loved for years.  Yes, it made my time more crunched, but it also gave me joy and connection when I didn’t realize how much I needed both.

Thanks to Dr. Meg Meeker for this radically encouraging and delightful read, a springtime breath of fresh air for moms.
What better month than May—Mary’s month-- to pick up and enjoy one of the great books about Our Lady.  Three newer releases on Marian themes provide readers a range of reads, from light to challenging, that both inform and inspire:

*Through the Year with Mary: 365 Reflections by author and blogger Karen Edmisten, is year-long compendium of quotes about the Blessed Virgin Mary, from saints and other writers over the span of Christian history.  Each quote ends with a short, grace-filled reflection/prayer that allows readers to reflect, daily on Mary’s influence in life and the world.

*Dominican Fr. John Peter Cameron is known best for his work as founding editor of Magnificat magazine, a monthly that is so much more than a missal.  His latest book, Mysteries of the Virgin Mary: Living our Lady’s Graces, reflects that rich, thoughtful style for feasts devoted to Our Lady.  Each chapter provides history, theology and devotion of a particular Marian feast. This would be a great book to open on each feast and read more about its genesis, and at the same time deepen one’s love for Mary and her Son.

*Fatima for Today:  The Urgent Marian Message of Hope by Fr. Andrew Apostoli, C.F.R., is a thorough, but not overwhelming, consideration of three elements of Fatima: its history, its message, and controversies related to it.   Fr. Apostoli’s writing style, warm and engaging, is always easy to read; it’s put to good use here to teach and inspire about Our Lady’s appearance to 3 children in Fatima, Portugal early in the 20th century.   Since I’m fairly new to all things Fatima, I found especially helpful Fr. Apostoli’s even-handed treatment of objections to the release of the “third secret” and other controversies. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

First, What are You Reading? Volume 9, May 2011

Well, after my failed attempt last month at giving up reading, here are my answers to the four questions I ask on the first of each month:
first, what are you reading?
what do you like best about it?
what do you like least?
what's next on your list/pile to read? 

As always, I hope you'll consider your current reads on your blog and/or sharing here in the comments or on Facebook.  Happy reading!

First, what are you reading?

I have just finished The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton, on the recommendation of a great friend and fellow book-lover.  I'm so grateful for this recommendation, because it's not often that I find a newer, satisfying, well-crafted novel written for adults that is haunting in a good way.  From the Amazon description:  

Like Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved classic The Secret Garden, Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden takes root in your imagination and grows into something enchanting--from a little girl with no memories left alone on a ship to Australia, to a fog-soaked London river bend where orphans comfort themselves with stories of Jack the Ripper, to a Cornish sea heaving against wind-whipped cliffs, crowned by an airless manor house where an overgrown hedge maze ends in the walled garden of a cottage left to rot.

I'm also well into the final Ranger's Apprentice book, The Emporer of Nihon-Ja, but I'm not rushing it since it's the last in the series.

Finally, I've been re-reading a lot of John Paul II's poetry.  I have an early edition of Easter Vigil that I vividly remember buying at a used book store in Milwaukee, WI in the early 1990s (does anyone else do that with certain books?).    I also have been paging through my seen-better-days copy of The Place Within, as well as Roman Triptych.  I've been sharing a few of these poems here and here.

What do you like best about it?

The Forgotten Garden was excellent from start to finish.  The novel spans a century of decades, and each chapter moves effortlessly from the early 1900s to 2005, to the 1970s, and back again.  It is extremely well-done and not a bit choppy, as you might expect from a novel that moves around so much chronologically.

The characters are so likeable, even the "bad" ones, that you really want to know what happens to each, and Morton doesn't disappoint.

One fascinating and fun feature are the original fairy tales (written by "The Authoress" in the novel) interjected throughout the book.  A nice touch, and they read as real fairy tales in the style of the Fairy books..

What do you like least about it?

I'm having trouble here finding something in The Forgotten Garden that I don't like.  At first, I was considering writing that no characters act explicitly because of religious belief, but yet people act in an immoral way or a moral way based on their character.  The novel is fairly religion-neutral, not common among modern novels, where sometimes the religious character is the worst.

What's next on your list to read?

I'm searching for Catholic fiction for my regular June fiction round-up, and looking for good suggestions.  Please contact me if you have some ideas.

In the meantime, The Emporer of Nihon-Ja awaits, and I've got several more Kate Morton books on reserve from the library.

What are you reading?  I'd love to hear about it.