Review of “Water for Elephants”

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is a very popular novel about circus life in the Great Depression. Jacob, 93 years old, retells his adventures one life-changing summer when he happens upon a job as a veterinarian for a traveling circus. The story bounces between Jacob’s frustrations with life in an assisted living facility, and his circus memories of meeting his future wife and the animals he learned to love. A depression-era traveling circus is an intriguing and colorful setting for a book, and one that held a lot of promise. But on several levels I found this book unsatisfactory.

First of all, an integral part of the plot is Jacob falling in love with his future wife, Marlena, who just happens to be married. At first, Jacob expresses guilt over his feelings for a married woman. But once it emerges her husband is abusive and schizophrenic, the implication is he is free to succumb to his feelings for her. Which he rapidly does.

Enter problem two with this book: a truly ridiculous amount of sexual content. Jacob spends way too much time talking about his desire to be rid of “the burden” of his virginity. I would even describe it as a minor conflict point: when and to whom will Jacob lose his virginity? There are also descriptions of masturbation, fornication, adultery, strippers, pornography, and more. It’s bad on a moral level, and also unnecessary on a storytelling level. Honestly, even if I hadn’t been repulsed by the blatant sexual content, the amount it interrupted the flow of the plot ruined the book.

A relatively minor quibble is I found what I call the “unforgiving, judgmental Catholic parent” theme, which I see often in popular modern books. A Catholic character (in this case Marlena) makes a blunder by the so-called Catholic standards of her parents. These supposedly Catholic standards are often not even in line with Catholic teaching; in this case Marlena is disowned for marrying a Jew. The parents then utterly disown and refuse to help the character ever again period. This drives the character out of the Catholic Church and also justifies all his or her future morally questionable actions. I really dislike this portrayal of Catholics as irrational, unforgiving people.

I was so disappointed with this book overall. The focus on the sexual content resulted in the circus itself really got short-changed. The enjoyable parts of the book were about the animal performers and the friendships Jacob forms with the other crew members. I wanted to read more about the elephant, Rosie. And the liberty horses act. And the other performers and crew members. If this book had focused more on the circus and less on an adulterous relationship, it might have been worth reading. But it didn’t. So my advice is don’t bother reading it, and given the graphic sexual content definitely do not allow your children to read it.

Review of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson was an international bestseller, garnering awards in Sweden and Britain and a coveted spot at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. It was published in 2005, but libraries are still promoting it as a must-read book. I read it out of curiosity, pure and simple, not even intending to write a review. This book is part thriller, part mystery, part social commentary. With a cast of memorable characters, an intriguing “locked room” style scenario, and a cold case, it is easy to see why this book gained popularity.

The plot is complex, but to try to summarize in a paragraph: a journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, is asked by wealthy businessman Henrik Vanger to investigate his granddaughter’s probable murder many years previously. Blomkvist ends up enlisting the help of computer-hacker Lisbeth Salander, a strange young adult with a troubled past and serious personal problems, to solve the mystery. Together, they uncover the dark family secrets at the root of the Vanger girl’s disappearance.

WHAT’S TO LIKE

As Catholics, there are a few themes in this book with which we can easily agree. Yes, of course abuse of women is indeed terrible. It’s terrible that rape is under-reported and there is such a stigma of shame for survivors. Abuse of the disabled by persons in positions of authority is a terrible injustice. The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo does indeed draw attention to these evils.

For lovers of children’s literature, there are a lot of fun references to Astrid Lindgren, best known in America as the author of the Pippi Longstocking books. She wrote many other children’s books which are popular in her native Sweden, and I loved Larsson’s obvious appreciation of her skill.

And, I ran out of positive things to say. So, the negative.

GLORIFICATION OF VICES

I certainly do not require protagonists which are models of virtue, but I do hope that their flaws are acknowledged as such, and that there is some growth or redemption. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Larsson fails in both these areas. Both protagonists are deeply flawed, yet portrayed as admirable, and there is no positive character development.

Lisbeth is on the one hand drawn as a girl with a dark, troubled past and some anti-social tendencies, yet at the same time Larsson clearly admires her. He praises her promiscuity as freedom from inhibition. Her anti-social tendencies are explained as due to greater than average rationality and self-reliance. Her eye-for-an-eye ethics is portrayed as fair.

Mikael Blomkvist is clearly supposed to be the “good” guy. Larsson repeatedly harps on his reputed honesty and thirst for justice. It’s easy when you’re reading to park a character described like this in a box labeled “good.” But when you examine Mickael’s actions, you wonder whether he really is a very good person. He ascribes to the philosophy that the ends justifies the means. To him, lying is okay if it saves a life, or even if it is just more convenient for him at the moment. His adulterous relationships and affairs are another major problem in this purportedly “good” character.

In both Lisbeth and Mikael’s cases, the problem is not their character flaws and vices, but the fact that these very vices are often presented in a positive light. For example, take a look at how Mikael’s affairs are portrayed.

AFFAIRS AND ADULTERY

I think Larsson intentionally makes the most “stable” relationship in the book a completely unconventional and amoral one. Mikael has a long-running affair with his married co-worker Erika Berger, an affair which her husband is aware of and allows. Larsson paints a very positive picture of this bizarre arrangement where Erika chooses on a nightly basis whether to sleep with her husband or Mikael. Supposedly this is liberating for Erika, and loving and enlightened on her husbands part. Of course Erika is also completely understanding and enlightened about Mikael having affairs with two or three other women over the course of the book. And Mikael? Well of course he’s a good guy because he only sleeps with one woman at a time.

I found it notable that the traditionally married couples in the book fared poorly in contrast. The twisted, horrible family situation with the Vangers involves incest, rape, and torture. Horrible, but it is raised to a new level of dreadful by the fact that the mother knew what the father was doing and ignored it.

GRAPHIC SEXUAL VIOLENCE

On the subject of rape, there is a truly brutal rape scene that no one needs to read. This description of the graphic violence her guardian inflicts on Lisbeth is unnecessary and voyeuristic. Then there is another brutal rape scene, less thoroughly described, where Lisbeth takes revenge on her guardian. The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is really inappropriate reading for Catholics simply taking into account these graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

DISHONORABLE MENTION TO CHRISTIANITY

Larsson gives Christianity just enough recognition for a dishonorable mention. Religion and God are by and large are ignored. The only mention comes in when Mikael and Lisbeth discover the rapist murderer justifies his actions as Biblical. The villain uses twisted interpretations of Old Testament passages to rationalize raping and killing women. Mikael shakes his head over this, and worries that his teenage daughter will get involved in “religion.” The “gods” worshiped in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are “freedom” (read the ability to do whatever one feels like), not hurting others, and a vague sense of justice.

NOD TO NIETZSCHE

I believe Larsson’s worldview must have been strongly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche. Lisbeth is remarkably like the Ubermensch ideal found in Nietzsche. Larsson holds up certain qualities as admirable in Lisbeth: her extraordinarily strong will, complete reliance on reason, disregard for the common good, lack of herd mentality, independence and so on. These happen to be the qualities that perfectly coincide with Nietzsche’s Ubermensch ideal. Nietzsche’s philosophy is inherently irreconcilable with Christianity, beginning as it does with the assumption that there is no God or objective morality. Perhaps it is purely coincidental that Lisbeth appears to fit the Ubermensch model so well, but perhaps Larsson was intentionally promoting Nietzsche’s ideal.

A DARKENED WORLD

Overall, Larsson has a dark, disillusioned worldview. Governments, businesses, and individuals are nearly all manipulate, deceptive, and basically self centered. I felt like I was reading an dystopia. And realized that without a belief in God, without hope, this is indeed a dark, depressing world we live in. Larsson seems to see all the evil without being able to offer any hope or redemption. I was waiting for some sort of turning point of redemption, and even skimmed the rest of the series, which is more of the same. There is never redemption. There is no sunrise. This is a dark and deeply problematic book, and definitely not one I recommend for Catholic teens or even adults.

Review of “Swallows and Amazons” Series

I consider Swallows and Amazons and its sequels to be one of the greatest series ever written for children. In these 12 books, author Arthur Ransome presents tales of stirring adventure and ingenious discoveries, all written in the most beautiful yet accessible English prose. Swallows and AmazonsSwallowdale, and the rest of the series chronicle the holiday adventures of the four Walker children and their friends. Not fast-paced in the modern sense of violence and high drama, these books nevertheless are chock full of age-appropriate adventures involving (for a small sampling) exploring deserted islands, sailing, gold mining, boat races, and wilderness survival. Ransome is a master writer, and these books are pure joy to read, even as an adult. But the are intended for children, and impart many great lessons quite subtly.

OUTDOOR ADVENTURES

Every book revolves around the children’s adventures in the great outdoors. Sometimes sailing through the English lake country, sometimes trekking across the moors, sometimes exploring the China Sea, each book offers an example of how exciting and fascinating the outdoors can be. The children are always active, never lazy, because there is always something to explore or build. They show that camping, boating, and roughing it can be fun and invigorating. There is never a bored moment on a Walker holiday.

CURIOSITY AND INGENUITY

Several of the children have an ardent curiosity about how things work. They model ingenuity and creativity as they research, experiment, and learn as they go. In one book alone, Pigeon Post, they discover how to use carrier pigeons, dig a well, make charcoal out of peat, prospect and pan for metals, build a blast furnace, and do chemical assays for gold. In other books, they gain extensive knowledge about sailing boats both small and large, navigation, astronomy, ornithology, a variety of codes, and survival skills. Nearly everything they learn is on their own initiative during holidays. These books definitely inspire kids to be inquisitive and innovative!

FRIENDSHIPS

Friendship is a major theme in the Swallows and Amazons series. Parents will appreciate how broad and inclusive the friendships in these books are. Siblings of various ages work and play harmoniously together. The Walker and Blackett children range in age from six to twelve in the first books, and all get along wonderfully most of the time. There is no pettiness, exclusion, or cliquishness. No silly immature romances spoil the simple camaraderie these children share. Diverse in interests and personalities, they are united in their friendship by a shared love for outdoor exploration and adventure.

POSITIVE PARENT FIGURES

Another wonderful theme in these books is their positive portrayal of parents. The Walker children adore their mother, who is at once properly caring and concerned yet willing to give them the space and freedom to foster their independence and creativity. The Walker father is absent in the first few books for work, but always in conctact via letter and telegram and clearly respected and admired by the children. Later in the series, Captain Walker returns and makes sure to prioritize taking his children on sailing adventures. The Blackett girls are being raised by their widowed mother, who, like Mrs. Walker, combines a motherly spirit with respect for her children’s individuality and independence. She gets extra points for being a patient and understanding mother to Nancy, the headstrong child in the series. The parents of the third sibling set, Dick and Dot, are archaeologists who feature little in the series, but their relationship still seems connected and loving. So many modern books embrace the theme of misunderstood child and flawed parent, it’s refreshing to read a story where parent-child relationships are natural and loving.

READING ORDER

For reading order, it’s best to start with Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, and Winter Holiday in that order, then read the rest as you can find them. Some of the books are hard to find or out of print, but these stories are really worth buying and adding to your family library. One of the best things about this series is the entire 12 books are appropriate for all ages. That makes this a wonderful series to read aloud as a family or listen to as an audio book in the car. Of course, they are also enjoyed read solo by a competent reader; around ten years old is usually perfect. I hope you find and enjoy these marvelous children’s classics!

 

Review of “The Drover’s Road Collection”


The Drovers Road Collection by Joyce West could be described as a New Zealand Little House on the Prairie. I cannot say enough good things about this trilogy, yet sadly it is little known in the United States. Tweens and Teens who love adventures, a story with a strong female protagonist, and a generous dose of humor, will enjoy Drover’s Road.

These adventures are narrated by Gay Allan, a lively and adventurous girl growing up on a New Zealand sheep station. The trilogy begins with Gay and her three cousins’ humorous escapades as they “help” their Uncle Dunsany on his ranch, deep in the Maori country. The cousins may be far from civilization, but life is never quiet at Drover’s Road with its colorful cast of characters both human and animal. In Cape Lost, Gay describes growing into a young woman, experiencing first loves and heartbreaks. But don’t worry; Gay, true to her name, is always resilient and able to see the humorous side of her adventures as she comes of age. The final book, The Golden Country, is Gay’s story of taking over a sheep station of her own as a young adult.

What makes these stories so worthwhile and memorable is Gay’s worldview, wise beyond her years yet still joyful. Growing up on a sheep station, she is used to hard work and responsibility. Yet she is also gentle-hearted and merry by nature. In each chapter, whether funny or poignant, a disaster or celebration, she provides a lesson for the reader without moralizing.

Drover’s Road is a story of a different era a century ago, when cell phones and the internet were not even imagined. Gay and her cousins fill their days taming wild horses, building a hideaway under a waterfall, hunting treasure, and playing matchmaker to their various relations. I think reading about their adventure-filled, joyful lives is a great inspiration to today’s teens and tweens to turn away from their screens and consider what real adventure might look like.

Despite being an old story when it comes to technology, Gay’s atypical family situation may strike a chord in today’s kids. Gay and her three cousins are all being raised by their young uncle and a distant cousin, “Aunt” Belle. Their parents all either died or abandoned them. Though they have an idyllic life on the cattle station, the cousins still experience a sense of missing and emptiness over their lost parents. Later in the books, Gay delves into her difficult relationship with her father, whom she struggles to forgive.

The romance is light and clean, and there is no language or violence. This wonderful book is perfect for twelve and older. The only sad part is that it is out of print so you have to buy it used here, or you can buy it as an e-book from publisher Bethlehem Books or on Amazon.

Review of “What Should Danny Do?”

What Should Danny Do? is the first book in the new Power to Choose series by husband and wife team Ganit and Adir Levy.  I love so many things about this book, starting with the fact that “Danny” is inspired by their nephew, the real Danny. Ganit and Adir have four children themselves, and their experience as seasoned parents shows clearly throughout this clever story.

What Should Danny Do? is such a neat concept: a story which engages young readers by offering them choices which change the course of the story. One book with a very basic plot about the ups and downs Danny experiences on one summer day. But kids are fascinated with this book because every few pages, they get to choose what Danny does. And each choice changes the story completely. In essence, this is a story about free will explained in such simple terms a four or five year old gets it.

Danny loves superheroes, so his dad tells him he has a special superpower: the Power to Choose. As he goes through the day, he has many opportunities to use his superpower. Will he yell about not getting his favorite plate or ask politely if he can have it tomorrow? When his brother drops his snow cone, will Danny gulp his own down or choose to share? Your children get to choose for Danny and then flip to the page number corresponding to the choice to see the result.

I appreciated how the authors portrayed Danny’s parents. They are proactive and intentional in trying to teach Danny virtue. His Dad makes him a special cape to help him remember his power to choose. At the end of a bad day, they encourage him to think back on how his choices impacted his day. His mom suggests he sets up a lemonade stand to earn his own money to buy a skateboard.

Overall, our whole family loved this creative book. Though probably not intended to be Catholic, I think the concept of teaching young children about their power to choose, or free will, is in essence a very Catholic concept. I would judge this book is best for ages 4-8, though our 2 year old actually enjoys it too.

 

Review of “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows came highly recommended from no no less than three reliable sources, so I had to read it as soon as possible. As soon as possible turned out to be after 16 other library card holders saw fit to read and return it. But better late than never, I come to add my approval to that of the many fans of this charming historical fiction novel.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is written as a collection of letters, mostly to and from Juliet Ashton, a young woman finding her path in life immediately after World War II. Juliet is a writer, a successful newspaper columnist and authoress, and altogether a sweet and spunky heroine. She learns of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands which was occupied during the war from Dawsey. Dawsey is a shy, intelligent islander who reaches out to Juliet by letter after finding her address in his favorite used book. A correspondence leads to friendship between Juliet and Dawsey, and a book idea for Juliet. Juliet visits Guernsey and ends up falling in love with the island, its inhabits, and most of all Dawsey.

Literature Lovers Delight

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is rife with references to classic literature. Juliet shares fascinating details about Charles Lamb’s life with Dawsey as the basis for their early correspondence. Various members of the Society share in their letters to Juliet how the works of famous authors from Seneca to Emily Bronte impacted their lives and brought them hope and respite during the war. A drunk, a lady, a pig farmer, a carpenter, a rag man, an aristocratic impostor are all saved on a soul-deep level by great literature. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is at root a celebration of books’ magical ability to bridge gaps in class, education, race, language.

Enjoyable Historical Fiction

Through reading Juliet’s correspondence, the reader learns a great deal about how World War II affected the Channel Islands, and particularly Guernsey. By focusing on one small island, the authors paint a painful, even heart-breaking picture of life for inhabitants of an occupied country, albeit a tiny one. The islanders spend five years cut off from all news of the outside world, separated from most of their children (who were evacuated), facing severe food, clothing, and firewood shortages. Their pain is captured in glittering shards of memory scattered throughout their letters. But well interspersed with the pain is the balm of friendship and loyalty and hope for a better future. I found The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to be historical fiction at its best: a captivating story which also managed to impart a great deal of information about its historical setting.

Friendship and Love

Although undeniably having a love interest as a subplot, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is more focused on friendship. Of course one reads of Juliet’s many friendships, both old ones from girlhood and new ones with the Islanders. However, I found the most fascinating themes about friendship to center around the friendships between the Islanders. People who might otherwise have barely nodded in acquaintance became co-conspirators due to the war. Even some of the German soldier become friends with the Islanders as occupied and occupiers both face starvation. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society shows the truth of hard times leading to friendship.

I also appreciated the slow, gradual evolution of Juliet and Dawsey’s romance. This is no “love at first sight” affair. Their relationship begins with months of letters which forge a friendship. After they meet, the friendship slowly blossoms into love. This is an unusual portrayal of an unfolding relationship in a historical fiction novel, but one I found utterly refreshing and applaud.

A Few Notes for Parents

I think many older teens would enjoy The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It was exceptionally clean, so I have just a few caveats for Catholic parents. One, there is a a neutral to somewhat positive reference of an affair between an unmarried German soldier and an Islander, both deceased. Their illegitimate child is a major character and I found the Islanders’ attitude of support and material help quite pro-life.

The only other quibble I have is that Syndey, one of Juliet’s best friends, and her most frequent correspondent, is a secret homosexual. This is again presented as basically a simple fact without much slant positive or negative. It is really a minor detail and there is no mention of his having homosexual relationships. I honestly think the authors made him a homosexual so Juliet wouldn’t be in a love triangle.

To be enjoyed by…

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a joy to read for women, will be lapped up high school girls, and probably leave most men bored senseless. So don’t try to make this your next couples read! But do read it and savor the simple goodness of a sweet story of friendship and love and hope. Then pass it on to your teenage daughters, since this would be a fine book for a high schooler to write any of a variety of essays on: a character analysis of Juliet or Dawsey; an exploration of how friendships are forged through letters; a contrast of post-war life in London versus Guernsey. I think the title is creative enough that teenagers will want to read it just to find out what The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is. I know I did!

Review of “Outlander”

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon was written back in 1991, but like several other books I’ve reviewed, it enjoys new popularity due to the successful TV series of the same title. Outlander is the first of a series of lengthy novels by Gabaldon which combine historical fiction, romance, and time travel. I truly enjoyed large sections of this novel. Claire, the narrator and protagonist, is a memorable character: a woman who possesses both a nurse’s healing instincts and a warrior’s strength and courage. Her account of time travel to 18th century Scotland and subsequent fast-paced adventures in that picturesque setting are entertaining, even fascinating, reading. Authoress Diana Gabaldon is actually a Roman Catholic, and I loved her overall positive portrayal of Catholicism. However, as much as I found to appreciate in Outlander, I also found several troubling themes and much distasteful content.

A VERY BRIEF SUMMARY

To sum up a novel over 600 pages in a few sentences: Outlander is the story of Claire (Beauchamp) Randall, a World War II nurse, who accidentally travels back in time to 18th century Scotland. To escape imprisonment by her husband’s ancestor Captain Randall, she ends up forced into marriage with a charming young Scot named Jamie Fraser. They spend the remainder of the novel alternating between violent quarrels and steamy reconciliation scenes, all while trying to avoid capture by the sadistic villain Jack Randall.

POSITIVE PORTRAYAL OF CATHOLICISM

The best part of Outlander for a Catholic reader is the wonderful, positive portrayal of Catholicism and monastic life in the last few chapters. Earlier in the book, a parish priest is portrayed as uneducated, superstitious, and vindictive, but the later chapters dealing with many holy monks and priests  more than counterbalance the one caricature of a peasant priest. Towards the end of the book, a wounded Jamie and Claire seek refuge in this French monastery. Though a lifelong agnostic, Claire is impressed by the devout monks and befriends one priest, Fr. Anselm, who offers her some beautiful explanations of various Catholic practices such as perpetual adoration and Extreme Unction.

“The purpose of the sacrament is twofold,” Anselm went on, murmuring in my ear as the preparations went on. “First, it is intended as a sacrament of healing; we pray that the sufferer may be restored to health, if that be God’s will for him. The chrism, the consecrated oil, is used as a symbol of life and healing.” “And the second purpose?” I asked, already knowing. Anselm nodded. “If it is not God’s will that he should recover, then he is given absolution of sins, and we commend him to God, that his soul may depart in peace.”

On Anselm’s advice, Claire begins to attend perpetual adoration, eventually admitting that she is not alone and recognizing God’s presence. I began to be excited that Gabaldon was leading up to a conversion or miracle, but then was utterly baffled as a few pages later Claire turns to witchcraft to help heal Jamie.

WITCHES AND WITCHCRAFT

The witchcraft motif begins in the first few chapters of the book with a casual interlude of palm reading with the vicar’s cook. From there the observant reader finds an ongoing insinuation of two contradictory themes about witchcraft. A first theme is an attempt to normalize witchcraft as not particularly different than herb lore, divorce it from Satanism, and paint those who fear witchcraft as superstitious and uneducated. Claire notices the witches she meets are wise, reasonable women who by extension take a reasonable attitude towards the occult.

“Perhaps it was an attitude they shared, a pragmatism that regarded the occult as merely a collection of phenomena like the weather. Something to be approached with cautious respect, of course—much as one would take care in using a sharp kitchen knife—but certainly nothing to avoid or fear.”

Claire undergoes a witch trial when she is arrested along with a friend and accused of dabbling in the occult. Her friend, who is a self-proclaimed witch, ends up sacrificing herself so Claire can escape, emphasizing the motif that witches are basically good people. Up to that point, Claire has regarded witchcraft with leeriness, but eventually she turns to witchcraft herself, as mentioned above, to save Jamie in the last extremity. She decides to “summon a ghost” by using a reflection pool as her witch friend had taught her to assist in exorcising Jamie’s nightmares. Afterwards, she leaves her room “with a prayer for the soul of the witch Geillis Duncan.” This whole interlude of Claire using the occult is particularly troubling because of its placement in the plot. Jamie has been given Extreme Unction, the monks have commended him to God’s providence … and then Claire turns to witchcraft to save him. The second theme about the occult seems to be: God is a comforting idea, but witchcraft works better.

DOMESTIC ABUSE

Another aspect of Outlander that I found very troubling was that the great romantic relationship in the story between Jamie and Claire skirted dangerously close to a domestic abuse situation. Both hot tempered, they frequently engaged in shouting matches, hurling verbal abuse at each other. Jamie threatened Claire with physical abuse on several occasions. For example: “Try that again and I’ll slap you ’til your ears ring.” And on one occasion, he does follow through with a threat and beat her with his sword belt. Worse, he confesses to enjoying it:

“Enjoyed it! Sassenach,” he said, gasping, “you don’t know just how much I enjoyed it. You were so … God, you looked lovely. I was so angry, and you fought me so fierce. I hated to hurt you, but I wanted to do it at the same time … Jesus,” he said, breaking off and wiping his nose, “yes. Yes, I did enjoy it.

LANGUAGE & LYING

Taking the Lord’s name in vain is frequent throughout Outlander. Claire is the worst in this regards, blaming her foul mouth on having served in field hospital. Jamie is at first held up as a fundamentally good, moral character; it is disappointing as the book progresses and he curses regularly too. Lying is also commonplace. Jamie and Claire make a pact not to lie to each other, but otherwise Claire sees no problem with lying.  In fact, the book opens with her flippantly lying to her landlady.

PEDOPHILIA A LAUGHING MATTER?

There are at least two homosexual characters. One is the Duke of Sandringham, who has a reputation for preying on teenage boys. Now this is not represented as a positive, but it is presented as fairly amusing. The Duke is a jolly, intelligent man whom Claire says she rather likes. An interesting way to draw a sexual predator, isn’t it? Jamie tells humorous anecdotes about the Duke’s attempts to assault him as a teenager. I find making a joke out of pedophilia at best offensive and at worst an effort at normalization. I do not know the author’s intentions of course, but humor is a great way to normalize deviant behavior.

THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILS

The final and insurmountable difficulty with Outlander for a Catholic reader is that it is, simply put, too explicit. Unless you are willing to skip large sections of the text, you find yourself reading intimate details about Claire’s lovemaking with Frank and Jamie that no one needs or should want to know. Even worse, Gabaldon spends page after page describing Jack Randall’s sadistic homosexual tendencies in great detail. This was completely unnecessary to the plot and simply revolting to read. Skimming over a few paragraphs of such unnecessary explicit details about lovemaking and sadism is one thing, but the novel is simply rife with such passages.

CHANNELING AUSTEN

The curious combination of accurate Catholic knowledge mixed with witchcraft, domestic abuse, and explicit sex scenes is honestly more disturbing than a run of the mill romance novel.  Gabaldon has clearly been catechized, and yet writes a book that seems set on muddying the waters about witchcraft, romanticizing domestic abuse, and swimming with sex scenes. To quote some Jane Austen, “Better be without sense than misapply it as you do.” Outlander could have been a great book without the smut and witchery. But as it is in actuality, my advice is: this book is certainly not appropriate for teenagers, and adults should be forewarned that this is not a clean novel.

Good Books on Suffering for Catholics

Suffering. We all experience little sufferings on a daily basis. And sometimes, we experience great sufferings: when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, when a baby is lost, when a marriage crumbles, when a hurricane destroys one’s home, when a child falls away from the faith.

In moments of intense pain, we find ourselves confronted with the age old question: how can a loving God allow His children to suffer such pain? We ask, “Why, God? Why me? Why my child?” Or we meet friends who have fallen away from the Catholic faith because, “God let bad things happen to me.”

Fortunately, as Catholics, we have thousands of years of the human race’s most brilliant minds to look to for answers. Here are some of the books which have helped me come to terms with “The Problem of Pain,” as C. S. Lewis calls it.


To begin with a little philosophy, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius is a particularly powerful tool in dialoguing with agnostics and atheists. Boethius relies solely on natural reason and Hellenic philosophy as he explains why bad things happen to good people.

 

 

 


Historically juxtaposed to Boethius is the Book of Job, the Hebrew look at the problem of evil and suffering. Although much of the Old Testament seems to imply that God inflicts suffering as a punishment for sins committed by individuals, the story of Job offers a completely different perspective. Job is the innocent, good man who still loses everything he loves and undergoes intense suffering. Look it up in your Bible if you’ve never read it. Also, if you enjoy fiction, G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday explores many of the same themes found in Job.

 

Saint John Paul II wrote a wonderful Apostolic Letter On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering. In it, he reflects on suffering in the light of Job and the Gospels. You can even read it for free on the Vatican website: Salvifici Doloris.

 

 

 

 


In a personal favorite of mine, The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis contemplates suffering and human pain with his usual lucidity and conciseness. I find his way for harmonizing a good God and the problem of suffering particularly helpful. He also has a fascinating chapter towards the end of the book in which he speculates about animals and heaven.

 

 

 


Another favorite author of mine, Peter Kreeft, takes on suffering in his book Making Sense Out of Suffering. Kreeft’s book is an apologia for the Catholic understanding of suffering as meaningful.

 

 

 

 


Sheldon Vanauken lost the love of his life to a terminal illness after a far too short marrigae. A Severe Mercy is both heartbreakingly tragic and breathtakingly beautiful. This is a powerful true story of how the death of a loved one can lead to a greater good.

 

 

 


Another powerful personal testimony, in Man’s Search for Meaning Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl describes his soul-crushing experience of spending three years in concentration camps during World War II. During his imprisonment, Frankl had to watch his pregnant wife and family all die from hardship and starvation. Yet Frankl’s book is full of hope and a message about finding meaning in suffering.

 

 


Suffering: The Catholic Answer: The Cross of Christ and Its Meaning for You is a meditation on the Stations of the Cross. The author examines Christ’s suffering to find meaning and purpose in suffering.

 

 

 

 


In another favorite of mine, Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart, Fr. Jacques Phillippe offers a path to interior peace. Phillippe focuses primarily on finding peace in suffering rather than trying to explain suffering itself. His spirituality is similar to St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Alphonsus di Liguori.

 

Review of “The Penderwicks”


The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy, published in 2005, rapidly established itself as a modern children’s classics, garnering awards, rave reviews, and immediate bestseller status. Though published so recently, its plot and style is more reminiscent of Elizabeth Enright or E. Nesbit’s books. The focus on simple outdoor fun, lack of electronics, and four creative, intelligent sisters seem to belong to a different era than the twenty-first century. However, there are a few elements in the book which do give away its more modern origin, and these happen to be the same elements which the Catholic parent will want to know about before offering the book to their children.

PROBLEMATIC ELEMENTS

The most concerning component of the story is the message about lying. The two middle sisters agree to lie to their father and older sister about nearly letting the littlest Penderwick get gored by a bull. They repeatedly lie about this episode, maintaining that their little sister was caught in a rose bush. I was really hoping that eventually the plot would show the girls learning some sort of lesson about lying, but alas, no. The message about lying here is certainly that one can lie with impunity and no guilty conscience.

Another detail I disliked was a subplot about Rosalind, the oldest Penderwick at 12, having a huge crush on Cagney, the 19 year old gardener. I found this both ridiculous and inappropriate, but fortunately the author did intend a positive message here, as Rosalind discovers she is being foolish: “I’m an idiot, [Rosalind] thought. I’m only twelve years old -well, twelve and a half,- and Cagney’s much too grown-up to be my boyfriend.”

This leads into another negative aspect of the book: the name-calling. Skye, the 11 year old, has a hot temper and is the worst culprit, saying things like: “Darn that Dexter. Double darn that lousy rotten no-good creep.” She also calls her littlest sister a stupid idiot and midget. However, there is character development about her learning she needs self control: “She sat up and swung her arms around wildly. This controlling her temper wasn’t going to be easy.” The 10 year old, Jane, calls names such as “fish head” and “silly git” playfully while practicing soccer. This is portrayed as meant merely in fun.

The final element parents might want to know about is a vampire reference which I found quite needless and out of sync with the feel of the rest of the book. At one point the four year old, Batty, is described as “playing vampires with Hound.” She “leap[s] over Hound’s water bowl, shrieking, ‘Blood, blood!'”

POSITIVE MESSAGES

On the positive side of the scale, by and large the book contains positive messages about being courageous, pursuing your dreams, loyalty to family and friends, kindness, and forgiveness. The four sisters each have a unique, strong personality to which tween girls will easily relate. Rosalind is kind and responsible. Skye is independent, hot tempered, and smart. Jane is a creative, aspiring writer. Batty is a dreamy animal lover.

I appreciated all the positive interactions between Mr. Penderwick, a widower, and his four daughters. Although a tad absent minded, Mr. Penderwick is a refreshingly loving, affirming father figure who is always willing to listen. He also notices and empathizes whenever a daughter is upset and encourages each daughter to develop her particular talents.

Mr. Penderwick is a foil to the neighbor boy Jeffrey’s overbearing mother who tries to force him into military school when he really wishes to be a musician. I thought this part of the plot was handled exceptionally well. The Penderwicks encourage Jeffrey to be honest with his mother, and have the courage to tell her that he wants to attend a Music Conservatory instead. Jeffrey and his mother are able to come to a compromise thanks to the Penderwicks’ advice.

TAKEAWAY

Overall, I enjoyed this book and would probably allow my tweens to read it, then discuss the problematic elements.  If your children are well versed in children’s classics like Edward Eager, E. Nesbit, and Narnia, they will particularly enjoy the literary references Birdsall sprinkles throughout the pages of her books. If they haven’t yet read these classics, maybe The Penderwicks will inspire them to try them!

Review of the “Divergent” Series


By request, I conclude my series of reviews of popular teen dystopian series with my thoughts on Divergent. Veronica Roth’s Divergent series is one of the most popular in this genre, probably second only to Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games”.  Like Hunger GamesDivergent features a strong female protagonist, Beatrice “Tris” Prior, who tells the story in the first person present. And like Hunger GamesDivergent raises questions about societal norms, fascism, and what a good person is to do when confronted with an unjust government. Like Hunger Games, there are certainly positive messages to take away from reading the series, but the question is: do the positives outweigh the violence and negative messages?

THE OVERALL STORYLINE

Divergent, the first book in the series, introduces the reader to a dystopian Chicago which is divided into five factions, each of whom is obsessively fixated on one virtue. Abnegation values self denial, Candor values honesty, Dauntless values bravery, Erudite values knowledge, and Amity values kindness. Usually a person has an aptitude for one faction, but a few special Divergents have aptitudes for multiple factions. At 16, a teenager has one choice to decide which faction to join, and Beatrice “Tris” Prior chooses Dauntless. Divergent follows Tris through the initiation process, then stars her and her boyfriend Tobias “Four” stopping an attempt by the Erudite to seize control of the city.

Book two, Insurgent, describes Tris’ attempts to figure out what is beyond the fence which encloses Chicago. With the help of a few unlikely allies, she reveals hidden Erudite footage about the origin and mission of the city: to produce a primarily divergent population which can help the outside world.

The final book, Allegiant, reveals Tris, Four, and others leaving Chicago and entering the outside world. There, they learn that Chicago is actually an experiment by the Bureau of Genetic Welfare to determine if living in factions can help return damaged DNA to its original “pure” form. The series concludes with Tris sacrificing her life to wipe the memory of the scientists at the Bureau so that the genetically damaged will be regarded as equal human beings thenceforth.

Overall, it’s an exciting, fast-paced series with a compelling, charismatic first-person narration style. Its popularity is easily understood. But beneath the swift-moving story line there are a host of issues which parents may find concerning.

VIOLENCE

Hunger Games took a lot of bad press for violence, but honestly I found Divergent much more consistently violent. Teenagers intentionally harm other teenagers, such as one occasion where a sixteen year old sticks a butter knife into a rival’s eyes. There is an inordinate amount of hazing in the first book, both instructor on student and student to student. There are massacres, and there are executions which involve shooting the wrongdoer in the head. There is a scene where a group of students attempt to sexually molest and then murder Tris.

Even more alarming to me is the amount of violence Tris herself commits willingly. At least in Hunger Games Katniss mostly committed violence under duress. Tris chooses Dauntless as her faction because she craves the danger and adrenaline rushes, but quickly decides that if it takes hurting others to excel, she’s willing to fight her way to the top. She scorns her classmate who refuses to beat others senseless to improve his rankings. In contrast, Tris herself  continues kicking a girl who has bullied her long after she’s beaten, and then says she doesn’t feel guilty at all. Tris also repeatedly has to shoot her family in the head to escape her fear landscape, a visual I had a hard time shaking.

SEX SCENES

Divergent is simply awful when it comes to setting an example of a chaste relationship to teens. The protagonists, Tris and Four, are forever ending up making out in bed together, sometimes scantily clothed. There are no explicit sex scenes, but a lot of talk about wanting to have sex, descriptions of taking off clothes, hands under clothes, and sleeping together. There is also a disturbing theme about using each other and kissing or sex to forget problems temporarily and avoid addressing relationship issues. Tris is forever saying things like, “I press my mouth to his, because I know that kissing him will distract me from everything.” Are these messages about what is appropriate between teenagers and using one another what we want to teach our teenagers?

TATTOOS

Having tattoos is apparently an integral part of the Dauntless identity, which is obviously lauded since Tris and Four choose it. Parents should realize that in Divergent, tattoos are normalized as a legitimate way of immortalizing a memory. Tris gets several to mark important events and persons in her life. There is also an interesting motif about enjoying the pain involved in getting a tattoo. For example, Four describes getting his first tattoo: “It was agonizing. I relished every second of it.”

DRUGS

The drugs in Divergent are a series of serums which achieve different results: memory erasing serums, peace serums, death serums, fear-inducing serums, and so on. The way these drugs are used is mostly by injection, and some characters use them in ways alarmingly similar to real life drug use. The Dauntless use a fear-inducing serum to cause a hallucination of one’s worst fears: a fear landscape. Four obsessively injects himself and goes through his fear landscape, and even injects Tris so she can “journey” with him. The Amity inject a peace inducing serum to send troublemakers into hippy happiness again. The Amity also bake this peace drug into their bread so that their entire community “feels peaceful” constantly. I find all this drug use normalization concerning in a novel aimed at teens.

HOMOSEXUALITY

Another normalizing attempt in the series is a couple of completely unnecessary plugs for homosexual relationships. One of Tris and Four’s friends, Lynn, confesses on her death bed to “really loving” her friend Marlene. Another minor character, a grown man named Amar, confesses to having had a crush on Four when he was a minor. However, he is described as being over that and now being in a relationship with another minor character, George. There are repeated descriptions of Amar and George hugging and sharing affection.

LIAR, LIAR…

Another extremely disquieting theme in Divergent is that lying is not a big deal. From the beginning, Tris declare she could never belong in Candor because she lies easily and often. She does not seem to see this as a negative at all. She describes herself at one point: “I don’t know when I became so good at acting, but I guess it’s not that different from lying which I have always had a talent for.” Tris also lies to Four repeatedly, even premeditated lies. For example, in an emotional scene in Insurgent Four begs her not to sacrifice her life by going to Erudite headquarters. She knows she is going to go anyway, but looks him in the eyes and promises not to go, then thinks: “This lie- this lie is the worst I have ever told. I will not be able to take it back.” Additionally, many of Tris and Four’s plans are contingent on lying convincingly. Tris can even resist the “truth serum” and gets herself out of trouble multiple times by lying while under its influence.

ENDS JUSTIFYING MEANS

The reason Tris and Four lie frequently is that they believe the ends justifies the means. Divergent gives lip service to the belief that ends do not justify means insofar as Tris states that it is wrong to sacrifice the lives of human beings for the purpose of genetic cleansing. But in practice, Tris and Four often lie and even kill to achieve their goals. Four explains at one point in Allegiant that for his father, his mother, and sometimes himself, “the end of a thing justifies the means of getting there.” For Tris, it doesn’t even have to be a noble means. She will lie to save herself embarrassment or inconvenience.

RELIGION

Unlike Hunger Games, where God and religion are absolutely ignored, Divergent flirts with the idea of God and religion having some meaning, at least for some people. Praying and talking about God and heaven is something only the Abnegation do in Divergent. I consider this relegation of God and prayer to being a belief specific to a particular Faction an extremely subtle way of dismissing religion.

Tris herself has little to say on the subject of religion. She is basically an agnostic, treating all things religious with ambivalence. She is generally uncertain about the existence of any afterlife. But when faced with imminent death in Insurgent, she states that she does not believe that anything she does or doesn’t do will make an impact on her eternal future, if there is one. “I don’t believe that what comes after depends on anything I do at all.”

PHILOSOPHY OF VIRTUE

At first, I was excited that Divergent was raising questions about what it means to have various virtues. But by the end of the series, I realized that the conclusions Roth leaves the reader with regarding specific virtues and how virtues relate to one another are quite problematic.

I believe one fundamental issue in Divergent is a lack of understanding of what a virtue actually is. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle defines virtue as a disposition to act rightly, and as a mean between the two vices of excess and deficiency. This simple yet powerful definition is what Roth was clearly lacking when she wrote the Divergent series. She often describes an excess as the virtue. For example, the Abnegation are supposed to be selfless, which Roth describes at times as a complete unwillingness to ever accept help. Unwillingness to accept help is a form of pride, not a virtue. Similarly, she describes the Dauntless bravery in terms of recklessness or rashness, which are actually vices directly opposed to the virtue of courage. These muddied examples of virtue are concerning in a teen novel since many teens are not going to have the ethics background to recognize the false understanding of virtue shown in Divergent.

Another part of Aristotle’s definition of a virtue is that the virtues do not exist in isolation; they are facets of a virtuous person. Divergent definitely treats the virtues as separate goals to pursue, and even vacillates on the question of whether different virtues are actually opposed to each other. Four is more correct than Tris when it comes to this question, telling her in the first book that “I want to be brave, and selfless, and smart, and kind, and honest.” But Tris disagrees, saying: “It doesn’t work that way. One bad thing goes away, and another bad thing replaces it. I traded cowardice for cruelty.” She honestly believes that one person cannot have two virtues.

I hoped that by the end of the series, Tris and Four would espouse a more accurate understanding of virtue, but the last book, Allegiant, leaves the reader with the message, “Every faction loses something when it gains a virtue: the Dauntless, brave but cruel; the Erudite, intelligent but vain; the Amity, peaceful but passive; the Candor, honest but inconsiderate; the Abnegation, selfless but stifling.” I do not accuse Roth of intentionally confusing teenagers about the nature of virtue, but I think she lacks a coherent, correct understanding of virtue. Unfortunately, this translates into potentially dangerous misconceptions about virtue in impressionable readers.

THE CONCLUSION

Considering the sexual content, violence, lies, agendas, and shaky philosophy, I advise not having your teenagers read Divergent. In case you’re still unsure, let’s talk about the ending of the series.

Spoiler here, but Tris dies near the end of Allegiant, so the trilogy ends with a devastated Four receiving life advice from Tris’ best friend Christina. The important take away for teenagers here from the surviving main characters? “Sometimes life really sucks. But you know what I’m holding on for? … The moments that don’t suck. The trick is to notice them when they come around.”

Okay, I will admit there is nothing inherently wrong with this advice. But honestly, I found it sort of depressing. The best we can do is hold out for the moments in life that don’t suck? Really?

How about seeking the true, the good, and the beautiful? How about living with passion and purpose? How about seeking all the virtues and becoming the best version of yourself? How about striving to see each moment as a gift, each suffering as a kiss, each joy as a taste of heaven?