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Review of “Circe”

circe review cover

A Modern Classic?

Greek Mythology wrapped in modern language and agenda anyone? Some are calling this bestseller a modern classic. I’ve always been enthralled by mythology so I eagerly read Circe by Madeline Miller. Miller retells the story of the minor goddess Circe, but so much more. In these pages you learn about Scylla, Odysseus, Helios’ family life, and what happened to Penelope after the Odyssey. A lot of readers I respect loved this retelling. And I see why: it’s reasonably well written and has a unique focus on the Titans as opposed to the usual Olympians. But I have to confess: in the end I disliked this book.

The Telegony

We all know The Iliad and The Odyssey. There’s another epic, NOT by Homer, that purports to continue the story of Odysseus. The origins of this epic, called the Telegonia (Telegony) are controversial. The best guess seems to be that it was written at least 2 centuries after The Odyssey. The text of the Telegony is lost, but a synopsis remains. And I, among others, consider it to sound like mediocre fan fiction based on The Odyssey.

Have you ever tried a sequel to a classic, written after the authors’ death? Aren’t they always and universally disappointing? That’s how I imagine the Greeks must have viewed the Telegony: a disappointing sequel centuries after the death of Homer.

Unfortunately, Miller draws heavily on the plot of the Telegony to inform the storyline of Circe. Why does this matter? Well, did you like Telemachus and admire Penelope in The Odyssey? You may not after Circe. Adding onto the plot in the Telegony that Odysseus had an illegitimate son by the nymph Circe, Miller imagines the fallout. Penelope ends up a manipulative witch. Telemachus falls in love with his father’s mistress who gave birth to his half brother already. Weird, right?

Witchcraft

Catholic opinions diverge dramatically when it comes to comfort level with reading books about “good” witches and wizards. I believe you have to take books on a case by case basis. Listen to what each individual author is trying to tell or show. In Circe, Circe and her 3 siblings discover a predilection for witchcraft, which in this book means using herbs and spells to do things like raise the dead, make transformations, and so forth.

Early in the book, Circe explains her love of witchcraft as a love of power. She says learning witchcraft was hard work, but she desired the power it gave her. “I learned that I could bend the world to my will, as a bow is bent for an arrow. I would have done that toil a thousand times to keep such power in my hands.” Circe’s siblings, and even Circe herself, often use their witchcraft for evil ends. But I consider Circe to take an ambiguous stance on witchcraft. Miller takes the position that there’s nothing inherently good or evil about spells and potions; the will, end, and intentions of the witch determine the morality of the action. This, of course, is in direct contradiction to the Biblically-derived zero tolerance for witchcraft policy that we must abide to as Christians.

Intentional Feminist Agenda

At the end of my copy of Circe, there’s an interview with Madeline Miller in which she states that she intentionally wrote the book to push a feminist agenda. Ouch. We can all grant that the ancient world often undervalued and marginalized women. But twisting ancient myths to suit your 21st century agenda is not going to win my approval, ever.

Miller thinks that as a culture we distrust “powerful women.” In Circe, she seeks to destigmatize them. I’ll admit I didn’t think this book actually helped that case. The female goddesses are terrible. Penelope is portrayed as incredibly manipulative. Circe herself misuses her power fairly often, though she later tries to fix some of the damage she does. There’s that typical root misunderstanding of what true feminism means.

Of gods and men

A big theme over the course of the book is the difference between the gods and mankind. The pagan gods are cruel, selfish, merciless, and proud. Most of the humans in the book don’t seem particularly virtuous either: the lustful sailors, manipulate Odysseus, unfaithful Glaucos, and so on. But Circe envies them for their ability to change and die. In the last few lines of the story, she says “I thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands.” She then chooses to become a mortal.

On the one hand, this was a superbly plotted ending if you grant her point. Throughout the book, Circe has gradually changed, moving towards unselfishness and forgiveness. She’s changed so much she is no longer a god, but a mortal who can die.

But on the other hand, I didn’t agree with the equation she writes for us: divinity = unchanging = unmerciful/unloving/bad. It doesn’t follow or flow, at least to my Catholic mind. I have no idea if Miller is pushing an atheist agenda in addition to a feminist one, or simply trying to justify her ending.

Better Greek Mythology

This section contains affiliate links, which means I receive a small fee if you make a purchase at no additional cost to you.

What do I like better if you do want to familiarize yourself with Greek Mythology? For adults who don’t mind a little British humor, Stephen Fry’s Mythos and Heroes are superbly done. If you have teens, try Padraic Colum’s retellings: The Children’s Homer and The Golden Fleece. For kids, I like D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys.

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Review of “Warriors: Into the Wild”

cover warriors into the wild

Warriors: Into the Wild and its many sequels and spin off series are popular middle grade books. The middle grades are where parents often stop pre-reading their children’s books, so I try to do as many reviews of middle grade and teen books as I can. When a blog reader asked for my take on these, I was happy to oblige and write a review.

What’s it all about?

Warriors are a series of books about feral cat tribes: their wars, friendships, wars, alliances, loves, and mostly wars. In the anamorphic world of Warrior, cats talk, hate, love, and form friendships. But otherwise they act like feral cats.

In the first book, a pampered house cat, Rusty, runs away from his Twoleg (human) family and joins one of the four major cat tribes in the area. He is quickly swept up into an atmosphere of secrets, intrigues, and frequent battles.

Life is a Battleground for Survival

That about sums up the Warriors worldview. These books are often recommended for 8-10 year olds, but they were upsettingly violent in my adult opinion. Cats give and receive bloody wounds, kill each other, get run over by vehicles, smashed by bulldozers, and otherwise maimed or killed. Much of the book is taken up with lengthy descriptions of cat fights. A lot of these are quite graphic descriptions which many sensitive children might find upsetting. More problematic, for kids who are prone to be fascinated with violence, these books will definitely feed that taste for violence.

Interesting thing to consider: the human parallel of the feral cat world is probably gang warfare. The parallels are significant, particularly the obsession with territories, procreation, revenge, and rank. I’m not sure if this was intentional, but it is a striking point to consider.

“The Cutter”

The cats are violently opposed to the idea of neutering and spaying animals. They speaking disparagingly of cats who have been to “The Cutter” (the vet) to be neutered, calling them fat and lazy. A major factor in Rusty’s decision to leave his human family is his desire to escape being neutered.

There’s a big focus in the cat tribes with having more kits in order to keep their tribes strong. I actually thought it kind of amusing that the series’ authors were so vehemently pro animal reproduction. It makes you wonder if they are equally pro human reproduction.

Anyway, as a kids’ book, I saw potential for kids to be very upset about their own pets being neutered or spayed after reading this book.

Astrology

A little research brings you the fact that this series was begun by two authors (now written by at least six authors) who were inspired by astrology. This inspiration leads to a cat world where the “religion” involves some astrological aspects such as dead cats becoming stars in the “Silverpelt,” a thick band of stars. There is some instances of praying to and seeking advice from the ancestors/stars.

Multiple Authors = Low Literary Quality

Generalizing is dangerous, but at least in my reading, I’ve found that books like this with multiple authors tend to be low quality. The multiple authors technique seem to correlate with poor plots and even worse writing. Warriors confirms that feeling for me. Truly, the writing is quite atrocious. There’s stilted language and lack of a unified style. Or any style.

Takeaway

Warriors misses the mark on appropriateness for its intended young audience due to pervasive violence. It’s not simply that there’s violence; it’s that these books primarily run on battle fumes. Is the Warriors series the worst book your child could be reading? No. But there are so many better written books with better themes for this age range!

Need better ideas?

Check out this list of Books about Talking Animals if your children love animals.

Or check out my Middle Grade Reading Lists:

Review of “The Princess Diaries”

Princess Diaries review book cover

This book starts out with an epigraph from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which is a true classic about acting like a princess inside even in the worst of circumstances. Unfortunately, The Princess Diaries does not live up to the epigraph or remotely inspire princess-like behavior in its young audience. I really dislike it when books marketed for tweens and young teens are full of sexual content, so prepare for a rant!

The premise

This diary is clearly intended to appeal to the 12-14 year old crowd. It’s the secret musings of Mia, a 14 year old high school freshman with tough hair and a phlegmatic personality. Used to hanging out with the school misfits, Mia becomes unexpectedly popular when she finds out she’s actually a European princess. Positives in this book? There are some basic positive themes about good friendships and anti-bullying and Mia is a reasonably likeable heroine.

But really, who wants their 12 year old reading about sex stuff?

This book is chock full of a completely unnecessary amount of content focused on sex. For example, right off the bat Mia speculates about her mother’s new boyfriend: “he’s not so cool if he’s sticking his tongue in your mom’s mouth.” Mia goes on to wish that the cool boy in school would put his tongue in her mouth though. Throughout the book, Mia spends a lot of time thinking about whether her mom is sleeping with her new boyfriend, and at one point does discover him in her apartment in boxers.

Another highlight is a long conversation between Mia, her best friend Lilly, and Lilly’s 18 year old brother. They talk about condoms and spermicidal fluid, losing their virginity, and who they’d choose to have sex with if they were the last person alive.

Other highlights include joking about her best friend’s brother sexually harassing her, and also Mia brushing off a creepy blind guy who gropes her as unimportant. Mia also laughs at herself for not knowing what “frenching” was when she was 11, like her cousin did. At one point, Mia’s grandmother the Princess Dowager calls her a hooker. At another point Mia describes a woman who inspired her; the inspiring part seems to be that the woman has plastic surgery lips made from her vagina.

What’s the big deal with lying again?

Like other modern “children’s” books, The Princess Diaries sadly normalizes lying and deception as a part of life. Mia frequently lies to her parents. At first, she tells herself in her diary to “stop lying.” But then she seems to “grow” in her view on lying and her self-coaching becomes: “tell the truth except when doing so would hurt someone’s feelings.” And later, “stop lying, and/or think of better lies.”

Political Bent

Another issue of note is Mia’s rather anti-religion, “open-minded” worldview. She admires Madonna because she “revolutionized” fashion by dancing in front of burning crosses and “wasn’t afraid to make the Pope mad.” Mia is proud that she refuses to go to church because she “refused to pray to a god who would allow rain forests to be destroyed in order to make grazing room for cows who would later become Quarter Pounders.”

Mia is also anti-gun, and pro-propaganda. She tells her readers that a stalker is allowed to buy a machine gun “in this country thanks to our totally unrestrictive gun laws.” Fact check: you can’t just buy a machine gun in America. That’s been illegal since 1986.

Mia’s a proud child of divorce. She lives primarily with her doting Bohemian mother and spends summers with her filthy rich royal father. Her parents are friendly to each other, but Mia confides that “things would majorly suck, I think, if they lived together.” She’s “perfectly happy” with her divorced parents.

Turning over in her grave

I doubt that Frances Hodgson Burnett and her heroine Sara are grateful for the tributary epigraph, which really doesn’t fit this teen novel. Unlike Sara, who strives to be a princess, Mia spends most of the book either complaining and acting out because she’s a princess or obsessing about boys and sex. I found little to redeem this book. It really reads like an intentional attempt to indoctrinate young girls into a certain political and sexual mindset.

There are so many better princess books out there! Shannon Hale’s fantastic Princess Academy series is a great example of a modern princess book which focuses on female friendships, sacrifices, and coming of age.

For other worthwhile Princess books, check out this list!

For better romances for teens, check out this list!

Review of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

Cover image The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a Science Fiction cult classic. Intended for adults, this clever book, full of sometimes off-color British humor, is now often featured on reading lists for kids as young as 10 and 12. Is it appropriate for young Catholic middle schoolers? I submit that it is not for several reasons.

Sexual humor

As is not unusual in British humor, there is a fair amount of innuendo in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For example, there are similes such as: “He had an odd feeling of being like a man in the act of adultery who is surprised when the woman’s husband wanders into the room, changes his trousers, passes a few idle remarks about the weather and leaves again.” There are also references to sex, whores, and nudity. For example: “Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon 6.” Or “five hundred entirely naked women dropped out of the sky on parachutes.”

Drinking

There’s a fair amount of drinking, often portrayed humorously. Ford, an alien stranded on earth, drinks excessively to pass the time. He also encourages Arthur, a human, to get drunk as a suitable preparation for death.

Poking fun at Religion

Another favorite “humorous” topic in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is religion. One of the major plot lines is that the Earth was created by Slartibartfast, a custom planet designer, by order of a group of hyperintelligent pandimensional beings who appear on earth as mice. These “mice” build super computers who are more intelligent than they are to answer questions such as “what is the meaning of life.” The answer to that question, according to the computer, is 42.

In the Name of Humor

Both the sexual innuendo and the religious jabs are obviously supposed to be funny. Sensibilities vary greatly about whether this sort of humor is actually funny or, in fact, offensive. Obviously this is a prudential judgment on each parents’ part about whether they are comfortable with their children reading this material. I most often see this book recommended for tweens and teenagers. Please remember that it was not intended for children and be forewarned about the religious jabs and sexual innuendo.

Looking for better books? Check out my book lists!

Review of “Dune”

Dune book review

Dune is often called a Science Fiction masterpiece. Now, in 2020, it’s coming out as a movie that will probably be a major hit. After the release of the movie, I’m guessing the Dune books will enjoy a new wave of popularity, so I recently read them with a view to determining their level of appropriateness for teen readers. In order to make this review a manageable length, I will concentrate on the issues I found in the first book.

Premise

Dune‘s setting is a futuristic interplanetary society where noble houses, a corrupt emperor, a power-hungry pilot’s Guild, and big-business CHOAM vie for power and wealth. There’s also the Bene Gesserit, a warrior-nun group which pursues its own agenda striving for racial purity and power. Wealth in the world of Dune is measured in terms of Melange, also called Spice, a drug which has whole universe under its thrall.

The plot centers around Paul Atreides, a teenager coming of age in one of the noble houses. Paul’s family takes charge of Arrakis, the planet which produces all the Spice. Paul is a unique combination of visionary, genius, and leader. With the aid of his Bene Gesserit mother Lady Jessica, he becomes the leader of the Fremen, a nomadic warrior tribe who control the Spice fields. At the head of the Fremen, Paul takes control of the Empire.

There’s no denying that the scope and richness of the Dune series is captivating. The insights about greed for power and wealth and its results are commendable. I even appreciated the first book simply as a literary work. But as a parent, I found several concerning aspects with this book on multiple levels.

Concerns

Drug Use: the entire planetary system in the world of Dune is addicted to Spice, their drug of choice. Many are well aware of this fact, but choose addiction because they want the heightened senses and visions the Spice brings. There is a heavy emphasis on the powers and enhancements the drug provides. A recipe for encouraging teens to try drugs, anyone?

Sexual content: Lady Jessica is a concubine. There is a scene where another Bene Gesserit “sister” is sent by her husband to sleep with a teenage boy whose DNA they want for their breeding program. Paul takes a concubine from among the Fremen and has a son with her. None of this is particularly graphic; it is more stated than described.

Anti-Catholic content: The Bene Gesserit are basically nuns. Well, except they’re obsessed with preserving the best genes, so frequently become concubines, commit adultery, and so on. They use terms like “Reverend Mother” for their leaders. They send “Missionaries” to other planets to sew seeds of “storylines” in case one of the sisterhood is ever in need. The concept of an “awaited Messiah” is one of these intentionally created legends.

Both the depiction of Bene Gesserit and use of Messiah motif are troublesome. In the world of Dune, the coming of a Messiah is basically a big hoax carefully planned for millennia. “Religion” is an intentional manipulative force used by the Bene Geserit to further their own secret goals of racial purity.

Conclusions

I really dislike it when authors take Catholic terms and intentionally try to pervert the mental connotations, seeding doubt and reversion in the reader’s mind when they hear terms like “Reverend Mother,” “Messiah,” or “Missionary.” In Dune, this agenda extended to the entire concept of religion. For me, that largely ruined the Dune books so I wouldn’t recommend them for teens.

But, if you have an older teen who loves science fiction and really wants to read them, I recommend encouraging an analytical approach. For example, ask your teen to intentionally try to spot all the examples of twisting Religion and Christian terms in a negative way. Or ask them to form an opinion on whether author Herbert was intentionally normalizing drug use and free love. A mature teen can gain a lot of benefit can by this kind of intentional analysis.

Looking for better books for your teens? Check out my book lists, especially my lists for high schoolers!

Review of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”


The Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney is extremely popular with the 8-12 year old crowd. I see librarians and book clubs frequently recommending it as the perfect book to interest reluctant readers. I read it for the first time the other day in a little over an hour; it is more comic book than novel so it’s a very quick read. And, I hated it.

The basic problem is that the protagonist, Greg Heffley, is a lying video game addict who manipulates his friends, disrespects his parents, and doesn’t show personal growth to speak of in the story. I’ll break that down with details for you.

Greg is a liar. He lies to his parents, his teachers, his friends, and his peers. He’s not just any liar: he’s a skilled, sneaky one. For example, when his dad tells him to go play outside, Greg goes to a friend’s house and plays video games. Then he soaks himself in a sprinkler so it looks like he’s been running around working up a sweat, thereby deceiving his dad. On another occasion, Greg deceives his friend’s parents by sneaking in a forbidden violent video game in the case of an educational one.

Let’s talk about the video games. Greg lives for his video games, and he prefers violent ones. He describes car-racing as too babyish, and resents his friend’s contentment with such boring games. The more violent the game, the cooler for Greg. When Christmas comes, he sulks about not getting the particularly violent video game he wants and is ungrateful for all his other presents.

Greg has a rather sweet, slightly immature best friend, Rowley, whom he manipulates and bullies. He beats up Rowley using all the same moves his own brother used to beat him up. He makes fun of Rowley’s simpler tastes in video games and humor. On one occasion, he convinces Rowley to ride a big wheel down a hill repeatedly while Greg throws a football at his head to try to knock him off. This is the great friendship in the book, and I actually found it truly sad to read.

Greg has a abysmal view of adults in general. He considers them dumb and easily tricked. Unfortunately, in this story the adults are rather dumb and easily tricked. He repeatedly gets around video game grounding by sneaking off to game at his friend Rowley’s house. He tricks Rowley’s parents by sneaking in video games they have expressly forbidden in their home. Greg’s teachers are also sometimes taken in by his lies.

The ending of the book is supposed to provide a shade of redemption in one area of Greg’s life at least: he finally does something kind for Rowley. But here’s the problem: the kind act is telling a lie to get Rowley out of an embarrassing predicament. At this point, I was asking, really, Jeff Kinney? That’s the best redemptive moment you can come up with?

There are miscellaneous other problematic areas of the book. One that really bothered me was a scenario where Greg’s older brother left a bikini pictures magazine laying out and Greg’s littler brother took it to show and tell. This is supposed to be hilarious; it’s most certainly not what I want my 8-12 year old laughing about.

There is also extensive potty humor, lots of bullying at the school, a scene where the angry dad throws objects at Greg, and really resentful sibling relationships. All things considered, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is one of the last books I’d ever give my child to read.  Don’t fall into the trap of believing junk food books like this are all is out there for your reluctant reader! There are so, so many better books out there! Check out my lists for 8 to 9 year olds 10 to 11 year olds, and Graphic Novels and Comic Books for some awesome alternative options!

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 “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.

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!