70 year old Alan Bradley’s debut mystery novel quickly became an international bestseller- and with reason. In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Flavia de Luce brings something completely fresh and new to the mystery scene. Amateur chemist Flavia is all of 11 years old, but when a stranger gets murdered in her family’s garden, she is instantly determined to solve the murder. Precocious and cynical and lovable, Flavia is a one-of-a-kind sleuth in these charming, well-plotted mysteries.
In the Great Tradition of Golden Age Mysteries
Author Bradley seems to have intentionally created a Golden Age of Mystery atmosphere in these novels. Like most Golden Age detective fiction, these books are set in English country houses and cozy villages. Each book opens with Flavia becoming involved in a murder investigation. The clues are provided for the reader so there’s actually hope of figuring out whodunit. The theme is always about bringing justice and restoring order to the house and village.
With an 11 year old protagonist, this series easily avoids many of the common racy relationship scenes common in mystery novels. There are a few plot points here and there involving adultery or promiscuity, but no explicit details. Since they’re so clean, this series is actually appropriate for teens too.
A Troubled Family
The sad part of these books is Flavia’s troubled family life. Her mother was absent, then dead. Her father is depressed and disinterested. Her sisters are frequently quite cruel. Flavia’s cynical nature is better understood after she explains how her sisters play cruel pranks such as leaving her tied up and locked in a dark cellar. Paradoxically, these same sisters do show loyalty on occasion, even saving Flavia’s life in one novel. The evolving relationship between the sisters is one of the threads that connects the books together and a reason to read them in order.
Given her troubled family situation, it’s no surprise that Flavia is no angel. She frequently lies, manipulates, and prevaricates. She disobeys adults habitually, breaks rules, plays malicious pranks and generally tries to get attention. She’s somewhat disturbingly obsessed with poisons. But despite all this, it’s easy to see this brilliant, lost adolescent’s potential, and you quickly begin rooting for her- not only to solve the mystery but to grow as a person.
A Mystery Series for Teens and Adults to Enjoy
Fans of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Sherlock Holmes will really enjoy these clever mysteries which reach back to the Golden Age for inspiration. Given Flavia’s troubled, precocious personality and the violent murders, I wouldn’t recommend them for younger teens. The books are intended for adults, but I think older teens would also enjoy them. Enjoy a little escape time as you peruse The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.
Looking for a daily Lenten Meditation? A way to grow closer to Mary and Jesus this Lent? Check out Lenten Journey with Mother Mary by Fr. Edward Looney, a brand new book from Sophia Institute Press. Whether you’re new to Marian devotion or already pray the rosary every day, this book will help enrich your relationship with Mary and Jesus.
This post may contain Amazon Affiliate links. This simply means that if a purchase is made I will receive a small percentage of the sale, at no additional cost to you, of course.
A Meditation a Day
Lenten Journey with Mother Mary has a meditation for every single day of Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday! As an additional bonus, Fr. Looney continues the devotions through the Easter Octave to Divine Mercy Sunday! Each day’s devotion begins on a very personal note with a direct quote from Our Lady, such as: “Let nothing else worry you, disturb you.” These quotes are drawn from a variety of approved Marian apparitions and set the theme for the day. The devotion then continues with a 2-3 page meditation, a sentence-long prayer, and a suggestion for a Lenten action.
Theme of the Week
Each week has a broad theme under which the individual days fall. Themes include intentional prayer, praying for others, healing, and examination of conscience. I particularly enjoyed the meditations during the Easter Octave, which focus on faith and trust in Divine Providence.
A Lenten Journey
The title about journeying is very appropriate for this book, which certainly leads you on a journey to deepen your relationship with Mary. By increasing your Marian knowledge and deepening your prayer life, this book leads you closer to Jesus through Mary. The heart-warming takeaway message in this Lenten devotional is: Mary prays for you. Mary loves you.
Dear Mr. Knightley is certainly not a classic, but at the same time it isn’t simply fluff literature. The majority of the book is a series of letters written by Samantha Moore, journalism grad student, to the mysterious benefactor who is paying for her education. The multitude of references to Jane Austen books, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Daddy Long Legs, and other classics are enjoyable for book lovers. But this is certainly not a period-era book; in fact, there is quite an intentional dichotomy between the civilized classical world Samantha, commonly known as Sam, wishes she belonged to and the raw, rough life she has actually lived.
Sam has unquestionably had a tough life.
Her earliest memories are of abuse from her parents. In and out of the foster-care system for years, never connecting with a foster family, she ends up on the streets at the age of 15. After months on the street, she ends up in a Christian group home, where she finds a precarious sense of safety. Yet after years of danger and tumult, she finds herself unable to connect with those around her, instead
The question becomes, how can Sam heal from her traumatic life?
There are two answers offered in the novel: first, that Sam needs to “find herself,” and second, that she needs to learn to trust God. I was pleasantly surprised by the second theme, which is subtle and not fully developed, but undeniably present.
With the first theme about healing by “finding yourself,” I was concerned initially about Gnostic influences, but ended up deciding that the author’s intent was simply to show that Samantha needed to stop hiding behind her impersonations of literary characters. Samantha had perfected the art of copying the speech and mannerisms of whichever character she thinks appropriate for the situation: an amicable Jane Bennet, a ruthless Edmond Dante, a spirited Lizzie Bennet. Of course, this is a dangerous habit since it distances others and keeps them from meeting Sam herself. Sam learns that in order to make real friends, she has to let go of pretending to be her literary companions. The theme here is about stopping hiding your past, personality, or vulnerability, but rather embracing the unique experiences that molded you.
The second theme about healing as learning to trust in God is not as fully drawn out, but the Christian influences in Sam’s life are undeniable. Most of the people who help her are Christians: the priest at the group home, the professor and his wife who “adopt” her, the mysterious benefactor. Sam notices these people have a peace and certainty that she admits to wanting for herself. She finds when she chooses forgiveness, she finds peace and joy. There is no radical conversion in Dear Mr. Knightley, but the reader can certainly assume that with the continued influence of her good friends, Sam eventually will find her way home to Christ.
Who would enjoy Dear Mr. Knightley?
Refreshingly clean, this book is perfect for older teens and adults. I would not recommend it for younger teens due to some descriptions of domestic abuse and a plot line about Sam’s first boyfriend, Josh, pressuring her to “sleep over” with him. Although Sam refuses and eventually breaks up with him over his unfaithfulness, her reasons for refusing are rather nebulous. The teenage reader would already need to be able to make the correct moral judgments about the situation since Sam does not have the benefit of a strong moral compass.
This book is perfect for a light, quick read on vacation, when the kids are falling asleep, or at the end of a long day. The literary allusions are delightful, the romance between Sam and Alex is sweet, and there are some worthwhile themes about friendship, trust, and healing.
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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a truly compelling historical fiction novel: inspiring, humbling, thought-provoking, and devastating in turn. The story follows two French sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, from the time the first rumbles of World War II begin to affect France to immediately after the end of the war. By focusing on these two sisters’ very different but equally difficult paths through the war, The Nightingale succeeds in powerfully conveying the reality of the horror, the magnitude of the losses, the utter wrecking of lives in World War II. This book does not spare the reader from the awful depths that man can sink to. Yet the depravities man conducts are but a foil to the heights of heroism to which everyday people can rise. The Nightingale offers inspiration and hope with its themes about unbreakable love, heroic sacrifice, and the miracle of children.
The Nightingale is an affirmation of the power of all the forms of love to survive and thrive in the worst conditions imaginable.
The bonds of friendship are a potent force. In her small French hometown, Vianne and her best friend Rachel encourage and help one another to keep supporting their families, whether that is with words or by sharing the last morsels of food. When Jewish Rachel is taken away to a concentration camp, Vianne risks her own life to save Rachel’s son.
The love between sisters also survives the horror of war. Vianne and Isabelle had a tumultuous relationship growing up, but during the war each strives to protect the other as best they can. Vianne attacks a German soldier to save Isabelle. Isabelle distances herself from her sister’s family to protect them from the repercussions of her underground work. At the end of the war, Vianne searches tirelessly for her lost sister and brings her home.
The Nightingale depicts the love between parents and children as particularly beautiful and powerful. Vianne and Isabelle’s father Julien eventually gives his life to save Isabelle’s. Vianne repeatedly reflects that the only reason she continues struggling to survive is out of love for her children. Vianne’s husband Antoine writes to her from POW camp that she must remain strong for their children.
Love between man and woman also gets its due, mostly through Vianne’s clinging to Antoine’s memory through the years of war, and determination to rebuild their relationship afterwards. Isabelle’s relationship with Gaetan also illustrates the power of love to endure torture, sickness, and imprisonment.
The Nightingale is a paean to sacrifice, a tribute to the countless simple folk who made unimaginable sacrifices to help save lives during World War II.
At first, parents sacrifice for their children, townsfolk for their neighbors. But soon, the war make each person question what they truly believe about the sanctity of human life and how much they will risk to preserve it. First, Vianne saves and hides her Jewish friend’s son Ariel. Later, she helps save the lives of 18 other Jewish children, hiding them in an orphanage and forging identity papers for them. Her actions are all a heroic sacrifice, since they seriously endanger her life and her children’s lives. When asked how she could risk so much, Vianne tellingly says she does it for her daughter Sophie: what would she be teaching her daughter if she did not help save lives?
Her sister takes an even more risky path to help save lives. Isabelle envisions a way to help the English and American airmen escape from occupied France into neutral Spain. Although she realizes that she will almost certainly be captured eventually, tortured, and killed, she begins the “Nightingale Route.” She leads over 27 groups of airmen across the Pyrenees Mountains to safety before her capture.
One of the most beautiful sacrifices in the novel is after Isabelle is captured, when her father chooses to enter SS headquarters and confess to begin the ringleader of the “Nightingale Route” so that her life will be spared.
The Nightingale offers a strongly pro-life message about the blessing of children.
Returned POW Antoine says it most plainly: “This child… is a miracle.” All the main characters believe and live this truth throughout the novel: children are a miracle. They are the reason to keep going during the darkest years of the war. They are the cause for hope in a shattered world at the end of the war. Their existence is the healing as rebuilding begins.
The Nightingale is surprisingly clean with few exceptions.
As with any novel that attempts to accurately capture the atmosphere of occupied France, The Nightingale has its share of brutal violence. Vianne sees pregnant women shot, and experiences beatings and rapes herself. Isabelle is tortured and endures concentration camp life. The focus is not on the violence, though, but on the will to endure and survive the sisters exhibit.
There is little to no language. The only instances are the rare curse in French or German.
As far as sexual content, there is only one rape scene described, and it is short and easily skimmed over by sensitive readers. There are references to a husband and wife making love, but no descriptions. The most problematic content from a Catholic perspective is that Isabelle and Gaetan do sleep together despite being unmarried. Again, there is nothing graphic described, but parents should be aware if considering letting their teens read this book. I personally think it is too intense for any but very mature older teens.
The Nightingale is a sobering yet gripping novel which I highly recommend for Catholic adults.
This book leaves you reeling, yet inspired. It’s an important book because World War II needs to be remembered. The unspeakable evils committed and the heroic virtue shown both need to be kept in memory. Laugh, cry, enjoy this fantastic novel.
The Awakening of Miss Prim is one of those rare, delectable books that you find yourself savoring, trying to spin out each chapter to the utmost. This novel by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera was first published in Spain in 2011 and translated to English a few years later. The English translation is professionally done, and I could almost believe the novel was set in England, except for the Spanish character names. Spain or England, The Awakening of Miss Prim has a cozy, old world charm about it that makes it the perfect book to curl with of an evening, beverage of choice in hand.
What is beauty?
What is marriage? What is peace? What is the purpose of education? What is friendship? What is truth? What is love? What is beauty? These are the questions pondered in The Awakening of Miss Prim. Miss Prim, a young woman with a string of impressive scholarly qualifications, comes to the tiny village of San Ireneo in search of “refuge.” Refuge from what? She can’t quite say.
San Ireneo is a village some might call backwards in its way of life. It ascribes to a distributism of Chesterton, the courtesy of old England, and the educational principles of the Greeks. People from around the world with a shared vision of creating a utopia, a The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, have created a unique society and culture in San Ireneo. Miss Prim is at once charmed, bewildered, and offended by San Ireneo and its people, but soon finds herself forming unexpected friendships.
In The Awakening of Miss Prim, friendship is the key to changing hearts.
Naturally a deep thinker who prides herself on her acumen, Miss Prim feels consternation when both her employer and new friends habitually challenge her every presupposition about life, religion, and literature. For example, at first she is mortally offended when her friends in the San Ireneo feminist society speak of finding her a husband. Over time, through her friendships with some of the members, Miss Prim realizes their intentions were loving, and even becomes open to listening to their views on how marriage is liberating.
The most important relationship Miss Prim forms is her unlikely friendship with her employer, enigmatically referred to as the Man in the Wing Chair. A dead language expert with a formidable intellect, he seems to delight in poking holes in Miss Prim’s pet theories about education, religion, and literature. Yet even as he exasperates her, his courtesy and genuineness lead her to contemplate his arguments with an open mind.
Rather than providing all the answers to the “what” questions, this novel offers food for thought.
Is the redemption a fairy tale? Or is it The Only Real Fairy Tale? Is marriage a harmony? A drawing together of opposites? Or both? Is beauty a painting, a field of flowers, a feeling? Does absolute truth exist?
The Awakening of Miss Prim provides trails of breadcrumbs leading the reader to what truth, goodness, and beauty is. Or rather, as the wise old monk advises, “Don’t be surprised if, in the end, you find beauty to be not Something but Someone.”
Perhaps in keeping with the theme of raising questions that aren’t quite answered, the book ends quite abruptly, leaving the reader to imagine the ending. This precipitous farewell to Miss Prim and San Ireneo is, in my opinion, the only real flaw in this imminently enjoyable novel.
This book is refreshingly clean of all objectionable content, and can be safely read by teens, though I think adults will appreciate it more thoroughly. On the other hand, the abundance of references to master writers like Dostoevsky, Chesterton, Virgil, and more may inspire teens to read some of these other great works.
James Alfred Wight, better known by his pen name James Herriot, wrote a wonderful series of books for adults, in addition to several collections for children. Drawing on his years of experience as a veterinarian in Yorkshire, Herriot wrote his memoirs beginning with All Creatures Great and Small. These memoirs take the form of a series of loosely connected stories, mostly anecdotes about the animals and owners he encountered. Sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, Herriot’s uncanny gift for storytelling makes these books classics I love to recommend to animal lovers young and old.
“All things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small”
The poem The Creation by Cecil Frances Alexander inspired the titles of Herriot’s books. This poem really captures the spirit with which Herriot approached creation, always marveling at its wonders and seeing the hand of the Creator. In a spirit very similar to St. Francis of Assisi, Herriot cares for each animal, great and small, he encounters. He embodies a great example of stewardship of creation, often helping animals whose owners have no way to pay for his services. His great love for nature surpasses the boundaries of Kingdom Animalia. He also loves natural beauty, often describing the breathtaking vistas of the Yorkshire dales with the affection of a lover.
Community and good old-fashioned virtues praised.
Herriot writes of a different generation and lifestyle. He describes a now old fashioned way of life based on hard work and simple pleasures. Both Herriot himself and the farmers he encounters endure back-breaking work, whether birthing cows or forking hay. They enjoy good food, family time, and the occasional treat of an outing to a concert. The lack of technology and slow pace of life is a shock, perhaps a necessary one, to the twenty-first century reader. Was Herriot’s generation more peaceful in their hard labor? Happier in their simple pleasures?
Community is of great importance to Herriot. Neighborliness is an important quality in an isolated, low-tech community- even if the nearest neighbor is a mile away! The farmers are almost always hospitable and kind, taking care of the vet with a cup of tea and a seat by the fire after a call. In return, Herriot and his partner Siegfried often extend credit to cash-strapped customers.
Any questionable content?
Herriot’s memoirs are somewhat autobiographical. He recounts his charming, clean story of falling in love with Helen, his future wife. This is no more graphic than the description of a few kisses. On the other hand, the young veterinary student, Tristan, is a wild college student who is described as having several lady friends. Nothing graphic again, but the insinuation is that he knows them rather too well.
Tristan is also described as being frequently drunk. Herriot’s partner in the firm, Siegfried Farnon, is also occasionally described as drunk, and even rarely Herriot himself. Usually the consequences of drunkenness are portrayed as unpleasant: embarrassment at the least, or even a lost client. But occasionally Herriot does recount a drunken episode with a humorous twist.
The only other caveat I have about these books is the occasional foul language. The farmers are earthy men who swear when angry. Their language ranges from taking the Lord’s name in vain to the occasional f-word. The language is infrequent enough that is easy to take a permanent marker and cross out any words you don’t want your teens reading.
Who will enjoy the James Herriot books?
Anyone who appreciates a masterfully told anecdote with a lilting rhythm punctuated by impeccably timed punch lines. Anyone who loves animals and nature. Anyone who likes autobiographies, comedy, or a sweet love story. Really, I find it hard to imagine anyone not enjoying these books. I wholeheartedly recommend them for teens and adults who are looking for a light-hearted series.
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.
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.
I recently had the delectation of inhaling Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden. I really could not put this book down after the first chapter. Although Godden’s style is discursive, almost rambling, this book gripped me from the start. Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy switches back and forth between a peaceful, pastoral description of convent life and the dramatic, vicious ambiance of a Paris brothel. I hazard a guess that Godden intentionally chose these incongruous settings, for Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is in essence a book of contrasts: the depths of evil versus the height of heroic virtue, the healing power of love versus the destructive force of hate, freedom versus bondage.
This is the story of Lise, known by many names: Elizabeth Fanshawe, a middle-class English orphan; Lise Ambard, the prostitute; La Balafree, the youngest brothel manager in Paris; and Soeur Marie Lise du Rosaire. This is Lise’s story of conversion and redemption, but also the story of the many people whose lives she touches in her journey, their lives intertwined to form a chain, not unlike a rosary. Lise, a recipient of God’s mercy, becomes an instrument of God’s mercy to so many others.
There are so many wonderful themes woven into Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy . Forgiveness, for one. Lise is a modern Magdalen figure, one who sinned so greatly yet grasped at the promise of God’s mercy with childlike trust. As I read, a line from the Our Father echoed over and over in my memory: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Lise, although a sinner, has been sinned against even more grievously. Yet she is a perfect exemplification of the Our Father forgiveness, not only pardoning but loving those who have most deeply wronged her.
Another theme is freedom. Modern wisdom might maintain Lise was most free as a young girl in Paris, choosing to flaunt tradition and move in with her lover. Yet following her own desires brings her no lasting happiness or satisfaction. Then she begins to find true freedom in a prison, where she meets the Sisters of Bethaine and hears a call to true freedom. And in the convent, where her life is regulated and regimented, and she voluntarily gives her life to God, she finds the greatest freedom: contemplation of God.
Rumer Godden tastefully handled the adult content which is an unavoidable part of the plot of this story, but Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is still not for the naive or easily scandalized. If you are considering letting your teenager read this, be aware that there are descriptions of brothel life, implied fornication and adultery, characters who are prostitutes or former prostitutes, incest, child molestation, and more. This book reveals the darkness and evil in mankind, which makes the light of God’s mercy shine brighter. Lise’s redemption would not be as convicting if she had not been so great a sinner. This is a truly inspiring book well worth taking the time to procure and peruse.
I know Jennifer Fulwiler by repute but this was my first time reading a single word she had written because- prepare for a deep dark secret- I do not read blogs. That’s right, I am the hypocritical blogger who loves to write but doesn’t bother to read other people’s blogs. Okay, in my defense I’m sure I’d love to read other people’s blogs, but equally sure that I would sink so swiftly and surely into the bottomless quicksand of blog surfing that I would never read a real, full-length book again. And then what would I write about?
To return to Jennifer Fulwiler and One Beautiful Dream: from the first page, her story resonated with me. She describes herself as a cerebral introvert who often feels that her gifts are not the best adapted to being super mom. Yep, that’s me too. And she even had the same theory I posit to my husband regularly:
“Decades of living in big houses with few people had carved deep grooves into my habits; I had a great need for quiet and for complete control of my surroundings. Sometimes it felt like my current life was a macabre psychological experiment to see exactly where the mental breaking point was for someone with my temperament.”
See I knew I wasn’t the only one with the theory about God running some kind of psychological experiment giving me this type of kid! (Actually, I’ve decided He just has a really good sense of humor.) The further I read, the more I felt like I was reading my own story of difficult pregnancies, high need children, and deep down a longing to just be alone with silence, a stack of books, and a computer for typing. At least, both Jennifer and I would have described our dream as such in our early years of motherhood.
But as Jennifer describes so lucidly, and as I am slowly realizing also, this individualistic dream of what my perfect imaginary life will someday be, is not cut out of the fabric of happiness, or even reality. Jennifer calls life a symphony, and that analogy struck home in my classically grounded soul. A mother, a wife, a daughter, an aunt, a cousin, a friend. A woman’s life and dreams are intertwined and harmonized with those of her loved ones.
Do not for an instant think that Jennifer is advocating a sacrificial immolation of all a mother’s dreams. On the contrary, she would be the first to tell you to nourish your “blue flame, the passion that ignites a fire within you when you do it.” She urges women to follow their dreams and utilize the gifts God has given them: to pursue the work that gives them energy and joy. On a personal note, I have come to the same conclusion. Writing fills me with energy and joy, which I can then channel into caring for my family with renewed vigor.
Jennifer is inspiring, but practical. At first I thought she was an advocate of the “have it all” mentality, but she tackled that topic with her usual forthrightness and pragmatism.
“I had set out on this quest to try to “have it all,” to use the terminology of the age-old debate about women and work. Now that I considered everything I’d learned along with what Joe was saying, I saw the entire concept differently. It occurred to me that you can have it all in the sense of having a rich family life and pursuing excellence in your work, but you’re going to need to re-imagine what having it all looks like. Your work will never be your number-one priority. You might need to walk away from glamorous opportunities that don’t allow you to live a love-first life. You’ll be bombarded with one interruption after another, yet you’ll find that those interruptions are the very building blocks of a good life.”
A good life. A love-first life. A life grounded in a wholeness of vision that melds family and personal goals. I think every woman really wants just this.
I have read a LOT of books by Catholic moms, for Catholic moms, and inevitably take away some nuggets of wisdom. But Jennifer’s story really spoke to me because she has had what some might call a difficult life: chronic money problems, difficult pregnancies, high need children, one setback after another in her personal goals. But if she hadn’t had all those experiences, how could she have given the world the wisdom in her books and blog? Each difficult moment shaped her into the woman who can inspire thousands of other Catholic mothers.
My own life has been a bit rocky for the last decade, and if Jennifer had an easier life or more natural inclination towards being a mom, her words would not have had this power to lodge deep in my soul and make me question my priorities and preconceived notions about what my life should look like or can look like.
Jennifer’s words have encouraged me to pursue writing more seriously again now, as opposed to waiting for the someday when my children are less demanding. I hope you read One Beautiful Dream too and it challenges and inspires you to recognize and nurture whatever gifts God has given you. And if you are that lucky mom whose gift is to be a home maker, pray for the rest of us!
I picked up My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell on a whim, hoping for a mildly interesting Ebook to pass the time while waiting for my youngest to fall asleep one evening. By the end of the first page, I was intrigued. By the end of the first chapter, I was captivated. By the end of the book, my ribs were sore from laughing and I had stayed up too late finishing it. My Family and Other Animals is quite difficult to classify, being one part travel, one part autobiography, one part natural history, and one part comedy, with a thread of descriptive language running throughout that sometimes raises it nearly to poetry. All in all, a real delight of a novel to read for any adult or older teenager.
Unconventional Childhood My Family and Other Animals begins with the Durrell family deciding on a whim to escape a miserable British summer and take a vacation to the Greek island of Corfu. The Durrells enjoy Corfu so much they end up spending five years on the island, which suits young Gerry perfectly. His book is a memoir of a childhood full of sunlight and wonder, memorable animals, colorful Greek natives, and, of course, his ever-entertaining family. There is his oldest brother Larry, who “was designed by Providence to go through life like a small, blond firework, exploding ideas in other people’s minds, and then curling up with catlike unctuousness and refusing to take any blame for the consequences.” Next comes Leslie, whose sole interests in life were shooting and firearms. Gerry’s older sister is Margo, who fights acne and flirts with peasants. Last but not least, there is Mother, who herds her eccentric children around the globe lovingly, encouraging and placating in a most satisfactorily motherly way.
A Unique Education
Durrell offers an interesting critique of traditional education, though subtly rather than overtly. He describes how he was enthralled with anything related to the natural sciences, but otherwise uninterested in traditional education. If he had been confined to a traditional school setting in England, he very well may never have become the great naturalist he grew up to be. His mother’s decision to move the family to Corfu during some of his most formative years provided an atypical educational experience that allowed young Gerry to develop his passion for flora and fauna into a career as a naturalist. In his book, Durrell explains how all attempts at teaching him French or geography or arithmetic were quite useless until a creative tutor found ways to relate them to biology and zoology. He learned best by exploring the island, gathering specimens, and reading about them in his considerable collection of nature books. His mother wisely allowed him to spend most of his time exploring his passion for all things animal, and Gerry thrived on Corfu in a way that would not have been possible in a typical school. In many ways, I found My Family and Other Animals a strong case for homeschooling.
Durrell the grown up uses the most delightful diction in describing his childhood as Gerry. I will pay him the tremendous compliment of comparing his word choice to P. G. Wodehouse, the master of the English language. In fact, I recommend reading with a nature encyclopedia and a dictionary at hand if you wish to receive the full benefit of Durrell’s descriptions. Unless of course you know offhand exactly what diaphanous means or what a boungainvillaea looks like. The impressive diction used in My Family and Other Animals is one of the reasons I recommend this book for readers sixteen and older.
Local Color and Hilarity
Throughout his book Durrell scatters colorful characterizations, and sometimes caricatures, of local inhabitants, flora, and fauna of Corfu. He has a keen eye for foibles and humor both human and animal. You will laugh till you cry at his description of the misadventures of his mother’s sea-slug of a dog Dodo with the leg that pops out of joint. His account of a battle between a mantid and a gecko is an epic in miniature. And the time his older brother opened a matchbox containing a snugly ensconced mother scorpion at the dining room table leads to a situational comedy of legendary proportions. These and other adventures of the Durrell family created a genuine problem as I read because it made me laugh so hard it woke my nursing baby repeatedly. Taken as a whole,My Family and Other Animals is a happy mix of P. G. Wodehouse’s humorous writing and James Herriot’s appreciation for All Creatures Great and Small which I wholeheartedly recommend as a worthwhile book.