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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Games, Divergent features a strong female protagonist, Beatrice “Tris” Prior, who tells the story in the first person present. And like Hunger Games, Divergent 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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
If you haven’t seen the movie, it is in essence a spoof on fairy tale adventures. Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in the world, is being forced to marry a wicked prince. But she is rescued by her her lover Wesley, a Sicilian bent on revenge, and a giant. There are swashbuckling sword fights, miraculous rescues, wicked villains who are satisfactorily punished, and a hilarious commentary from the narrator. The book also has these elements. In fact, the movie contains all the best parts of the book and leaves out the muck.
And there is so much muck in this book. Before you get to the adventure proper, you must wade through 32 pages of Goldman describing, first, making a pass at a bikini-clad Hollywood starlet (note that Goldman is married). Second, lying repeatedly to his wife. Third, complaining about how his wife doesn’t understand him. Fourth, describing how he knows all the above is wrong, but doing it anyway.
By the end of these 32 pages I was so angry I almost destroyed the library book. After cooling down, I continued to the story proper. The book version of The Princess Bride opens with an account of the most beautiful woman in the world, a maid who is having an adulterous affair with a duke. The duke’s shrewish wife ruins the maid’s beauty by plying her with chocolates. I’m not a psychologist, but by this point I was convinced that Goldman had a very dysfunctional marriage. I later found out that he and his wife, who was actually a psychologist, divorced after the book was published.
It’s rather sad, really, to realize how Goldman views marriage. There isn’t a happy relationship in the book. Buttercup’s parents are described as having an unhappy marriage: “All they ever dreamed of was leaving each other.” Buttercup and Wesley do not even have a particularly inspiring relationship. Buttercup is rude, slovenly, and quite dull-witted when Wesley falls in love with her. Basically, he loves her because she’s beautiful. And once he rescues her, they soon fall to bickering and belittling one another.
Now there is still some decent comedy in the story. As I said, the movie combines all the best parts of the book with a wise cutting out of the love-doesn’t-exist theme. But a little comedy does not make this book worthwhile reading, so do not waste your time or give it to your teenagers. While disappointing, I will give The Princess Bride credit for being life changing for me in one way. I am never again going to be able to say “the book is always better than the movie.”
After reviewing a parenting book, I wanted my next review to be on light literature, so I continued my project of reviewing popular dystopian novels such as “The Hunger Games” and “The Maze Runner”. Unfortunately, the next teen dystopia on my list was The Selection by Kiera Cass. I say unfortunately because this book is high on the list of “most unsatisfying” and “least worthwhile” books I have ever read, and I almost did not even bother reviewing it. However, given its popularity with teenage girls and status as a New York Times Bestseller, I felt obligated to provide feedback.
The Selection is marketed as “dystopia meets the Bachelor.” I would describe this novel as a very light, vanilla form of dystopia, where hardship consists mostly in rigidly defined social castes and some food shortages among the lower classes. The heroine, America Singer, is, predictably from a lower caste and the long shot to win the Prince Maxon’s attention in a Bachelor-esque contest for the queenship and throne. Again predictably, she gains his attention immediately with her honesty and sad story of having a broken heart from being dumped by her ex-boyfriend back home, Aspen.
Of course this book is not evil incarnate, and I will freely admit there were certain redeeming themes. For example, America is careful to only use make up and clothing to enhance her natural appearance. She also learns a good lesson about premature judgments when she has to rethink her rashly formed opinions about Prince Maxon. America is also a good role model when it comes to friendships, being open, amicable, and charitable to the other contestants. That is the best I can say for her.
AMERICA THE CHEATER
Since this is a teen romance novel, of course there is a love triangle, activated when ex-boyfriend Aspen decides he no longer wants to be an ex. I found it completely infuriating that America has little problem with dating Prince Maxon, knowing he loves her and admitting she might love him, while also renewing her relationship with Aspen. America admits she knows this is wrong, says she feels guilty, but continues to lead on both men anyway. I found this deceit from America particularly offensive because what initially catches Prince Maxon’s attention is her honesty. Take away her honesty, and she becomes a much less likable and admirable character, and a poor model for Catholic teens.
The whole concept of The Selection actually bothers me. Should a man be dating 35 women at once? Perhaps you must define “dating” to answer that question. Calling taking each of 35 women out to dinner in turn “dating” is one thing, but when you add declarations of love and kisses into the mix, Prince Maxon’s behavior begins to verge more on cheating, at least to me. America struggles with feeling jealous of the parade of “other women,” but thinks she needs to squelch her feelings because it’s all part of the Selection. Yes, it’s strange circumstances, but I find the overall messages here about what dating should look like, especially dating multiple women, troubling.
To give a small measure of praise, at least in this first book of the series Kiera Cass keeps her characters clothed. However, I did find the rather graphic descriptions of America making out with her ex-boyfriend needlessly erotic. One might also pause to wonder why these scenes between America and Aspen are dwelt on so heavily, since the overall impression from the book is that you should want America to end up with Prince Maxon. On this front alone, I would pause to question the authoress’ agenda before handing this book to a young teenager.
Another interesting agenda I noticed in this novel is a theme promoting free access to birth control. The only law America seems to truly dislike is the one forbidding fornication. She is angry that she doesn’t have the right to choose when and with whom she has sex. She also resents that birth control is a luxury only available to higher castes. Again, this is the heroine of the story here, the one the reader is supposed to admire, advocating for birth control and free love. Troubling much?
The Selection ends abruptly on a cliffhanger without resolving any of the main conflicts. A loose end to be tied off in a future book is one thing, but this level of jerky ending is usually a sign that the author is more interested in garnering sales of additional books then writing a worthwhile book. All things considered, The Selection is not a selection I would recommend.
Many book lovers have a soft spot for Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time based on fond childhood memories. Though perhaps not on par with The Chronicles of Narnia in terms of popularity, A Wrinkle in Time has quite a fan following. I am in the unusual position of a bibliophile who did not read A Wrinkle in Time as a child. I believe my late, adult introduction to A Wrinkle in Time gives me a certain advantage in writing an unprejudiced review since my clarity of analysis is not obscured by any warm emotional attachment rooted in a childhood identification with Meg.
My first impression upon finishing A Wrinkle in Time was a certain vague disappointment. After all the hype I had heard about Christian themes, gripping plot, and memorable characters, I was hoping for so much more than I found. Upon reflection, I decided my dissatisfaction might in a small measure be rooted in the fact that I was not the twelve year old audience at which the book is aimed. But more fundamentally, I think I was disappointed because I grew up reading and re-reading Fantasy and Sci Fi such as The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, Lewis’ The Space Trilogy , and Children of the Last Days. And L’Engle’s skill as a writer, depth of thought as a philosopher, and moral imagination is not remotely on par with the likes of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Michael O’Brien.
BATTLE BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL
I do truly appreciate that L’Engle tries to clearly define the conflict as a cosmic battle between good and evil. In this aspect, I believe A Wrinkle in Time was intended to be reminiscent of Lewis and Tolkien. The evil fog and IT are supposed to be evil, while the Mrs W’s and humans from earth are combating in the name of good and love. However, though L’Engle had good intentions, I believe her portrayal of good is flawed in several essential areas.
JESUS: ANOTHER GOOD MAN
Madeleine L’Engle was an Episcopalian, and her book reflects a watered down Protestant version of Christianity. Biblical references are strewn generously throughout A Wrinkle in Time, although Meg and the other characters are not overtly identified as Christian. There is on the one hand an acceptance that certain Christian themes, such as free will, and Bible passages contain wisdom and even a certain inherent beauty, truth, and power. Yet on the other hand Jesus is placed on par with other artists and spiritual leaders like Michelangelo and Gandhi. If you say Jesus is just another good teacher, you discredit the Bible message, reducing it to just another good book. In this sense, A Wrinkle in Time is a decidedly poor witness to Christianity.
Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Witchcraft
I don’t by any stretch accuse L’Engle of nefarious intentions, but another reason I would hesitate to hand my tween a copy of this book is her comparatively lighthearted take on the occult. Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which are described as guardian angels and messengers from God. Yet these angels “play” at being witches. Calvin calls the witch symbolism of broomsticks, cauldron, haunted house, old crones, “their game.” Since Catholic popes, priests, and theologians have repeatedly cautioned again any “games” dealing with occult objects, I find the concept of playing at witchery disturbing. I immediately thought of the passage in C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Lettersin which Screwtape says one of the best ways to allow power to a devil is to deny its existence.
One final detail in the plot that I found particularly troublesome is that when the climax comes, Meg finds she must rely on herself. Her love is most powerful. A common theme in Catholic literature is a person realizing that they are nothing before God, but with God they are everything. Perhaps one could try to make a case that Meg’s love for her brother must come from God, and so bring God into the victory. But your average ten or twelve year old is not going to leap to this interpretation, which is a stretch even for me. L’Engle is pretty clear that Meg herself sees it coming down to just her love alone.
LEWIS DID IT BETTER
I kept having this reaction while reading A Wrinkle In Time: “Lewis already used this idea, and he did a better job.” To be clear, I am not accusing L’Engle of plagiarizing. But for a devotee of C. S. Lewis, details such as the disembodied brain controlling people and scientists being taken to another planet by celestial guardian angel figures will inevitably lead to comparisons. And in my opinion, A Wrinkle In Time just can’t begin to compete with The Chronicles of Narnia, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Add to that the fact that I find L’Engle to lack an authentically Christian voice, and my advice is to skip A Wrinkle In Time, or at least be sure to have a discussion with your children about it before handing it over. And also make sure they read some C. S. Lewis.
I remember enjoying listening to my parents reading If You Give a Mouse a Cookie when I was young. So I bought several of the “If you give…” books by Laura Numeroff sight unseen. I was quite disappointed when I began reading them to my own kids.
I will admit that my little ones were instantly captivated by these books. Something about the short phrases on each page, the simple, sequential story, or the animals’ antics amuses children. However, I reluctantly had to conclude most of this series needed to disappear in the night from our bookshelf.
The original If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is tolerable in my opinion (though not handsome enough to be a favorite for me). The illustrations are not as realistic and beautiful as I might ask in an ideal world, but do have a certain cuteness. The story line is actually helpful in explaining sequences and causes to very little children. And I appreciate how the little boy tries so hard to clean up after the mouse throughout the story. Of course, the deeper theme about desire following desire in a cyclical fashion is way over the intended audience’s head.
I could nitpick about Numeroff’s later books. For example, the illustrations move from cute and calm to sometimes frantic, as in If You Give a Cat a Cupcake Also, does it bother anyone else how though cookies and milk is an American combination, apple juice and donuts just don’t really go together?
Observe the sweater. (Or is it a bolero?) Take note of the daisy.
Notice the stance. This is a moose who carries a clutch purse. This moose is … a girl, right?
But no. “If you give a moose a muffin, HE’LL want some jam to go with it.” (My italics)
So, we have a male moose wearing a girly sweater with a daisy in the pocket, standing like a girl, carrying a clutch. Am I the only one who prefers my milk and cookies, or muffins and jam, unaccompanied by a homosexual or transgender normalizing agenda?
John Dashner’s The Maze Runner series is one of a string of wildly popular dystopian young adult novels. Fans of the The Hunger Games trilogy and Divergent series will also be familiar with Dashner’s trilogy. With the December 2017 release of a movie based on the series, The Maze Runner is about to receive to an explosion of attention and new fans.
As a busy Catholic parent, you may be wondering if you should let your teens read this series and watch the movie, but not have the time to read it for yourself to determine its appropriateness. Never fear. If you are looking for a one word answer, this Catholic mom is saying No to her young teens reading this series. Read on for a synopsis and highlights of some of the moral issues the series raises.
In brief, The Maze Runner is the story of a teenage boy, Thomas, and his band of friends who accomplish rather unbelievable feats to escape a devilishly designed maze. Oh yes, and all of them have no memories. That about sums it up.
In the second book, The Scorch Trials, Thomas and his friends are again put through a series of perilous experiments in a ravaged world. This time the boys realize that they are undergoing the trials for the greater good of the human race, in the hope of finding a cure for a disturbing, fatal illness known as “the Flare.”
The third book, The Death Cure, is Thomas and his surviving friends’ fight to take down Wicked, the organization which has forced the experiments upon them.
This series is wildly popular because it is a fast-paced story of a group of loyal teens facing nearly insurmountable challenges, with a generous dose of mystery to suck in the reader. But from a Catholic perspective, there are a plethora of moral problems with these books.
One thing parents need to know is just how violent this series is. All three books, but especially the third, present scenarios where teenagers must engage in and witness disturbing violence and gruesome deaths, all depicted graphically. For a book that is singularly lacking in description overall, the author devotes an inordinate number of paragraphs to detailing graphic violence. My view is teenagers should not be reading about this sort of violence, especially when it is in the context of other teenagers committing the violence.
Moving into more vicarious themes, another thing you as the parent need to know is how this book deals with euthanasia. Dashner offers some oddly contradictory views. On one level, The Maze Runner world does not choose to euthanize the segment of the population who are going mad. However, Dashner provocatively offers an ongoing speculation of whether it would just “be kinder” to do so. Then, in the third book, Dashner creates a specific scenario in which one of the major characters, Newt, realizes he has caught the fatal disease and is rapidly going mad. Newt asks Thomas to kill him in the name of their friendship. After various feelings of turmoil and guilt, Thomas ends up deciding to do so. Perhaps the most disturbing part of this twisted scenario Dashner devises is that Thomas never frames the problem in terms of right and wrong. His decision and motivations are all based on a chaos of feelings: loyalty, revulsion, guilt, love, friendship. There is no overarching moral framework or absolute right and wrong even mentioned.
Another moral question raised in The Maze Runner series is an ongoing exploration of how far the end justifies the means. Perhaps the biggest question Thomas grapples with throughout the series is does trying to save the human race justify intentionally killing some? In my view, the book does not give a definitive answer. Thomas thinks first yes in the prequel, then no, then maybe. In the end, his conclusion seems to be that perhaps yes, you can kill some people if you are absolutely positive it will save the majority. Like the euthanasia question, here is another serious moral issue that a teenager is trying to grapple with all by himself. The idea that they alone must create their own morality in a vacuum is not what we want to be instilling in our Catholic teenagers.
A final danger signal I see in these books is Dashner’s choice to use the word “Creators” to refer to the ruthless adults at Wicked who designed the killzone experiments. To me, this raises a question of whether the book is meant to be an analogy for humankind, stuck in a fallen world by an uncaring Creator. Reading too much into this word choice? Maybe. But maybe not. In any case, for all these reasons, I would pass on The Maze Runner as a reading choice for your teenagers.