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Review of “Atlas Shrugged

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Atlas Shrugged: Catholic Parent Review

The last couple weeks I’ve been deep in the philosophy of Ayn Rand as I submerged myself in Atlas Shrugged until late in the night. And I can’t deny I enjoyed this iconic novel. Despite totaling over 1000 pages, Atlas Shrugged is surprisingly readable, especially when you consider that is fundamentally an apologia for Rand’s philosophy: objectivism. I found that I agreed with more of Rand’s ideas than I expected, but her philosophy as a whole is fundamentally incompatible with Catholicism. That means you as the parent have some critical thinking to do about whether this book is appropriate for your teens.

A Myth Retold

The title Atlas Shrugged points the reader to the Greek myth of Atlas, the titan who was sentenced to forever hold the world up on his shoulders. Rand equates the brilliant businessmen who produce the ideas and money that keeps the economy growing with Atlas: the few carrying the weight of a whole world on their shoulders. In Atlas Shrugged, one genius named John Galt decides to teach the ungrateful parasites of the world a lesson by convincing all the brilliant businessman and capable workers to go on strike. The world collapses without them. They come back and remake the world according to Rand’s Objectivism.

Objectivism and “objectivism”

So what is Objectivism? Well, traditionally the term “objectivism” was used as the opposite of “subjectivism” in philosophy. Aristotelian metaphysics states that an individual possesses life independent of his or her mind whereas Hume’s school of thought is that a being is only real as the mental presence which acquires our representation of it. Rand, and Catholicism, follow Aristotle’s metaphysics and affirm that a being has existence independent of its mind.

Put more simply, Aristotelian metaphysics argues for an objective reality that exists outside the mind and that the mind can understand.

So far we agree.

But Rand took the term Objectivism and used it in a more all-encompassing sense to describe her philosophy, which applies to both the political and economic realm and the moral realm.

Atlas Shrugged and Politics Today

What I really appreciate about Atlas Shrugged is the prescience Rand shows about Communism and its pitfalls. If Rand’s philosophy strays too far towards egoism, Communism goes to the other extreme.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand traces the inevitable path of a world where private property is abolished, merit unvalued, and excellence frowned upon. In one chilling section, she describes a factory of several thousand workers who decide to abolish salaries and instead vote to distribute the money based on “needs.” Of course, the result is that no one has motivation to work hard, and everyone has motivation to try to be the neediest and most pitiful. The factory soon stops making a profit, the workers hate each other, and the town faces starvation.

In the setting of Atlas Shrugged, America is the last capitalist society; the rest of the countries are communist in government. The American government demands that the businessman surrender their profits to send huge sums of money to the starving Communist countries. Higher and higher taxes are placed on Americans to feed the rest of the world. Even within America, increasing tax burdens are placed on the producers- the workers- in order to support an ever growing welfare state. In response, the American workers begin to stop trying to earn more than the basis for survival since the rest of their money will be taken anyway. When the big businessmen follow suit and stop producing, the economy collapses and the entire world is plunged into a primeval darkness both literally and figuratively.

Atlas Shrugged was written in 1957.

When it comes to politics and economics, Atlas Shrugged has a message America might need to hear today. But when it comes to Rand’s applications of her economic philosophy to morality, there are some parts of Rand’s Objectivism we just can’t accept as Catholics.

Rand’s Objectivism and Morality

As Catholics, we believe in the sanctity of human life. In Objectivism, Rand argues that there is no intrinsic value in human life. What determines and bestows value to a life is the free choice to think and choose values. For Rand, survival is achieved by choosing to pursue one’s own self-interests exclusively. Selfishness is her ultimate virtue, and altruism her ultimate vice.

Sacrifice is the ultimate altruism, so of course Rand detests it with a passion.

Rand and Religion

Now, as I read Atlas Shrugged, I realized that Rand valued many traditional virtues greatly: justice, temperance, honesty, prudence, and even humility in its true sense of knowing one’s own worth. But she insists that all of these virtues are simply part of man’s battle for survival: his struggle to fulfill his own natural purpose, independent of anyone else.

I think she misunderstood religion, and especially Catholicism. There’s a great Fulton Sheen Quote: “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” Rand must have been one of those who misunderstood Religion.

Some of what she hates is a straw man. She claims that religion tells us to love our neighbor more than ourselves, whereas Catholic commentary on Mark 12:31 always emphasizes that in order to love your neighbor as yourself, you must first love and care for yourself.

She also equates religion with an excuse for people to demand what they haven’t earned in the name of charity. Of course, in its true sense, charity has to be a gift freely given: not something ever demanded as a right. (Note that here as in many places, I noticed parallels with the current state of our country where the government demands taxpayer dollars be given to “development” in other countries without our volition.)

For Rand, one of the greatest sins is a man using someone else’s pity as a weapon to manipulate them. Interestingly, in The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis comes down on this particular sin with a vengeance also. Now, a discussion between Rand and Lewis: that would have been worth hearing!

Original Sin is another huge stumbling block for Rand. She sees it as a cop out: a free pass on which to blame all our imperfections. In her view, man is born able to think clearly but begins to doubt his own mind and judgment as he submits his mind to others’ rules. This may be Rand’s view of the ultimate sin: to be untrue to our own idea of what is right.

Sound a little bit like the Catholic idea of never going against your conscience? It does to me. Of course in the Catholic view of conscience, a conscience must be formed correctly in order to be trustworthy.

There may be more common ground than Rand realized in her fundamental ideas and Catholic social teaching and beliefs. But unfortunately, in Atlas Shrugged, her conclusions are vehemently anti-religion, anti-God, and anti-charity.

Rand and Death

In Atlas Shrugged, the term “death” refers to a failure to live. Living, of course, refers to exercising one’s capacity to think and reason for Rand. So “death” in Atlas Shrugged refers to men who refuse to use their capacity to think. She describes such men as “no longer living.”

What exactly Rand thought about death in the sense of the separation of mind and body I wasn’t able to figure out from Atlas Shrugged. I don’t see how her philosophy encompasses this inevitable eventuality, unless perhaps she believed that there was nothing after death. This latter surmise is a probability given her hostility to Christian religion with its emphasis on a heavenly reward.

But Blaise Pascal’s classic wager comes to mind as I consider Rand’s philosophy: is the wager that there is nothing after death worth whatever pleasure we can wring from this world? Or is sticking with religion worth it given the unnerving possibility that it might be true?

Atlas Shrugged and Teens

Should teens read Atlas Shrugged? Philosophy aside, what else would parents want to consider about this book? The language is clean, and there is no graphic violence. However, there’s quite a lot of sexual content. One of the protagonists, Dagny, punctuates the book with her sexual relationships with 3 different men. Promiscuity is completely acceptable in Rand’s philosophy. (I actually found this surprising given the easily observable benefits of stable families to the individuals of the family.) Dagny’s sexual encounters are described quite sensually and take up a lot of pages. There’s also a lot of rhetoric about sex with multiple people not being a betrayal or immoral.

As far as the philosophical aspects of Rand’s Objectivism, I think that it’s too dense for most teens to sift through without guidance. As often happens, there’s enough true premises included that it’s quite difficult to determine where exactly the logical flaws are in Rand’s arguments. To really understand and refute the philosophy, a teen would need a solid grounding in metaphysics, ethics, and more.

Given the overt sexual content and hefty dose of flawed philosophy, I don’t recommend this even for older teens unless the parent is involved and helping unpack this dense and thought-provoking story.

For great books for Catholic kids, check out My Book Lists!

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Review of “Warriors: Into the Wild”

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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!

Concerning Turkish Delight

Turkish Delight scene, the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

One of the tags I use here on GoodBooksforCatholicKids.com is Turkish Delight. This tag, and indeed the book review portion of the blog, was inspired by a particular chapter in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe titled “Turkish Delight.” I’ve read The Chronicles of Narnia at least a dozen times, and over these many re-reads I began to see an analogy between Turkish Delight and certain books.

“Turkish Delight”

In the chapter “Turkish Delight,” Edmund enters Narnia for the first time and almost immediately meets the White Witch. She offers him food and he asks for Turkish Delight, which she magically produces. Lewis describes the confection in mouth-watering fashion: “Each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious.” But really, of course, the candy was quite dangerous, even deadly: it confused the eater’s mind and eventually leads to death.

“While he was eating the Queen kept asking him questions. At first Edmund tried to remember that it is rude to speak with one’s mouth full, but soon he forgot about this and thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat, and he never asked himself why the Queen should be so inquisitive. . . .

[T]his was enchanted Turkish Delight and anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.”

~ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis

Of course, the reader can easily extrapolate the symbol of Turkish Delight to apply to many categories of temptations and vices. For me, though, Turkish Delight always symbolized a certain type of book: easily inhaled, pleasant, addictive, and with poisonous content that killed the soul.

Weakening and Addictive

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Witch offers rooms full of Turkish Delight- unlimited light, easy pleasure- in exchange for Edmund bringing her his siblings. At first, it’s hard to imagine how Edmund can be willing to trade his siblings and soul for more candy. But if you consider that Lewis is using Turkish Delight as an allegory for temptation and sin, the puzzle of Edmund’s actions becomes clearer. A temptation succumbed to is a sin, and sin weakens the soul. So Turkish Delight weakens Edmund’s ability to clearly discern the good and withstand future temptations. Lewis describes that after eating the enchanted food, Edmund starts “becoming a nastier person by the minute.”

Turkish Delight and Books

On my blog, books tagged Turkish Delight are examples of unwholesome literature that results in weakening of the soul. Good literature has great power to inspire positive changes in mindset. On the flip side, unwholesome literature results in bad attitudes and negative behavior changes. As a case in point, after my popular Review of Diary of a Wimpy Kid came out, I had several parents reach out and tell me how they knew their must be something wrong with the book from their children’s worsening behavior after reading it.

Ruining Appreciation of the Good

Later in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund can’t enjoy a delicious, wholesome meal when he returns to Narnia. At the Beaver’s House, he can’t appreciate the simple but delicious food he was served:

“He had eaten his share of the dinner, but he hadn’t really enjoyed it because he was thinking all the time about Turkish Delight- and there’s nothing that spoils the taste of good ordinary food half so much as the memory of bad magic food.”

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

How many kids can’t seem to enjoy classics like Tom Sawyer, The Melendys, Swallows and Amazons, Treasure Island, or Little Britches anymore? In many cases, I think this is the result of exposure to Turkish Delight style literature.

How to avoid Turkish Delight books?

Inevitably, your children will eventually stumble upon books that are of the Turkish Delight category. The best way to help your children develop the ability to recognize and avoid books which are unwholesome is to help them develop an appetite for good books. How? Buy great books. Borrow them from the library or a friend if you can’t buy them. Read them aloud to your little children, and have them available for your older children. Need ideas of great books? Check out my Books Lists for thousands of ideas!

Have a child who loves Narnia? Look at this list of great fantasy series for Catholic kids and teens:

Review of “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Book Poster Image

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is one of those oft-recommended young adult series. It’s promoted as a modern classic by many libraries. Even some reputable review sites like commonsensemedia.org recommends it for 12+. The series premise is that four close friends share a special pair of jeans which help them stay close even when apart. The depiction of strong, healthy female friendship is moving and imitable, but there are definitely concerning aspects of this series Catholic parents need to be tracking.

Great premise, poor writing

Bridget, Lena, Tibby, and Carmen share a robust, close friendship. Always there for each other, always ready to sacrifice for one another, the parts of this series that focus on their friendship are in fact quite inspiring. The writing style, however, is shallow. The plot is not well-planned, and the character growth is uneven or inconsistent with some of the characters. I might have forgiven some of this though if I wasn’t so concerned with the amount of sexual content in a tween/teen series.

Too much focus on sex

There are really two themes in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. One is female friendship, the other is discovering your sexuality and losing your virginity. This series is written for a secular audience, so perhaps this is the norm in public schools, but Catholic parents may be startled to learn that this series describes events such as 15 year old Bridget seducing her 19 year old soccer coach. In a later book, 18 year old Bridget begins a similar seduction of her married archaeology professor, but at least stops at passionate making out, for what that’s worth. Tibby, at 18, fornicates with her boyfriend and then has a pregnancy scare. Lena, at 18, engages in nude modeling in art school and eventually loses her virginity to a guy she admits to not really loving or seeing marrying. Throughout the series, a lot of the plot is concerning who will sleep with who and when? Interesting content for a series that is supposed to be promoting positive teen behavior.

Lessons: too vague, too incoherent

Are the consequences of all this sexual misconduct negatively portrayed? Sometimes. Bridget falls into a year long depression after seducing her soccer coach and being rejected. The message is that it was a mistake because she was “too young.” But then, two years later, when she meets the soccer coach again and they fall in love, apparently she is now “old enough” and having sexual relations is acceptable. According to The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, having sex with your boyfriend is just fine as long as you’re “old enough” and “feel” right about it.

After Tibby fornicates with her boyfriend, she is terrified she’s pregnant, which causes her major anxiety and leads to breaking up with the boyfriend. But again, the message is not that sex outside of marriage is wrong, but rather that the timing was wrong. Even as Tibby regrets that she might be pregnant, the author makes sure to clarify that she didn’t actually regret having sex, because “she was ready.”

So The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants delivers a typical secular message that sex outside of marriage is okay overall, as long as you’re “ready” and not “too young.”

Great Premise, but unfit for Christian consumption

I would love to see a similar series with themes about strong female friendships, loyalty, and growing up, but done in a way that is appropriate for Catholic teens. Sadly, none of the teens in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants have any sort of moral compass regarding sexuality and relationships. Lacking guidance from wise adults or any philosophical or religious formation, they make decisions based strictly on what feels right to them. Consequently, the characters in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants are poor role models. I cannot recommend this series for Catholic teens under any circumstances.

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.