Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

— 1 —


“The Canterville Ghost” by Wilde. This was our easing-into-school read this week. I’d never read it, nor seen any of the adaptations, but I knew the basics of the tale: An American diplomat and his family knowingly move into a haunted English estate. The ghost attempts to haunt them, but the pragmatic, good-humored Americans are immune, giving Wilde ample opportunity for some amusing satirical, but entirely good-natured commentary on cultural differences.

The deeper point, I suppose, regards the American disdain of tradition and deep history. They don’t believe in the ghost, but once they accept his existence, they treat him with undaunted practicality – suggesting medications for whatever ails him – and derision, teasing and even torment from the younger family members.

But then, Wilde, as he is wont to do, turns the tables on us all by way of sentimental spirituality, as the family’s daughter, appropriately named Virginia, provides the mediation the ghost requires to find peace.

It’s short, a good read, and a good way to explore the uses of satire and cultural commentary, as well as a bit of light spirituality.


 — 2 —

I also read Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime in the same volume. It’s a mild satire on 19th century gothic literature, in which a palm reader tells a young man he’s destined to murder someone. The young man, who is engaged to be married, decides that if this is Fate, he will try to take care of this before his wedding so as not to ruin his marriage. Since this is Oscar Wilde, the descriptions can be delectable:

…at the end of the picture-gallery stood the Princess Sophia of Carlsruhe, a heavy Tartar-looking lady, with tiny black eyes and wonderful emeralds, talking bad French at the top of her voice, and laughing immoderately at everything that was said to her. It was certainly a wonderful medley of people. Gorgeous peeresses chatted affably to violent Radicals, popular preachers brushed coat-tails with eminent sceptics, a perfect bevy of bishops kept following a stout prima-donna from room to room, on the staircase stood several Royal Academicians, disguised as artists, and it was said that at one time the supper-room was absolutely crammed with geniuses.

Lord Arthur’s deeply misdirected sense of obligation is appropriately appalling and the consequences darkly comic, but I enjoyed The Canterville Ghost more.

Next up (for him) “The Lottery” – and then a new novel starting next week. (On his own, he’s reading Dune.) 

— 3 —

I am probably not supposed to read this, but I am trying my hand at A.N. Wilson’s Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker. Everyone says he gets the science all wrong, and wow, look at all those one-star reviews,  but as I am a fan of works that subvert conventional wisdom as well as those that set ideas in historical context, so once I saw it on the library shelf, it was impossible for me to resist.



Recently watched:

Not much, really, over the past week (sports and video games keeping control of the new television), but tonight I got up two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents for us – via the Internet Archive. On the big television, which still amazes me. Anyway, I looked up what fans say are the best of the series, and we watched a couple: “The Man from the South,” with Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre, and “Lamb to the Slaughter,” with Barbara bel Geddes.

Spoiler alert – well, not really, since it happens at the beginning of the episode – if you have seen the second, you know that the plot involves a woman who kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, and the subsequent investigation into the crime. I thought it was good, but I also thought it would have been better if we hadn’t know her weapon until the end – it seemed to me the crime could have been artfully glossed over, and it would only gradually dawn on us what was up as sweet blonde Barbara serves up a late supper to the cops.

–5 —

Recent writes:

Look back for posts on Homeschooling Fall 2017 report and a jaunt my son and I took up to north Alabama to see Sandhill Cranes.

As well as ongoing projects.


— 6 —

Oh, I guess I should add this to the “recent watches” – might as well knock this off here.

We finally got around to taking a look at Stranger Things – both seasons. I had been highly resistant, first because if you tell me something is a “must watch” and inundate me with think pieces on it – yeah I’m going to #resist. I might come around, but don’t save space for me on the bandwagon right away.

I was also resistant because it’s a Netflix series, and even though it does feature pre-teens and teens, it’s a Netflix series and I knew that while it wasn’t Thirteen Reasons level, I did know that the language was a little rough. But I read reviews and gathered opinions from people whom I trust, and finally, from my throne, offered my assent to the viewing.

My take?


Well done on a superficial level – for the most part. (The second seasons is much weaker than the first) A decent introduction to “peak TV” for teens. But:


— 7 —

While at times, from moment to moment, I could get swept up in the suspense as a whole, it just didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t find the 80’s setting engaging – I don’t have a lick of nostalgia for the 80’s, and the series really had nothing to say about it except: Big hair, shoulder pads and Reagan yard signs.

I didn’t find it thematically resonant. Articles proclaimed it a super-Catholic show in a deep sense – why? Because characters were sensing signs of the supernatural through the material? Stretching it. Other articles honed in on kids solving Big Mysteries on their own and tying it into themes of broken families – except that, well, Kids Solving Big Mysteries On Their Own is as old as E. Nesbit and probably older – all great kid-centered adventures have the kids on their own – what fun would it be with adults around? Secondly, the “broken family” theme didn’t really factor into the theme as strongly or meaningfully as I had expected coming into it – especially since it really only factors into one of the children’s situations.

Beyond that, I had two problems with Stranger Things, one relatively minor and the other more fundamental. First – the kids cussing. I’m not on board with that, especially at the level they took it here, and I even found some of it unrealistic. Sure, preteens and teens will curse in their own conversations, but would a typical small-town 13-year old curse as part of a doorway conversation with one of his friend’s parents? That was just off, as was the level of cursing, especially in the second season. The second season, which was far weaker than the first, and really, from a story perspective, had little reason to exist  – and yeah, those kids swore a lot more in the second season than the first.

But more importantly – I’ll try to articulate this, although this type of criticism is not my forte. I feel something, but I’m not sure why I feel it or what an alternative would look like. So with that introduction…

The plot of both seasons of Stranger Things was about a malevolence that lurks beneath ordinary life. It took different forms in each season (which is something that didn’t make sense to me – what happened to the Upside Down – until that last shot of the season?) – but that was the driving element of the plot – this Stuff that was largely unseen, was in some way a negative image of what we live with every day, but for some reason, sometimes, seeks our destruction and must be contained.

Except – whatever this is has no actual relation to life as it’s lived. You can say – well, that’s because it’s been contained – but what I think was missing was any thematic connection between this hidden evil and human life and choices. There was this Bigger Thing – this Stranger Thing– but it was just a creepy destructive force which had no motivation except for a hunger-driven destruction, and that found no reflection or reference in the hungers or creepy destructive forces that we encounter in every day life or in the world at large.

It’s not that Stranger Things needed blatant metaphors telegraphed in lame fashion, but I guess what I am attempting to say is that I never had any sense that this malevolence or the efforts to contain or control it was a metaphor for anything, and that rendered it ultimately not very interesting.

That said, some of the acting was remarkable, particularly from Millie Bobby Brown, who played Eleven, the girl who’d been kept to develop her psychic powers, and Gaten Matarazzo, who is a natural and a delight.

I found Winona Ryder tiresome – well, of course her frantic aspect was perfectly understandable as she sought her lost son and became convinced he was trapped in, er, the electrical system. But All! The! Anxious! Shouting!

And can I say this? Will it get me into trouble? Probably, just for being stupid. But here’s the thing: the creators of Stranger Things are twin brothers, and I really felt that during this show. The whole thing felt like the expression of very insular world that was about that world and not much else.

And the second season….there was no reason for it. Especially if your name is Bob. Poor Bob.





It did make for a good running joke during Christmas, though….



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How about we just read some books?

I’ve knocked a couple over the past few days, two books of very different genres, but both absorbing in their own way.

And I’m telling you – settling into a book is far less anxiety-producing than settling into social media news opining for the evening. Or even for fifteen minutes. Even if it’s a book about death. Weird.

But try it. It doesn’t make you a bad citizen, I promise.

I have written about Dorothy Hughes before. She is known today to the extent she is known at all, for pulp/crime novels. I initially came across her work via the NYRB reprints line – they have published The Expendable Man, which I wrote about here – and still highly recommend. A while later, I read her most well-known book, In a Lonely Place, made into a movie with Humphrey Bogart, and which I wrote about here.

So, what do we have so far? In the first, a physician falsely accused of a crime. In the second, we’re in the narrative point of view (in the third person) of a probable serial killer. In the third Hughes I’ve read – Ride the Pink Horse, we’re in the head of a still different type of character: a small-time operator and borderline criminal who’s been a part of the circle of a corrupt Illinois senator and who’s trying to settle a score of sorts – or to simply get what he believe is owed him.


What adds another level of interest and meaning to Ride the Pink Horse is the setting. Sailor – for that is his name – has followed the senator down to Santa Fe for the Fiesta that takes place over Labor Day weekend.  Fiesta provides a fascinating background to the story, a background that reflects a changing understanding of America, insight into the Southwest and, most importantly, a glimpse into a greater, even transcendent reality that pricks at Sailor’s conscience.

The Fiesta begins with the burning of a huge effigy of evil – Zozobra.

On the hill the outsiders played at Fiesta with their fancy Baile but Fiesta was here. In the brown faces and the white faces, the young and the old; capering together, forgetting defeat and despair, and the weariness of the long, heavy days which were to come before the feast time would come again. This was Fiesta. The last moments of the beautiful and the gay and the good; when evil, the destroyer, had been himself destroyed by flame. This was the richness of life for those who could destroy evil; who could for three days create a world without hatred and greed and prejudice, without malice and cruelty and rain to spoil the fun. It was not three days in which to remember that evil would after three days rise again; for the days of Fiesta there was no evil in this Fiesta world. And so they danced.

Sailor is an outsider to this world, and so it’s a convenient way for Hughes to explore the noir trope of alienation, particularly in that post-World War II era.

And standing there the unease came upon him again. The unease of an alien land, of darkness and silence, of strange tongues and a stranger people, of unfamiliar smells, even Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Dellthe cool-of-night smell unfamiliar. What sucked into his pores for that moment was panic although he could not have put a name to it. The panic of loneness; of himself the stranger although he was himself unchanged, the creeping loss of identity. It sucked into his pores and it oozed out again, clammy in the chill of night. He was shivering as he stood there and he moved sharply, towards the Plaza, towards identity.

For three days, Sailor lurks and waits. Because it’s Fiesta, there’s not a hotel room to be found, so he sleeps where he can. He encounters the Senator and his entourage, with increasing levels of threat and intensity as he demands what’s due him. He discovers another Chicagoan in town – a boyhood acquaintance now police detective, also keeping an eye on the Senator. He forms a friendship of sorts with the man who operates the  Tio Vivo – the children’s merry-go-round –  whom he nicknames (of course) “Pancho.” There is, by the way, a lot of what we’d call offensive ethnic-related language in this book, but it’s all from the brain of Sailor, who uses language like that because that’s the way his character thinks.

Anyway, Pancho is one of a few characters Sailor encounters who hints at a different way. Another is a teenage girl whom he could easily exploit, but doesn’t, and whom, for reasons mysterious to even himself, he tries to help. It’s her storyline that provides the hughes-ridepinktitle – a title which has nothing to do with the dame on the cover of the reissue. What these characters do is  show Sailor glimmers of life as it exists beyond greed and keeping score, either by the peace they’ve made with the limitations of their own lives:

‘Even with the gringo sonnama beetches,’ Pancho said cheerfully. ‘When I am young I do not understand how it is a man may love his enemies. But now I know better. I think they are poor peoples like I am. The gringo sonnama beetches don’t know no better. Poor peoples.’

….or the small acts of goodness they draw out of Sailor himself:

Sailor called to Pila. ‘Ride the pink one.’ He felt like a dope after saying it. What difference did it make to him what wooden horse an Indian kid rode? But the pink horse was the red bike in Field’s, the pink horse was the colored lights and the tink of music and the sweet, cold soda pop. The music cavorted. Pancho’s muscles bulged at the spindlass. Pila sat astride the pink horse, and Tio Vivo began its breath-taking whirl. Sailor leaned on the pickets. He didn’t know why giving her a ride had been important. Whether he’d wanted to play the big shot. Whether it was the kid and the bright new bike, the bum with his nose pressed against the window looking at the clean silver blonde beyond reach. Whether it was placating an old and nameless terror. Pila wasn’t stone now; she was a little girl, her stiff dark hair blowing behind her like the mane of the pink wooden horse.

Sailor was raised Catholic, by a pious mother and an alcoholic, abusing father. His mother spent her life praying – and how did it help her? In his view, it didn’t.

He hadn’t come here to pray; he’d come with a gun to keep his eye on a rat. He wasn’t going to be sucked in by holiness. He kept his mind and his backbone rigid when the golden censers swung the musk-scented smoke, when the organ and choir blazoned together the O Salutaris Hostia. He got on his knees only because everyone else did, because he didn’t want to be conspicuous…..Sailor slid over to the side pew. A pillar protected him from the eyes of those moving up the aisle. The old men and the little children. The rich and the poor. The alien and the native, the magnificent and the black shawls. The monks and the choir and the Sociedads, a slow-moving, silent procession to the open cathedral doors, out again into the night. Candles flickered like fireflies from all the vasty corners of the cathedral

Now and then, cultural commenters would worry about the appeal of antiheroes Tony Soprano (The Sopranos) and Walter White (Breaking Bad). What does it Say About Us? Well, what was most compelling to me -and I think to many – was not so much these characters’ dastardly deeds, but rather the possibility that they might turn around – both shows were full of such moments and opportunities, and decisions had to be made in those moments, decisions about whether to be really courageous or continue in your prideful, destructive, bastard ways.

Ride the Pink Horse has that same kind of vibe about it. Sailor didn’t have to be in the spot he’s in, and he still has a chance to move in another direction. Will he take it?

It’s a little repetitious – so not as strong as An Expendable Man, which is still my favorite Hughes so far. But it’s got a great setting, and in that pulp context, effectively examines the notion of conscience, creates a haunting spiritual landscape through which sinful strangers in a strange land choose one path – and not another –  and wow, the ending is just smashing. I gasped. I did.

Well, that took longer than I expected. I’ll wait until tomorrow to write about the other book I read this weekend – They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell, published eighty years ago about events set twenty years earlier than that, but astonishingly fresh and deeply insightful.

Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Movie-PosterBy the way, Ride the Pink Horse was also made into a film. It’s been released as a part of the Criterion Collection, so…I guess it’s good? But the plot is very different from the novel:

He plays a tough-talking former GI who comes to a small New Mexico town to shake down a gangster who killed his best friend; things quickly turn nasty. 

…but the discussion at the Criterion site intrigues me…so perhaps I’ll try to find it and give it a go.




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Once there were two brothers….

How many tales have begun that way?

Today’s first reading does not begin with that exact phrase, but it could, for it’s the story of Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac, and the theft of his brother Esau’s birthright.

Once there were two brothers….

A few weeks ago, the third season of the FX series Fargo concluded. Fargo is a different kind of television series. It is “inspired by” the Coen brothers movie of that name, but takes from the film, not the exact plot, but rather setting, tone and general theme: The Fargosetting of the upper Midwest, the tone of black humor, and the general themes of randomness and of human beings using their free will for evil, but also in very stupid ways that always end in someone’s death.

Accident, serendipity and just the craziness of being in the wrong place at the wrong time play a huge role in this universe – as they do in life, in my opinion, which is why I am so strongly drawn to the series, I think.

That said, although I enjoyed the first season of the series, I never got around to watching the second – I think it coincided with a busy time of life, and then I never could catch up – but I did watch this recently concluded third season, and, in contrast to some viewers, who saw it as a definite downturn, I liked it a lot – and in ways thought it was stronger than the first season.

I’ll hasten to say that the seasons of this program are not intricately connected – the first and second were, but the third (I think) is a completely different story with different characters doing similar, but different things.

There’s too much going on for review in a single blog post – and you can certainly get that in other places. I suppose what I’ll do then, is just focus on what pulled me into this third season of Fargo. I won’t say, “And why you should watch it,” because people’s tastes vary so widely, I never assume that others will agree with my reading, listening or viewing preferences. And come to think of it, you probably shouldn’t watch it. There. Does that cover my bases?

Fargo was wild and arresting, but as with all wild and arresting creations out there these days, you have to be careful and ask: Is there a point to this, or is it just random visual flailing to get my attention and make me think there’s Something Serious going on here? That happens a lot – in my opinion, it happened in Twin Peaks (the original – didn’t watch the recent reboot or whatever) – and is pretty much the norm These Days, since the norm for quite a bit of artistic energy in the modern era is just about the startling superficial image, and not really about anything – since there’s no substantive Anything for anything to be about.

So with Fargo, I held my judgment until the end. I suspected it was about something real, but I couldn’t be sure if I was being taken for a ride or not until the end. And then the end came, and while it was the most deeply satisfying ending I could have envisioned, like the ending of The Sopranos – it fit. Fargo seemed to me about something real, after all.

And what was it?

It was about all those things I spoke of at the beginning, those matters which fascinate me so much – how we are in the place where we’re in at any given moment, not so much because of our deliberate choices (no matter how much we like to think that’s the reason), but because of chance, accidents and the good and evil that’s happened in the past.

But Fargo was also about the nature of truth – and how much of what surrounds us, and what we construct our lives around is just fable, myth and self-serving lies – but – BUT – truth does exist. There is a true story, and there are, indeed, still small voices in our midst, doggedly witnessing to that truth, usually at a great price.

Fargo begins and ends with interrogations of accused men by government officials.

(My discussion will be as spoiler-free as possible. So if I’m vague…that’s why.)

The first scene of the series us to East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A man has been hauled in for questioning. He protests his innocence and indeed maintains, with increasing panic, that he is not the man accused and there is no rational reason to suppose him to be.


The government official, cool and calm in his assertions, constructs a narrative, and the narrative is that the man in front of him is guilty. He is imposing a new identity on this man, and this narrative that he is a criminal is now the “truth.” It is now a true story.

The series ends in another small room, decades and half a world away from the first scene. Another government official sits behind a desk facing another accused man. Truth again is the issue, but this time, the dynamic is different. The official and the accused face each other, each maintaining the truth of their stories. Identity is again at the core, but now the roles are reversed. The accused has assumed identities in order to avoid detection of his criminal activities, and the official is maintaining, calmly and coolly, that she knows the truth of who he really is. She knows the true story.

There is only the faintest direct connection between the two scenes – one figure common to both narrative strands – who is, by the way, not physically present in either one. But this character’s existence serves to reinforce that other important Fargo theme of the role of random human connection in the course of life.

In between the two scenes are ten episodes in which characters are seduced by greed, deluded, killed, in which they face the truth and construct more lies, and most of the time face the consequences of their actions as the universe – bizarre and mysterious, but ultimately just, it seems – doles them out.

For the reason the events in that last scene came to the point that they did are this, in part:

Decades ago, someone traveled to Los Angeles with literary and filmmaking stars in their eyes, was exploited and mistreated, and bearing the physical consequences of this mistreatment, decided to leave it all behind, including his identity, and change his name to one he saw on a toilet bowl.


Decades ago, two brothers (ah…here we are) watched their father die. One brother knew the real value of the inheritance and tricked his brother into letting him have what was most valuable, traded for what the younger brother thought he wanted and needed at the moment, but was of little value beyond that immediate moment.

And here we are in this moment – dealing with the fallout and making our own present-day choices, carrying that weight.

Given that this is a crime drama, of course the choices are heightened and expressive of the most deadly sins – primarily greed and pride – always pride – here. And you watch fargoalong, filled with dread as characters you know have a glimmer of good in them insist on making decisions that range from the stupid to the short-sighted to just evil.

Along the way, Fargo gives us gorgeous cinematography, memorable images and intriguing metaphors – bridge plays a huge role, and along the way we dip into Peter and the Wolf, and find ourselves in a mystical bowling alley – a la Big Lebowski, but different – and excellent acting. Ewen McGregor plays both brothers, and while some critiqued his accent at times, I thought he was fabulous – the greatest challenge being when McGregor must play the brother Ray pretending to be his brother Emmitt.


The central character here, though, is really the villain – one mystery man V.M. Varga, played by David Thewlis, whom some of you might know from Harry Potter – he played Professor Lupin.

In Fargo, Varga is the man in charge of some sort of mysterious global entity that steps in to loan Emmit Stussy – the Parking Lot King of Minnesota – some money. The trouble begins when, seeking to repay the loan, Stussy discovers that he’s been had – that the money was not so much a loan as a buy-in to the company, and bit by bit, Varga and his people are taking control.

How sin begins: We open ourselves up to a bit of shadow, and find ourselves in its grasp.

Varga, played by Thewlis is mesmerizing and -yes – disgusting. The character is bulimic. He gorges himself with all manner of food, methodically and greedily, and then vomits it out. As a consequence, his teeth are rotting away – the work of stomach acid. Food is not nourishment here. It is something else, something to fill need both deep-seated and pressingly immediate, then to be vomited out.

FARGO -- Pictured: David Thewlis as V.M. Vargas. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX

Varga’s bulimia is echoed in his other actions, as he takes in more and more money, more and more property, and vomits it all out in the form of, first of all elaborate self-justifying tales of false history presented as fact, and secondly, human lives.

This character is, to me, an embodiment of the deadly sins, as he perverts what is good, ingests it, takes it all into himself, but for no purpose except for the consumption, discards it, spews out self-justifying lies, and ultimately rots away.

The villain in the first season of Fargo was named Malvo and was played by Billy Bob Thornton, who is always a pleasure to watch in anything, even when he’s playing a villain. Some critics prefer his villain to Varga, but to me, there’s no contest. Thornton was good, but there was an element of the plot and character that I found so unrealistic – even in the heightened, unrealistic world of Fargo – that I lost interest in him. (If you watched it – I’m talking about the dentist part). Varga was weird and lived on a level of exaggeration, to be sure, but there was, at times, fear in his eyes. He wasn’t invincible.

Which, lest you think this is all about the darkness, is the point. As is the case with every Fargo iteration, the beating heart of the series is a police officer – usually female – who is doggedly and patiently pursuing the truth and believes in justice. Here, she’s played by Carrie Coons (of HBO’s The Leftovers) and the character is certainly more than just a symbol of conscience. It’s her stepfather whose murder sets off another chain of events in the series, and although she is not onscreen as much as other characters, it’s clear she is subject to the same dynamics of the universe as they are: she is in the place she is in, both professionally and personally, because of weird, random things that happened in the past. What to make of it all? What’s the truth? And how do you live with it right now?


We like to think that life, as we’re living it, is the result of conscious choices that we and others have made.  We read history this way, don’t’ we? We know how the story ends, so we read it as a narrative with decisions and steps leading up to that ending.

But it’s not that way. The way it is, instead, is a way of missteps and accidents, and while I can know some of it, most of it I won’t know.  We do live in the midst of a narrative, but it’s not because there’s no True Narrative to be known – it’s because we’re too small, as God tells Job, to even begin to grasp it. But someday, we will. We cling to hope that we will, we try to find the True Story as we go, and try not to fabricate too many false narratives on the way.

That mystery and strangeness is at the heart of life, and it’s at the heart of the Scriptures – a messy narrative full of human weakness, a story of God working and ultimately victorious, not just through the saints and their great works, but even through the poor sinners  and their weaknesses, crimes and lies.

 “Are you really my son Esau?” 
“Certainly,” Jacob replied….


Note: I have a theory about the connection between the bowling alley and Nikki’s fate – but I’ll wait to discuss it in the comment section at some point. 

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I’m in Living Faith again today. Two days in a row is unusual – you won’t see me there again until the end of August, though.

"amy welborn"


(Five entries per quarter is the norm)

To the left is the visual aid for that entry:

In it, I talk about my struggles to write fiction. As it happens, last week I revisited a YA novel I wrote several years ago. I actually got an agent to represent it, and she sent it out to a lot of publishing houses – and of course it was rejected. There were decent comments that came out of the rejections, though, as well as the consistent claim that while the writing was good, they couldn’t sell it. Positioned as a YA novel, since it did not involve dystopia, vampires or shopping…there was no niche for it, I suppose.

I hadn’t looked at it in a long time, but last week, I found it on my old computer, rescued the file, and read through it. Hey, this isn’t terrible.  So I think what I’m going to do is publish it on Amazon via CreateSpace. I have a bit of editing to do on it – to update some tech references and clean up some errors and weaker writing. I’ll do that after our trip to Guatemala and probably have it ready in August sometime.

It’s not perfect, but it never will be, and that’s okay. I think enough readers will find it and enjoy it to make the effort worthwhile.  Which is the point of today’s entry, really.

And I am working on another couple of pieces of fiction, one short and one long – plus I’m probably going to have at least one more non-fiction book to work on over the course of the next year. I’m waiting on the details of that to be worked out.  Which is another reason unschooling will be the preferred pedagogy for 7th grade….

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The first Harry Potter novel was published twenty years ago today in the UK – June 26, 1997.  Some thoughts:

  • I’ve read most of them – I don’t think I ever actually read the last one, or if I did, I just skimmed it.
  • I read them to keep up with the cultural zeitgeist, because I had a daughter who was mad for them, and for work – I wrote about them here and there, mostly for OSV.
  • I always admired Rowling’s imaginative powers, but it became clear, as the series progressed, that the editors stepped away, in deference, I assumed, to her great popularity. The books kept getting longer and longer, with no good reason. As time went on, I found them very skimmable.
  • They’re not “great literature” by any means. The writing is flat and declarative, but you know what? She created a world, and that’s admirable and engaging.
  • I addressed the religious objections to the series at various times over the years, but never understood them. I am usually able to empathize with other points of view – it’s something that actually functions as an obstacle in my writing life, especially of opinion pieces. But I’ll admit that the religiously-based objectors to Harry Potter who saw it as a harbinger of the occult and Satanic among the young lost me.
  • But if someone didn’t want their kids reading them? I’m not going to argue with that and tell other families what to do. This time.
  • On the other hand…I was not up for embedding the Harry Potter novels in some sort of alt-canon for purposes of youth ministry and religious education. Yes, lessons can be learned, and there’s clearly an thematic element of self-sacrifice that’s central to the worldview of the novels, but putting the books at the center of religious ed lessons and sermons  is idiotic. It is possible to walk a line, balancing attention to themes that evoke a Christian ethos, without forgetting that …it’s just a kid’s book. Let’s immerse kids in Scripture and the lives of the saints, first of all. That’s priority #1.
  • Many years ago, I wrote on the series for OSV. Here’s that article. I think it holds up – it was before the fifth book came out, and I think was published in 2000. I wrote it as a “Should I let my kids read Harry Potter?” kind of piece, answering potential questions. In reading it I can see I was actually more empathetic than I remembered! Good for me!
  • (Forgive the boring formatting – it was just at the old site, and I don’t want to bother to do anything new to make it prettier.)
  • JK Rowling on Twitter is insufferable. Truly unbearable.
  • This is an interesting article on “Harry Potter and the Millenial Mind.”  It addresses, in a much deeper way, albeit a more specifically judgmental way, what I brought up in my recent post on #ReadADifferentBook.
  • To me, the Harry Potter novels were about what so much of magic-centered youth literature is about: the magic is a metaphor for the human power and potentiality. As children and young people, we slowly discover that we are not just a mass of feelings and impulses, but that we have power. Not just the proverbial and boring “gifts and talents,” either, but simply, the power to live and breathe in the world in an intentional way that impacts others.

What do we do with that power?

We can use it for good. We can use if for evil. We have to learn how to use it. We make mistakes. Every interaction we have is a manifestation of this power – of just being a person, in the world.

It’s sort of magical.

  • My 25-year old daughter is of the Harry Potter generation – the generation that was the same age as the characters in the books or at least close enough (reading kids always read ahead of their chronological age). I remember one of them came out when we first moved to Fort Wayne. Our furniture was delayed, and she was only seven years old, but I took her to the Little Professor bookstore for the midnight release party. She got the book, and stayed up most of the night reading it on the sleeping bag spread out in her empty room.
  • She and her friends loved these books, identified with the characters, and dressed up like them on Halloween and when the movies came out. She’s read all of the books multiple times – it was her habit, than when a new volume in the series or a new movie came out, she would reread them all up to the point of that volume or movie.
  • I once asked her why the books appealed to her so strongly, and she said that it was two things.  First, it was the fact that Rowling had created a complete and all-encompassing world, and she found that endlessly fascinating.  Secondly, quite simply: “Friendship.”
  • I have never understood how anyone, in their occult-fearing fevers – could miss this. Kids didn’t love the Harry Potter world because they yearned to learn how to cast spells. They loved it – loved it – aside from enjoying and being intrigued by it – because of the friendship between Harry, Ron and Hermione and what it said to them about loyalty, love, community and responsibility.
  • When kids could imagine themselves in the Harry Potter universe, it’s not just because of cool, quirky magical elements, but because it would be a world in which there was danger, yes, and mystery, but at the core of that world they could see themselves, not alone anymore, not misunderstood or taken for granted, but with friends, learning important things and being brave, using their powers to do things that really matter.
  • For kids trapped in classrooms for twelve years learning mostly tedious things in tedious ways in schools that are hothouses of peer judgment, facing a life in which, they are told in subtle and not-subtle ways – what matters is what you look like and “achieve,” in which authentic community is so hard to find and nurture – that’s a vision that answers a very deep yearning, isn’t it?

My younger two sons, ages 16 and 12 now, have not been on the Harry Potter train to quite the extent as their sister was. For the reader of the two of them, the younger one, Rick Riordan fills that role in life, which is…a bit unfortunate because Rowling is a far better writer than Riordan is, and the Riordan books are actually more problematic to me than Rowling’s – the tone is just obnoxious and superficial. But he thinks they’re entertaining. And he’s also trying to read War and Peace, so I’ll let him have his snarky pagan deities.

I think the movies have played a part in their lesser interest – they saw the movies first, and so the books hold less interest for them. But they are intrigued and interested by the Harry Potter world, so to that end, followers of this blog know that we had two HP encounters over the past year:

First, at Universal Studios Florida last Thanksgiving (no, HP wasn’t the only reason we went – they wanted to go, they were heading to Florida relations for the holiday, and so it seemed like a convenient time to go. I was impressed by the HP stuff – reflected on here – but I will also admit to you that I spent some time thinking, with great satisfaction, I’m pretty sure this is the last time I am ever going to have to go to a theme park. In my whole life. Ever. 

(Meaning….my curiosity about the place was satisfied and they’re old enough now to do these things on their own…and would prefer it that way, of course.)

Then the Harry Potter studios in London, the experience of which really surprised me. I wrote about it here. It’s not just about this world. It’s about creativity in general and the power and goodness of imagination.

harry potter studio tour



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— 1 —

Are you in the Long Island area, or able to get there easily?

Ann Engelhart and I will be giving a talk at the library of the Theological Library of the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington.   PDF flyer is here. 

Come see and hear us, and say hello! I’ll probably be wearing the same dress I have on in the headshot! Because I own maybe four dresses and only really like one of them!

I’ll be in the area for a few days before that with one of my younger sons.

— 2 —

Well, by the time most of you read this Summer Will Have Begun. One has been out of school for a week, and is busy working at his two jobs (one for The Man and the other a less formal arrangement, but $$$ nonetheless), and the other finishes up school on Friday. And by “finishes,” I mean…finishes. By his own choice. More on that…later. For his part, he might put it this way:

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And as for me? I’m like:

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— 3 —

The whole job thing for the 16-year old means that summer might be weird, and not as travel heavy as before. I am trying not to look back at we were doing exactly a year ago today:

A time for everything…everything has its season…just keep repeating and be grateful….

It’s okay, really. We do have a bit of travel planned (New York, obviously), and on the days that my son has off, we’ll be exploring our own area with gusto. Younger son and I have a big trip planned in July for a week during which older son will be away at an academic kind of activity in Chicago.

So, no. No complaints. Just gratitude. Lots and lots of gratitude for it all, past and especially present.

— 4 —

No listening this week – the weather has been rainy and chilly, so I haven’t been walking – which is my listening time. I did read, though. I sped through this one.

Peter Andreas’ parents were Kansas-born Mennonites who married in the late 1950’s – his mother was quite young – just seventeen – when they wed. As the years went by, she…evolved and your normal, everyday Mennonite pacifism turned into an intense 60’s radicalism. The mother separated from the dad, filed for divorce, took the kids to Berkeley (of course) and then with Peter, the youngest, whom she basically kidnapped and headed to find a good revolution down in South America, first in Chile, then in Peru.

I usually avoid childhood-centric memoirs. I find it hard to trust the author’s memory, perhaps because my old childhood memories are so sketchy, and I have generally have no idea if I am really remembering something, remembering a photograph, or remembering a story I was told about what I think I’m remembering.

Take The Glass Castle, which so many loved.I was put off from the book’s opening story, which is a very detailed recollection of an admittedly traumatic event, but which Walls recounts in quite close detail including dialogue between her 3-year old self and others in the hospital. Sorry, I didn’t buy it, not for a second.

I had moments of skepticism in this one, too, but was ultimately won over by the fact that Andreas based the book, not only on his own memories, but on his mother’s voluminous and detailed journals – and other writings.

So I guess so….

Andreas seems to have survived this strange childhood, emotional and mental health intact, able to see his mother’s faults, forgive and hang on to the good fruit that came out of the situation, as much suffering as he endured

Anyway, it’s a fascinating, dreadful and ultimately hopeful story, even as it serves as warning to any of us parents, even if we have not grown into adulthood from our Mennonite youth then happened to kidnap our children and run off South America in search of revolution.

Basically: What of your own crap are you burdening your kids with? And can you please try to stop?

— 5 —

Speaking of books, via the blog Tea at Trianon, children prefer real books: 

There is a common perception that children are more likely to read if it is on a device such as an iPad or Kindles. But new research shows that this is not necessarily the case. In a study of children in Year 4 and 6, those who had regular access to devices with eReading capability (such as Kindles, iPads and mobile phones) did not tend to use their devices for reading – and this was the case even when they were daily book readers. Research also found that the more devices a child had access to, the less they read in general. It suggests that providing children with eReading devices can actually inhibit their reading, and that paper books are often still preferred by young people. These findings match previous research which looked at how teenagers prefer to read. This research found that while some students enjoyed reading books on devices, the majority of students with access to these technologies did not use them regularly for this purpose. Importantly, the most avid book readers did not frequently read books on screens. (Original Post)

As I was re-reading this (on a screen!), a thought popped into my head in answer to the question why? Because honestly, I prefer reading a book as a book myself – especially non-fiction and longer, more complex fiction. I wonder if childrens’ preference for the physical book has something to do with a sense of accomplishment. Children tend to like feeling as if they have completed something, built something, finished something – and can point to that thing and say, “I did that.”  Think about younger readers and the satisfaction they get from successfully reading a whole book – especially a chapter book! – all by themselves.  Swiping through a series of screens just would not (I wouldn’t think) produce that same feeling of satisfying accomplishment as being able to hold a physical book full of pages of lovely pictures and big words, snapping it shut, holding it out and crawing, I read this! 

— 6 —

People, I cannot tell you how many posts I have brewing in my brain, and one of them is an extra-screedy screedish rant on technology in school classrooms. It’s coming. Hold me to it.

— 7 —

Speaking of books….I posted this last week, but I still like it, so here you go – coming in a few months.


It’s still May, so it’s a good time to read a free book about Mary. Originally published by Word Among Us, now out of print and available in a pdf version here.

Amy Welborn and Michael Dubruiel

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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The Warden is the first of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, books which are primarily focused on the clergy and their families of the fictional town.

The plot is simple. From Goodreads, because I hate summarizing plots. I must have had a traumatic experience in fourth grade or something.

“The Warden” centers on Mr. Harding, a clergyman of great personal integrity who is nevertheless in possession of an income from a charity far in excess of the sum devoted to the purposes of the foundation. On discovering this, young John Bold turns his reforming zeal to exposing what he regards as an abuse of privilege, despite the fact that he is in love with Mr. Harding’s daughter Eleanor. It was a highly topical novel (a case regarding the misapplication of church funds was the scandalous subject of contemporary debate), but like other great Victorian novelists, Trollope uses the specific case to explore and illuminate the universal complexities of human motivation and social morality

Reading Trollope, first of all, will disabuse a reader of the notion that in past eras, clergymen and church affairs were considered off-limits for satire, mocking and criticism. Of course this is not the case, and has never been, but Trollope’s treatment of religion is "amy welborn"particularly instructive because he is so straightforward in presenting the humanity and politics of the world of the church (of England in this case, of course).

The Warden is much shorter than most of Trollope’s other work, and more focused, although the political and journalistic world of London comes under scrutiny as Mr. Harding travels there to make his case. I earlier highlighted Trollope’s evisceration of the press in his chapter “Mount Olympus.” 

I want to highlight just a few quotes from The Warden, passages which I particularly appreciated either because of their insight into human behavior or high satirical quotient. In the first, “the doctor” is the Archdeacon of the Cathedral, who is also Mr. Harding’s son-in-law. He is determined that the threat against Harding’s position is no less than a threat against the privileges of the entire Church of England, and must be stopped.

Having settled this point to his satisfaction, the doctor stepped down to the hospital, to learn how matters were going on there; and as he walked across the hallowed close, and looked up at the ravens who cawed with a peculiar reverence as he wended his way, he thought with increased acerbity of those whose impiety would venture to disturb the goodly grace of cathedral institutions.

And who has not felt the same? We believe that Mr Horseman himself would relent, and the spirit of Sir Benjamin Hall give way, were those great reformers to allow themselves to stroll by moonlight round the towers of some of our ancient churches. Who would not feel charity for a prebendary when walking the quiet length of that long aisle at Winchester, looking at those decent houses, that trim grass-plat, and feeling, as one must, the solemn, orderly comfort of the spot! Who could be hard upon a dean while wandering round the sweet close of Hereford, and owning that in that precinct, tone and colour, design and form, solemn tower and storied window, are all in unison, and all perfect! Who could lie basking in the cloisters of Salisbury, and gaze on Jewel’s library and that unequalled spire, without feeling that bishops should sometimes be rich!

I love this passage, in which Trollope is taking the language usually used to express how beautiful and orderly church architecture leads the mind to consider the glory and nature of God and turns it around.

A minor character, Sir Abraham Haphazard, will be the defender of the Church’s privilege in the House of Lords, but he is also busy with another cause:

Sir Abraham Haphazard was deeply engaged in preparing a bill for the mortification of papists, to be called the “Convent Custody Bill,” the purport of which was to enable any protestant clergyman over fifty years of age to search any nun whom he suspected of being in possession of treasonable papers, or jesuitical symbols: and as there were to be a hundred and thirty-seven clauses in the bill, each clause containing a separate thorn for the side of the papist, and as it was known the bill would be fought inch by inch, by fifty maddened Irishmen, the due construction and adequate dovetailing of it did consume much of Sir Abraham’s time. The bill had all its desired effect. Of course it never passed into law; but it so completely divided the ranks of the Irish members, who had bound themselves together to force on the ministry a bill for compelling all men to drink Irish whisky, and all women to wear Irish poplins, that for the remainder of the session the Great Poplin and Whisky League was utterly harmless.

Again, great, (if heavy-handed!) satire, not only on British anti-Catholicism, but on the ways of politics, so often centered not on direct discussion of policy, but on misdirection and throwing up false flags for distraction and disturbance of enemy forces.

Having gone through this Mr Harding got into another omnibus, and again returned to the House. Yes, Sir Abraham was there, and was that moment on his legs, fighting eagerly for the hundred and seventh clause of the Convent Custody Bill. Mr Harding’s note had been delivered to him; and if Mr Harding would wait some two or three hours, Sir Abraham could be asked whether there was any answer. The House was not full, and perhaps Mr Harding might get admittance into the Strangers’ Gallery, which admission, with the help of five shillings, Mr Harding was able to effect.

This bill of Sir Abraham’s had been read a second time and passed into committee. A hundred and six clauses had already been discussed and had occupied only four mornings and five evening sittings; nine of the hundred and six clauses were passed, fifty-five were withdrawn by consent, fourteen had been altered so as to mean the reverse of the original proposition, eleven had been postponed for further consideration, and seventeen had been directly negatived. The hundred and seventh ordered the bodily searching of nuns for jesuitical symbols by aged clergymen, and was considered to be the real mainstay of the whole bill. No intention had ever existed to pass such a law as that proposed, but the government did not intend to abandon it till their object was fully attained by the discussion of this clause. It was known that it would be insisted on with terrible vehemence by Protestant Irish members, and as vehemently denounced by the Roman Catholic; and it was justly considered that no further union between the parties would be possible after such a battle. The innocent Irish fell into the trap as they always do, and whiskey and poplins became a drug in the market.

Ending on a far simpler note, I love this tight observation of John Bold, who is pursuing this suit about the hospital, for no particular reason except, as we might say today, “Because Reasons” and with no real thinking through of the consequences to those he is professing to help:

And the Barchester Brutus went out to fortify his own resolution by meditations on his own virtue.

I think that’s a good nudge for a penitential Lenten Friday, myself….

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