Many years ago—based upon a radio interview, I think—I read Susanna Clark’s massive debut novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. As I recall, the book combines historical fiction and fantasy to tell the tale of two somewhat friendly, rival magicians rediscovering actual, practical magic in 19th-century England. The book calls to mind the Harry Potter series in the sense that this is our world as we know it, but with wizarding world just beneath the surface that breaks through into the open. It recalls Tolkien in the depth and detail of its footnoted backstories.
More than a decade later, I see I did not blog about it, and today I remember little about the plot, other than it involved a young woman tormented by a fairy who drew her, night after night, into his realm to do his bidding. What I recall most was the atmosphere of the book: Clarke’s descriptions of “the man with the thistledown hair” and the world of Faery are terrible and otherworldly—you feel every bit as transported and disoriented as the characters; their thoughts and fears become your own.
I remember thinking highly enough of the book that when I ran across Clarke’s collection of short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, I snapped it up despite the pink flowers on the front. And now, a decade later, I’ve finally read them. Continue reading
I am still a such a kid when it comes to birthdays. I still love the food and fun, the off-key singing, the warmth and glow and light and presents. Yes, I know that material wealth does not avail, but I love receiving (and giving) gifts. I can’t help it.
At the same time, birthdays are also a bit melancholy. As each year passes, I find myself reflecting on those things I have not yet done, and the speed with which time seems to pass these days. That mix of joy and anticipation with reflection and blues often leaves me quiet, recollected, and prayerful—which, in the end, is not a bad place to be.
Nevertheless, when my 43rd birthday rolled around on Friday, I struggled a bit. Jodi and I worked during the day, which is not unusual, but Gabe needed to work late afternoon through early evening. In addition, a couple of conversations with my bride (one somewhat veiled, one not so much) led me to believe that she was struggling to come up with a gift of any sort, much less the one she hoped to purchase. It was shaping up to be a subdued celebration.
So when Emma was offered a babysitting gig for Friday evening, I sighed and surrendered. We would celebrate Saturday, gift or no gift.
Last weekend our offspring (minus Brendan, who’s at UMary, of course) and the Engel clan gathered at our house for a Lord of the Rings movie marathon. Of course, such a quest—nine-hours-plus of movie-watching—requires a substantial outlay of provisions. I came home from work that Friday afternoon to a house that rang with laughter and hobbit songs, and smelled of savory meats and sweet baked goods.
The eldest Miss Engel had cracked open her hobbit cookbook (and not a few eggs, I suspect), and the teens were busy filling meat pies, cooling fresh lembas and cupcakes, and preparing mushrooms for stuffing. Bacon-wrapped sausages and po-tay-toes (“boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew…”) rounded out the feast.
Rosebud had frosted the cupcakes: nine with blue circles to represent the Rings of Men, seven red ones for the Dwarf-lords, three in green for the elves, and five yellow-frosted cakes with delicate runes in black (“It’s some form of Elvish, but I can’t read it.”) translated as “One ring to rule them all.”
Mike and Stacy came over to eat after Jodi got home from work. The teens watched movies all night. We ate for days.
Hobbits eat well, as do Lord of the Rings geeks, it appears!
Sometime in the past week or two, I finished The Little Flowers of St. Francis, a collection of stories about St. Francis of Assisi and his earliest brothers, compiled in the 14th century. The book is a delightful mixture of familiar legends (St. Francis and the Wolf, St. Francis Preaching to the Birds), a thorough account of his receiving the stigmata (the wounds of Christ), stories of less well-known miracles, and sage spiritual advice that still applies to souls like mine, several centuries later. It also includes the same sort of stories and wisdom from a few of his contemporaries recognized by the saint and others for their holiness, humility, and simplicity.
My edition is a newer reprint of a 1915 translation by H.E. Cardinal Manning, and includes a handful of beautiful color prints of paintings by F. Cayley-Robinson. The book (pictured) does have a few mistakes in the copy—for the purposes of reading out loud, it might be helpful to pre-read first!
The style is somewhat old-fashioned and poetic, but readable even for youngsters—I can imagine it being a good volume to read out loud to your family. (And a few of the stories, like that of Brother Juniper cutting the foot from a pig that did not belong to him to cook and feed to a sick brother, are hilarious!)
If you are looking for an enjoyable and edifying introduction to this popular saint and his spirituality, look no further!
One of the books I’m reading in my “down time” right now is The Soul of the Apostolate, by Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard. The book has been bedside reading for popes and saints, and was recommended on Jason and Chrystalina Evert’s Chastity Project website as a critical step second only to prayer for anyone aspiring to active ministry. Fr. Chautard was a 19th- and early 20th- century Cistercian abbot in France, who saw a proliferation of active Catholic ministries around him, led by priests, religious, and lay people. Some prospered; others did not. Some were fruitful, and some weren’t. Some prospered in a worldly sense, but bore little spiritual fruit.
He saw the reason for this as a neglect of the interior life: seemingly good people became so busy doing seemingly good works they no longer had time to spend in intimate relationship with God. They neglected prayer, scripture, the rosary, even communion—forgetting that God is the only source of goodness for the works they are attempting.
That’s a summary of the book, so far at least—I’m only a third of the way through. I share it now because it has led me to a new reflection on these past two months of joblessness. Continue reading