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Fierce Convictions by Karen Swallow Prior


Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior.

I was captivated by “extraordinary life” of this woman of God, “best-selling poet, novelist, and playwright, friend of the famous, practical philanthropist, and moral conscience of a nation.” Hannah More may be a forgotten woman nowadays, but she was far from unknown in late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England and even throughout Europe and America. She was a protege of the eminent Dr. Samuel Johnson, close friends with the famous actor David Garrick and his wife, a co-laborer with the abolitionist William Wilberforce, and acquainted with almost all of the eminent writers and evangelical gentle women and men of her day. She wrote multiple volumes of letters, essays, tracts, stories, plays, and one best-selling novel. She influenced the abolitionist movement to end the British slave trade, the animal welfare movement, the Sunday School movement, and the efforts of anti-poverty reformers and literacy activists.

In fact, she would be something of a patron saint, if Protestants had such saints, for those interested in the promotion of literacy and reading. She opened Sunday Schools in many poverty-stricken communities and villages where no school of any kind was to be found. These Sunday Schools were not just pretty little Bible story times, but rather full-fledged schools for the poor and illiterate which met on Sundays because that was the only day when poor children and adults did not have to work all day long. She also wrote books and tracts and story papers for the poor and for the burgeoning middle class. Her stories and poems were generally pleas for morality with a neat a little lesson or message embedded therein, a style of writing that’s somewhat out of fashion now but was very much in vogue in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Hannah More was a witty woman with a ready tongue, but tamed somewhat by her allegiance to the Lord Jesus. Here are a few Hannah More quotations that I found delightful:

On the poet Alexander Pope, who is buried, according to his wishes, at St. Mary’s Church in Twickenham instead of at Westminster Abbey: “You will easily believe, madam, that I could not leave Twickenham without paying a visit to the hallowed tomb of my beloved bard. For this purpose I went to the church, and easily found the monument of one who would not be buried in Westminster Abbey. . . . Pope,I suppose, would rather be the first ghost at Twickenham than an inferior one at Westminster Abbey.”

On Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “. . . he is an entertaining and philosophic historian, yet, as Ganganelli said to Count Algarotti, ‘I wish these shining wits, in spite of all their philosophy, would manage matters so that one might hope to meet them in heaven; for one is very sorry to be deprived of such agreeable company to all eternity.’ It requires an infinite degree of credulity to be an infidel.”

On Dr. Samuel Johnson: “In Dr. Johnson some contrarieties very harmoniously meet; if he has too little charity for the opinions of others, and too little patience with their faults, he has the greatest tenderness for their persons. He told me the other day he hated to hear people whine about metaphysical distresses, when there was so much want and hunger in the world.”

On reading and writing: “I read four or five hours every day, and wrote ten hours yesterday.”

On Sir Joshua Reynolds’ painting of Samuel from the Old Testament: “I love this great genius for not being ashamed to take his subjects from the most unfashionable of all books.”

Hannah More is most associated with the literary, artistic, and political community that established itself at a place called Clapham and became known as the Clapham Sect, although they were not a sect and not all of the members actually lived at Clapham. They were a group of evangelical Christians with in the Church of England who worked together to bring about the abolition of the slave trade and the reform of what they called “manners”, what we now would call culture or worldview in action.

The greatest value of this little book, aside from reviving the memory of a forgotten saint, is to give a sort of generalized pattern for Christian community that can begin to change the world, as the often trite phrase is. These people—Wilberforce, his cousin Henry Thornton, preacher John Newton, Hannah More, publisher Zachary Macaulay, abolitionist James Stephen, poet William Cowper, and other perhaps less famous—worked together as a community, each using his or her own special gifts, to promote various causes and reforms that they saw as advancing benevolence and the cause of Christ. They fought against the slave trade by preaching, writing poetry and essays, publishing tracts and pamphlets, promoting the boycott of East Indian slave-produced sugar, producing art and decoration that illustrated the plight of the slaves, making speeches, and introducing legislation to abolish slavery and the slave trade into Parliament again and again and yet again. They took up other causes at the same time, and they endeavored to live out their Christian commitment in relation to one another and to the world at large. They truly “spurred one another on to good works.”

It seems to me that such a group could be an inspiration to those of us today who want to work together to do our own small part in advancing the kingdom of God. The Clapham sect were not a commune. They did not live monastically. They were not exclusive. They worked with others, such as Horace Walpole and Sir William Pitt, who did not share all of their beliefs. And yet they were a force to be reckoned with in merry old Georgian England. If the Inklings are a model of Christian literary community, Hannah More and the Clapham sect are another example to which we can look and from which we can learn. I would love to hear from others who have read the book and who see ways that we in our day and time could use what they did to revitalize our culture and nation.

Ideas anyone?

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Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink


Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink.

Warning: this book is deeply disturbing. After reading it, I became even more distrustful of doctors and of the medical profession than I was before I read the book. I also lost some confidence in the government and in the justice system (already low). I decided to buy a small generator as soon as possible if I can afford to since we live on the Gulf coast in hurricane country. I thought about end-of-life decisions and hospitals and who to depend on in an emergency. I was reminded of how thankful I am for my sister who came to Texas and spent many weeks caring for my mother last year when she had to go to the hospital and then into a rehab facility. I’m not sure anymore that it is safe to be in a hospital without a family member nearby who will spend time at the hospital with you daily—and at night.

So, Five Days at Memorial is the story of the five days after Hurricane Katrina as they were experienced at Memorial Medical Center (formerly Baptist Hospital) in New Orleans. As you might imagine, or you may have seen or heard news reports, conditions at the hospital went from bad to worse in the wake of the storm. Hospital employees, doctors, nurses, and patients who were stranded at the hospital, surrounded by flood waters and rumors of riots and violence outside, began to think that they had been abandoned. Rescue was slow to come. Information going in and out of the hospital was confused and intermittent. Patients died. The question woven throughout the book is: did they die because of Hurricane Katrina and the lack of government or corporate response to emergency conditions, or did some of the patients die because doctors and nurses gave up hope and decided to euthanize them, “put them out of their misery”?

I’ve thought about what I might do to care for myself and my family in the event of a major crisis such as a hurricane. I’ve thought about the hard end-of-life decisions that health care professionals and families have to make together and about how those decisions could be made easier and more loving and kind to all involved. I’ve thought about how doctors and nurses can sway patients and family members to make decisions that meet with the professionals’ ethics but perhaps not the family’s. And I’ve thought about journalistic ethics, and how a writer of true-life stories can show us a story as the journalist sees it, but not necessarily give full credence and weight to all sides of the story. I think Ms. Fink tried to see all of the possibilities and complications of this particular event and present them fairly, but then again, I wasn’t there.

As I said, it’s a difficult book to read. There are stories of great courage and perseverance, but there are also questions, many disturbing questions. When evacuating a hospital with a range of patients from ambulatory to critically ill with probably very little time to live, who goes first? What is the purpose of triage, and who decides which people will be given the best chance to survive? What is the ethical basis for those decisions? What is a health professional’s responsibility in a crisis? Are doctors and nurses obligated to sacrifice their own well-being, perhaps their lives, for their patients? How can hospitals be better prepared for a crisis? How much should hospitals and other public service agencies spend on preparing for a crisis that may never materialize? What is the government’s role in protecting the public and preparing for an emergency? What is the responsibility of the health care corporation that owns the hospital or nursing home? Many, many more questions, and some answers, are embedded in this very personal story about what happened in a hospital in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

I would recommend that all people involved in health care professions, especially in hospitals, read this book. You may or may not agree with the author’s conclusions, but you will be given lots of food for thought—and even prayer.

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Christmas at Brede Abbey, Sussex, England, c. 1955

“On the night of Christmas Eve the abbey was so still it might have been thought to be empty, or the nuns asleep, but when the bell sounded at ten o’clock, from all corners, especially from the church, silent figures made their way to their station in the long cloister, and Abbess Catherine led them into choir for Christmas Matins. The first nocturne from the book of Isaiah was sung by the four chief chantresses: ‘Comfort, comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned. A voice says ‘Cry!’ and I said ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flowers of the field. . . .’ Voice succeeded voice through two hours until the priests, vested in white and gold, with their servers, came in procession from the sacristy for the tenderness and triumph of the midnight Mass. Lauds of Christmas followed straight after, and at two o’clock the community went to the refectory for hot soup, always called ‘cock soup’ because it was the first taste of meat or chicken they had had since Advent began. The soup was served with rice–‘beautifully filling,’ said Hilary in content–and after it came two biscuits and four squares of chocolate. ‘Chocolate!’ ‘We need to keep our strength up,’ said Dame Ursula.

In the twenty-four hours of Christmas they would spend ten hours in choir, singing the Hours at their accustomed times, and the second ‘dawn’ or ‘aurora,’ Mass of the shepherds as well as the third Mass of Christmas, which came after terce. The wonder was that the nuns had time to eat their Christmas dinner, most of it contributed by friends.”

I picked up a beautiful paperback copy of In This House of Brede by Rumor Godden at Half-Price Books the other day. The blurb on the back calls the book “an extraordinarily sensitive and insightful portrait of religious life.” I have called it “an excellent story about the lives of women within a closed community of nuns. Not only does the reader get to satisfy his curiosity about how nuns live in a convent, but there’s also a a great plot related to contemporary issues such as abortion, the efficacy of prayer, and the morality of absolute obedience.”

I highly recommend it if you’re at all interested in the disciplines of the Christian life or the difficulties and possibilities inherent in attempting to live in Christian community.

Blog reviews for In This House of Brede:
Laura at Lines in Pleasant Places.
Heather at Lines from the Page.
Phyllis at Life on Windy Ridge.
Diane at A Circle of Quiet.
Julie at Happy Catholic.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.

Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins

I didn’t care for Lynne Rae Perkins’ Newbery Award winning book, Criss Cross. As I remember it, the book was partly written in verse, and I don’t care for verse novels. It also was confusing, about teenagers, and I just didn’t “get it.”

Nuts to You is not Criss Cross. It’s not even similar to Criss Cross. If you liked last year’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt or even last year’s Newbery Award winner, Flora and Ulysses: the Illuminated Adventures by Kate di Camillo, then Nuts to You should be just up your alley.

It’s a squirrel story. The squirrels talk to each other–in squirrel. One of them speaks English and tells the story to the author who writes it down for us. The moral of the story is, “Save the trees,” for the sake of the squirrels and for humans, too. All of that–the talking squirrels, the environmental message, the author inside the story—should be enough to annoy me, but instead I found the entire story a delight.

First the talking squirrels. I did wonder how the narrator squirrel managed to learn and speak English. But I was willing to suspend disbelief because the squirrels are well, squirrelly, and funny and fun to be with. They have a whole squirrel culture complete with a love for storytelling and for games, a tendency toward conservatism and staying put in one place, and a capacity for bravery and perseverance that is inspiring.

The environmental message is not so heavy-handed that it made me cringe or even disagree. Humans are not the villains of the story. In fact, the squirrels seem to understand that for some reason some of the trees must be cut down, and they just do their best to roll with the punches and get on with their lives when bad things happen to their habitat. THere’s a message of “let’s just all try to live together and share the planet” that was refreshing and welcome in contrast to other books that preach about how human beings are despoiling the planet. I always feel as if I ought to find a hole and curl up and hibernate forever after I read those other sorts of environmental sermon stories.

The author is not too intrusive either. I liked her interaction with the elderly, storytelling squirrel at the beginning and end of the book. And I loved the story in the middle. Nuts to You is a keeper, for sure.

“Nuts to you, my friend. Nuts to us all.”

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Circa Now by Amber McRee Turner

An eleven year old girl named Circa loses her beloved father in an accident and doesn’t know if she can depend on her sometimes-depressed mother to care for her and for her father’s memory.

I liked a lot of things about this book. Circa Monroe was a spunky protagonist; she reminded me of my youngest Z-baby. In fact, Circa’s father reminded me of Engineer Husband, a nurturing and very responsible presence for Circa and for her mom. I can imagine life around the Semicolon household being much like Circa’s life after dad if Engineer Husband were to exit this earth prematurely. I am not dealing with clinical depression, but Engineer Husband definitely helps me hold it together in so many ways.

I also liked that the only place that Circa’s mom feels safe and nurtured outside of her home is the church. If they don’t go anywhere else, Circa and her mom go to church, and there they feel loved and respected and supported. Church and churchiness aren’t at all the focus of the story; the church scenes are a very minor part of the novel. And I liked that aspect, too. The church is Circa’s family’s natural community, and it’s treated as a normal part of life.

Another insignificant (but significant to me) part of the novel was that Circa’s best friend, Nattie Boone, is black—or at least she has “braided hair” and “dark skin.” I liked that race was never mentioned and that the Boone family go to church with the Monroes and take care of them with sandwiches and hospitality and peanut butter pie. If the friendship between Circa and Nattie is at all unusual for small town south Georgia, there’s no indication of that barrier in the book. I really like that.

Then there’s Circa’s “disability” or abnormality: she was born without a pinkie finger on one hand. That, too, is a minor part of the plot, and it’s written very matter-of-fact, even though Circa does get teased by some boys, called “circus girl”. Circa is a competent, independent young lady who wouldn’t give a missing finger a second thought if a few bad apples didn’t bring it to her attention with their taunting.

The plot of Circa Now focuses on something else entirely, not Circa’s missing finger, not her mom’s depression, not church. The story is really about Circa’s attempts to work through her grief and loneliness after her father’s accident by continuing his work with photo restoration. Circa keeps making the “shopt” photo projects that her dad did just for fun, as a joke between the two of them. And she wants to continue working on the Wall of Memories that she and her dad were making for the nursing home of Alzheimer’s patients near their home. However, when Circa’s mom doesn’t want her to try to finish the nursing home photo restorations and when a strange boy who might be a magical result of the shopt photos shows up at their house, Circa doesn’t know what to do.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days by Michele Weber Hurwitz

Thirteen year old Nina Ross is feeling at loose ends this summer. Her best friend, Jorie, is changing into a boy-crazy clothes horse. Her beloved grandmother, the only person who really got Nina, died last year. Nina’s parents, divorce lawyers, work all the time. And her brother Matt is consistently either holed up in his room or gone to work.

Even though Nina isn’t “the type of person who goes out of her way to help people,” she decides to start a project: one good anonymous deed, small but remarkable, each day for the sixty-five days of summer vacation. Will it make a difference? Will Nina’s project change the neighborhood? Change the world?

This middle grade novel told a really sweet story, maybe too sweet for some readers, but I enjoyed it. Nina surprises herself and is surprised by the new truths she discovers about her neighbors and about her own family. The pace of these revelations and of the story itself is just right–not thriller pace but just enough suspense and charm to keep me reading. (There is mention in the story of a possible kumiho (Korean fox spirit) and a supposed ghost, but you can take or leave those possibilities.) All in all, The Summer I Saved the World . . . is a pretty good and encouraging summer read, a remarkable good deed and inspiration in itself.

The author tells about her purpose in writing the story in the end note:

“I started this story with a question: does doing good really do any good? Random acts of kindness are everywhere, but I wondered, so they really have an effect on people? Can small acts of goodness change our world?
********
The answer to my question—does doing good really do any good—I will always hope, is a resounding and undeniable yes!”

Well, I would say, yes and no. Yes, doing good is good, and of course, even small deeds of kindness and encouragement change the atmosphere of any neighborhood or workplace or home. The Bible says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21) Also, there are all the “one anothers”:

Bear with each other and forgive one another. (Colossians 3:13)
Be kind and compassionate to one another. (Ephesians 4:32)
Love one another. (John 13:34)
Be devoted to one another in love. (Romans 12:10)
Honor one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:10)
Encourage one another and build each other up. (I Thessalonians 5:11)
Spur one another on toward love and good deeds. (Hebrews 10:24)
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)
Greet one another with a holy kiss. (2 Corinthians 13:12)
Be at peace with one another. (Mark 9:50)
Serve one another. (Galatians 5:13)
Receive one another. (Romans 15:7)
Rejoice or weep with one another. (Romans 12:15)
Admonish one another. (Romans 15:14)
Care for one another. (1 Corinthians 12:25)
Pray for one another. (James 5:16)
Accept one another. (Romans 14:1; 15:7)
Be truthful with one another. (Colossians 3:9)
Confess your faults to one another. (James 5:16)

If even just Christians obeyed all of those commands, the world would definitely be a “saltier” and better place. However, the world is made up of sinful people (like me), some of whom are unrepentantly evil, and it’s not going to be redeemed and transformed by small acts of “random” kindness. Random kindness is good, but it isn’t enough to save the world. It’s going to take something BIG to change the world: a large act of perfect love and sacrifice.

I wonder what THAT could be?

A Girl Called Problem by Katie Quirk

51zSfrFm2DL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_I have a thing about books set in other countries, especially African countries. Africa fascinates me for some reason. A Girl Called Problem is set in Tanzania in the early 1970’s when President Julius Nyerere encouraged Tanzanians to participate in his program of ujamaa, a socialist strategy emphasizing family and collective farming, to improve the economy and the living conditions of Tanzania’s poor and rural tribal peoples.

Wikipedia is not complimentary about the implementation and results of ujamaa:

“Collectivization was accelerated in 1971. Because the population resisted collectivisation, Nyerere used his police and military forces to forcibly transfer much of the population into collective farms. Houses were set on fire or demolished, sometimes with the family’s pre-Ujamaa property inside. The regime denied food to those who resisted. A substantial amount of the country’s wealth in the form of built structures and improved land (fields, fruit trees, fences) was destroyed or forcibly abandoned. Livestock was stolen, lost, fell ill, or died.
In 1975, the Tanzanian government issued the “ujamaa program” to send the Sonjo in northern Tanzania from compact sites with less water to flatter lands with more fertility and water; new villages were created to reap crops and raise livestock easier.”

In A Girl Called Problem the picture of ujamaa is much rosier. In the book the people of the fictional village Litongo move to a new place to participate in President Nyerere’s utopian project. Thirteen year old Shida (whose name means “problem”) believes that she and her mother have been cursed because her father died when Shida was born, but she knows that in the new village she will have a chance to go to school and to learn from the district nurse the thing she wants most to learn, how to be a healer.

Shida’s grandfather, Babu the village elder, tells the people that they should move to the new village, Nija Panda, for the sake of all Tanzania, and most of them do, although some are reluctant and fearful of the ancestors’ curse. This book is largely about reconciling the old ways with the new, what to keep and what to throw out. and about the sources of fear and strategies for confronting that fear. Shida listens to her elders, especially her mother and Babu, but she also respects and wants to learn from her schoolteacher and from the village nurse.

The book tells a good story about a girl coming of age in a time of change and stress, but two things bothered me about the context and setting. First of all, the author strategically ends her story before the failure of the ujamaa villages, a failure which was stark and catastrophic: “Tanzania, which had been the largest exporter of food in Africa, and also had always been able to feed its people, became the largest importer of food in Africa. Many sectors of the economy collapsed. There was a virtual breakdown in transportation. . . . Nyerere left Tanzania as one of the poorest, least developed, and most foreign aid-dependent countries in the world.”

In addition to glossing over the political situation, the author indicates that Shida’s mother is suffering from what appears to be mental illness, and again, as in two other middle grade fiction books that I read within the last month, the mother makes a quick and sudden recovery as a result of no intervention or therapy or anything. She simply decides not to be depressed anymore? If it were that easy, then no one would ever suffer from what we call clinical depression. Maybe Shida’s mom was just being a stubborn, self-centered old lady when she spent two weeks in the darkness, lying on her cot and refusing to move to Nija Panda. However, whatever the issue, sin or mental illness or both, she certainly makes a brilliant turnaround when the story comes to its climax and Mother Shida (women are called by the name of their oldest child) is needed to tie the loose ends together and make the story turn out well.

I enjoyed reading A Girl Called Problem myself, but I wouldn’t recommend it for impressionable middle grade readers who might get the wrong idea about the glorious efficacy of socialism and about the cure and treatment for mental illness and fear and selfishness. Julius Nyerere, who retired from government in 1985 and died in 1999, is still quite popular and even idolized in Tanzania, by the way, and in 2005 a Catholic diocese in Tanzania recommended the beatification of Nyerere, who was said to be a devout Catholic.

KidLitCon: What There Was and What I Learned

KidLitCon in Austin was smaller than it has been in the past, but since it was my first time to be able to come, I didn’t really notice until it was called to my attention. It was also a great weekend for connections and friendships, old, new, and renewed.

At first, since I believe most bloggers are introverts at heart, we all did the slow, careful dance of introvert intersection: the one where you carefully introduce yourself, see if the other person has any idea who you are or even wants to know, talk about the weather and the setting, and then slowly but surely circle around to the real reason you’re there, blogging and reading. Well, ALL is a slight exaggeration. Not all bloggers are introverts, and Pam from Mother Reader and Melissa the BookNut both rushed up and gave me a big hug and made me (and everyone else) feel so at home that I didn’t want to leave on Sunday morning. Thank God for extroverts.

Thank Him for the rest of us, too. I had wonderful, thoughtful conversations with Jennifer of 5 Minutes for Books who was so kind to provide my transportation from Houston to Austin and share her hotel room with me and share her love of books and kids and matching books with kids. (And she told me something about pictures that I didn’t know. I tried it on this post, and it works!) Then there were all of the other kidlit bloggers, who may or may not be extroverts or introverts, who did all the planning and the talking and the presenting and the socializing and the questioning. Thanks, everybody. (If you didn’t get to come, I’m sorry. You missed out.)

What I Learned at KidLitCon 2013 in Austin, TX:

51YjXKZS+mL._SX258_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_1. Cynthia Leitich Smith (Cynsations) reads 300 blogs a day! She’s also Native American, or part native Americand (although, side note, I’ve never understood how any of us can really be “part” some ethnic or racial group), and she’s a really, really good and engaging speaker. She also has a picture book that I want to read called Jingle Dancer.

2. Author Chris Barton (Bartography) is a real person and a really nice person, and his next book is going to be about the world of video gaming for outsiders to that world who want to get in, maybe, a little bit. Sounds cool.

3. Jen Robinson (Jen Robinson’s Book Page) and Sarah Stevenson (Finding Wonderland) are good at analyzing burnout and providing some possible solutions, and Jen gave me a great idea for responding to blog posts that I like when I don’t have time to comment. She tweets a link to stuff she likes. Simple, but I hadn’t really thought about it. I’m going to do that.

4. Author Molly Blaisdell (Seize the Day) is a delightful and inspirational person, and I want to read her (adult?) book, Plumb Crazy, when it comes out in May, 2014.

5. Molly also taught us the Japanese word “otaku”, which is sort of a fan club or a group of influential geeks in any area of interest who wield influence in that subculture.

6. If I take notes on the back of a piece of paper, and I don’t remember what the paper was, I willnot have the notes to refer to when I write this post.

7. Katy Manck (BooksYALove) knows about lots of stuff, and she says I should be tagging my posts. I sort of, kind of, thought so, but she assures me that I should and could.

8. Sheila Ruth (Wands and Worlds) and Charlotte (Charlotte’s Library) are NOT the same person in disguise, but they are both authorities on fantasy and science fiction, and we can all agree that fantasy fiction about albino animals and mutant tennis rackets is not going to make the bestseller list or the awards lists anytime soon. Not to mention picture books with crayon scribbled illustrations. Maybe you had to have been there.

9. Leila Roy (Bookshelves of Doom) is not the same person as author Lena Roy. Embarrassment. Don’t ask. But Leila is a lovely blogger, and she and her fellow panelists (Jen Bigheart, Lee Wind, Sheila Ruth) gave me a lot to think about as they discussed the future of kidlit blogging. Suffice it to say that despite changes and evolutions, there is a future as long as we bloggers are committed to helping children and parents and others find books, and it looks good.

10. Camille (Book Moot) is as wonderful an advocate for books in person as she is on her blog. And she leads a book club for older adults at her church, and they read Wolf Hall over the summer, then Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt this fall. Now that’s a contrast. I didn’t make it through Wolf Hall—too much of a challenge for me. Camille says the key is to listen to it on audiobook. Then you can tell who’s who because they use different voices for the different characters.

I learned a lot more from and about a lot more people, but I was told that what happens at KidLitCon stays at KidLitCon. So, except for the few tidbits of tantalizing information I have already shared here, you’ll just have to read about the experiences of everyone else—and come next year to KidLitCon, place and date TBA. But I think it’s going to be in California. (And if I didn’t link to you, I’m sorry, and I probably will soon in another post. Or I’ll tweet your post or something. But this one is getting too long, and I have to go to bed.)

Lost in a Walker Percy Cosmos, Part 5

The conference, “Still Lost in the Cosmos: Walker Percy & the 21st Century,” that I attended in New Orleans along with Eldest Daughter was a very Catholic conference. I would guess that most, not all, of the speakers at the conference were Catholic. The conference was held on the campus of Loyola University, a Catholic Jesuit university. I told one man at the reception on Friday evening that I had eight children. He immediately assumed that I was Catholic. I should have said, “No, I’m just a fertile Baptist.” I did tell him that I was Baptist whereupon he asked me what I was doing at a Walker Percy conference in the middle of all of the Catholics. Didn’t we (Baptists) think they (Catholics) were all a bunch of heathens?

I reassured him that I was OK with Catholics if he was OK with Baptists. Everyone else at the reception drank alcohol. I didn’t, but I enjoyed the food. We all enjoyed the keynote address, and then Eldest Daughter and I went back to our bed and breakfast and enjoyed a good night’s rest.

On Saturday morning Eldest Daughter and I decided to mirror the theme of the conference by getting lost in New Orleans. New Orleans, at least the part of New Orleans where we were lost, has lots of narrow, one-way streets, with potholes, and people park alongside the streets, making them even narrower. It’s picturesque, but confusing. We wandered the byways of NOLA for over an hour before we happened upon the Loyola campus and were returned to the bosom of the Walker Percy conference. It all felt predestined.

We did miss the first seminar sessions of the morning, but we were able to make the 10:15 session on Technology and Media in Lost in the Cosmos. The first panelist used the word “semiotics” more than once, but I did not walk out or make any rude noises. If one attends a conference about an author who is interested in something called “semiotics” one must put up with a certain amount of semiotics. Anyway, apparently the alphabet is to blame for modern man’s alienation. The post-alphabetic self gains the whole world (on paper) but loses itself? Actually this analysis of the plight of modern man bears thought. What were the negative results of the invention of the printing press? What did we lose when we put everything into print? The art of story-telling? Community? And what are we losing now as we put everything into pixels on a computer screen?

The next presenter spoke about “the liquid society”, a phrase coined by a sociologist named Baumann. The idea is that we live in a society of individuals and individualists with fragmented lives, no long-term career, no family ties, no sense of place or community, our identities in constant flux. This lack of fixed identity is a major theme of Lost in the Cosmos.

May 9, 2011. Venice. European society, said the Holy Father, is submerged in a liquid culture; in this regard, he pointed out “its ‘fluidity,’ its low level of stability or perhaps absence of stability, its mutability, the inconsistency that at times seems to characterize it.”
He noted that Bauman attributes the birth of the “liquid” society to the consumerist model. The philosopher stated that its most profound impact has been felt in social relations, and, more in particular, in relations between man and woman, which have become increasingly flexible and impalpable, as manifested by the present concept of love reduced to a mere passing sentiment.
Speaking to an audience in the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, Benedict XVI opposed this model of a liquid society with a model of the society “of life and of beauty.”
“It is certainly an option, but in history it’s necessary to choose: man is free to interpret, to give meaning to reality, and it is precisely in this liberty that his great dignity lies,” said the Pope.

Again, the loss of community, and the resultant loss of self, is a theme. Belief in technology and progress alone is inadequate and dangerous. We need a community to “in”form our sense of self. Lost in the Cosmos involves the reader in the message through a repeated use of the second person: “You grow thoughtful” or “you feel like a castaway on an island”. Also, the reader is asked questions and enticed to participate in thought experiments and multiple choice quizzes.

Percy said that “words have a tendency to wear out.” Because of this loss of meaning, authors in particular keep trying to find new ways and new words to express old truths. Percy was always trying to “tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Tell All The Truth by Emily Dickinson

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

I’m not sure how successful Mr. Percy is in communicating with me, but I’m also not sure I am his target audience. Percy was born in 1916, so he’s a twentieth century author to be sure. However, I’m something of an anachronism. I’ve never felt the twentieth century alienation and loss of faith in God that most twentieth century authors exhibit. I settled the God question when I was a teen with C.S. Lewis, a little Josh McDowell, G.K. Chesterton and two verses from the Bible:

Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face. Job 13:15

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:68

Not saying I have all the answers or never feel depressed or never doubt God’s intentions or nearness. But who or what else is there to assuage the ache? (Listen to Ben Shive’s song, Nothing for the Ache, which I would embed here if I could.)