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Till We Have Faces

Book cover: 'Till We Have Faces'
Author(s): 
C.S. Lewis
Copyright: 
1956
Publisher: 
Harcourt
Binding: 
Softcover
Number of pages: 
313 pages
Subject(s): 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

When I was in school I learned that great authors will put more in their stories than you read at first. C.S. Lewis is a not only a great storyteller but a great author. And I've only had a first reading of this story. But the very few extras that I have glimpsed are only a beginning to the layers and meanings and truths forged into this incredible tale.

A hint and a warning: Lewis has added a bare two pages to tell us that the ancient Greek myth of Psyche was his inspiration - and he even gives us that story in a small nutshell. But it is for good reason that it is at the end. Don't read it before you take in the real text. He has altered it and added to it - for the better! Don't misalign your expectations for this book which stands on its own very well.

There are two daughters of a mean old king in a barely civilized fictitious land. Their mother has died. The older daughter, Orual, is but a child observing. The king marries another wife for another political link but more so for a son. But this young mother, dying at delivery, produces only another baby girl. Orual takes it upon herself to become the baby's new mother. And baby Istra is a remarkable beauty. Orual has learned from their Greek slave/tutor that Istra means Psyche in Greek. As she grows she only becomes more beautiful - for she is bright and meek and kind as well.

But the king gives no heed, much less love, to his daughters. He can be brutal. Moreover, this barely civilized country has a temple to the goddess Ungit. Her statue is a relatively formless rock. It smells of the blood of the sacrifices. The priest of Ungit's temple does not exude a brighter picture.

And the daughters grow up as best they can with the greek slave as their tutor, no mother and a king who is mostly absent from their lives but for the rare times that he frightens them.

Then troubles come from the most unexpected quarters. And Orual leads us through her trials and attempts to cope. She tells the story to us because she wants to show how bad the gods are to mortals. They are unloving, unjust and unkind and yet still meddling and mischievous. The book is intensely psychological amidst the modest amount of action and adventure. It can be dark in how the reader is drawn through her justifications and feelings of twisted love and of hate. And yet it is still a pleasure to read.

I am at a bit of a loss reviewing this since I have only read through it once. It seems that Orual begins telling the story as one with a long harbored and even infantile grudge - rooted, as it is, in her childhood. And as she tells it, not only does the story unfold, but her own character begins to change. It is masterful how Lewis has written this to REALLY look like a book that was written by Orual - especially how the writing itself changes as the writing of an autobiography must change the writer herself.

And again, I believe that C.S. Lewis, with the help and constructive criticism of the Inklings, has written much more into this than I have yet read. They would have already known the tale of Psyche. They would have reviewed his material for inconsistencies, opportunities and those little literary blasphemies to the original story that would otherwise offend. I can't wait to read it through a few more times.

It is not a 'read aloud' book. In fact it should be read by the parent as well as the high-school aged child so that meaningful discussions can take place. An impressionable youngster does not always have the circumspection to keep him from empathizing so much... from becoming an Orual. And yet this is a must read. It may be a good gateway book to the darker Russian novels. One reason for this is that Lewis himself makes it very clear in the end that the one true God (not the Ungits of the 'world') really does care. How He so loves and respects us that He preserves our free will even at the cost of mystery, frustration and evil in the world. Which leads to another warning: Finish this book! Don't put it down in the middle or you will entirely miss the great changes which reveal so much about Orual's growth and destiny.

Here's a little 'taste' of the story...

If anyone could have seen us at that moment I believe he would have thought we were two enemies met for a battle to the death. I know we stood like that, a few feet apart, every nerve taut, each with eyes fixed on the other in a terrible watchfulness.

And now we are coming to that part of my history on which my charge against the gods chiefly rests; and therefore I must try at any cost to write what is wholly true. Yet it is hard to know perfectly what I was thinking while those huge, silent moments went past. By remembering it to often I have blurred the memory itself.

I suppose my first thought must have been, "She's mad." Anyway, my whole heart leaped to shut the door against something monstrously amiss - not to be endured. And to keep it shut. Perhaps I was fighting not to be mad myself.

But what I said when I got my breath (and I know my voice came out in a whisper) was simply, "We must go away at once. This is a terrible place."

Was I believing in her invisible palace? A Greek will laugh at the thought. But it's different in Glome. There the gods are too close to us. Up in the Mountain, in the very heart of the Mountain, where Bardia had been afraid and even the priests don't go, anything was possible. No door could be kept shut. Yes, that was it; not plain belief, but infinite misgiving - the whole world (Psyche with it) slipping out of my hands.

Whatever I meant, she misunderstood me horribly. (Till We Have Faces, from Chapter 11)

Review Date: 
1999
Reviewed by: 

Tin Cups & Tinder

A Catholic Boy’s Little Book of Fire, Food & Fun
Author(s): 
Alice Cantrell
Copyright: 
2010
Publisher: 
CreateSpace
Binding: 
Softcover
Number of pages: 
108 pages
Subject(s): 
Grade / Age level: 
Resource Type: 
Review: 

Alice Cantrell’s newest book, Tin Cups & Tinder : A Catholic Boy’s Little Book of Fire, Food & Fun arrived the same day I was pondering ways to liven up my son’s education. While considering if we were called to homeschool my little boy, I had some serious concerns over whether I could provide enough enrichment for him, as my interests tend to be very domestic and feminine. I try to be aware and spend a good bit of time playing football and soccer with him but it didn’t occur to me to encourage him to hone his own domestic skills, approaching these from a more boyish perspective.

This is what Alice encourages us to do in Tin Cups & Tinder. I do say ‘us’ because we were all charmed by this beautifully photographed book. (In attempting to write this review, I had to go hunting, for both my children disappeared with it yesterday). A few of the topics covered are essential kitchen skills, basic sewing (for boys!) and instructions and templates for an indispensable little naturalist’s kit. Of particular interest to me were the campfire cooking tips and recipes. I can’t wait to head out again to try pancakes cooked on the campfire. I’m also looking forward to teaching my son to build a proper fire - mine are rather pitiful.

Setting this book apart from other boy’s instructional manuals is that it is solidly, beautifully Catholic. My young son considers his rosary a camping necessity and I was thrilled to see Alice include a pocket shrine right alongside a first aid kit (It's like she wrote it just for us!). Furthermore, she peppers the book liberally with passages from the Bible and quotes from various saints, all of which encourage little boys to keep Christ at the center of all they do.

Review Date: 
10-16-2010
Reviewed by: 

To Kill a Mockingbird

Book cover: 'To Kill a Mockingbird'
Author(s): 
Harper Lee
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

This modern classic, set in the segregated South of the 1930s, is the story of two young children who learn about life and the great character of their father, Atticus Finch, as he struggles with a difficult case in which he must defend a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman.

The story is told through the eyes of the younger child, a nine year old girl. This charming perspective, related in an authentic Southern dialect, makes for a surprisingly innocent way of tackling some rather tough topics. Catholic parents of today, who are forced to explain difficult topics such as abortion to their young children, will likely sympathize with this father and be impressed with how well he handles the situation.

Atticus, an aging lawyer and widowed father of two, is a man who spends his free time reading. His children find him somewhat boring and wish he could be more like their classmates' fathers who are young and athletic. As the story develops, the children begin to learn why their father is respected by those neighbors and friends whose opinions really count.

The story culminates in a court battle in which Atticus is assigned to defend an innocent black man in a hopelessly biased rape case. He is reluctant to take the case because he knows he has no chance of winning and is concerned about the emotional persecution his children will suffer in a community where racial tensions run high. Nevertheless, he knows he must do the right thing and proceeds with the case. The case itself and the man involved turn out tragically and the family goes through many difficult and even frightening things, but the book proves to be a great classic because of the great character development, the moral considerations the story addresses and the growth of the children as they suffer through the case with their father. It should provide a wealth of literary, historical and moral themes for teens or adults.

I'd like to address two issues that may concern parents regarding the content of this book. First, some parents have asked me whether, in a day where sexual sin runs rampant, such books as this should simply be avoided. I would answer that I certainly think books which glorify fornication or cause the imagination to dwell on sensuality during the sensitive teen years should be avoided. In contrast however, this book, particularly with appropriate guidance, should help teens to develop the moral context without which human sexuality so often lowers itself to mere pleasure and animal instinct. I believe this book does so without danger to the imagination. The rape was fabricated, the discussions concerning it are not at all graphic, and an implication that the young woman was actually a victim of incest is so subtle that it may very well be missed. The Christian answer to teaching children to avoid sin is not to ignore sensitive topics entirely, but to prayerfully and prudently teach children right from wrong and the consequences of sin in a manner suitable to their maturity.

Second, some may be concerned that the book makes some criticisms of Christians. It should be understood that the book does not villify Christians (most of the characters on both sides of the issue seem to consider themselves Christians), but highlights the hypocrisy of those who commit evil while calling themselves Christian. Clearly, the position taken by Atticus is solidly Christian. Also, understanding the hypocrisy presented in the book should be very helpful in developing a solid Christian conscience in preparation for a difficult and complex world.

While the book could be studied as early as eighth grade, it would probably be understood more deeply a few years later, in mid-to-upper high school.

Click here to view our study questions for this book.

Review Date: 
12-1-01
Reviewed by: 

To Whom Shall We Go?

Lessons from the Apostle Peter
Author(s): 
Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan
Copyright: 
2008
Publisher: 
Our Sunday Visitor
Binding: 
Softcover
Number of pages: 
152 pages
Grade / Age level: 
Resource Type: 
Review: 

This is a really lovely, very accessible exposition of what St. Peter's life teaches us about how we are called to follow Christ. Written by Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the new Archbishop of New York City, the book is centered around the words that Dolan has taken on as his episcopal motto (To Whom Shall We Go?), which is from the Gospel of John 6:67-68.

Archbishop Dolan, who we were privileged to have lead our diocese of Milwaukee for the past six years or so, is a plain-speaking, joyful, humble man who speaks to ordinary people in a very helpful way. This book is a lovely example of his clear and helpful thinking.

Each chapter begins with a story of St. Peter's life from which Dolan pulls out very helpful life lessons. These are generously sprinkled with good humor, touching stories from his own experiences and memorable tidbits that seem so very simple and do-able. And that's an important part of passing along to the Faith to others (especially to our children) to help them see that living a good life *is* possible!

Here's an example. The first chapter is entitled "Keeping Our Eyes Focused on Christ" and it's based on the story of St. Peter asking Christ to allow him to walk on the water. Of course we know that when he takes his eyes off of Christ and begins to be afraid, he begins to sink. The Archbishop draws out some lovely and very helpful thoughts, as you can see from this tidbit:

The message - this is sledgehammer-clear - the message that Our Lord is trying to teach us in this famous episode: notice, as long as St. Peter keeps his eyes on Christ, he's doing fine. He can walk on water. The winds, the terrible storm, the ferocious waves, and the darkness don't bother him. But the moment he gets distracted, the moment he turns his gaze from the Lord, the moment Peter loses sight of his goal, what happens? He sinks!

In this chapter he encourages us to have a firm purpose in our life. He encourages us to keep our gaze on Christ by being "conscious of the life of God within my soul" and through prayer.

Here's another great example of the helpful pastoral thought he provides in this book:

Despair will never be ours if we believe in the power of the sacrament of Penance and tap into it very often. This sacrament helps us avoid both extremes - the presumption of the Pharisees and the despair of Judas - and it keeps us, with St. Peter, int he healthy center. Contrite? Yes, but confident in the Lord's mercy. Aware of the sin? You bet, but equally aware of Christ's desire to forgive. Repentant? You bet, but renewed as well. And for us, the is moment of honesty and healing takes place, concretely and personally, in the sacrament of Penance.

Here are the other chapters presented in this book:

2. "Noticing the Wind" (This continues the story about walking on water and focuses on being aware of what dominates our lives - what things distract us from God, etc.)

3. "Silently Being with Our Lord" (Based on the story of St. Peter at the Transfiguration)

4. "Embracing Our Cross" (Based on the story of Jesus trying to convince Jesus not to go to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die.)

5. "How Do We Let God Love Us?" (From the story at the Last Supper of Peter not wanting Jesus to wash his feet.)

6. "Do You Love the Lord?" (From the story after the Resurrection of Jesus asking Peter to "Feed my lambs.")

7. "Put Out Into the Deep" (The story of the miraculous catch of fish where Jesus exhorts Peter: "Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.")

8. "Asking Our Lord for Forgiveness" (Peter's betrayal of Jesus)

9. "To Whom Shall We Go?" (Title story - when a number of Jesus' disciples have left Him and He asks Peter if he will leave too - Peter responds "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life...")

10. Afterword: "Neither Silver Nor Gold" (Based on the story from the Acts of the Apostles in which Peter meets a beggar and tells him, "I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.")

The reality the good Archbishop presents here is very realistic, but also very hopeful. Consider his reflection on the financial troubles that have befallen the Church in the wake of the sex abuse scandals:

Maybe it's not such a bad thing that, because of all the upheaval, all the scandals, all the shortages of priests, all the lawsuits, and everything else that's gone on the last forty tumultuous years, we don't have silver and gold anymore. We can barely pay our bills. But what we've got, we're clinging to: the pearl of great price, the most priceless treasure of all, Jesus Christ. And if all this disgrace, and sadness, and shock of the last four decades - all the turmoil that we've gone through in the Church - if that has driven home the centrality, the utter centrality of Jesus, maybe it's not such a bad thing."

I think this book is very accessible for both teens and adults and would be particularly well-suited to a discussion group. I am very grateful to the Archbishop for this lovely little book.

Review Date: 
4-15-2009
Reviewed by: 

Tomie de Paola's Book of Bible Stories

Book cover: 'Tomie de Paola's Book of Bible Stories'
Copyright: 
1990
Publisher: 
G.P. Putnam Zondervan
Binding: 
Sewn Hardcover
Number of pages: 
127 pages
Subject(s): 
Review: 

Tomie de Paola is a unique illustrator with artwork in a woodcut or icon-like style (I can't decide which.) I thought his artwork was more suited to The Lady of Guadalupe but I like the content of his Bible stories and appreciate the "Index of Bible Text" in the back. This would be a suitable book for acquainting preschoolers with the major stories of the Bible.

I have found that some stories are a little hard to understand because too many details have been left out in making them simpler for young children. I was bothered by the fact that the Crucifixion scene is so simplified that both thieves mock Jesus - missing entirely one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible, of the good thief. Also, quite simply, I have a big pet peeve about stories and movies that turn a real-life good guy into a bad guy for the sake of the story or artistic license.

Perspective: 
Catholic
Review Date: 
1999
Reviewed by: 

Toward Morning, A Story of the Hungarian Freedom Fighters

Author(s): 
Alta Halverson Seymour
Copyright: 
1961
Publisher: 
Follett Publishing Co.
Subject(s): 
Setting: 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

Long out of print, Toward Morning is a gripping and emotional tale of the turbulent days surrounding the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. We follow Janos, his friends, younger sister Teresa, and younger brother Belo, as they become immersed in the battle for freedom. Since much of the story is based on actual events, the story is all the more intense. Will the Russian soldiers capture and torture their brother for his activities? Where can he hide? After reading this book, you will have a greater appreciation for your freedom.

You may be able to find a copy in your local library. It is defintely worth looking for.

Review Date: 
6-23-06
Reviewed by: 

Traditional Logic

Author(s): 
Martin Cothran
Publisher: 
Memoria Press
Binding: 
Softcover
Subject(s): 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

This is a very competent book with a perfectly straightforward layout. It covers the basic topics of the form of the syllogism and the forms that produce valid conclusions.

Formal logic, for those who do not already know, means logic according to form. It's not about what is true, which depends on the truth of the premises; it is about how to draw logically valid conclusions from the premises you start with. In that sense, it is limited, but it is really the very foundation of logic in the western world. You'll learn about the undistributed middle term and the square of contradiction and things like that.

The DVD's simply present the material in the book; they are for your auditory learner and do not, so far as I watched them, have new material.

Martin Cothran is a Protestant, and every now and again, his syllogisms are about matters that would be typical for an evangelical Protestant, and not particularly appealing to a Catholic. Nothing serious, but noticeable.

The presentation is also a little short on sparkle. If you think that, since it has a DVD, you can just hand it to your children and go, it may not work. Some of the kids will just fall asleep.

Review Date: 
2-26-07
Reviewed by: 

Trains

Author(s): 
Gail Gibbons
Copyright: 
1987
Publisher: 
Holiday House
Binding: 
Softcover
Number of pages: 
30 pages
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

I really like it when authors of children's books remember that details of how things work are fascinating to children. Gail Gibbons is definitely one of those authors. Her book is filled with very simple illustrations and text about trains, but the various parts of the trains are labeled and the text explains things like how the trains link together and the differences between gondola cars, hopper cars, boxcars and tank cars.The back page contains a chart of signs and signals relating to trains. Appropriate for preschool or kindergarten age children.

Review Date: 
1999
Reviewed by: 

Trans Europa

A Tactical Track-building Game
Book cover: 'Trans Europa: A Tactical Track-building Game'
Copyright: 
2005
Publisher: 
Winning Moves Deutschland/Rio Grande Games
Subject(s): 
Setting: 
Grade / Age level: 
Resource Type: 
Review: 

Our family enjoys Geography very much (especially my 10 year old son) and so new Geography games are always a welcome addition to our curriculum and/or learning environment.

Trans Europa has a European map gameboard on which you connect major cities (chosen from the card deck) with "train tracks." It can be played on a simple level by younger children (the recommendation is 8 and up) but can involve rather complex strategies as well.

Each round takes only a few minutes (5 to 10 at the most) and several rounds combine to form an entire game. (There is a simple scoring system alongside the board used through an entire game.)

The materials are of good quality, nice colors and easy to sort out. We thought it was particularly interesting that the pronunciation and spelling of many of the cities are not those commonly used in the U.S. It might be beneficial to have a map of Europe on the wall with which to compare names and identify the country each city is located in.

Highly recommended!

Additional notes: 

Recommended for ages 8 and up, For 2 to 6 players

Game Board with cards and small wooden playing pieces

Review Date: 
10-31-05
Reviewed by: 

True to the Old Flag

Author(s): 
G.A. Henty
Subject(s): 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

What would you say to a historical novel filled with action and adventure? What would you say to a book written with boys in mind by an author famous for his morally strong and upright heroes? What would you say to a book that gives the “other side” of the story?

Well, I would say – “sounds wonderful; bring it on!”

And this book, True to the Old Flag: A Tale of the American War for Independence, by G. A. Henty fulfills all these descriptions. His book is filled with action and adventure, from pre-Revolution events to post-Revolution occurrences. The book is definitely written with boys as the implied audience; and yes, his main character is morally strong, upright and virtuous. Further, this book is written from a loyalist viewpoint; his main character is Harold Wilson, the only child in a family of loyalists living in New England during the Revolution. Wilson serves under British officers fighting the fight as only the British can.

George Alfred Henty (1832-1902), a novelist and “special correspondent”, was an avid imperialist – he felt that Britain’s conquering of the world was a great goal. Henty wrote this novel in 1885 in the heyday of Queen Victoria’s empire building. The ideal of British imperialism permeates True to the Old Flag. Snippets of the author’s British prejudice do creep in such as:

…it is probably that these terms (of compromise) might have been accepted (by Colonists wavering between loyalty to England and independence) had it not been for the intervention of France. That power had all along encouraged the rebellion. She had smarted under the loss of Canada, … she was glad to assist in any movement which could operate to the disadvantage of this (England) country. (pg 261)

We first meet Harold Wilson when he is visiting his maternal relatives out “west” in the wilderness of 1774 Michigan. Here the first thing Wilson does is save a young cousin from capture by some Indians; an act of bravery and intelligence that wins the heart of his young cousin and the gratitude of his aunt and uncle.

When the war starts a couple of years later, Wilson can only fight on the British side. His family members (his father is from England and his mother, although born in America, accepts her husband’s ideals) are loyalists and still have many ties to England. Wilson, now a young man of 18, goes off to fight with Howe, Clinton and Cornwallis.

Wilson sees it all and throughout the novel helps the reader see the major battle-fronts. From Lexington and Bunker Hill to Trenton and Saratoga; from Savannah to Cowpens and Guildford Court House the history is told through the eyes and ears of the young hero. The reader crawls through enemy lines with Wilson, spends time in an American prison with Wilson and goes to England with the now-defeated Wilson.

This is a great book for a living history study of the Revolution from an out of the ordinary point of view. The reader needs to remember that this book was written in 1885 when prejudices and bigotry were still prevalent – some of the descriptions of the African-Americans, Native Americans and others would not be allowed in a book written today. Another small quibble is that the author occasionally loses the story in his desire to describe the battles; the voice becomes that of an outsider rather than Wilson, and the book turns a bit textbook-ish at these points.

This book is definitely a great read for 4th-8th grade readers wanting to know a bit more about the American Revolution and how some Americans could take up the old flag against the new.

Some prejudicial/bigoted remarks about African-Americans, Native Americans and others; also the author occasionally loses his "narrator" voice and becomes text-bookish with his descriptions of the battles.

Review Date: 
11-2-2008
Reviewed by: 

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