Review: The Sweetest Rain

The Sweetest Rain
The Sweetest Rain by Myra Johnson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mrs. Johnson’s style of writing is wonderful. You can tell that she took great care in making sure her setting is correct in the historical properties. I loved this, seeing that some stories you aren’t really sure about the accuracy of the historical part.

Another thing that stood out to me was that the characters were find in their time period. They weren’t the types of characters we see so often in historical fiction who wish that there was some way to cool down (a.k.a. a fan, or A/C) while those things were not yet invented. Her characters, while they struggled with the heat and depression, felt only the frustration of a person in their present struggles. They didn’t struggle because they wished for something from the future. Having just read a wonderful blog post by author Hayden Wand about this particular subject, I was delighted to read a book by an author so intent on making her stories accurate and believable.

The storyline of this novel was wonderful. I was reminded of Louisa May Alcott’s writing (mostly Little Women) while reading, which made me very happy. (L.M. Alcott is one of my favorite authors and I wish there were more novels like her in the world.)

The only things I really found slightly disappointing were the speed at which Byrony and Michael fell in love and how much kissing there was. Now, with the amount of kissing in this book, I might have set the book down, but Mrs. Johnson, I feel, dealt modestly with the descriptions. (On a side note: a girl named Veronique was mentioned a few times at the beginning of the book, but her story in reference to Michael’s life was never explained)

Another praise for Mrs. Johnson: I often find after reading books that, even though I related in some way with the characters and couldn’t set the book down, I can’t remember the character’s names when writing up my review. Not so with her books! Somehow she makes their names memorable. Maybe it was the fact that Byrony’s name was the name of a flower (I didn’t know there was a flower with that name), but that wouldn’t explain why I remember the names Michael (the male character), Sebastian (Michael’s father), George (Byrony’s grandfather), Rose and Larkspur (Byrony’s sister), Odette, Alice, Esther (servants), etc. Somehow Mrs. Johnson made those characters truly come alive in a way that implanted their names in my memory. Truly a great accomplishment.

I do recommend this book for older crowds. It is definitely written for readers at least 16 and up.

Ratings (# out of 5)
Romance: 3.7 (Because of the kissing. There is also a woman who conceives outside of marriage, but there is not descriptions of this part)
Violence: 5
Language: 5
Substance Abuse: 5
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Review: The Silent Songbird

The Silent Songbird
The Silent Songbird by Melanie Dickerson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Westley Le Wyse. First of all, the name is absolutely wonderful. Second, Westley is a great character. He was caring, gentlemanly, and, as a soon-to-be-Lord should be, great at fighting. (Sounds like a certain character from a certain book or movie carrying the same name. No, I’m not upset about that or anything of the sort, just mentioning.)

Evangeline. Again, love the name. (After all, I did use it for one of my own main characters in one of my novels. As well as the nickname. It would seem I chose well!) Second, she’s believable, which is a great characteristic for every fictional character.

She has been living almost all her life locked inside a castle (mostly in a tower, I think. Sound like any familiar fairy tale?). She desires to see the outside world. She desires to be cared for. I love how her desires and insecurities have reasons behind them. She was used ill by one of her nursemaids so she is rather insecure, which led to her believing that no one really does (or could) care for her. Of course this belief led the natural human desire in her for love to become stronger. Hence her conviction and perseverance in running away from a loveless marriage. All believable. Everything is backed up with reality.

I do not want to ruin the story with my review (or any review), so I will not mention exactly what happens in the story or really comment on it.

I will say that, while this story was a retelling of the Little Mermaid and Rapunzel, it was not glaringly obvious (which I like!). Sometimes when you read a fairy tale retelling-such as the popular Cinderella retellings-you get bored because you cannot forget it is a retelling. You know exactly what is going to happen because the story is so close to the original.

Mrs. Dickerson does such a wonderful job of having key points from fairy tales, but keeping her own unique twists and story line. If you didn’t know what fairy tale her book was retelling, you might have a hard time actually figuring out which one it was. I like that. Why?

Because it means she is writing her own story. She is not taking the Grimm Brothers’ story and changing the names and adding a few twists and presenting it as her own story. Doing that is pretty easy. Taking a few points and adding them to a unique storyline is harder, but I believe the result is beautiful.

Now to the content:
This is one of the reasons I don’t really like Mrs. Dickerson’s The Fairest Beauty. It is a good book, I like the characters, but both Sophie and Gabe know that they should not fall in love and should not treat each other with undo intimacy. Yet they think this and realize it and then turn around and do exactly what they think they should not do.

My point in mentioning this is, I very much appreciated and admired Westley in his persistence in keeping a fair distance. He was obviously in love with her and so, as we saw, could not help wanting to be around her, but he did not go farther than that. He did not kiss her, he did not say anything personal: he kept a distance. I applaud him! And I applaud Mrs. Dickerson for writing that!

Moving to the actual “romance”. The kissing was much more mild in this story, though there was a little more at the end. Until toward the very end, Westley only kissed Evangeline on the cheek or forehead. I loved that!

I felt as though it relayed a modesty, an understanding of the current situation and what was due to the other person. They hadn’t known each other long, Evangeline was still “technically” betrothed, and they did not know what was going to happen.

The violence was a little more graphic in my opinion. Though I am really only thinking of one seen when some men were shot with arrows. It is not incredibly graphic, of course, but more graphic than I remember any of Mrs. Dickerson other stories being.

There was of course no language.

This story is probably still more appropriate for older teens since there are little parts with Lord Shiveley which are more appropriate for more mature readers. Nothing is very descriptive. Extent of his touching her is her arm and slapping her.

Ratings (# out of 5):
Romance: 3 (This is keeping in mind the parts with Lord Shiveley)
Violence: 3
Language: 5
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In the Mind of a Child

Amen, I say to you,

whoever does not accept the kingdom of God

like a child will not enter it.

(Mark 10:15)

      This past summer I was given the great opportunity to volunteer at a Catholic children’s camp. The children were in 1-6th grade. I was a counselor with three other girls…and I was in charge of 5-6th graders.

To tell you the truth, I wasn’t very happy. I had volunteered at the same camp two other times and each time I had been in charge of younger children. I liked working with younger children and, from what I had heard and seen, the older children just weren’t going to make my week as rewarding as the two other weeks had in the past.

In a way my thoughts were selfish, but the truth was, I learned more in that week about humility, patience, and kindness than I really learned at any other time during the year. This was a chance I looked forward to, and I thought it had just been ruined.

Boy, was I wrong! I think that I learned more that week working with those older girls than I had learned in the past years working there. Before, I had learned how to be patient, humble and forgiving as well as a little about love, but that week I learned…well, a lot about love. I learned how it is possible to love imperfect people, why God loves us, how He feels when we do something wrong, and why He sees worth in us.

All of this I learned from a thirteen year old girl. She had Down Syndrome.

How to love imperfect people and why God loves us: What is your reaction when you see a person with Down Syndrome or some other disability? Your real reaction, not the one you wish or pretend you have. Well, if your anything like me, you try to act oblivious, smile, duck your head and look at the ground, or glance way off into the distance. It’s a common reaction. Our human nature makes us look at appearances and immediately label those who don’t meet our standards as “different”.

During that week at camp, I had the time to get over my initial reaction and get to know the girl for who she was. When I really got to know her, I was surprised, maybe even shocked, to find that the person I had labeled  “different” and maybe even “unintelligent” could be such an absolute opposite to what I had at first believed. I didn’t really know until towards the end of the week that what was keeping me patient, kind, and understanding was love. Once I realized this I could finally understand what it meant to truly love someone. I understood how God loves us. She was stubborn at times, got upset at the smallest thing, but I found that it really didn’t bother me. Why was that? Because I had accepted her for who she was, I was accepting her in the way she needed to be accepted rather than just accepting her as a “child”. This is the way God loves and accepts us but in a much more deep and true way.

Each of us are very unique. No matter how much we want to be exactly like another person we never will be. We will always have unique needs and gifts. We’re even  stubborn and disobedient in different ways. Our one similarity is really that we are stubborn and disobedient. Think about it, we really are. I try go to confession every single week and I never find that I have no sins to confess. I try to say an Act of Contrition and examine my conscious every night and I never find that I have nothing to be sorry for. You see, what I’m getting at is that though we ourselves are not good and obedient we still judge others who act differently than us. Honestly, I found that I could accept this young girl’s ways more easily than I could another’s because she seemed to have no pride, no affection for the disobedience. She truly believed that it was all a game. So I treated it as one. If it was a game to her, why take offense? Why not alter the “game” a little so that she would comply with what needed to be done?

What about you though? Is it a game in your mind? Well, I know for sure that every time I sin it sure isn’t a game. Her mind is so different from ours, but as I observed her throughout the week I began to think that I was the one who was truly “different” and she was the one who was normal. She had a way of loving, forgiving, and praying that brought tears to my eyes. To me, she was an example of the child Christ speaks about. She truly accepted the kingdom of God like a child.

I’m afraid I’m straying from the point though. To love the imperfect, we must be able to overlook the imperfections and try to bring out the good…or maybe adjust our views a little to coincide with that person’s. In her case all I had to do was adjust my views. With my siblings, I have to do both, adjust my views and try hard to overlook. In that week, I learned how to focus on the good, and when I was doing it, I realized that this it must be similar to the way God loves. He sees the bad, but He focuses on the good and tries to help us overcome the bad.

How God feels when we do something wrong and why He sees worth in us: During my week at camp, I had to deal with a few children mistreating the girl. At one time I overheard a sarcastic remark about her. She heard the remark, but only laughed as though it were a joke. The comment broke my heart though. Rather than feeling angry though, I was surprised to find that I almost started crying. “They just don’t understand” were the words that kept coming to my mind. Later, when I was thinking this over, I realized that maybe this was how God felt when we do wrong. If we really understood what our actions did, who we were really hurting, would we still act the same way? I can see myself as the person making that sarcastic remark, not understanding.  Yet God loves everything as it should be loved, sees everything clearly, is not biased or uncaring. When we sin, I believe that His first reaction is one of deep sorrow and a desire to help us see the truth. Because if we saw it, it would “set [us] free”.  (John 8:32) This reaction would explain why God gives grace to sinners to turn them away from sin. Because He wants them to see the harm of their works and to turn to good and experience it. Now that leads us to why He sees worth in us. Couldn’t He just leave us alone and let us wallow in our sinfulness? Are we really worth it? To Him, yes, we are. It is actually because of His desire to show us the truth that we are worth it. When I wanted those girls to understand what God had given me the grace to see, I wanted it not only so they could realize that they had done wrong, but also so they could be raised up, become better people, and understand and love God more. St. Monica prayed all her life for the conversion of her sinful son. She loved him so much that to her, the pain she experienced because of his ignorance would be nothing if only he could finally experience the joy of faith. God is the same way. He loves us so much that the pain we cause Him is really nothing compared to the great joy He will have when the souls who follow His word join Him in Heaven. The joy will outweigh the sorrow and, in a way, the sorrow will make the joy all the more sweet.

There were times in my experience with the girl that I wondered if she saw or heard more than we did. I heard her talking and laughing to herself and wondered who she was talking to. I heard her cry out in sorrow and anger when I mistakenly used the words “take away” when referring to Jesus  in the Blessed Sacrament being moved from the Tabernacle to the Monstrance. In her mind they were taking Jesus away and it was wrong, it shouldn’t be done and she cried out at the injustice of it. I almost cried when she begged me, even after telling me that she had received her first Holy Communion, to let her receive Jesus. Such love! Such understanding! All found in the last person I would have expected to find it in! God does work in mysterious ways. He spread ways to understand and see His love, and He gave it to the children! The ones we all expect to learn nothing from teach us more than a doctor of theology could! It’s all just underneath our noses, if only we’d look there.

I’d like to end with this quote,  “The person who never makes a true sacrifice of himself will never understand God’s love, known to Christians as ‘agape’.” (Benedict Augustine, an English teacher who works in the DFW area. He has taken on the pseudonym, Benedict Augustine, to honor his two favorite Catholic thinkers: St. Augustine and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.) To love is to sacrifice yourself for another, to want good for another over yourself. This is why Christ sacrificed Himself for us. This is why God wants us in Heaven with Him. Because of love.

 

Carpe Veritatem!

Therese May Signature

 

 

Review – Helena

         The book Helena by Evelyn Waugh is a fictional story based on the life of St. Helena, covering her life from before she married to the finding of the Cross and her death. Books such as this one present to the reader the life of a saint in a relatable way. They show the transformation of sinner to saint, yet Helena is truly a simple saint. She is the kind of saint who shows those in this world that sanctity is not beyond their reach. In Helena Waugh portrays the transformation of Helena from a haughty, fickle, rather vain princess to a determined, faithful, confident but grumpy Christian woman. This transformation is caused by her seemingly insignificant every day choices and yet they lead her to discover the Cross and reach Heaven.

          At the beginning of the book, the reader finds Helena in her most naïve, selfish state of life. She is a young girl, still a teen, and acts very much like one. The opening scene portrays Helena listening to her tutor Marcias reading the story of the Illiad and Helena of Troy. It is here that her selfishness and pride are first displayed. She compares herself to Helena of Troy, connecting herself to her in more ways than is practical, real, or healthy. As she sits, she allows her simple surroundings and thoughts to distract her from her tutor’s reading, as though she were so important that history was unimportant in contrast. In this way she puffs herself up, blinding herself to who she truly is.

A perfect portrayal of this haughtiness in Helena is shown in the scene in which sits on her throne with her family. As a recital is performed in front of her, Helena sits and allows her thoughts to race. She is on a horse, fighting with it for control. As the play progresses, she gains control of the horse and finally is able to trot arrogantly around, allowing the horse to display her majesty and strength. It is at such a point and with such thoughts that she boldly meets the gaze of Constantius. These fantastic dreams blind Helena to the fact that she has no true power. She is the daughter of a king, but she is not destined for more than being a wife and mother. Dreaming of taking control of her own life and seeking to see great cities such as Rome and Troy only cause her unrest. The life she has is not enough for her, and her dreams and false sense of power lead her to follow an ill path.

          Swayed by hopes of fulfilling her dreams, Helena makes a choice to disregard her father’s apprehension at her marriage to Constantius. At first it might seem as though Helena truly loves Constantius, but her words belie that she does not. “I must go with Constantius, Papa, wherever he goes,” she says to her father, “Besides, he’s promised to take me to the City.”[1] At first her words relax the reader. She must love Constantius to be willing to travel with him anywhere he might be called on military duty, but her last words reveal her true motivation. There is nothing she wants more than to travel the world and visit Rome and to her the offer of marriage from a foreigner such as Constantius is the perfect way to do so. In her immature state she does not think through all the possible consequences of such a decision. She thinks only of her own feelings and wishes. With this childish mindset she enters marriage.

            Marriage really does not change Helena. She keeps her focus on reaching Rome and is openly disappointed when Constantius tells her they are not immediately heading for the City. Staying in Nish and submitting to Constantius’ bidding starts a growth in Helena though. Up unto this point, she never had to submit to anyone. She did not listen to her tutor about her attitude towards history. She did not listen to her father about her marriage with Constantius. Now though, she has to obey her husband. While this starts something new in her, it is quite a while longer before a change truly takes place.

The start of Helena’s change begins with her conception of Constantine. At first she seems rather proud of the fact, but in an odd way, treating the situation more like having won a valued prize than having received a gift. Because she is with child, she is left behind as Constantius finally travels to Rome. Of course this reality is hard for her to accept. For a while she is mournful and “[half-grudges] the child in her womb its life and power to hold her imprisoned.”[2] Yet as time goes on she tries to accept her situation and wait patiently for the time when she can finally visit Rome. This is the first time Helena has truly accepted something through her own wishes. Before, when Constantius was with her, she accepted things only because he would not put up with her if she did not. Now, left alone for months, she has a choice to make. She can mourn and give herself pity, or she can accept her lot and try to make the best of her time.

             By the time Constantine is grown, Helena has truly changed. She has grown to be satisfied with her lot in life and not to fight against it. In fact, when Constantius tells her he has remarried and divorced her she responds with silence. The first thing she asks of Constantius is not ‘why’. Rather, she asks whether she can return to Britain with Constantine. Her transformation is not quite complete though. She has accepted her fate, but she still has yet to move forward. A conversation she has with one of her friends portrays this. Her friend tells her she acts as though her life is over. To this she replies, “It is really, at least all I used to think was life.”[3]

             Up until her divorce, Helena truly seemed to live for one thing: getting to Rome. As her life went on though, she became more separated from the hope of fulfilling this desire. She seemed to let go a little more each time the fulfillment of her dream seemed to further distance itself from her. After her divorce she truly lets go, but having held on to hopes for so long, she seems lost without a purpose. In this state of mind, she first encounters Christianity.

           At first Helena only questions Christianity as she had done with every other religion she had encountered. Other believers from different religions had called her questions ‘childish’, but Christianity did not seem to think her questions childish. In fact, it seemed to have answers to all her questions, even if she had to wait to receive them. While the book does not describe this in detail, it is clear that becoming Christian truly completes Helena’s transformation.

           Before becoming Christian, Helena was haughty and proud, yet not exactly very confident. She clung to dreams and to others such as Constantius to give herself worth. She found confidence in them, not in herself. As a Christian though, she is perfectly confident in herself. Nothing seems to daunt her, and her confidence is astounding. In her dealings with her son the emperor and his wife, she is never swayed by political correctness. She says what she thinks and asks questions about what she does not understand. It is this attitude of character, this firm confidence that leads her to finding the True Cross.

Once the idea of finding the True Cross enters Helena’s head, she is determined to follow through with it. She enlists the aid of others in finding the Cross and through it all her unwavering confidence guides the mission. Her actions were very ordinary and it is in this way that Helena is truly a simple saint. This simplicity is what Waugh said he found most appealing about St. Helena. He said, “I liked Helena’s sanctity because it is in contrast to all that moderns think of sanctity…She just discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it.”[4] She was not a martyr, nor a great Theologian, nor a pious, virtuous religious. She was only a grandmother determined to find the True Cross, and a rather cantankerous one at that.

               The life Helena led is a wonderful example for every Christian in the modern world. It shows them that sanctity is not impossible for them. Helena lived a rather normal life. She was a self-centered young girl who made mistakes which left her in a rather pitiable state later in life. Yet her choices allowed her to make the most of her situation. She became Christian and discovered the True Cross, a feat which will always be remembered. So it is that Helena’s story, the story of a saint, is the merely that of a girl who chose to do what she ought.

[1] Waugh (Chicago, IL: Loyala Press, 1950), 35.

[2] Waugh, 67.

[3] Waugh, 78.

[4] Waugh, xiv.

Ratings (# out of 5)

Romance: 4.5 (There is a part where possible intimacy is hinted at between Constantine and his wife.)

Violence: 5

Language: 5

Substance Abuse: 5

While the story may be one that is suitable for any age, the deep concepts will most likely go over a child’s head.

Don’t be satisfied with mediocrity!

Therese May Signature