Monday, June 27, 2011

Book Review: Augustine Came to Kent by Barbara Willard

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When I first saw this book, I thought, “Wait, when did Saint Augustine go to Kent? I thought he had lived his whole life in Africa and Italy.” Well, more fool me! Augustine Came to Kent by Barbara Willard is a fictional account of the mission of that other historical Saint Augustine to re-convert Britain to Christianity in the late 6th century.

The story follows the life of Wolfstan, who arrives in Rome a captive from England. Sold on the slave market, he is spotted by Pope Saint Gregory the Great, who when told Wolfstan and his companion are Angles, remarks famously, “Not Angles, but Angels!” Wolfstan becomes a ward of Saint Gregory, marries, and has a son—Wolf. But he always feels a call to return to his homeland. When Saint Gregory calls for a mission to England to be led by the abbot Augustine, Wolfstan and Wolf are eager to brave the perils of the long journey and bring a new birth of Christianity to pagan England.

I found this book to be a good mix of history and fiction where momentous events are related through the eyes of a minor player—Wolfstan’s son, Wolf. The characters are likable and sympathetic. The story flows well and is easily approachable for young readers ages 9 and up. As such, it is a good introduction to a period of the dark ages of which many (your reviewer included) are ignorant. My only quibble is that I wish the story had more narrative drive. There is action, but it always seems to happen “off camera” to be related later. That aside, there is enough happening to hold young readers’ attention, particularly girls who may be more in tune with the developing relationships between the characters.

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Dave Barry of Catholic Homeschooling Moms

Writing humor is difficult. Because humor is so subjective, one of two things usually happen when people try to write it: 1.) It falls flat because only the writer thinks it's funny, or 2.) It falls flat because it is so full of inside jokes that only the writer and the writer's best friend think it's funny.

Rarely does an author come along who is just innately funny--who has that God-given spark of humor in their writing that catches the reader off-guard and causes him to spit a corn flake across the breakfast table. Dave Barry is one I can think of off the top of my head. Susie Lloyd is another. Her book, Bless Me Father for I Have Kids, is a jovial jaunt through the life of a busy Catholic homeschooling mom. Her observations, anecdotes, and mildly cranky tirades make for a quick and delightful read, perfect fodder for anyone living a Catholic lifestyle and enjoying it.

While Mrs. Lloyd's book is clearly aimed at Catholic moms, I enjoyed it just fine as a Catholic dad. I felt a certain affinity for Mr. Lloyd, and though he plays an integral part in this book, he is never ridiculed. This was so refreshing, particularly considering that ridicule of spouse, often in quite nasty terms, is an old mainstay of comedy. In fact, most of the humor contained in this book is amusingly humble and self-deprecating.

While all the chapters in this book made me laugh, the one that had me quoting sections out-loud to whoever happened to be in the room was entitled "Salvation by Scales" which is about the joys and agonies of piano recitals. This was not so much because my own kids are learning piano--they're not at this point--but because it reminded me of my own childhood experiences. Here's a passage:
When the performance begins, these parents [first-timers] pay careful attention to the program, ticking off the songs as each child goes up to play: Moonlight Sonata for the Right Hand, Brandenberg Boogie No. 3 in G Major. And if this is a Christmas concert, expect such classics as Walking in a Boogie Wonderland. You see, before you get to Beethoven's Pathetique, it is first necessary to master the student arrangements in the Snoozboogie series by U. R. Yawning. No problem. There are only about 12 books in the series. With diligent practice, this should take only six years.
As a victim of nine years of the "Snoozboogie" series, I can relate. Nothing bugged me more as a kid than having to learn jazzed-up version of the classics. I think U.R. Yawning may have been a St. Louis Jesuit.

I would definitely recommend this book to Catholic moms. And Catholic dads won't have to turn in their Knights of Columbus cards just for reading it, either. Bless Me Father for I Have Kids is good, lighthearted fun with a core of truth and honest observation underneath the humor. It should help all Catholics--not just homeschoolers--feel a certain comfort in knowing that others experience the same trials and are able to face them with a positive attitude and a good laugh.