Author interview: George Weigel

The author of our November book, Evangelical Catholicism, gives an interview with National Review Online.



First Read: Helen Keller in Love, by Rosie Sultan

Note: I won an advance copy of this book through the website Good Reads. It’s an “advance uncorrected proof” according to the publisher’s sticker on the front. I’m not paid to write a review, I’m writing it for the heck of it–although that is part of the understanding with Good Reads (that if you win a book, you’ll review it). I don’t know the author personally, so all thoughts are my own. 

Most of us think we know all about Helen Keller: the blind/deaf girl who, at the age of seven, learned that everything has a name from the tireless work of her teacher, Annie Sullivan, who finger spelled words into her hand. She graduated from Radcliffe College, gave speeches throughout the country, travelled the world, and wrote The Story of My Life, as well as other works. She was a close friend of Mark Twain and Alexander Graham Bell, and met every U.S. President from Grover Cleveland until she died in the 1960s.

But history glosses over some things: she was a Socialist, against World War I, not traditionally Christian (she was a Swedenborgian), and supported Margaret Sanger’s birth control crusade.

She also fell in love.

In the novel Helen Keller In Love, it is this last part that receives attention, although the less palatable facts of Helen’s life, such as her political views, are also mentioned. Sultan seeks to create a full portrait of the woman that everyone thinks they know from her writings, history, and The Miracle Worker. But Helen was a woman of passions and desires just like any other, and, at the age of 37, fell in love with her secretary, Peter Fagin. The two applied for, and received, a marriage application from Boston City Hall, and it seemed that the two would elope. But they never married.

The letters written between the two were lost in a house fire during Helen’s lifetime. But the historical record does tell us that Fagin did exist, as did the marriage license. How their relationship blossomed and, eventually, ended, is Fagin’s plot line.

Her Helen is fully realized, a sharply intelligent, fiery and passionate woman who, at thirty seven, has never had a man touch in her admiration, has never been in love, and has never been allowed to pursue any life outside of what her mother and Annie deemed appropriate for her. When Annie becomes seriously ill, Fagin is brought in as an aide to Helen. Freed from Annie’s constant scrutiny and companionship for the first tim win her life, she falls in love with Peter…and he seems to be in love with her. Is he really? Or is he attracted to her fame and the notoriety that being close to her brings him?

The novel also creates a compelling portrait of Helen’s relationship with “Teacher”, as well as with her mother, Kate, and younger sister, Mildred. Everyone in her life wants what’s “best for Helen”–but Helen rarely gets to decide what is best for her.

Sultan’s novel is compelling and a richly rewarding read, as she brings to life the Helen Keller that few people are aware of–one who lived a full life outside the perfect public appearances.


Jane’s House

Well, her final house.

More information on the museum. 

This is a place I must go before I die. I have to do the Jane Austen tour of England.

And yes, this is what is meant by a “cottage” in the Georgian period. Multiple bedrooms, multiple fireplaces…windows, grounds…this isn’t some Grimm Fairy Tale cottage with only one room. So, when you think of Barton Cottage in Sense and Sensibility, think something along these lines.


Jane Austen Week begins, with a recipe!

You knew it was coming.

You knew we’d read a Jane novel eventually, and then Emily would get all excited and do Jane Austen Week the week before we read it.

Yeah, you were right.

And here it is!

Normally, we meet the second Tuesday of the month. But since that’s Valentine’s Day, and two of the BGs have standing dates, we’re bumping it back a week.

The book we chose is Mansfield Park. I think it’s one of her more neglected titles, and I am going to attempt to rectify that! This week we’ll talk a bit about Jane’s family, her books, the movies, and food…all sorts of Jane goodness. 🙂

Today, we’re starting with a recipe. And not just any recipe, but one for alcoholic punch; how appropriate for Monday?

We’re bringing on the Negus. 🙂

Now, this recipe is noted in The Book Club Cookbook as belonging to Jane Eyre, but it was a popular 19th c. drink all round. It’s a “mulled wine made with sugar, nutmeg and often brandy…created by Col. Francis Negus in the early 18th century, it was popular at balls and social events of the era.” In Mansfield Park, Negus is served at the ball Sir Thomas throws for Fanny:

Shortly afterwards, Sir Thomas was again interfering a little with her inclination, by advising her to go immediately to bed…and then, creeping slowly up the principal staircase, pursued by the ceaseless country-dance, feverish with hopes and fears, soup and negus, sore-footed and fatigued, restless and agitated, yet feeling, in spite of everything, that a ball was indeed delightful. (254, 255 in the Oxford World’s Classic edition)

So, I give you: Negus

1 c. water

1 cinnamon stick

1 c. port wine

1 c. dry red wine, such as claret, Burgundy, Merlot, or Zinfandel

4 tsp. brandy

2 tbsp. sugar

1 lemon, sliced into thin rings

Grated or ground nutmeg, to taste (a large pinch)

Heat the water and cinnamon stick in a nonreactive saucepan. Boil gently for a few minutes. Reduce heat and add the remaining ingredients. When heated through, strain into heatproof serving goblets.

Serves 4

(From The Book Club Cookbook, by Judy GElman and Vicki Levy Krupp, page 211)

And classics…

Well, most of them I’ve listed in my list under the “recommendations” tab at the top of the page. But to recap: (prose only, here)

  • All of Jane. Non-negotiable
  • A Christmas Carol
  • Some of Thomas Hardy. I really like Far From The Madding Crowds and Tess is interesting.
  • Wuthering Heights. Trust me.
  • Virginia Woolf! Esp. Mrs. Dalloway: “Life, London, this moment of June…”
  • Edith Wharton: Age of Innocence, etc.
  • Dracula and Frankenstein. Very different, but both very good. The critical debates surrounding Dracula are so funny.
  • The Scarlet Letter. Again, this grew on me. Hated it when I read it in high school. But…now, not so bad.
  • Orwell: Animal Farm, 1984
  • Rebecca…ooooh creepy. 🙂

Learning to Understand Poetry

I delved into poetry in high school. One author we read often was John Donne. At the time, I

found his poetry extremely hard to understand and harsh in tone. So, I wrote him off as a poet I would

never comprehend and left it at that. I also wrote off poetry. I could comprehend prose better and stuck

with that.

About four years later, I came across a HBO movie

Wit starring Emma Thompson. This movie

describes what it is like to die from cancer. The loneliness, the desire to interact with others, the ultimate fear

of death. Well, the person dying from this horrible disease was a Doctor of Philosophy specializing in

the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. Throughout the movie she recites the Holy Sonnets focusing

on Holy Sonnet VI.

Listening to the poem, rather than reading it myself brought it to life for me. I could hear the tone John

Donne was setting. I could sense the dread of facing death. I could feel the relief that “Death is just a

breath, a pause between life and life everlasting” (Wit)

This new-found understanding of John Donne made me want to find more of his poetry, in particular

his Holy Sonnets. They became prayers to me. I was able to find more of his Holy Sonnets in my

prayer books.

While John Donne is still very difficult to understand properly, I have come to appreciate his work even

more. By understanding how to read poetry, I hope to gain a deeper appreciation for the art that is

poetry and fall in love with it even more.

More Poetry!


To respond to the below post: I have quite a few favorite poets.

I love, love W.H. Auden. “Lay your sleeping head, my love” is quite possibly the perfect poem.

Also love Elizabeth Browning (“Sonnets from the Portuguese”, which has “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” in it), and Alfred, Lord Tennyson–who doesn’t love “The Lady of Shalott”? (And Anne Shirley’s recitation of it?) He was also Queen Victoria’s poet laureate, and dedicated his “Idylls of the King” to her husband, Prince Albert.

Am a big fan of Dante, as I am re-reading the Commedia right now. It grows on you.

And I can’t forget Oscar Wilde–his “Ballad of Reading Gaol” slays me every time. Many of his poems have a Catholic sensibility that I enjoy.

Finally, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments!) and Good Ol’ Chaucer. Just think how long The canterbury Tales would’ve been if he’d finished it!

Wait–I said finally. I lied. There’s more!

Christina Rossetti–Goblin Market! In the Bleak Midwinter!

John Donne--A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

JOHN MILTON! Paradise Lost! Oh, man, that slays me, especially the last lines:

Some natural tears they dropp’d, but dried them soon/

the world was all before them where to choose their place of rest and providence their guide/

they, hand in hand, with wander steps and slow/

through Eden took their solitary way.

And the Russian, Pushkin, for the fantastic Eugene Onegin, which Tchaikovsky turned into a gorgeous opera.

Books for the Pro-Lifer

OK, yes, I know. This is a divisive topic.

But since the other two BGs are in D.C. at the March for Life, I think they’ll be OK with me posting this.

There aren’t any big tomes, here. They are memoir, fiction, etc.–books that, directly or not, embrace what I consider the pro-life cause.

Letters to Gabriel, by Karen Garver Santorum. Very politically timely, as well.

My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult. Now, I know her political sensibilities (You read her blog, or interviews, or even many of her books, and you pick it up.) So she probably didn’t mean for this book to be that way. But there’s one passage that, to me, sums up a lot I love about the pro-life cause:

I realize then that we never have children, we receive them. And sometimes it’s not for quite as long as we would have expected or hoped. But it is still far better than never having had those children at all. ‘Kate,’ I confess. ‘I’m so sorry.’
She pushes back from me, until she can look me in the eye. ‘Don’t be,’ she says fiercely. ‘Because I’m not.’ She tries to smile, tries so damn hard. ‘It was a good one, Mom, wasn’t it?’
I bite my lip, feel the heaviness of tears. ‘It was the best,’ I answer.”
–Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper 

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. What is this doing here? Because of this passage:

Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be that, in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh, God! To hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!


Those are my top three, ones that come to mind immediately. If you have others, share them in the combox.




Author spotlight: J. Maarten Troost

One genre I really enjoy reading is travel lit–books where people talk about places they’ve been and the experiences they had. One of my favorites is Getting Stoned With Savages, by J. Maarten Troost. He and his wife, Sylvia, end up living in Fiji/Vanuatu (Of Survivor fame) as his wife works to improve the lives of islanders. Troost investigates cannibalism, huge centipedes, and local intoxicants. Oh, and then Sylvia gets pregnant…

His books are laugh-out-loud affairs and (temporarily) squash any desire I have to leave Ohio winter for 100 degrees on the equator. (I said temporarily!) He’s also written The Sex Lives of Cannibals and Lost on Planet China.

While his titles are a bit unorthodox, the books themselves are well-written, full of humor and less-than-idyllic island living. A good thing to read during the winter.

Book Club meeting #2: Extreme Makeover by Teresa Tomeo

Book #2 in the TBC Book Club was a huge hit–all of us would give it two enthusiastic thumbs up! While the main audience for this book is Catholic women, we think that anyone could benefit from it: Catholic men, and other Christian men and women.

Tomeo talks about how women can walk the line between being holy, but also being “in the world” by offering her own life makeover. Here are the points:

  1. See yourself first and formose as a daughter of the King
  2. Receive the Sacrament of Confession regularly (something that all of us BCs are working on!)
  3. Make a concerted effort to silence the noise in your life (No TV in your room! Make dinner time a media-free zone, etc.)
  4. Remember that the Blessed Mother is watching you.
  5. Brush up on your Catholicism
  6. Remember that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ
  7. When it comes to news media, consider the source. (EM, 157)

We had a long (3 hour plus!) discussion on media–not making the TV the focal point of your life; taking time away for silence, which fosters prayer; not constantly checking cellphones or always having the iPod buds in; finding clothes that are flattering and pretty; what we like–and don’t–about being girls; how “tempting” the opposite sex is a two way street (guys–keep your imaginations under control!); how things, in general (like TV) are not evil inherently, but depends upon how it is used.

For Catholic Women, Bl. John Paul II gave us the idea of “Feminine Genius”, which is a great gif to us. Men an dwomen were indeed created differently–but both in God’s image. But we are not the same! And our differences are what make up special. Tomeo talks about our differences and bolsters the courage of young Catholic women to be the beautiful creations God made us to be.