Friday, July 21, 2017

Seven Quick Takes: Netflix's The Keepers

Back in May, Netflix released a new true crime series, The Keepers, which ostensibly focuses on an amateur investigation by former Catholic school students into the unsolved murder of a young nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, who was their teacher at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore in the 1960s. Because of the connection to Maryland, where I live, and the connection to the Catholic faith, which I practice, I decided to watch the documentary when I first heard about it. Almost immediately after I started watching, however, I felt uncertain that I should continue. While the film does show the efforts made to solve Sister Cathy's murder, it also dwells quite a bit on a sex abuse scandal at Archbishop Keough High School that may or may not be connected to the murder itself. Because of the darkness of the content and my concerns over the treatment of the Church by the filmmakers , it took me nearly two months to finish the 7 episodes of the series. Now that I have seen the whole thing, I'm still not sure what I think, but I've compiled a list of my observations about the documentary, in the hopes that they might help others decide whether or not watch.

1. The Keepers inspires sympathy for sex abuse victims.

First, I'd like to say that I do think it is important for Catholics to understand the impact of the sex abuse scandal on the individuals, families, and communities who were victimized by clergy. The first-person accounts of what happened to these young girls at Keough are deeply disturbing to me, and though I was always disappointed in the Church for its poor handling of abusers, I have a new appreciation for how distressing it was for young women to be preyed upon by men who used their positions as priests in order to commit acts of great evil. It is, of course, true that priests are no more likely to abuse children than any other man in any other position, and it is important to me that Catholics continue to defend themselves against the idea that all priests are pedophiles. Still, sometimes I think we can become so defensive over our culture's hatred toward our Church that we turn a blind eye to the real pain of real people. In that respect, this film is eye-opening and powerful.

2. The Keepers spends a lot of time on the sex abuse scandal. 

Despite my feelings of sympathy for the victims, I did notice that this documentary dwells heavily on the abuse scandal, to the point that it feels a little like a bait and switch. For several episodes, the murder takes a backseat to the details of attacks on these young girls, and it begins to feel like one is watching an expose about the sex abuse scandal and not a murder investigation at all. Obviously, the women who are investigating Sister Cathy's murder have a theory of the crime in which Sister Cathy was killed because she knew about sex abuse taking place in the school, so it does make sense to explore all the evidence they can find. But I did question whether the filmmakers chose to include so much about it because they knew it would appeal to our culture's desire to condemn the Church. Obviously, these girls were really abused, and the Church is responsible for that, but there was so much detail about each attack that after a while I started to feel really uncomfortable.

3. The individuals who appear in The Keepers all seem to be former Catholics.

When I first became interested in watching this series, I think I expected more practicing Catholics to be involved in the investigation. Instead, it seems that every abuse victim, every priest, and every nun who was interviewed for the film has left the Church. I am not necessarily surprised that someone who was abused would have a hard time remaining Catholic after enduring such trauma, but the prevalence of ex-Catholics and the complete absence of any outwardly practicing Catholics gives the series a subtle bias that bothers me. I feel like it contributes to an idea in our culture that Catholicism is something one outgrows, or gets over. Certainly someone who hates the church prior to watching The Keepers would not be challenged in that position at all as the series progresses.

4. The Keepers routinely avoids calling clergy and religious by their titles.

I have always been kind of a stickler about capitalizing pronouns that refer to God and properly addressing nuns, priests, and bishops using their correct titles and greetings. So it bothered me when I realized that the filmmakers and investigators associated with The Keepers routinely refer to clergy and religious by just their first or last names without regard for their proper titles. In some instances, it makes sense, because the individuals in question are no longer sisters or priests, but there were other situations where it felt that their titles were being omitted to distance the individuals from the Church and to demonstrate an unwillingness on the part of the filmmakers to respect the priesthood or sisterhood. I readily admit that I was looking for red flags, and it is very possible I am reading too much into this particular observation, but it happened often enough that it felt intentional.

5. The Keepers speculates a lot of about Sister Cathy's commitment to her calling.

Initially, I thought that Sister Cathy was going to be the one Catholic in the film to represent what the Church actually teaches, and to fulfill her role as a nun without a hint of scandal. Sadly, there are large sections of certain episodes that pore over Sister Cathy's personal letters and quote sections where she expresses doubts about her final vows and a possible desire to  marry a man (a priest, actually) rather than go on living as a nun. I think these can be interpreted as the last-minute questions any young person asks herself before making a lifelong commitment, but the film avoids commenting to this effect, leaving the impression that Sister Cathy didn't take her calling to be a nun seriously, and further perpetuating the idea that the Church is an institution which one leaves when one eventually comes to one's senses. 

6. The Keepers does not allow the Archdiocese of Baltimore to defend itself adequately. 

As I watched each episode, and the evidence mounted against certain priests and against the Archdiocese as a whole, I kept waiting for the moment when the Archdiocese would have an opportunity to defend itself.  When this moment finally did come, however, it was a let-down. The Archdiocese was only willing to submit answers to questions in writing, rather than having a representative appear on camera. When the written answers are shared with various interview subjects, these subjects invariably accuse the Archdiocese of lying. Since we have only the responses to the select few questions Archdiocese representatives were asked, and no follow-up questions to clarify anything or refute the claims of the interviewees, the reader is left with the impression that the Archdiocese lied in the '60s and continues to lie to protect itself now. Maybe this is true - and if so, the Archdiocese should be taken to task for concealing the truth - but it seems to me that there is more to the story that was purposely left out because it might paint the Church in a positive light. At the very least, I think the filmmakers could have asked many more nuanced and probing questions than they did. In its own FAQ about the case, the Archdiocese states that "The Archdiocese offered on several occasions to answer any and all questions for the production and, in fact, provided written responses to questions from producers of the series. Unfortunately, the producers asked very few questions of the Archdiocese before releasing the series and did not respond to the Archdiocese’s request to receive an advanced copy of the series." It strikes me as irresponsibly one-sided to let the opinion of a small number of interview subjects be the final word about the Church's role (if it had one) in the death of Sister Cathy, especially when it seems the Archdiocese was open to answering more questions.

7. The research presented in The Keepers is impressive.

Even with all my quibbles about the treatment of the church, I think what kept me watching the series was the impressive amount of research Sister Cathy's former students have been able to accomplish. The Keough alumnae responsible for the grassroots effort to find Sister Cathy's killer have truly left no stone unturned, and seeing their organizational methods, the charts and stacks of paper, and their boldness in making phone calls and visits to strangers really appealed to the side of me that studied library science and enjoys Sue Grafton novels. Whatever the attitude of the filmmakers, I feel that these women were in every way dedicated to finding justice for their beloved teacher, and that their only bias is in favor of the truth, whatever that may turn out to be.

Seven Quick Takes is hosted weekly by This Ain't the Lyceum

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reading Through History: D.J.'s Worst Enemy by Robert Burch (1965)

While his older sister, Clara May and younger brother, "Skinny Little Renfroe" manage to get along and work together as a team and a family, D.J. often chooses to be on the outskirts, picking fights and causing mischief with his best friend. Though his parents try to convince him repeatedly to join the family and stopping picking on his siblings, it isn't until peach picking season, when D.J.'s pranks lead to serious illness for Renfroe and major disappointment and embarrassment for Clara May, that he begins to understand he is truly his own worst enemy.

This book, though superficially similar to a book like Strawberry Girl, is actually very simplistic and almost boring by comparison. The story is message-driven, and there is never a moment where the reader is not aware that she is being taught a life lesson about the importance of family cooperation. D.J. is not a particularly believable twelve-year-old boy to begin with, and the sudden dawning of his self-awareness in the second half of the book makes him even less credible. This story clearly has one aim: to warn kids away from being like D.J. And it's hard to feel connected to a first-person narrator who is clearly just a pawn in a very special lesson. 

I did like the descriptions of the peach harvest, which gave a glimpse into this very specific time and place. I just wished these details had served as more than a vehicle for the didactic storyline. It felt like most of the events of the book were random and included only as a means of forcing D.J.'s ultimate reformation. 

We own this book, and I would have no problem with my kids reading it if they want to in the future, but I won't be prioritizing it as a read-aloud nor would I be especially disappointed if they decided not to read it, or said they didn't like it. I'd give it a solid three stars because the message, though lacking in subtlety, is a good one, and because the writing is decent. Still, it is mostly a forgettable book, and I wouldn't recommend bending over backwards trying to get a copy, nor am I especially interestedin the sequel, Renfroe's Christmas. I am, however, looking forward to trying some of the author's other books, especially Ida Early Comes Over the Mountain and Queenie Peavey, about both of which I have heard good things.  

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Book Review: The Spettecake Holiday by Edith Unnerstad (1958)

Five-year-old Pelle-Göran, who is ordinarily a very well-behaved little boy, has begun acting out as a result of his mother's recent injury which has kept her confined to a hospital bed. Though his mother is expected to recover, Pelle-Göran's father thinks it will be better for everyone if Pelle-Göran goes away on a holiday to his grandmother's house. While visiting his grandmother, Pelle-Göran gets to know his cousin, Kaja, who is an orphan, as well as a variety of colorful characters who live near the farm. While his mother convalesces back home, Pelle-Göran helps to reunite an estranged grandfather with his grandchildren, discovers whether dogs can talk, and learns to make a spettecake, the gift he has promised to the doctor for curing his mother.

This novel, translated from Swedish and set in Sweden, is a charming story of the same variety as The Good Master, wherein a child steps out of his comfort zone and begins to grow up as a result of the experience. Pelle-Göran, though seemingly obnoxious at the start of the book is actually a sympathetic and sweet protagonist. His concern for his mother, as well as his innocence about farm living, make it easy to root for him, and his friendship with cousin Kaja is a strong element of the story. Because Pelle-Göran likes to hear stories, there are also a few Swedish folktales interspersed throughout the novel, which give the book a little extra cultural flavor. Though much of the story feels universal, and could happen on a farm in any country, these folktales help to give the American reader a little insight into Swedish customs.

The Spettecake Holiday wasn't exactly the kind of book I had in mind when I first chose family stories as this month's theme for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge, but it winds up being a good fit. Not only does Pelle-Göran worry for his mother, but he also grows closer in affection to his grandmother and cousin and witnesses and helps to resolve the difficulties between two of the neighborhood children and their own grandfather. The story itself is largely episodic, and sometimes I found myself wondering if anything was ever going to happen, but what seems to be at its heart is the importance of family and the value of their support in enduring childhood difficulties. Overall, I found it to be an enjoyable and gentle tale, appropriate for reading aloud to kids as young as five or six. In addition to The Good Master, The Spettecake Holiday would also pair well with the 2015 novel, Adventures with Waffles by Maria Parr, which is set in Norway and is also a work of translation.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The RAHM Report for 7/17/17

This was a fairly productive reading week compared with the rest of the summer so far.

I finished three novels for adults:

  • A Novena for Murder by Sister Carol Anne O'Marie was a very satisfying mystery starring an elderly but spunky nun as the main character. I like that the book was written by an actual nun, so it is theologically sound and represents the church fairly, but I also appreciated that not everyone in the book was perfect, and that the nuns in the book have flaws and foibles like anyone else. I see that some of the other titles are on Open Library, so I'll plan to read those soon. 
  • Murder in the Mystery Suite by Ellery Adams ended up being a worthwhile read, even if elements of the story are a bit far-fetched. I really like the setting and the characters, and though I think my next Adams book will probably be book 3 from the Books by the Bay series, I do plan to return to this series and see where it goes next.
  • Always My Girl by Samantha Chase is a contemporary romance novel, and though I liked the first two books of the series, this one fell flat. Each book of the series is about a different Shaughnessy brother, and Quinn, featured in this book, seems to have much less personality than any of the others. I also just didn't feel the connection between him and his lifelong best friend, Anna, who is the heroine of the story. Too much sex and not enough character development overall. But I've already started the next book, This is Our Song (about Riley, the musician), and so far, it is much better. I'm sure there will be some sexual content that I could live without, but as long as the characters are a bit more interesting, I will stick with it. 

I also finished two children's books this week:

  • My husband brought home The Golden Basket by Ludwig Bemelmans one night, and I read it in about an hour. In addition to being a great kids' travelogue about 1930s Bruges, Belgium, it also turned out to be the first book in which Madeline appears! A full review of the book will be on the blog later in the month. I really wish this book were more widely available because I really enjoyed it.
  • On Quicksand Pond by Janet Taylor Lisle was mostly a disappointment. I'll have a full review either here or on Goodreads in a few days, but for a book with so much going for it - mysterious storylines, interesting characters, and strong descriptions - it really just wasn't satisfying.

Next on my to-read list are two more children's books. I'm reading Those Miller Girls! by Alberta Wilson Constant (illustrated by the Krushes!) for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge and A Picturesque Tale of Progress: Beginnings I because we just bought the whole set and I want to start previewing for homeschool purposes. Technically I am also still reading Rightfully Ours, but I haven't really touched it this week, and I'm still listening to Life Among the Savages, but slowly, in part because I don't want it to end!

Today I'm linking up with Unleashing Readers / Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday, What Are You Reading?

Friday, July 14, 2017

Paging Through Picture Books: I Know a Lady (1984), The Twelve Dancing Princesses (1990), If Not for the Cat (2004), Planting the Trees of Kenya (2008)

Here's another set of picture books selected to fulfill these categories in the Picture Book Reading Challenge: #25 free choice (I Know a Lady), #35 a fairy tale (The Twelve Dancing Princesses), #49 a book published in the 2000s (If Not for the Cat), #64 a picture book biography (Planting the Trees of Kenya).

I Know a Lady by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by James Stevenson

I often associate James Stevenson with those wacky books about Grandpa and Uncle Wainey, so it was a surprise to see his softer side come out in his pictures for this Charlotte Zolotow book. The text describes a figure many children can recognize from their own neighborhoods: an old lady who lives alone and interacts with kids in various ways over the course of a year's holidays and celebrations. The text is spare, but the overall story is a poignant portrait of an inter-generational friendship that has made a strong impact on the young narrator. I'm not certain that kids can appreciate this book as well as adults, but I really loved it.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Ruth Sanderson

I have never been much of a fairy tale reader, but Miss Muffet (3 years, 7 months) and I have both fallen in love with this picture book. For me, it's really the story that is intriguing. I like the element of mystery (why are the princesses' shoes worn out every morning?) and the fact that the underdog (Michael, the garden boy) becomes the hero. For Miss Muffet, I really think it's more about the illustrations, as she asks different questions each time we read it, and she seems completely engrossed by the pictures on each re-reading.

If Not for the Cat by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Ted Rand 

If Not for the Cat is a book I discovered on Instagram, where a fellow Catholic mom and book lover said she thought my three-year-old might like it. It's a collection of haiku, each poem of which describes a specific animal depicted in the accompanying illustration. Miss Muffet did indeed enjoy naming each animal after I read the haiku, and she actually knew almost all of them, despite the fact that the poems don't name their subjects. I thought the descriptions of each animal were wonderfully well-done, and I liked seeing a more serious side to the work of the often silly Prelutsky.

Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A. Nivola

My husband borrowed a few books illustrated by Claire Nivola from the library, and I liked the way they looked and read them as well. This is one of many picture book biographies of Wangari Maathai, who was a popular subject for early elementary school book reports when I was working in the library, but I found it more memorable and more beautifully illustrated than many of the others. I like the small details in Nivola's pictures and the fact that most of them are sweeping two-page spreads focused on a big picture, instead of on one small aspect of her subject. The text is straightforward and strictly factual, but there is a bit of playfulness and creative storytelling in the pictures that I enjoyed very much.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Why We Don't Do Summer Reading at the Public Library

I'm a children's librarian currently writing a textbook about successful summer reading programs at the public library, and yet my own preschooler and toddler don't participate. Why not? Read on for my five main reasons!

We don't need the motivation. 

My kids, who are the children of two book-loving librarians, absolutely love to read and listen to stories. In their short lives, they have already developed an intrinsic desire to spend time with books just for the pleasure it brings. Books are part of their play, their bedtime routine, their relationship to their grandparents, and even their friendship with each other. These days, summer reading programs are designed to target students who might fall victim to "summer slide" and families with "reluctant readers." Since my kids are neither of these, I don't usually see much that the local summer reading program can offer them.

The goals are too easy. 

Most of our local libraries have very low expectations for the number of books they want kids to read in a summer. Often, we read in a typical day the number of books the libraries want us to read throughout the entire summer! I understand that the goals are designed to appeal to people who may not read to their children at all, but if this is the case, then the program isn't for my family anyway.

Not much reading is involved. 

Some libraries don't expect you to read at all with kids under 5, but instead ask them to complete "early literacy activities" like singing the ABCs during a diaper change (which I assume is a suggestion written by someone who has never changed a poopy toddler) or visiting the firehouse (which does not necessarily involve literacy, but was one of the choices at a local library last summer). While the literacy activities are a nice idea, they are not what I am looking for when I seek out a reading-focused program for kids. My three-year-old is starting to sound out words; I can't imagine it would be a lot of fun for her to revert back to memorizing the alphabet, especially when she could be poring over a picture book and picking out the words she recognizes.

The record-keeping is too tedious. 

Last summer, at least one library system expected me to keep track of not just the titles of the books I read to the girls, but to also report how many minutes it took to read each one. I know I probably could have made a good guess about each book based on its length, but it seemed like such a ridiculous thing to ask me to do that I just decided we wouldn't do the program. Libraries are also starting to keep track of progress online, which is convenient, but not terribly appealing to my screen-free preschooler and toddler. They never get to see the badges they accumulate, and often the badges require me to tailor my reading choices to specific categories. It's too much to keep track of, especially when we don't really need to be encouraged to keep reading.

We don't need (or want) the prizes. 

Since my kids already love to read and see it as its own reward, I see no reason to introduce them to the concept of reading for prizes. Sure, it might be nice to win a new book, which is sometimes an option, but the choices are usually either books we already have, or books I would let into my house only over my dead body. Other prizes tend to be things we'll never use, like baseball tickets, or plastic toys, of which we just don't need any more. When I was a kid, I was content to have a sticker to add to my reading log for each book, and maybe a pencil to take home at the end of the summer. I like that simplicity much more than the flashier things they want to give kids now - and a program that simple I can always design myself.

Do your kids do summer reading at the library?  What's the program like in your community? 

Monday, July 10, 2017

The RAHM Report for 7/10/17

Adult Books

I have a few grown-up books in progress this week:

I'm about halfway through Murder in the Mystery Suite by Ellery Adams. There is a little unexpected twist in the story that has just come to light, which makes it a little more like the TV miniseries The Librarian than I would prefer, but I love the way Adams develops characters and the setting is charming, so I'm sticking with it.

I'm also finally approaching the halfway point in A Novena for Murder. I like this book a lot, so I'm not sure why it's taking me so long to finish it! I expect to be done in another day or so. The main character is a plucky older nun, which I love, and there is a strong sense of Catholic morality, even though not all of the characters abide by church teaching.

Finally, my husband got me hooked on the audiobook of Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages. I listened to a few excerpts with him, and then started over from the beginning on my own, so I'm only about 20 minutes in. Still, I can already tell that Shirley Jackson and I would have been best friends if we'd been alive at the same time. The chapter about giving birth to her third child is especially funny to me right now, but I also love that Jackson doesn't drive or excel at housework, and that, like my own three-year-old, her daughter Jannie has imaginary children who cause problems in public. I am probably going to need to own this in print because there are many sections I know I will want to re-read when I'm done.

Children's and Teen Books

This past weekend, I finished two middle grade novels for the Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge: The Spettecake Holiday by Edith Unnerstad and D.J.'s Worst Enemy by Robert Burch. Spettecake was great; the other was more moralistic and predictable. Reviews of both are forthcoming. I've also got a whole stack of family stories my husband has recommended, and I'm planning to read at least two more before the month is out.

I also happened upon a free Kindle download of a book called Rightfully Ours by Carolyn Astfalk. I don't read a lot of independently published books, but I made an exception for this one because the author writes for Catholic teens and there isn't much Catholic fiction available from any publisher, let alone a mainstream one. The writing is quite good so far, and the characters are suitably flawed, so I'll probably stick with it and see how it goes.

Also on my to-read list in the near future are The Quicksand Pond by Janet Taylor Lisle, which I have checked out in Overdrive, and The Silver Moon of Summer by Leila Howland, for which I am 9th or 10th on the Overdrive hold list.

Though I am very late to the party, it is still technically Monday in my time zone, so I'm still going to link up with The Book Date and Unleashing Readers / Teach Mentor Texts.