Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

The Last Thirteen


It’s my job to teach reading.  It is my pleasure to help children learn to love books.  That is truly the more difficult task.  I want to interest my students in good books, so when I hear about a book that is popular with them, I try to find out why it is appealing.  The Last Thirteen by James Phelan is one of these.  

Every morning, my students have to write a sentence or two in their reading logs about what they read the night before.  One student who mentioned this title kept writing stimulating reports such as, “Sam and Lora were being pushed into a car while being shot at.”  “Sam and Alex were running from some men with guns.”  “Sam dived for the hole in the floor and saw a flash of gray as an Agent bumped into him.”

I finally asked him, “What exactly are you reading?  It sounds like a video game.”  When he told me the title, a couple of other boys in the class perked up and agreed that this was a really good book.  I asked to borrow it when he was finished.

I have read hundreds of books for a book review web site, and I try to read with an open mind, but I confess to becoming immediately suspicious when I realized there are 13 books in the series first published in 2013.  Turning out books at that rate doesn’t make me think “quality.”  But it could happen.  

Apparently, the gimmick is that the series starts with the number 13 and the titles work their way backward to 1.  The Last 13 are teenagers with special gifts who need to be brought together to save the world from “an enemy plotting to destroy us all.”

At Plumfield & Paideia, we have no intention of making it our habit to review books for the sole purpose of disparaging them.  However, the complete lack of redeeming value in this one has been haunting me for several weeks.

One positive aspect of this book is that there is nothing in it that is generally considered overtly offensive.  No drugs, sex, or swearing.  People are killed; there is just no way around it when you are saving the world from an all-destroying plotter, but there are no gory details.  Unfortunately, there is also precious little substance and no originality.  Besides finding out that he has special gifts that make him suitable for world-saving, Sam, the main character, also discovers that most of his life thus far has been a lie.  His parents are not his biological  parents!!!  They are agents who were hired, “To look after you, guide you, to observe . . . your dreams.  To see if you could be guided to have true dreams . . .  The Agents’ job is to raise a potential Dreamer as their own child, caring for them, watching them, reporting on them constantly.”  What a blow!  “Sam felt nauseous.”  

This book reads more like a movie script than literature.  There is non-stop action with a bare minimum of description.  After a harrowing escape from the bad guys, which includes a helicopter crashing into a swimming pool, Sam and two of his friends are whisked from the United States to Switzerland in a super-fast jet.  In what way does location matter to the plot?  I suppose it sounds exotic.  What is it like in Switzerland?  All we learn is that it is far from the United States and that they have mountains and snow.  

From the stunning descriptions of setting, prepare for the deep and vivid emotions our characters experience.  “Sam felt guilt.”  Later, “Sam was shocked.”  

Another element that could be considered positive by readers who may be consuming this book while involved in a high-speed chase or on guard for an attack by marauding monkeys, is that sustained attention is not a requirement.  There are 39 chapters in a book 207 pages long – no chapter is longer than six 5” x 8” large-type pages.  

While lacking in gore, drugs, sex, and swearing, this volume appears to be the opening for increasing mysticism.  Sam’s gift is his ability to see the future in dreams.  Translated from hieroglyphics, the obligatory ancient prophecy reads, “Dreaming of their destiny/Minds intertwined, thirteen will be./ Falter not, the last cannot fall,/Or Solaris shall rule over all.”  Sam and his friends are given dreamcatchers to wear for protection, dreamcatcher emblems are worn on the uniforms of Sam’s handlers.  One hallway in the Swiss fortress is made of spectral glass that reads a person’s aura and reflects his gifts.  Sam has to get hold of a stone called the Star of Egypt before Solaris, the super-villain, gets it first.  

I don’t have space to list all the cliches and awkward phrases.  “Everyone here is in danger because of me.” “The very livelihood of our great city is at threat.”  “With chaos reigning, Sam and Lora . . .”  “He checked his watch — it’d stopped working.”  “It’d?”  

Sam and his team are given suits made of secret material “borrowed” from the military.  They are bulletproof and can “change shape and style at the direction of the wearer.”  Is that fair to Solaris?  Let us not leave out the obligatory physical training scene.  Sam and Alex get about a half-hour workout before they’re sent out to battle the forces of evil.  Thank goodness Sam already knows jujitsu.   

The last chapter of the book is Sam’s battle with Solaris.  The final line is, “This is where you die, Sam . . . “  Gimmick?  I should say so!


Posted in Book Lovers Community

The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux

“My God! I love you!” – Last words of St. Therese of Lisieux


On September 30, 1897, Therese Martin, Sr. Therese of the Child Jesus, quitted her 24-year-old body and entered into eternity. The “Little Flower,” (a name she called herself which became emblematic of her relationship with the great gardener, God) was the ninth child born to Louis and Zelie Martin. After a painful battle against tuberculosis, Therese followed four of her siblings and both of her parents into the eternal arms of Jesus. The remaining four Martin sisters (who were also Carmelite nuns and therefore Therese’s natural and religious sisters) submitted Therese’s writings to the convent chaplain so that the process of her canonization could begin. In 1925, she was canonized a Catholic saint. In 1997, Pope John Paul II named her the third female Doctor of the Church. There is hardly a Western Catholic alive who does not know the name of St. Therese and at least some details of her life. In the Catholic tradition, she is one of our most powerful and beloved examples of Christian witness.

Under the direction of her mother superior (and her natural sister, Pauline), Therese wrote three letters detailing the story of her conversion, the story of her soul, and the story of her life inside of Carmel. These three letters (written to different family members, at different times, and in different lengths) were written by Therese (in obedience to her superiors) because many suspected that she would be a candidate for canonization after death and these testimonials would aid in that process. A truly obedient little sister and Carmelite sister, Therese gave her sister Pauline permission to edit the letters as necessary. Upon Therese’s death, her sisters trimmed, edited, and reworked some of Therese’s writing. While the original documents and the edited documents say substantially the same things, they are adjusted for different audiences. The edited version of her writing was published and is widely read under the title The Story of a Soul.

“It would certainly have been impossible to publish Therese’s manuscript word for word at the time… in a period when so much importance was attached to perfect correctness of style and scrupulous respect for literary conventions, to publish the rough notes of a young and unknown nun would have meant making oneself ridiculous as well as betraying the author… Mother Agnes in fact rewrote Therese’s autobiography… There is no doubt that the content remains substantially the same, so does the basis of the doctrine, but the form differs to the extent that the temperament of Mother Agnes differed from that of Therese.” (Introduction to The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux)

Therese and two of her natural and religious Carmelite sisters on laundry day.

In 1952, Fr. François de Sainte Marie, a Carmelite priest, undertook the work of compiling a facsimile of the original writings of St. Therese. The French Carmelites asked Msgr. Ronald Knox to translate that French document into English. “One delightful trait runs throughout, namely a delicious vein of humour making her most vividly human, and who could better interpret the humour of Saint Therese than Monsignor Knox?” (Foreword)

Like many “good” Catholics, I first approached St. Therese in The Story of A Soul. Unlike so many of my friends, I was completely turned off by the writings of this giant of Catholic culture. I found her writing to be saccharine sweet and disconnected from my reality. I presumed that I was simply not called to love her.

When my reading buddy and I finished Creed In Slow Motion, we wanted more Knox to read. We loved the friendly and humorous voice in which he writes. We had been watching Bishop Barron and Word On Fire’s Catholicism series, and I really wanted to know why a theologian I so deeply respect was so smitten with St. Therese, when I could not approach her. On a whim, we agreed to read Knox’s translation of St. Therese’s autobiography. We were richly rewarded. Therese is anything but saccharine and her writing is powerful. Knox gave me a Therese who had meat on her bones and fire in her belly. She was loving and delightful, but she was also prideful and utterly human. Thanks to Knox, I believe that I have made a new friend in the “Little Flower.”

Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin

St. Therese was born very frail and her mother despaired of her maturing to full bloom. St. Zelie Martin had already buried four of her nine children and wrote to a friend, “I have no hope of saving her. The poor little thing suffers horribly…. It breaks your heart to see her.” Mercifully, Zelie was wrong. Therese had an iron will and an inherent passion to live. This strong will was rooted in a fierce pride. As a small child, Therese was delightful, but also stubborn. As Therese tells us, she had a very happy early childhood. When her mother died, however, Therese turned inward, becoming extremely sensitive and irritable. Her older sisters were loving and became surrogate mothers to her.


“The extraordinarily wide circulation of The Story of a Soul, which has become part of the patrimony of the Church, may tend to make the reader forget that its original character was that of an intimate family document. Witnesses at the Canonization Process stressed this point…” (Introduction to The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux)

This autobiography is interesting because it was never intended for publication. Therese desired only to make a full confession of her life, her conversion, her struggles against sin, and her desire to serve the Lord. In her humility and honesty, we get a gorgeous theology which has become central to modern Catholic thought. Therese studied the lives of the great saints like St. Teresa of Avila and became discouraged. She bemoaned that she could never do great things for Jesus like Catherine of Siena or Joan of Arc did. The more she grew in holiness, the more she understood that God plants flowers of many varieties in His garden. While she could not be a strong and perfect rose, she could be a little flower that loved Jesus in small but complete ways. She writes of a childlike prayer life and notes that while her prayers may never be great, they will have to be good enough because Jesus said that children would inherit the kingdom of God. The “Little Flower” even jokes that while the Grand Teresa could approach our Lord and look up to Him, she the Little Flower would ultimately get closer to Jesus because her smallness would beckon Him to stoop and pick her up.

Thanks to this translation, her story is filled with warmth, humor, humility, and friendliness. As I read of her days in the Carmelite monastery of Lisieux, I was inspired to study her “little ways” more carefully. Her small sacrifices were often far harder to make than great sacrifices would have been, because they were done in secret. Her example is particularly powerful to me in this season of life.


Therese as a young child


Posted in Book Lovers Community

Instant Pot Hunter’s Minestrone


Several years ago Greg and I fell in love with Tyler Florence’s “Hunter’s Minestrone”. Since learning how to use my Instant Pot, I have been having fun adapting my favorite recipes for my new toy. This one was fun but a bit tricky to adapt because of the pasta in the original recipe and the overall volume of ingredients. We played with it until we found something that seemed to work for our Instant Pot.



3/4 pound loose sweet Italian pork sausage
Extra-virgin olive oil

8 fresh sage leaves
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 sprig fresh thyme
3 large cloves of garlic minced
2 medium carrots, roughly chopped
2 celery ribs, roughly chopped
1 onion, roughly chopped

1 (28-ounce) can crushed plum tomatoes
1 bay leaf
2 quarts chicken stock
1/2 cup of pearl barley (not instant)

1 (15-ounce) can cannelloni beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 bunch fresh parsley leaves, finely minced

Coarsely ground black pepper

Note: We buy our Italian pork sausage in links. If you do the same, cut open the casing, remove the meat, and discard the casing. 


  1. Press SAUTE  on the Instant Pot. (If it is not set to high, adjust it.)
  2. Saute the sausage in olive oil until it is just starting to brown
  3. Stir in the sage leaves, rosemary, thyme and garlic.
  4. Stir in the carrots, celery, and onion.
  5. Allow the ingredients to get coated and warm.
  6. Press CANCEL.
  7. Add the tomatoes, bay leaf, chicken stock, and barley.
  8. Press MANUAL and set it to 20 minutes.
  9. After the cooking is done, use the NATURAL RELEASE for 10 minutes.
  10. After 10 minutes, press CANCEL.
  11. Use the QUICK RELEASE for the rest of the pressure release.
  12. Open the Instant Pot and stir in the cannelloni beans and parsley.
  13. Allow the beans a few minutes in the soup to warm up.
  14. Season with salt and pepper and serve.