Book Review: Don’t Put Lipstick on the Cat, by Kersten Campbell

As I prepare to write this book review, the song, “I Love to Laugh,” from Disney’s Mary Poppins, runs through my head:

I love to laugh

Loud and long and clear.

I love to laugh

It’s getting worse ev’ry year!

The more I laugh,

The more I fill with glee.

And the more the glee,

The more I’m a merrier me!

Don’t Put Lipstick on the Cat: Humorous Tales of Motherhood, by Kersten Campbell, filled me with absolute glee. It has been a long time since I’ve read such a humorous book! I generally steer clear of books (and movies) that are touted as “comedies,” because I find that many of them are funny at the expense of others—which isn’t the kind of humor that strikes me as funny at all. But in Don’t Put Lipstick on the Cat, the author follows what I think of as the Golden Rule of Comedy—“Portray others as you would have others portray you”—in that she pokes fun at herself and at all the trouble she gets into in her efforts to follow the original Golden Rule. The Campbell in Don’t Put Lipstick on the Cat is a big-hearted, well-meaning, slightly devious mom who I would enjoy chatting with over Ramen Brûlée (Don’t ask—just read Chapter 11.). Of course, we would be interrupted by regular catastrophe, but what mom isn’t? Perhaps it’s the very notion that somebody out there has as many mishaps as me that makes me appreciate this book so much…

Consider the delightful beginning of Chapter Six, “Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Six Kids in a Tub”:

When you are a mother in charge of a family, every day is fraught with perilous dilemmas and burning questions that only you, through your amazing wit and marvelous ingenuity have the wisdom to solve. You, as a mother, are required to crack mysteries and solve riddles that are so tough, so astounding, and so mind boggling, they would catapult even the most exceptional detective mind into everlasting lunacy. No amateur mind could solve riddles such as these startling questions you face every day: How did your husband’s underwear get in the freezer? Who stuck spaghetti all over the cat? What happened to the Thanksgiving turkey that was sitting on the table a few minutes ago? If your son didn’t go to the bathroom in the potty, where did he go to the bathroom? And last but not least, how in the world can you get ten children bathed, brushed, and ready for church in less than ten minutes? This was the burning question facing me during a visit to my sister-in-law’s house after we woke up late one Sunday morning.

“What are we going to do?” screeched my sister-in-law Sue, cracking her knuckles and pacing in front of the clock. “I’ve only got one bathroom.”

My sister-in-law is your basic nervous person. This is unfortunate because I am allergic to nervous people. The allergic reaction I have doesn’t make me sneeze, it makes me suddenly calm, as if nothing in the world matters, especially not being late for church. The more nervous my sister-in-law became, the slower my heart beat until I had to check my breathing to make sure I was still alive.

“Don’t worry,” I said with confidence. “I’ve got the perfect solution. Let’s do a cousin bath assembly line.”

I won’t continue to quote the chapter. Suffice it to say that things do not go according to plan (A seventh character may suddenly join the six kids in the tub, and its name starts and ends with p.).

Um.

Let’s talk about the writing nitty-gritty, shall we?

Campbell’s writing is wonderfully wry and also highly visual. The events in each vignette are described so vividly that the reader is immediately drawn into the story, as if he or she is actually a nosy neighbor who was disturbed by the commotion next door and so decided to pop in to make sure everything was okay—and then decided to pop right back out again, because while things were obviously not okay, no one was in immediate mortal danger.

Although Don’t Put Lipstick on the Cat is based on Campbell’s real-life experiences, she uses made-up names for each of her characters. This not only protects the identities of the (ahem) innocent, but it also allows Campbell to get at the personalities of her characters without making extensive explanations for their behavior. “Scoot,” for example, has a knack for scooting out of the trouble his antics frequently get him into.

Another thing worth noting: The Library of Congress Cataloging In-Publication Data lists this book’s topics as “Families—Humor,” and “Mormon Families—Humor,” but the hilarity that ensues in each chapter of the book is something that everyone can relate to—particularly if the reader has ever tried to run a self-propelled lawn mower or has had a kid in violin lessons, that is. The vignettes are reminiscent of those found in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, by Jean Kerr and Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. They celebrate family life and motherhood and would make the perfect gift for Mother’s Day—which is only a week away! It’s available in paperback or in a Kindle edition.

Short Story Revisited: Jack Síomón and the Devil’s Lantern

I wrote this short story about a year ago, just in time for Halloween. If this is your first time reading it, then I hope you enjoy it! If you’ve read it before, then I hope you enjoy it again!

Jack Síomón and the Devil’s Lantern

A Short Story by Kim Harris Thacker

The alms box is naught but inky shadow, stretched cat-like along the shelf behind the altar at St. Vincent’s. ‘Tis bad luck to cross paths with a black cat, but when you’ve drunk away all the coin you earned from your pumpkin harvest, ‘tis just as unlucky to cross paths with an alms box at Sunday meetin’. Especially if the parish priest was one who bought a fair few o’ your pumpkins the day before.

Though ‘tis night now, and hours have passed since Father Malloy called me out, his sermon still rings in me ears:

“Faithless Síomón Pedear! He sunk ‘neath the waves when the more believin’ would’ve trod ‘em like they was solid earth! When the cock crew, he was ashamed, for he’d thrice denied the master!” And all the while, Father Malloy’s eyes was fixed on me, Jack Síomón, who’d passed the alms box along to his shamefaced wife without dropping a coin into the jingle.

The wind blows the naked trees outside, and I curse under me breath, for the moonshine falls in reds, blues, and greens through the stained glass o’ the Annunciation and onto a lock at the front o’ the alms box. ‘Tis the size o’ Eden’s own bedeviled apple, that lock. I slam me fist onto the shelf, and the box jumps: a locked box that ain’t locked to anythin’.

A locked box what’s made o’ wood and will bust like a pumpkin, sure.

Into me arms, like a mewlin’ babe, and out we go! I hitch up me trousers, one-handed, and snatch at the doorknob. That’s when Father Malloy stumbles through a side door, mussy-headed and holdin’ a lantern aloft.

“Who’s there?”

Down the box goes, onto the floor. A mighty crash, like the waves o’ the Red Sea breakin’ on Pharaoh’s head.

Aye, just like a pumpkin: The box busts, and coins skitter away in every direction—shinin’ beetley-bugs what some choirboy will pocket in the morn, thinkin’ to show his mam. I scramble and scoop, scramble and scoop.

“Stop! Thief!” Father Malloy bellows.

“What is it, Father?” And here’s the curate, come down from his cot in the room behind the choir loft.

I put me head down and bull to the main door with only a handful o’ jinglers in me pocket. Still, it’s enough to buy a dozen pints at the Fife and Drum.

“Ye’ll have the Devil to pay for your thievin’, whoever ye be!” Father Malloy shouts, and I congratulate meself for thinkin’ to nail a cross into the soles o’ me boots. ‘Twill draw off the scent–if I can get free in the first place, that is; for the curate, less the talkin’ sort and more the doin’, gives chase.

Bed-dressed though he be, he’s a swift one. We’re off through High Street and down Baker’s Lane, and it isn’t ‘til I’ve dodged down a good few alleys and have ended up in the one between the blacksmith’s and the cooper’s that I finally lose him.

Or do I?

A shuffle from a doorway, and then a tall, tall figure blocks me path.

“Jacky Síomón.” The voice is thunder in me bones and a hiss in me ears. “I’ve come for ye, Jacky.”

“What d’ye mean?” I step back. “Who are ye?”

The figure throws off the hood o’ his cloak, and though I’ve ne’er seen him before, I know he’s the devil, come for me soul.

“Come along, Jacky. We’ve a mile or two to walk this night.”

Me legs set to shakin’, but if I’ve learned aught in this world, ’tis this: Ne’er show your fear to them as would knock ye down. Besides, I’m not about to leave this world without spendin’ me new jinglers. I’ve a powerful hankerin’ for a pint.

I plug me hands into me pockets, casual-like. Me fear o’ the Devil’s puny compared to the chill what crawls up me spine and settles in me throat at the discovery that there’s naught but a hole in me pocket!

I force a smile, though, for Jack Síomón can act as well as any travelin’ player.

“Sir, I’m flattered ye’ve come for me,” I says. “A busy man like ye are…I wouldn’t think ye’d have the time for Jack Síomón, the pumpkin farmer. Would’ve thought ye’d send one o’ your servants to do the job.”

I’m must be half-devil meself, for I know exactly how this’ll make Old Scratch feel.

“I come for all and sundry,” he replies. “Ye needn’t think yourself above anyone else who enters me realm.”

“No, no. O’ course not. I just thought…since all grand folks have servants to do their biddin’…Ye have servants, don’t ye?”

“I do.”

“Oh. That’s real fine. I’m sure ye’d be up to your neck in work, without ‘em. Ye must find ‘em indispensible.”

“I need no one to assist me in accomplishin’ me work. Me power be more than sufficient.”

“But…ye do have servants?”

“Ye doubt me, do ye, Jacky?”

“Oh, no. Lord Connelly, up the manor—he’s got servants, and he’s a powerful sort.”

“Ye would compare me to a human? To an insignificant earl?”

Oh, but he’s proper proud, the Devil.

“Not insignificant,” I says. “Lord Connelly’s influential. I’m payin’ ye a compliment, Devil, sir. To be likened to Lord Connelly…well. That’s somethin’ to make a man stand up tall, that is.”

For a moment, I think I’ve overdone it. But then the Devil’s eyes go back to black, instead o’ red, and he glowers at me.

“Shall I prove me prowess to ye, Jacky?”

“Would ye? That’d be lovely, that would. And ye could have a bit o’ fun at the same time!”

The Devil quirks a sleek, black eyebrow.

“See, Devil sir, there’s a curate chasin’ me, on account o’ I stole the parish alms box.”

The Devil allows himself a small smile. “He’s nearby, followin’ your trail o’ coins.”

I pat me legs with me pocketed hands and put a look o’ surprise on me face. “I’ll be! If I haven’t lost ev’ry farthin’! Oh, well…’tis me luck. Still, this’ll make for a fine joke! If ye turn yourself into a coin, sir, the curate will pick ye up and take ye into the church, with the rest o’ the offerin’ money. He’ll bring ye in, which is better than bein’ invited. Think o’ the havoc ye could wreak, and upon a church!”

The Devil looks over me shoulder, surely imaginin’ himself causin’ all manner o’ destruction. Then he looks down at me. “And such an action—turning meself into a coin—will satisfy ye? Ye’ll recognize me great power by such a menial feat?”

“Lord Connelly can’t do naught o’ the sort, sir.”

“Very well.”

The Devil shrinks afore me eyes and turns into a big, shinin’ coin. I step on him, right quick, with me iron-crossed heel. He’s mine. I’ve trapped him.

The wicked grin slips from me face, though, when I think that mayhap he’s trapped me. For the curate must be terrible close, by now, and if I step off the Devil, sure he’ll avenge himself upon me.

But Jacky Síomón’s a cunnin’ man as well as an actor and thief.

Me boot laces bear a knot what’s lasted three months, and I ain’t about to untie such a happy creation. It takes some doin’, but soon enough me foot’s free o’ me boot, and me boot’s still atop the Devil. With me cheek against the cold cobbles, I slide a shiv o’ tin what I pinched from the blacksmith’s rubbish barrel beneath the Devil and raise him and the boot up. I pitch the tin away and hold the Devil fast to the cross with me own hand.

A huffin’ and a puffin’ like to wake all creation approaches. The curate! Away I go, headed in a roundabout course to me patch.

Never thought I were a soft fellow, bein’ a farmer, but me stockin’ed foot aches somethin’ fierce! I’ve left the cobbles, but e’en these roads is pure murder on me trotters. I head o’er a stile, into O’Leary’s fallow field. Mud and muck to me ankles, but the squish is heaven.

The night be chill, though, and soon enough, I’m shiverin’. Worse, the fog’s come up. I were bound in the right direction before, but now I ain’t certain. All around, ‘tis gray as the smoke from a greenwood fire. Then a pinprick o’ light winks in front o’ me. I’m cold enough that e’en the curate would be a welcome sight.

“Halloo, there! Halloo!”

The light flees, but another bobs up, to me left. ‘Tis a bog spirit! A will-o-the-wisp, what would lead me to a gruesome drownin’! I take a step away from it, and me boot sticks in the peat. Down I go, onto me knees on the ground, and then through it, to me waist. The bog’s got me!

I keep the Devil and the boot high, and I sink. It don’t take much to work the Devil beneath one arm o’ the cross, so he’s pinned up tight against both boot and iron. Now that one o’ me hands is free, I stretch for the true ground, but the movin’ only makes me sink faster. When I’m up to me neck and the boot’s a foot higher than that, and all is more than bleak, I let out a howl.

“Devil! Ye hear me, well I know, though ye be powerless at the moment. ‘Tis a quick count to twenty, and I’m done for. Ye’ll be done then, too, as I’ve got ye fast against an iron cross. So’s I give ye a bargain! I’ll free ye, if ye’ll free me! Ye can’t answer, well I know it, so I give ye the benefit o’ the doubt. Ye be a gentleman, and a gentleman would agree to me terms. See ye keep your word, as I’ve no doubt ye be givin’ it to me right now!”

I pry the coin loose and fling it to the true ground. Me heavy boot slips from me hand and falls on me head, sendin’ me beneath the bog.

* * *

Lyin’ flat on me back, I spew out thick water what’s stronger in taste than spirits o’ the highest proof and not half as rejuvenatin’. The Devil leans o’er me, will-o-the-wisps wreathin’ his head like a crown for the accursed.

“Ye be a fool, Jacky Síomón, thinkin’ ye could walk on bog water. A dead fool.”

“I’m dead?” Sayin’ these words, I see it’s so.

“Aye. Ye said nothin’ about freein’ ye afore ye died, so I waited. Didn’t take long.”

“And now you want me soul.”

“Nay, Jacky.” The Devil looks disgusted at the idea. “I don’t want ye no more. And o’ course, ye ain’t good enough for heaven.”

“But…I’m dead! I have to go somewhere!”

The Devil smiles with fine, white teeth. “Aye, that ye do. So ye’ll wander forever in the blackness ye call Purgatory.”

“Ye’re no gentleman!”

“I am.”

“Prove it!”

The Devil’s smile grows cold. “ ‘Tis the last time I prove aught o’ meself to ye, Jack Síomón. I’ll show ye how much o’ the gentleman I be by leavin’ ye a light, so ye can see your way through the darkness.”

“A wisp?” I asks.

“Nay. Somethin’ befittin’ Jacky, the pumpkin farmer. Somethin’ recognizable, to warn me servants as well as the heavenly angels to stay well clear o’ Jack-with-the-lantern. Ah. I know the very thing. I’ll even throw in a cinder from hell’s fire. ‘Twill ne’er go out. How’s that for ye, Jacky?”

*This short story was inspired by a bare-bones tale that I discovered on Wikipedia, when I was studying up on the history of Jack-o-Lanterns. I hope you enjoyed it!