Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Meditations before Mass (Ave Maria Press)

Meditations before Mass is a classic in the Catholic realm. Written by Romano Guardini, one of the 20th centuries greatest theologians, this work as well as several others by him gained popularity in the 1990s and were translated from German to English. The Introduction of this book states that the purpose of the discourses in this book were "simply to reveal what the Mass demands of us and how those demands may be properly met." Part One aims for total concentration of mind and heart to God in the Mass, and Part Two discusses the essence of the Mass and what it means to us as Catholics.

It was interesting to learn both about aspects of the Mass such as its institution and liturgical form. However, the chapters that spoke to me the most dealt with hindrances we encounter when participating in the Mass as we should. Guardini notes three specific hindrances - 1. Habit, 2. Sentimentality, and 3. Human Nature. I learned several important points from these chapters. For starters, any boredom or monotony we experience at Mass comes from us and not the Mass. The Mass is inexhaustible. Sentimentality is a desire to be moved and can be dangerous when it comes to the Mass. To put it in simple terms, you shouldn't go into Mass looking to see what you can get out of it, but what you can put into it. Lastly, celebration of Mass depends on human people, because it is a living thing.

If you are looking to deepen your understanding and appreciation of the Mass, I highly recommend this book. It not only educates you, but it invites you to examine both the Mass and yourself. I am extremely pleased that more and more titles of Guardini are being translated into English. This man was a mentor to both Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), so any book you can read of his I'd highly recommend. In fact, after you get done reading and reflecting on this book, check out another book by Guardini entitled Jesus Christus, which is a series of sermons on the life of Christ.

This book was provided to me for free by Ave Maria Press in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Monday, December 29, 2014

On Human Life and Evangelii Nuntiandi (Ignatius Press and Word Among Us Press)

Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini was the man who succeeded Pope John XXIII and continued and closed the Second Vatican Council. He chose the name Paul VI because he wanted to continue to spread the message of Christ worldwide. Like a lot of recent popes, he had a devotion to the Virgin Mary and issued encyclicals on her like Christi Matri and Signum Magnum. Perhaps his most important encyclical was called Humanae Vitae. It discusses married love, responsible parenthood, and rejection of most forms of birth control.

Ignatius Press recently released this encyclical, On Human Life, in paperback format. In addition to this book including the entire encyclical, there is a foreword by Mary Eberstadt (author of Adam and Eve After the Pill), afterword by James Hitchcock (author of History of the Catholic Church), and a postscript by Jennifer Fulwiler (author of Something Other than God). The encyclical itself does not need reviewing. It has been around for 45 years and has received a lot of commentary on it, including the book Why Humanae Vitae Was Right.

The foreword by Eberstadt was spot on and a perfect lead in to the text. It showed exactly how accurate Humanae Vitae proved to be. The afterword was sobering in that it showed how many priests immediately rejected the teaching on artificial contraception and said it was okay for spouses to use it. There was a bit of hope in the end, and that was found in Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and numerous laity who are promoting this encyclical. This is a very important document and one that every person (not just every Catholic) could benefit to read. The only thing that I would change about this edition is making it a hardcover, like Ignatius Press did for Pope Benedict XVI's encyclicals.

Evangelii Nuntiandi was written in 1975, close to the end of Pope Paul VI's fifteen year reign. This apostolic exhortation was directed at every Christian and affirmed the need to spread the Gospel to all men, women, and children. The exhortation is divided into seven sections with emphasis on different aspects of evangelization including content, methods, workers, beneficiaries, etc. In the book, with the same name, released by The Word Among Us Press, there is a brief study guide at the end with questions for both reflection and application. Since this is a manual of sorts for those embracing the New Evangelization, the study guide is extremely helpful for individual use or study within a small group/parish session.

This brief exhortation is nearing its 40th anniversary, but it has lost none of its truth and still packs a punch. I plan to make time to read this book again, a bit slower and a bit more carefully as I work through the study questions. I believe it will prove useful at the local level of the Church and can help us reach non-Catholics, lapsed Catholics, and also increase the understanding and faith of Catholics in good standing. So if you are interested in the New Evangelization, I'd pick up this book and pair it with Pope Francis' The Joy of the Gospel.

These books were provided to me for free by Ignatius Press and The Word Among Us Press in exchange for honest reviews. If you found these reviews helpful, click here and/or here and hit Yes!

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie (Tantor Media)

When you ask Catholics about their favorite fantasy writers two names immediately jump to their minds, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. With the epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings and the children's series The Chronicles of Narnia, these two authors would cement their place in history, even if they had never written another word. Most people know that Tolkien and Lewis were colleagues and friends, but few people know of one man who inspired them and their writings. His name was George MacDonald. MacDonald was a Scottish author/poet as well as a Christian minister. In addition to inspiring Tolkien and Lewis, he also inspired Inkling members W.H. Auden and Charles Williams. Therefore, MacDonald was dubbed the grandfather of the Inklings. Most people know of MacDonald through his works Phantastes or Lilith. I know of him through The Princess and the Goblin and the lesser known sequel The Princess and Curdie. Today, I will be reviewing the audiobook version of both these books.

The Princess and the Goblin involves three main characters, Princess Irene, her great-great grandmother, and a young boy named Curdie. One day while Irene is bored and exploring the castle, she finds her great-great grandmother, but nobody believes her when she tells them that she found her. The following day, Irene and her nursemaid are out for a walk, but stay out til dark when goblins come out. Enter the hero, Curdie. Curdie manages to save the two from the goblins and tells them that goblins hate music, so he sings to keep them at bay. Curdie is a very honorable and noble hero. He refuses a kiss from Irene, but plans to claim one later. He is also an unlikely hero. He is a poor boy who works in the mines.

One day while staying late to earn more money, Curdie discovers another way to harm goblins and also discovers the goblins' plan to get even with the humans who chased them underground. Curdie is ultimately captured, but he ends up being saved by Irene's great-great grandmother. He is able to foil the plot of the goblins and as his reward he merely asks for a new coat for his mother (not riches or power) for that is the reason he was working so hard in the mines in the first place. A truly remarkable story of bravery and honor.

The Princess and Curdie is a bit more grown up as it takes place two years after the first story. Curdie seems to doubt the magic that happened previously and like others, he also doubts the existence of Irene's great-great grandmother. One day Curdie callously wounds a pigeon, and he remembers what Irene told him about her great-great grandmother and pigeons. Remorse sets in, and this leads Curdie to the great-great grandmother who blesses Curdie with the power to tell good men from evil men. Unfortunately, Curdie is still a doubter and has to get over his doubts before he can harness his powers.

The story definitely feels a bit like a coming of age book mixed with a hero's quest. We see more depth in Curdie in this book than in the first. We also see more growth in Curdie the character and Curdie the man. Curdie once again proves the hero, but in addition to overcoming the enemy (who is trying to kill Irene's father, the King), he must also overcome himself and his own weaknesses.

The audiobooks were very enjoyable. Both were approximately six hours and are the perfect length for a vacation car trip. Ian Whitcomb is an excellent narrator. His voice had an excellent timbre and pace, and he had the right level of emotion and range that it felt like MacDonald himself was reading it to you. I also really appreciate the fact that he was narrator for both books. It is always an annoyance of mine when you get into a story with one narrator and then a different narrator provides different voices to familiar characters. The audio downloads are also very affordable from Tantor Media at $6.99 each. That's $13.98 for two audiobooks, and is cheaper than one month of Audible, which is $14.95 for one book. You also get an ebook with each audiobook, and the fact that is MP3 format means you can listen to it anywhere, and not just when you're connected to the cloud. I am very impressed with Tantor Media's library, especially their selection of classic titles, and I plan to use them again in the future.

These audiobooks were provided to me for free by Tantor Media in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Science of Shakespeare (Thomas Dunne Books)

Shakespeare and his works have been analyzed for centuries. With so much mystery surrounding the man, and such controversy surrounding his works and authorship, we dissect his works and pick a key theme to analyze. Some people argue about which play is best. Others look for themes of religion and politics in them and how they played a role in his life. Others analyze his individual characters and how they reflect his view of mankind. Author Dan Falk is no different in picking an element to explore, except the element he's chosen is science. In his book, The Science of Shakespeare, the author looks at the Bard and his writings through the lens of the scientific revolution that followed the Renaissance.

The first thing one notices when reading this book is that the title is misleading. Instead of focusing on various fields of science, Falk focuses primarily on astronomy and the change from a geocentric worldview to a heliocentric world view. In fact the first hundred or so pages barely mention Shakespeare, if at all. Instead we learn about different astronomers, scientific theories, and speculations that Shakespeare could have met them or read their writings. These were interesting chapters that made you at least pause and think. After this, there is a chapter on medicine and a chapter on magic. It would have been great if there had been more devoted to other sciences.

The last chapter of the book provided the most trouble for me. In this chapter, Falk made the mistake that many people make and equated science with atheism. He tries and in my opinion fails to make a case that Shakespeare was an atheist. It's a shame the book took this route, especially given the fact that he discouraged people from buying into fringe theories, and it seems he did just that. It is widely accepted the Shakespeare was Christian, and perhaps even a secret Catholic (secret because Catholics were persecuted in England during this time). Overall, I wasn't too impressed with this book. It felt like Falk tried really hard to make his theories fit to suit his book. It also was a 300+ page book that could have been condensed to 100 pages. I'd give this book 2.5 stars.

This book was provided to me for free by Macmillan Publishers in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Behold Your Mother (Catholic Answers)

"Catholic Answers is one of the nation’s largest lay-run apostolates of Catholic apologetics and evangelization." They are "dedicated to serving Christ by bringing the fullness of Catholic truth to the world. We help good Catholics become better Catholics, bring former Catholics “home,” and lead non-Catholics into the fullness of the faith." I became familiar with them on my drive home from work. Each day they devote several hours a day to answering questions for Catholics, non-Catholics, atheists, and agnostics. Their apologists also write books, one of which I am pleased to review today.

Behold Your Mother is a 300+ page blue hardcover (Really what other color would be appropriate?). It is written by Tim Staples, who is the Director of Apologetics at Catholic Answers, and is billed as "a Biblical and Historical defense of the Marian doctrines. The book is divided into five parts, one for each of the core doctrines. They are as follows:

Part I - Mother of God
Part II - Full of Grace
Part III - Ever-Virgin
Part IV - Assumed into Heaven
Part V - Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix

Each part includes one to three chapters defining the doctrine; Scripture references/citations, which support the doctrine; and the historical Tradition that the Church has believed about these doctrines. Each of the five parts also includes a chapter, which answers common objections. These chapters above all are very useful for Catholics looking to defend Mary against Protestants, atheists, and agnostics. There are copious footnotes in this book as well, which even contain either citations or personal commentary by Mr. Staples on the subject at hand. Lastly, there are six appendices at the end of the book. Two of them use Patristics, which is a huge selling point for me, and one of them addresses the puzzling doctrine of Mary remaining a virgin, even during labor.

Each section of the book was well-organized, well-argued, and insightful. His argument for how Mary is Theotokos or God-bearer made perfect sense. Mary can't just be mother to Jesus' human-nature. She is mother to all of Jesus, humanity and divinity. Therefore, she is the Mother of God. Another section I enjoyed was the talk of Mary's Assumption, and his comparisons of her to the Ark of the Covenant. Though he doesn't state in the main text whether or not Mary died, because the Church doesn't have an official teaching on that, he does state in the footnotes that he believes she did. I too share that belief. With all these helpful sections, the one most important to me dealt with Mary as Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix. This is a doctrine I have always struggled with, probably due to lack of understanding. I can't even begin to summarize Mr. Staples explanations in these chapters, but I can say I walked away from them at peace and with a better understanding of a doctrine that has caused me many nights of head-scratching.

With all the positive aspects of this book, the main question one must ask is who the book is intended for. I would say that this is primarily intended for faithful Catholics. While, they may believe all five of these doctrines (blindly or with limited understanding), they would benefit from this book in trying to articulate these points to people who don't believe in them. While Protestants and non-believers would benefit from reading this book, I have to think that only the serious inquirer would dare tackle a book this thick. Others would simply be turned off the size and possibly look for something a little more brief. I am proud to have this book in my library, and I know it will be a valuable reference for years to come. Five stars!

This book was provided to me for free by Catholic Answers in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Three Kids Books on War

War is a reality that mankind has experienced since the beginning of time. Sometimes, they are small and involve two warring tribes. Other times they are massive and have a global reach and impact. No matter the size, and whether the war is just or unjust, the truth is that war is ugly. Today, I will be reviewing three children's books on war. A children's book on war is a bold undertaking and seems like a reality you wouldn't want to expose to a child, but with talks of war in the news constantly and an ever present 24 hour news cycle, it's harder to shield kids from this harsh reality. These three books, while somber in tone, help humanize the people involved in war (from both sides). Without further ado, here are my reviews.

Gingerbread for Liberty! tells the story of Christopher Ludwick, a German-born American baker. The story begins by telling of the generosity of Mr. Ludwick, especially as it related to feeding hungry children. The book then quickly shifts to talk of the Revolutionary War. Ludwick is determined to fight in this war, but his wife reminds him that he is too "old and fat" to fight in the war, so he volunteered with the only skill he possessed, baking. He went to George Washington and offered his services. General Washington was so impressed with him that Ludwick became baker for the whole Continental Army. He even used his skills to persuade troops that the British hired to switch sides and fight with the Revolutionaries. The war ends and as a parting gift, Washington orders Ludwick to bake bread for the wounded enemies.

Overall, this was an interesting story, which was outshone by its illustrations. All of the images in the book, appropriately, are in gingerbread format. Other nice touches include a recipe for gingerbread cookies on the inside cover, and an author's note which sheds more details on the man who was Christopher Ludwick. The war was unkind to him, in that he lost his vision and went home poorer, because the British ransacked his home and shop. However, he kept doing what he loved (baking and feeding hungry people), and is said to have quietly paid for the education of at least 50 children. These are great facts that you wish would have been included in the story. Nevertheless, the overall message that anyone, no matter their talents, can make a difference shone through in this story. Four stars.

Shooting at the Stars begins by setting the scenes for World War I; giving facts on who was fighting who; and expectations of young men that it would be a short war. The story itself revolves around a young English soldier writing to his mother. He begins by telling her about the hardships of war, which isn't just the fighting but the conditions, such as rain, three feet of mud, and rats! He then proceeds to tell her about something remarkable, On Christmas Eve, there was snow and he heard Germans singing Christmas carols. The Germans had also put up tiny Christmas trees, which is a bad strategic move as it gives away your position. Then, on Christmas morning, the Germans called out to the English asking them where their Christmas trees were. For one day, Christmas Day, there was a truce. Germans and English shook hands, buried their dead, traded gifts, and played soccer. The major was furious, called them traitors, and ordered them to fire on the Germans. The young protagonist says he thinks for that night, the English aimed high and were shooting at the stars, hence the title of the book.

This was a phenomenal story that honestly caused me to well up while reading it. It showed a side of war that you never think of, and a special day that you wonder/doubt could ever happen again. Enemies were humanized, and you see that they are people just like us who had families and loved Christmas just like we do. The illustrations perfectly matched the book, as they were rich in color, striking in detail, and placed you perfectly in the scene for a full reading experience. There is also a helpful glossary at the end for those tricky terms that kids won't recognize. I highly recommend this book for Christmas or anytime! Five stars.

Once a Shepherd tells the story of Tom Shepherd, a young shepherd without a care in the world. It is a time of peace. He gets married and his wife becomes pregnant. However, his world is quickly turned upside down with the arrival of World War I. He must go off and fight in the war and unfortunately does not come back. In fact, the enemy soldier who kills Tom is so grief-stricken, he feels he must personally go and tell Tom's wife about his death.

My wife warned me not to get this book, and she was right. It is a very sobering tale, which I'm unsure how you read this to a child without depressing them for a week, if not longer. The writing style and illustrations also left a bit to be desired. Every page starts with the words "Once a..." and while I get that repetition is good for children, it grew tedious. The illustrations themselves aren't bad, but are what I would describe as watercolor. The dust jacket/cover of the book has a look of stitching, and if the whole book would have been illustrated this way, I would rate this book higher as that would at least be clever and on theme. Unfortunately. I can only give this book three stars, as the story is depressing and the illustrations weren't what I'd look for in a children's book.

These books were provided to me for free by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Abrams Books, and Candlewick Press respectively. If you found these reviews helpful, please click here, here, and or here and hit Yes!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Priest, Prophet, King (Word on Fire)

Fr. Barron is a man who needs no introduction. His DVD program Catholicism has been seen by millions and is responsible for introducing and converting people to the Roman Catholic faith. He followed that popular series up with Catholicism: The New Evangelization and will be introducing a third part Catholicism: The Pivotal Players in 2015. I've had mixed feelings regarding his Catholicism series, but I continue to receive and review Fr. Barron's products, because despite his fascination with Thomas Merton, I believe Fr. Barron is doing a great bit of good in the Roman Catholic world. Today, I will be reviewing his latest series called Priest, Prophet, King.

Priest, Prophet, King is a two-disc, six-lesson series which is designed to help you understand Jesus more fully as priest, prophet, and king. Each lesson is approximately 20 minutes long, and the study guide (which is written by Carl Olson) has enough material to facilitate an hour long discussion. If you're in a smaller group, like I am, you might find yourself watching the session two or three times, just to absorb the material. Unlike Fr. Barron's previous work, Catholicism, this sessions are much shorter (which I greatly appreciated), but they seemed to fly by so quickly that you might blink and miss something...hence the re-watching. The lessons are titled as follows:

1. Adoratio: Adam as Priest
2. The High Priest
3. Challenging False Worship: Elijah the Prophet
4. The Word Made Flesh
5. Ordering the Kingdom: King David
6. King of Kings
Bonus: Heroic Priesthood

In this study, Fr. Barron weaves high theology with his accessible teaching style to present Jesus' three-fold mission. One minute he is making Lord of the Rings references explaining symbolism of Frodo as priest, Gandalf as prophet, and Aragorn as King. The next minute he is diving deep into the Scriptures and explaining the significance of a specific Greek word. It was hard to pick a favorite lesson, but if I had to it would be Session Three, and that might just be because I am a big fan of Elijah. In addition to providing an explanation on Elijah vs the priests of Ba'al. He also challenges us to right worship. He then compares Ba'al to modern day idols like power or pleasure, and asks us if we put these idols ahead of God.

This was easily my favorite Fr. Barron study program. Each session was a good length (especially if you are doing this with young kids in the background), and provided you just enough information to get a good discussion going and make you want to dive deeper either solo or in a small group. I highly recommend this for anyone looking to grow not only in your understanding of Jesus, but your love for Him as well.

This program was provided to me for free by Word on Fire in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, click here and hit Yes!

Monday, December 15, 2014

How Far is it to Bethlehem: The Plays and Poetry of Frances Chesterton

If you're an American Catholic, then you are no doubt familiar with the works of G.K. Chesterton. He has written great works like, Orthodoxy and Heretics; the mysteries of Father Brown; and works on St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas. What a lot of people don't know is that his wife, Frances, was also a writer herself. Nancy Carpentier Brown compiled a plethora of her writings in the book How Far is it to Bethlehem. Within this book are plays she wrote for Christmas Eve productions which the Chestertons put on each year. They apparently had a stage in their house for home entertainment! She also wrote poems on many subjects, but her Christmas ones appeared often time in Christmas cards.

The book itself contains six plays, with not all of them complete. The first one is about the Children's Crusade, which is said to have taken place in 1212 and is a particularly dark time in history. Several of the other plays are Christmas themed with the names, "The Christmas Gift" and "The Three Kings." The plays seem to be written in a couplet rhyming scheme, i.e., A,A,B,B,C,C, etc. Normally I would construe this as forced rhyming, but as these plays were written for children, I can see the appeal for little ones with rhyming that way. The plays were interesting, but it is a bit like reading Shakespeare in that you would rather see it performed than just read it yourself. It would be wonderful to see some Catholic English or Drama teacher try and do a local production of one of these plays.

The poems take up the remaining half of this book and are divided into assorted poetry and Christmas poems. Like most people's poetry, it was probably private writing that was never meant to be read by anyone, but I am grateful for Nancy for compiling them for us, as we would have never been exposed to her personality and genius otherwise. The Christmas Card poetry was easily my favorite section. In these beautiful poems, we can see France Chesterton's love for Jesus, particularly Christ at His Nativity. Here are a few stanzas from her 1917 Christmas poem for which this book is named:

How far is it to Bethlehem?
Not very far.
Shall we find the stable room
Lit by the star?

Can we see the little Child?
Is He within?
If we lift the wooden latch

May we go in?

May we stroke the creatures there
Ox, ass, or sheep?
May we peep like them and see
Jesus asleep?

I am not a world class poetry expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I enjoyed reading through Mrs. Chesterton's words. Some have a beautiful simplicity, and others blow you away with their depth. Even though her husband, G.K. Chesterton overshadowed his wife (not on purpose), this book shines a light on Frances' brilliance as well and shows how good of a match they were for each other. The old saying, "Behind every great man, there's a great woman" rings true with these two. If G.K. Chesterton is ever canonized, she will definitely be a large reason why. So if you are looking for a unique Christmas gift (or gift for any occasion), for that Chesterton fan in your life, I highly recommend How Far is it to Bethlehem.

This book was provided to me for free by the author in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Anne of Green Gables (Tundra Books)

In the literary world, there has been a resurgence of the popular female protagonists, i.e., Hermione Granger (Harry Potter), Bella Swan (Twilight), and Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games). I don't have a huge problem with the first of these three, as she is an intelligent girl, but the other two seem insulting to women. Where are the female protagonists our daughters can read that aren't shallow, two-dimensional characters? If you are like me and have a hard time finding them in modern literature, then I recommend taking a stroll down memory lane and looking to the past for characters like Laura Ingalls (Little House on the Prairie) or Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables).

I was first exposed to Anne of Green Gables in late elementary school or early middle school. My mom and sister were watching the TV mini-series (with the same name), and since we only had one TV in the house, it was watch that or nothing. I didn't fully appreciate the story then, but now that I am older I decided to give the books a try, with a review copy from Tundra Books. The first thing that surprised me was that there were actually eight books in the series, not just two (Green Gables and Avonlea)! Tundra Books has actually recently released all eight books in the series in two different formats, paperback and hardcover. The paperbacks have an inviting feel for younger readers as the illustration on the front is a bit cartoonish. The hardcovers, which I was pleased to get, give the feel that they are for the older reader who is re-visiting an old friend. The pages are deckle, which is something that has come back in popularity recently. There is a ribbon bookmark, which is always appreciated. Lastly, there is a bonus short story by L.M. Montgomery, at least in the first book. I'm not sure if there is a bonus story in the other seven books.

The story of Anne Shirley has a tragic start. Her parents died when she was just a baby, and she felt unwanted for the first eleven years of her life as she bounced around homes and orphanages this entire time. In a fortuitous accident, she ends up at the farm of an older set of siblings, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. The Cuthberts, however, had wanted a boy to help with farm work due to their old age. The whole first book spans about five years and is both a learning process and adjustment for both Anne and the Cuthberts. In addition to Anne's crazy antics, which will keep you shaking your head and laughing in stitches, we are introduced to two people who will forever have an impact on Anne's life. The first is Diana Barry. Diana becomes Anne's "bosom friend" (best friend) and Anne does her fair share of getting Diana in trouble. The second character is Gilbert Blythe, who Anne sets as her rival and disdains because he teased her about her red hair. There is typical angst here between a boy and girl of that age, but the angst eventually softens and they become friends near the end of the book.

Anne of Green Gables is a timeless classic that while aimed at girls, should probably be read by both sexes. It is a story of friendship, belonging, and finding your place in the world. It is also a good coming of age book that your early middle schooler should be exposed to, so that they can see what good writing looks like and not all the pop culture, mass produced drivel that is being written today. If you are looking for an inexpensive version for your first time reader of it, go for the paperback version. If you are looking for a fancier, gift version that will stand the test of time, I'd go for the hardcover. Either way, you won't be disappointed.

This book was provided to me for free by Tundra Books in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Cross Stands While the World Turns (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press)

Have you ever come back from Mass or Divine Liturgy and felt a little disappointed with the homily? I admit that I have, more than once sadly. It is an unfortunate reality that cannot be avoided. Sometimes there's a guest speaker or a stewardship pitch. Other times, the priest might have had a busy week, and pulled one out of his archives, that might be a bit outdated. What do you do when you feel less than fed by the homily? You have two options. You can either stew over it and gripe about it, or you can do what I do and reach for a book of homilies. I have several, just because I am always trying to soak up other perspectives on specific passages or Feasts. One that I recently picked up is called The Cross Stands While the World Turns.

The Cross Stands While the World Turns is a book of homilies divided into three sections, "The Paschal Cycle," "The Nativity-Theophany Cycle," and "The Theotokos Cycle." In total, there are thirty-five homilies in this book. Most of the homilies are taken from Sundays throughout the Orthodox Church Calendar and the Twelve Great Feasts. The only Feasts days I see missing are Pascha and the Transfiguration. The beauty of this book is that it is not one you have to read all at once or in order. You can pick up this book at any time of the year, turn to the appropriate Sunday, or major Feast Day and be treated to a beautiful homily.

After reading homilies related to the Nativity season, I started thumbing through the book looking for one to jump out to me. Lo and behold, "Antipascha: St. Thomas Sunday," did just that! Poor St. Thomas gets a horrible rap. He will forever be mislabeled as doubting, just like Mary Magdalene will always be mislabeled as a prostitute. In Fr. Behr's homily, he seeks to redeem St. Thomas. "His doubt, and his inquiry, is not out to disprove, but to confirm. There is, indeed, a world of difference between a doubt that is seeking confirmation and a doubt that is basically skeptical. As the Fathers and medieval theologians put it: faith seeks understanding." You'll find insight like this in all of his homilies, as each one is well-researched and well-crafted.

This was a very-enjoyable book and one that I will keep at prominent and easy-to-reach place on my bookshelf. I had a hard time putting it down after reading the homily for one day, and oftentimes found myself reading additional tales just to absorb Fr. Behr's knowledge. The biggest complaint I have with this book is that there was no homily for Pascha. Another minor complaint is that there is no introductory material for each of the three cycles, I referenced in the first paragraph. These complaints, however, do not detract from the wisdom contained in this book and did not cause me to downrank the book either. 5 stars!

This book was provided to me for free by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Rosary: Mysteries, Meditations and Music (DeMontfort Music)

Today, I am pleased to share with you another Catholic CD review. This one is entitled The Rosary: Mysteries, Meditations and Music. You might remember them from my review of their album Mater Eucharistiae, or you might remember them from their appearance on the The American Bible Challenge, where they came in second place in Season 2, but were voted fan favorites! Or perhaps, this is your first time hearing about them. No matter how familiar you are or are not with these sisters, if you love the Rosary, you'll want a copy of this CD.

The album is divided into nine tracks. The first six tracks are a spoken Rosary, with background music/singing that you will recognize from their first album Mater Eucharistiae. The three bonus tracks are "Let Nothing Disturb You," "In Dulci Jubilo," and "Bride of Christ."  My only gripe about the album is that each set of mysteries (Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious, and Luminous) are only one track. Therefore, you have to pray the whole five decades through. There is no praying just a decade without fast forwarding. I would have preferred one mystery per track. The Rosary itself is a Scriptural Rosary with each mystery preceded by a Scripture passage and a prayer for a specific virtue that corresponds to the mystery, i.e., Charity at The Visitation (the Second Joyful Mystery).

Because of their first album, I was expecting a little more music or perhaps a sung Rosary. What we got was not that, but it is a welcome addition to my CD library and will be to yours as well. The voices are clear and easily understood, and the background music is a nice touch that is just the right volume without being a distraction. I always struggle to stay focused on the Rosary, especially when trying to pray it in the car or on the go. With this, I know the struggle will still be there, but I at least have a guiding voice to keep me on track and focused on the divine.

This CD was provided to me for free by Carmel Communications in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Jesus and The Legend of Saint Nicholas (Eerdmans)

Today, I have the pleasure of reviewing two books from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers that I believe would make the perfect gift for Christmas or anytime for that matter. One is about Jesus and the other is about St. Nicholas. Both are written by Anselm Grün and are illustrated by Giuliano Ferri. You might recognize Ferri's illustrations from the book Jonah's Whale, which is also an Eerdmans book. Without further ado, here are my reviews.

Jesus is a 12" x 8" illustrated hardcover that details the life of our Lord. The book starts appropriate with the Annunciation. Gabriel, whose face is not picture, is shown telling Mary that she will conceive a son who will be the Son of God. We then fast forward nine months to the nativity and then after that fast forward twelve years to Jesus conversing with the scribes in the Temple. The remainder of the book then discusses Jesus' ministry. We see him calling his disciples, telling parables (the Prodigal Son), doing miracles (healings and multiplying loaves and fish), inviting the little children to come to Him, and saving Zacchaeus. The story then closes with His betrayal, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

Overall, I would give this book 4 out of 5 stars. The language comes off a little overly simplified and casual. Perhaps, it was a matter of translation or perhaps it is geared for the younger reader, but I feel we can still portray the beauty of Scripture (even when paraphrased) without making it feel so modern and watered down. The other part that bugged me was the pages on the Crucifixion. They showed Jesus being captured and led off to the Sanhedrin but the only hint of his Crucifixion in the images was three trees in the background, not crosses, but trees. I guess they did not want to get to graphic for younger readers, but it still annoyed me a little. Those flaws aside, it's still a good book that will introduce your little ones to Jesus and His whole life and ministry.

The Legend of Saint Nicholas begins with another story of a child born to barren parents after praying to God for a long time. We then see the most widely known St. Nicholas legend of all, the one with the three daughters and three money bags given to them so they can get married. Thankfully, the author rightly made it a more kid-friendly version in omitting that the father was a drunk who wasted all his money. We also are treated to the story of how he became Bishop of Myra. There are two other legends in this book, which you will have to buy the book to find out what they are. I did not recognize them, so it was fascinating to read them.

This was an excellent book to introduce your child to St. Nicholas. There are familiar and unfamiliar tales, excellent illustrations, and even mention of his feast day (December 6) and some of the traditions families celebrate on this day. If you are looking for an alternative to Santa Claus or just an excellent Christmas gift for your young reader, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. 5 stars!

These books were provided to me for free by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers in exchange for honest reviews. If you found these reviews helpful, click here and/or here and hit Yes!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Created for Greatness (Scepter Publishers)

Created for Greatness is a brief (under 100 pages) book, which discusses the concept of magnanimity and the power it has. In Chapter One, the author, Alexandre Havard, defines magnanimity as "an ideal rooted in trust in man, and his inherent greatness. It is the virtue of action. It is the supreme form of human hope." He also says that, "it is the first specific virtue of leaders."  In Chapter Two, he couples magnanimity with humility, "the second virtue specific to leaders." Havard states, "Whereas magnanimity affirms our personal dignity and greatness, humility affirms the dignity and greatness of others." These brief definitions set the tone for the rest of this book and let the reader know that while this is a book aimed at leaders, it is also a book for all of humanity.

After the two introductory chapters, which define magnanimity and humility, the remaining three chapters focus on "Developing a Moral Sense," "Developing Magnanimity," and "Growing in Humility." In these three chapters, Havard mixes practical advice with personal, historical, and literary examples. Such useful advice, include ideas like working on yourself more than your ideas or working on your character more than your manners. The chapter on developing magnanimity was a fascinating read, particularly the sections that dealt with discovering your vocation and living it; being aware of your talent and increasing it, and concentrating your energies on your mission. It made me start to evaluate what God has given me and if I am doing all I can in my vocation and with my talents.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I received this book. It looked like a cheesy self-help book, and I thought that I certainly wasn't the target audience,  The old saying, "You can't judge a book by its cover," rang true again though, and as I stated earlier, this isn't a book just for leaders but for everyone. I would highly recommend it for management, people with management ambition, pastors, seminarians, ministry leaders, moms, and dads. You should also check out his other book Virtuous Leadership.

This book was provided to me for free by Scepter Publishers in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Joy to the World (Image Books)

Today I am kicking off the Scott Hahn Joy to the World blog tour. In addition to posting a review of the book, I was also asked to reflect on what Christmas means to me. There is also a giveaway at the end, so be sure to read all the way to the bottom.

Dr. Scott Hahn has written many books throughout his years as a convert. He has covered the Mass, Sacraments, and sometimes high theology. Joy to the World, however, is his first book dedicated solely to Christmas. Dr. Hahn begins with a personal tale of his family's time in Bethlehem and the impact it had on his daughter Hannah. He then explains that the city of Bethlehem isn't a place you just visit and forget, but changes your life. We then get to the heart of the book in which Dr. Hahn details and explains various aspects of the Christmas story.

Dr. Hahn talks about the differences between St. Matthew and St. Luke and the way they presented the details in their respective Gospels. He talks about genealogies and the key figures listed. He discusses Herod and the killing of the Holy Innocents. There's of course a chapter on Mary, and to my surprise even St. Joseph gets his own chapter. Much appreciated and deserved! There were shepherds and magi, and even focus on the star that led the Magi. He explains that St. John Chrysostom believed that it was actually an angel and not a star. There's even a chapter that talks about all the journeys the Holy Family went on, such as the flight into Egypt.

However, my favorite chapter was the one on the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. I admit that I already knew most of the theology Dr. Hahn explained in this chapter, but I was thrilled that he took the time to explain it and tie it into the Christmas story. One interesting bit of theology is how Jesus' circumcision was foreshadowing to His crucifixion. My favorite mind-blowing theological point that Dr. Hahn made dealt with the lack of a ransom offered for Jesus THE firstborn son. Since no ransom was paid, Jesus belonged to God and was in service to God. This makes the troubling passage of twelve year old Jesus being found in the Temple (Luke 2:48-49), less troubling. Of course he was in His Father's house! That's where He belonged!

Christmas came early this year with the October release of Dr. Hahn's book Joy to the World. If you want to know why Christ's coming mattered then and still matters today, you need this book. If you are someone who simply likes to keep the focus on Christ during Christmas, you'll want this book. Whether it is a treat for you or a gift for someone else, you will not be disappointed. It is perfect to read anytime of the year, not just Advent and Christmas.

To read an interview from Dr. Hahn on his book, click here. This book was provided to me for free by Image Books in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Personal Reflection
Christmas to me means charity. In addition to picking a child or two off our parish's Angel Tree, my wife and I also give to a program that supplies goats to our sister parish in El Salvador. Each year, we save up money to buy goats that help provide a livelihood to needy families. We also have fun picking out names for the goats. One year, I had a William Goat, as in Billy Goat. It's corny. I know, but I'm okay with that. What does Christmas mean to you?

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Check out Day 2 of the blog tour by William O’Leary – Catechesis in the Third Millennium.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Troll With No Heart in His Body and The Terrible Troll-Bird (University of Minnesota Press and New York Review of Books)

The Troll With No Heart in His Body is a compilation of nine troll tales from Norway compiled and re-told by author Lisa Lunge-Larsen. In addition to the tale the book is named after, you will also see stories such as "Butterball," "The Boy and the North Wind," and the well known/personal favorite "The Three Billy Goats Gruff." The book begins with a note from the author, which includes the importance of folk tales, childhood memories of these Norse tales, and fifteen lessons she learned from these tales. Before she gets to the stories, she also includes a map, because when trolls die they help reshape the landscape around them.

Each story is written in large print and includes helpful features like pronunciations and BOLD font so you know when to make your troll voice loud and booming. At the end of each tale are two features. The first is the phrase, "Snip, snap, snout, This tale's told out!" This is a cute translation of a Norse phrase and is a nice touch. The second feature at the end of the tales is a little side box of text, which tells the origin of the story and what the author changed in the story (if anything). The illustrations have an old world feel to them, as they are beautiful woodcuts that seem so appropriate for this style of book. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, especially if you are a family with Scandinavian or if you just want to expose your children to quality literature. The book could have stood alone on its own with the stories, but the gorgeous illustrations complete it; making it a favorite around my household for both children and adults.

The Terrible Troll-Bird is another Norse book from the authors and illustrators Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire. The story focuses on Ola and his three sisters, Lina, Sina, and Trina. They are off to go get firewood one day when they spied an enormous troll-bird. The natural reaction was fear, but when they returned home they were able to slay the bird, cook it, and used its feathers for down. While cooking, trolls followed their nose and showed up. Fortunately, the sun was coming up about that time so no one was hurt/killed and the trolls were wiped out by the sun.

The illustrations are really the best aspect of this book. Some are color and some are black and white, but all of them are very harshly sketched out and felt very troll-like. Overall, the story was a little lacking, and while I'd recommend checking it out from the library, I wouldn't recommend owning it unless you found it on sale, your kids absolutely love everything troll-related, or you want to own all books by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire.

These books were provided to me for free by University of Minnesota Press and New York Review of Books in exchange for honest reviews. If you found these reviews helpful, click here and/or here and hit Yes!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Handbook of Roman Catholic Moral Terms (Georgetown University Press)

The Handbook of Roman Catholic Moral Terms is 260 page volume containing over 800 moral terms and definitions. It is not comprehensive by any means, but it is current as it contains topics like Theology of the Body, Natural Family Planning, and Humanae Vitae. As another reviewer pointed out, there are some peculiarities in the book. For example, there is no clear definition on grace but just a referral to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran. There is also an entry for the Lambeth Conferences, a Anglican and Episcopalian conference. Yes, there were some controversial decisions made at these conferences, i.e., female ordination, but why reference it? These is a book for ROMAN CATHOLICS, not Protestants! The author/editor, James T. Bretzke, seems to view Natural Family Planning (NFP) as "Catholic birth control" and though he does include some pro side of NFP, he also includes several references to people who tried NFP.

I was a bit disappointed with this book. There are some good entries in here, but there are some confusing/troublesome entries as well. There also entries that you wish would have had their own section devoted to them, rather than just referencing another entry and the topic you wanted being a mere footnote. Perhaps, it is become I am not scholarly enough and I misunderstood some entries. However, Bretzke does seem to be a bit liberal in his theology. Overall, I'd give this book 3 stars. If you are studying moral theology, then this book might be of interest to you and you might get more out of it than I did. For the casual/average reader though, you're better off not bothering.

This book was provided to me for free by Georgetown Press University in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Remember Jesus Christ (The Word Among Us Press)

It's almost time for my favorite season of the Church Year...Advent! It's a time to start fresh, a time to make goals/resolutions for the coming year, a time to grow closer to God. For the past couple of years, I have made a book recommendation for the Advent season. Normally, I'll recommend something that provides you with short daily readings for the season to keep your mind and heart focused on the true purpose of preparing for the coming of our Lord. This Advent I decided to try a more difficult book, called Remember Jesus Christ.

I find myself collecting and reading a type of Catholic book I wasn't aware was available until recently. They are books which contain talks/retreats given to the papal household. My logic is that if these priests and their message is good enough for the Pope to hear, then they are good enough for me to read. I own several now, and my most recent one is Remember Jesus Christ by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa. Fr. Cantalamessa was appointed to the papal household in 1980 by Pope John Paul II, and the book Remember Jesus Christ contains meditations that were given in Advent 2005 and Lent 2006 in front of Pope Benedict. It's like getting two books in one!

The book has eight chapter, four for Advent and four for Lent, with the entirety of the book focusing on the question, "What place does Christ have in modern society?" The Advent section's message revolves around the "proclamation of Christ." While the section on Lent has a message of "imitation of Christ, especially Christ in His Passion." Each chapter is broken down into four to six subsections. I recommend using each of these subsections as a daily reflection through Advent and Lent. There aren't enough subsections to get you through every day of either season, but they are interesting and deep enough that you'll want extra days to re-visit deeper parts.

My favorite chapter was Chapter 4: "To You This Day is Born a Savior: How to Proclaim the Salvation of Christ Today." In this chapter, Fr. Cantalamessa discusses what type of savior humanity needs. Though we all need salvation, we all come from different walks of life and therefore need salvation presented to us differently so that we can more easily understand it and accept it. However, the Faith does not just respond to expectations of salvation but creates and expands these expectations as well. He also explains why we still need a savior today and how that Savior is Jesus Christ Himself. Lastly, he discusses how Christ saves us from both space and time. We are saved from space by being freed from living in the vast universe being envious and instead are content with who we are. We are freed from time by Christ defeating death.

This was a very enlightening book that I plan on reading through again at a slower pace during Advent. I will then pick it up again during Lent and visit that section anew as I will have had time to let things marinate in my head. If you are looking for a challenging, but fruitful read for Advent, then I recommend Remember Jesus Christ. I look forward to checking out Fr. Cantalamessa's other two books Contemplating the Trinity and The Fire of Christ's Love.

This book was provided to me for free by The Word Among Us Press in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Chronicles of Xan Trilogy (OakTara)

Recent literature for children in the middle school range is a bit lackluster to say the least. We see vampires, werewolves, and dystopian futures, but no real substance. Recently, Antony Barone Kolenc sent me three books he had written entitled The Chronicles of Xan trilogy. I'm embarrassed to say it has taken me so long to read through them, but that is because I wanted to make sure to do the review justice, since I rarely review fictional works. Hopefully, I have.

Book I, Shadow in the Dark, begins with the sound of thundering hoofbeats. Our young protagonist sees a group of bandits riding and is in a hurry to go tell his father of the danger approaching. Unfortunately, he is too late. The village has been destroyed. Everyone he knows; everyone he loves has been killed. The bandits attempt to kill him as well, but somehow he manages to survive only without his memories. Inside an abbey, he awakes as a blank slate. He does not remember his family or where he is from. He doesn't even know his name. Brother Andrew, who eventually becomes the boy's spiritual guide and I'd say one of his closest friends, suggests the name Alexander (Xan for short). While trying to discover both his identity and his place in the world, Xan and some of the other orphan children at the abbey notice that there is an ominous figure roaming the grounds, and that wherever this figure appears, people die. In an effort of equal parts adventure and self-preservation, the youth attempt to solve the mystery of who this deadly shadow is.

This story is not only an adventure story, but also a mystery and a coming of age story. Kolenc combines these elements while painting an accurate picture of life in the 12th century. We see this in minor things like descriptions of everyday life and appropriate language, and he even helps the younger reader by explaining what unknown terms might be. I won't tell you the resolution to the story, but there's are very good Catholic messages running throughout this book, which include Christian love/charity and above all forgiveness of those who have wronged you. I'm always wary of younger kids books when mystery is involved, because they are sometimes a bit too simplistic. That was not the case, as there were some red herrings to keep you guessing. This was a very enjoyable book and is appropriate for ages 10 and up.

Book II, The Haunted Cathedral, picks up several  months after the conclusion of Shadow in the Dark. In this book we see a bit more displeasure and resentment in Xan. The memories of his former life and family haunt him. His relationship with his girlfriend is complicated and tumultuous. He also realizes what it means to be a serf and have no control over his own life. In fact, if his uncle so desired, he could send Xan off away from his friends and mentor, Brother Andrew, to live in a different city and become an apprentice.

Xan goes on a cart-ride from the abbey to the city of Lincoln. Accompanying him on the ride is Brother Andrew, two guards, and Carlo (the bandit leader from the first book who killed his parents). On this ride, Brother Andrew teaches Xan (and the others) about turning the other cheek and loving all people. We also see a different side of Carlo, a more humble and contrite side. When the cart over turns, he even goes so far as to save Brother Andrew's life in lieu of escaping. Within the city of Lincoln there is a cathedral that the children of the city believe to be haunted (hence the title of the book). Xan decides to solve the mystery and show them that it is not haunted. Kolenc does a masterful job of reinforcing the ideas of Christian love and forgiveness from the first book, while also mixing in adventure and mystery to keep your young reader interested.

Book III, The Fire of Eden, has two important events happening - Brother Andrew's ordination and Xan deciding his path in life. Xan can either decide to apprentice like his uncle wanted him to or he can join the abbey and become a brother. I won't tell you which one he picks, you'll have to make it to the end of this book to find that out. In this book, we get to meet a few more new characters, including Brother Andrew's mother. Another character we meet is a Magician. While awaiting Brother Andrew's ordination, a precious jewel, the Fire of Eden, is stolen and everyone expects the Magician. Once again it seems up to Xan to solve the mystery.

The themes of helping others, Christian love, and forgiveness are present again. But I found myself having a hard time getting into this final novel. I appreciated the surprise of who stole the pricey jewel and why it was stolen, but it felt a bit too much like the first two books in the series. It was nice that all the characters we met were given a resolution, but it left enough wonder to see if there will be a fourth book or if this series will end as a trilogy. Overall, I was very impressed with these three books. Antony Kolenc did a nice job of mixing mystery, adventure, and Catholic values into a story that middle-grade children, primarily boys, will find interesting and want to pick up.

These books were provided to my by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, November 17, 2014

My Battle Against Hitler (Image Books)

Germany after World War I was a place of upheaval. Social and economic issues threatened Germany's new democracy and led to the formation of radical right-wing parties. One such right-wing activist was Adolf Hitler, who formed the Nazi party, attempted to overthrow the Bavarian government, and start a national revolution with his infamous "Beer Hall Putsch." This treasonous act landed him a five year jail sentence, of which he served a mere nine months. After several years, Hitler continued his rise to power, first becoming Chancellor and eventually a dictator. We need not be reminded of the gruesome actions after his gain of control. We simply look back and ask, why didn't someone try and stop him? The reality is one man did. Dietrich von Hildebrand was a German Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian. His book My Battle Against Hitler details his fight against one of the greatest evils of the 20th Century.

The book is divided into two sections. Part One is von Hildebrand's memoir and Part Two are direct writings against Hitler and the Nazi party. The memoirs span from 1921 to 1937. There is a brief section in 1938, which discusses von Hildebrand's escape to Vienna. Before each section, the editors provide vital background information. This helps contextualize the writings and gives the reader a better understanding of what was going on in a given year, both in von Hildebrand's life and on a global scale. There is also ample commentary located within the writings, which reflect on not only the writings, but the challenges and dangers von Hildebrand faced for taking on Hitler.

Reading through the memoirs (Part One). Some parts were very fascinating, like why he decided to declare himself a "non-Aryan." Other parts were a bit dry and might take considerable effort on the part of the reader, if it is not something that interests them or that they are overly familiar with. The essays in Part Two really made me stop and think. Even though von Hildebrand's battle was against Hitler and the Nazi Party, he had no problem calling out Catholics who tried to "build bridges between Christianity and Nazism" or Catholics who tried to ignore the atrocities going on and act like their Faith was something that could be lived inwardly focusing only on themselves and going to Mass, and not others in need of help.

Even if parts of the book don't speak to you, My Battle Against Hitler is a book that is worth reading. Von Hildebrand shows us that you can stand up against evil without violence. He also serves as an example that we must stand up against evil, even if means personally risking our own life. Von Hildebrand's life and testimony is one we could all emulate. If you would like to learn more about him or see a different perspective on Germany during the 1920s and 1930s, you will want to check out this book.

This book was provided to me for free by Image Books in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes! To read an interview with the editor, John Henry Crosby, click here.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Mary Poppins 80th Anniversary Edition (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Children and adults alike fell in love with Mary Poppins when they saw the Disney movie. Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke's musical and whimsical take on this children's book delighted audiences when it was first released and continues to delight audiences today. Fans of the movie were given a different perspective on Mary Poppins with the Disney movie, Saving Mr. Banks. In this movie, we get a Disney-biased look at the author P.L. Travers, her view of the literary character Mary Poppins, and her allowing of the film to be made. Like all "fact-based" movies, Saving Mr. Banks got as much right as it did wrong. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about it, was that it may have opened the eyes of people to read the Mary Poppins books and not just focus solely on the movie. Approximately one month ago, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released a special 80th anniversary edition of Mary Poppins.

The 80th anniversary edition of Mary Poppins is a THICK (over 1000 pages) tome, which contains the first four Mary Poppins books - "Mary Poppins," "Mary Poppins Comes Back," "Mary Poppins Opens the Door," and "Mary Poppins in the Park." To my delight the illustrations are abundant and from the original booksby the o There is also a Foreword written by Gregory Maguire, which I found unnecessary as it just read like an "I met P.L. Travers once" piece, and a closing essay/lecture excerpt by P.L. Travers herself called, "On Not Writing for Children" in which she discusses how though children may love her books, they are not the sole, nor the intended audience. What you will not find in this tome is "Mary Poppins A to Z," "Mary Poppins in the Kitchen," "Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane," and "Mary Poppins and the House Next Door." These last four books consist of a book of vignettes featuring letters in the alphabet, a cookbook of sorts, and two final stories that add little if anything to the series as a whole. They were wise omissions indeed.

The first-time reader familiar with the movies will notice as many similarities as differences between the books. Yes, there are the two children Jane and Michael Banks, as in the movie, but there are also two younger children as well. Bert doesn't play as prominent a role. There's about one chapter where he features prominently. Mary Poppins isn't as "delightful" as she is in the movie. Instead, she is a bit more sarcastic, stern, and doesn't sing catchy tunes like "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." She still genuinely cares about the children, and they genuinely love her. Perhaps, there is a bit more fear/respect from the children than the hero worship you see in the movie, but there is definitely a loving relationship there. There's also the familiar scene with Uncle Albert, which is sure to delight readers young and old. One of the big parts where the book is different is the complete change in Mr. Banks. Disney tried to put a nice happy ending on the story, but the Father still remains a bit strict and distant. That's not to say he doesn't love his children, but it didn't have that saccharine sweet ending. Those already familiar with the book will notice that a chapter in the original book was revised to make a compass more politically correct.

The first three books stand on their own, with "Mary Poppins" being the crown jewel, and "Mary Poppins Comes Back," and "Mary Poppins Opens the Door" being iterations of the first book. The last book in this collection, "Mary Poppins in the Park" contains six adventures that happened during the timeframe of the second and third books. If you are a fan of the movie Mary Poppins and would like to know the real story, I highly recommend this book. If you are a fan of the books and your copies are cracked in two and in need of replacing, I recommend this book. If the book size is intimidating for you or your kids, then you might want to get some smaller paperbacks or hardcovers also available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

This book was provided to me for free by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mary of Nazareth (Ignatius Press)

Mary of Nazareth starts off in a startling fashion. A band of marauders with a group of dogs is going through a small town and capturing all the young girls. Anna and Joachim hear them coming and manage to hide Mary from the men. The dogs, however, are sniffing around and miraculously are unable to find Mary. This is the first hint of one of the underlying themes in the movie - Mary is special. What about the captured girls? They are lined up and inspected by a woman, Herod's wife. She is looking for the one who is to give birth to the Messiah, and wants to kill her. This and other scenes, like Mary taken to the Temple to live were inspired by the writings of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich. It therefore became clear early on that this movie will be a mixture of Scripture, tradition, and creative license.

Fast forward about a decade, maybe two, and we see Mary back home with her parents. Joseph has come to ask Mary to be his wife. They could have went with one of two traditions regarding Joseph. They could have made him an older widower with children from his first wife (my preference). Or they could have went with Joseph who was slightly older than Mary, never married, and remained a virgin his whole life like Mary. They chose the latter. In the first scenes with Joseph, we see him seek the permission of Joachim to talk to Mary and Joachim blows him off. Anna, however, says to go and talk to Mary. This seems out of place given that time, but it made for a "cute scene."  I'm not entirely sure how I felt about the interaction between Mary and Joseph. It was a bit flirty, and just felt like they reduced it to some superficial love story.

The movie continues on with scenes we are familiar with from the Bible. There is the Annunciation, Mary's visit to Elizabeth, etc. The director takes creative license with the story and embellishes the facts, like Joseph getting FURIOUS with Mary for her pregnancy, and Joseph giving up on Mary for what seems like a long time. It was puzzling to me why Mary's parents refused to believe that Elizabeth was pregnant in her old age or the manner in which Mary became pregnant with Jesus. For starters, Anne and Joachim were supposed to be barren as well, so why should it be puzzling that Elizabeth became pregnant. Secondly, her parents said early on in the movie that Mary was special, so why change that all of a sudden? It doesn't fit with the storyline. I'm sure Mary felt some level of ostracization, as was portrayed in the movie, but she shouldn't have felt judged by her parents.

There are parts of this movie that seemed forced and reaching for an emotional moment, and there are parts that leave you raw after viewing them. The scene of the slaying of the Holy Innocents ripped my heart out, and it caused me to really stop and think about those poor mothers and fathers back then whose children died at the hands of Herod. The rest of the movie is a mixture of Bible, tradition, and creative license. We see Jesus as a child get hurt and bleed, which was nice as it's foolish to think that Jesus never got hurt or bled. We see Jesus as an adult performing miracles, preaching, and ultimately dying on the Cross. The final scene of the movie has Mary telling the Apostles about how Jesus disappeared in the Temple for three days, and how she didn't understand at the time, but did now. Mary Magdalene then comes in to tell them that Jesus is risen, and the Apostles run off to see. The move then ends with one last scene of Mary and Jesus, Mother and Son.

As I expected beforehand, I have very mixed feelings regarding this movie. There were times I wanted to scream at the screen, and say, "That's not accurate!" or, "Joseph would have never acted like that!" There were other times I was in awe of how the scene captured the human experiences Mary endured while on this Earth. I waffled between giving this movie a 3.5 or a 4 and ultimately decided on a 4 for one very important reason - the message of this movie. That message is that Mary, greatest Saint ever, wants none of the attention on her and wants it all on her Son. She is there to lead us to Jesus, not the other way around.

This movie was provided to me for free by Carmel Communications in exchange for an honest review. Be sure to check out the corresponding book, Mary of Nazareth: The Life of Our Lady in Pictures. Also, EXCITING NEWS, the actress who played Mary, Alissa Jung, will be visiting 5 cities in North America starting November 15th to promote the movie and blog. The schedule can be found here. Unfortunately, I don't live near any of the cities, but if you are lucky enough to, stop by and see her!

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Grace of Yes (Ave Maria Press)

I've had the pleasure of "working" for Lisa Hendey for the past year or two. I'm one of the dozens of people who contribute to her website, and though I rarely get a chance to speak with her or thank her for the opportunity to share my small voice on her website, I know she is a special woman. When she asked me to review her latest book, The Grace of Yes, I admit I had severe reservations. What if I hated it? What if I wasn't the target audience, and the book didn't speak to me? How could I tell a person I greatly admire and respect that her book was a dud? To my relief, the deeper I got in the book, the more I realized that I didn't have to worry about any of these questions!

In the simplest of terms, The Grace of Yes is Lisa Hendey's memoir. In addition to learning about various stages of her life, i.e., childhood, young adulthood, early marriage years, early years as a parent, and being an empty nester, we also learn some cool facts about her. Perhaps, the coolest fact of all is that she's distantly related to Saint Thérèse of a word, that is awesome! However, to call this book merely a memoir would do disservice to the book. Drawing from her life experiences, Lisa pinpoints eight virtues every Christian needs to adopt in order to fully say "Yes!" to God and His will in our life. To my delight, these weren't your typical cliched virtues, like faith, hope, and love. That's not to discredit these tried and true virtues, but Lisa thinks outside of the box and introduces us to the following virtues:

  1. Belief
  2. Generativity
  3. Creativity
  4. Integrity
  5. Humility
  6. Vulnerability
  7. No
  8. Rebirth
Chapter Two: The Grace of Generativity spoke to me the loudest. Before opening this book, the word generativity is a word I might have seen once on one of the old school SATs where they still had analogies. As Lisa states, the word means, "a concern for people besides self and family that usually develops during middle age; especially a need to nurture and guide younger people and contribute to the next generation." At the ripe old age of 31, I like to think/believe that I am not middle-aged yet. However, when Lisa asks in the book to name three people you love that aren't family, I found myself struggling to find even one. Of course, I love my wife, my son, and the rest of our family. Even if they drive me crazy or I drive them crazy that love is there just because of who they are, not because of what they do for me. However, it made me sad to think that I couldn't even list one friend who I love with no qualifications or because of what that relationship provides me. That's what Lisa's words do. They make you question yourself, your journey with Christ, and how open you are to letting Him work in you.

At the end of every chapter are specific questions to ponder. They are worded gently like reflection questions, but as you read through them a few times to reflect on them, you realize they are a challenge to be better; a challenge to empty yourself of you, fill yourself with Jesus, and say "Yes!" to Him. After these questions, she closes with a prayer, which I always appreciate, as they help direct your thoughts back to God and acknowledge that you can do nothing without Him. You could argue that the primary audience for this book is women, and even if you wouldn't be completely wrong, you would greatly discount the book. Be you man or woman, young or old, you will find yourself relating to some aspect of Lisa's life. I highly recommend picking up two copies of this book, one for you and one to loan out, because you won't want to give up your copy.

DON'T FORGET Today is The Grace of Yes Day. I am participating by reviewing the book The Grace of Yes. If you are interested in participating, please click here for more information.

This book was provided to me for free by Lisa Hendey herself in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes.

Bergoglio's List (Saint Benedict Press)

From the period of 1976 to 1983, Argentina was a place undergoing political turmoil. It was known as "The Dirty War." Peron had just been deposed and the military took control of the government. It was a horrendous time and place to live, and that is putting it mildly. People were abducted, tortured, and murdered. Pregnant women gave birth to babies that were ripped from their arms. The babies were given to military families, and the mothers were killed. At least 30,000 people were murdered, and the world turned a blind eye to Argentina by and large. To make matters worse, people within Argentina (including some clergy of the Church) did the same or worse, assisted in the murder of these people. Not all in the Church were guilty. Some brave priests, bishops, religious, and laity did their part, either in secret or the open, to save as many people as they could. Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) was one of those priests who did what was right by defying the military government and helping people escape. The book Bergoglio's List highlights the stories of some of those who lived because of him.

The first three chapters of the book provide a mini-history of life during the Dirty War. In addition to detailing some of the general atrocities I listed above, we also learn about a few specific ones as well. For example, Alfredo Astiz lived among the Argentine people and pretended to be their friend. He was known as El Rubito or "the blonde guy." He was actually working for the military government and was giving the government information on who needed to be targeted and killed. The next ten chapters focuses on the stories of specific people that Bergoglio helped save. They were priests, scholars, unionists, Marxists, married couples, etc. The background or affiliation did not matter to Bergoglio. These were human lives, and everyone of them was precious.

I found myself struggling to read this book, particularly the early parts. After almost every chapter, I had to set the book down and step away from it, because it was a harsh reality to accept that things like this occurred not so long ago, and unbeknownst to me, probably still do. The firsthand accounts of people who were saved were tough as well. You knew they were going to escape, but you still feared for them as you read their stories. This is a book that you not only should read, but have to read. It shows us that ordinary people can do extraordinary things and that one person can make a difference. It also shows us firsthand the kind of man and leader our pope is.

This book was provided to me for free by Saint Benedict Press in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!