Friday, August 29, 2014

Prayers to the Holy Spirit (Word Among Us Press)

Prayers to the Holy Spirit is a pocket-sized book that is near 200 pages, but doesn't feel like it. It spans 75 chapters and contains both reflections and prayers to help you grow closer to the most neglected member of the Trinity - the Holy Spirit. In the Introduction, he explains to us who the Holy Spirit is, when we received Him, and what He does in our life. The subsequent chapters then contain a brief Scripture passage; a reflection (meditation, Church teaching, or personal experience); an application on what you read; a "May you" blessing, which asks for graces; and a prayer starter. Each chapter is approximately two pages, and if you read one a day, it can get you through two-and-a-half months.

The book was a very good introduction to the Holy Spirit. I really appreciated the reflections from Church Fathers, Saints, and Popes. The personal reflections also give you some insight into the author, Bert Ghezzi, and his life. The book, however, was not what I was expecting. I don't know why, but I was expecting a big list of prayers to the Holy Spirit that Mr. Ghezzi gathered throughout the centuries. There is a brief section at the end that does contain actual prayers to the Holy Spirit, but unfortunately it is very brief and only contains four prayers. Overall, I'd give this book four stars.

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.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Into the Unknown and The Story of Buildings (Candlewick Press)

I find myself scouring Amazon at least weekly, sometimes daily for quality hardcover children's books. At times, it feels like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Sure, there are a lot of older books that fit the bill. However, the newer releases are mostly shallow and not worth reading. It feels like we're setting up the next generation to be dumber, or at the very least be less interested in books. I have recently found two books that are both graphically appealing and educational, both are illustrated by Stephen Biesty and both are published by Candlewick Press.

Into the Unknown is an elaborately illustrated children's book, which chronicles fourteen famous journeys in history. The book begins in 340 B.C. with Pytheas the Greek sailing to the Arctic Circle and concludes with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon in 1969. Several other famous journeys detailed in this book are Leif Eriksson's, Marco Polo's, Christopher Columbus', and Edmund Hilary's. In addition to receiving a summary of the journey and illustrations on every page, one feature of this book sets it apart from all others. FOLDOUTS!

Each of the fourteen journeys has a unique foldout section that details something significant related to the journey. Pytheas' foldout shows how to build a curragh (the ship he sailed on) as well as what went into travelling on this type of ship. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's foldout was the most awesome. It shows all the parts of the Apollo module, the journey to and from the moon, and what happened to the Apollo module at every stage of the journey. Even the cover expands and folds out into a world map to show the path of all fourteen journeys. The only negative of the book is the sturdiness of the book. The inside of my copy split at the front seam, and will have to have paper glued over it to repair it. For that reason, I am taking away 1 star. I still think this was an awesome book worth buying. It would make a great supplement to a history class or homeschool curriculum.

The Story of Buildings is a gorgeous hardcover book that measures approximately 12" x 10". Picking it up for the first time, it looked a bit like a coffee table book for kids, which I guess it could be used as such. The book begins with a chapter on building a house. The author, Patrick Dillon, describes how people used to live in caves because it was the most logical shelter choice available, but eventually developed tools and learned how to make homes. According to him, this is the story of buildings. He then goes on to show how dwelling places have changed both over the years and depending on where one lived. After this other types of structures came into being, like barns, factories, places of worship, etc. He stresses that "Every building has a story to tell." We then dive into the heart of the book.

The remaining chapters focus on a particular building, starting with the Pyramid of Djoser and ending with the Straw Bale House in London, England. Each chapter tells background information on the place the building is located, the culture/people, and the building itself. A large foldout 2 page illustration is then provided to show finer details of the building itself. The book has a nice flow to it, because it's like reading a linear evolution of buildings. He starts with Egypt, moves to Greece, then Rome, etc. and manages to paint a beautiful picture with words to accompany the many beautiful illustrations by Stephen Biesty. This is a great book for children and adults alike and reminds me of David Macaulay's books. This is a great book for getting kids interested in architecture and engineering.

These books were provided to me for free by Candlewick Press. If you found these reviews helpful, click here and/or here and hit Yes!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Papal Documentaries from Ignatius Press

On April 27, 2014, Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope Francis canonized two of his predecessors - Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. There was great rejoicing in the Church on this day, and many publishers released various books on the two newest saints. Pauline Books and Media, for example, released a book on each that contained excerpts from their writings. Pope John Paul II's was called Be Not Afraid and Pope John XXIII's was called Secret to Happiness. Ignatius Press, however, raised the stakes and released DVDs on these two great men, called The Revolution of John XXIII: The Second Vatican Council and John Paul II: I Kept Looking for You. Today, I have the pleasure of sharing with you my thoughts on both of them.

Pope John XXIII was never meant to be a game-changer. He was elected to the Papal throne on October 28, 1958. This was shortly before his 77th birthday. Many thought of him as a placeholder or caretaker pope. They had hopes he would have a short reign and would just keep the Catholic Church afloat during a tumultuous time in the world. Much to everyone's surprise, he called for an ecumenical council, known as The Second Vatican Council, that would transform the Catholic Church into what we know it as today. The Revolution of John XXIII is a 55 minute documentary that covers this man and the Council he called. The main aim of Vatican II was to improve the relationship between the Church and the modern world. He wanted to "throw open the windows of the church and let the fresh air of the spirit blow through." During this Council, he grew ill and died, so a new pope, Paul VI, had to be elected, and he is the one who saw the Council through to the end.

The format of this DVD documentary is primarily interviews and commentary. The interviews consist mainly of Cardinals who were present for some or all of the Vatican II councils. The four Cardinals featured most prominently are Julian Herranz, Georges Marie Cottier, Paul Poupard, and the only name I recognized, Frances Arinze. The Cardinals speak in their native tongue, so there is a voice-over that translates what they are saying, which might or might not distract you. It is fascinating to hear first hand insights from people who were actually there at the last Council the Catholic Church held. The commentary focused on key figures during the Council, most notably Joseph Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI), and the documents that were unanimously declared, like Lumen Gentium. What was even more remarkable was all the old footage that was presented on this DVD. The Vatican Library is truly a treasure whose depth knows no end.

For someone who wasn't alive for Vatican II, I found this documentary to be a good introduction. I have always been somewhat intrigued by Vatican II, but have never taken the time to read through the official constitutions. I now feel a bit more inspired to seek out information on it and learn more about a Council whose consequences we are still seeing today. The only thing I wish would have been different about this DVD is that it would have been longer and that they could have had Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI interviewed. However, the latter is an unrealistic pipe dream of an avid Pope Benedict supporter.

John Paul II: I Kept Looking for You is a documentary which examines the late John Paul II's legacy. Surprisingly, the DVD begins with his death. It then takes us back to Vatican II to discuss Karol Wojtyla's role there. It then takes us to the election of John Paul I. The tradition supposedly goes that Pope John Paul I told Cardinal Wojtyla that it should have been him who became pope. One month later Pope John Paul I died and Pope John Paul II was elected pope. The documentary says that John Paul II's legacy can be expressed in one sentence. "Love thy fellow man."

The film then discusses the personality of Pope John Paul II. It talks about his outgoing nature, welcoming attitude to the youth, and the way he went off the cuff with a lot of events. It sounds a lot like many of the things we read daily about Pope Francis, so it was nice that this documentary pointed out that Pope Francis, while awesome, isn't the first pope to show such a love for his flock. We then see a great deal of focus on Our Lady of Guadalupe. The reason for this is because John Paul II beatified Juan Diego in 1990 and canonized him in 2002. He also visited the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe on his first journey outside Italy.

I think the most fascinating part of this documentary was the wide array of people that they interviewed for this film. In addition to Cardinals Frances Arinze and Stanislaw Dziwisz (Pope John Paul II's longtime personal secretary and friend), there was a politician, journalist, the Dalai Lama, singer Placido Domingo, and the former Polish President Lech Walesa. This shows the broad reach and effect that John Paul II's papacy had on people from all faiths and walks of life. This was an amazing documentary that was shot in 14 different countries, and I'm amazed that it was only 92 minutes long, or short I should say. I plan to show it to my children when they are older, because even though they were not alive for this great man's reign, I want them to know about him.

I received these DVDs for free from Ignatius Press in exchange for honest reviews. If you found them helpful, please click here and/or here and hit Yes!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Many are Called and First Comes Love (Image Books)

Many are Called is a recent (2010) and lesser known book by Scott Hahn. Perhaps, it is because the tagline is "Rediscovering the Glory of the Priesthood," and many people pass it over because they believe it is a book for priests, not for a lay person like them. WRONG! While, this book is definitely an excellent read for priests and seminarians, there is value in it for the laity as well.

The book starts off explaining what real masculinity is. Dr. Hahn then contrasts this to counterfeit masculinity or machismo, which is what our culture likes to push down the throats of our young men. The second chapter reviews the essentials of priesthood. It is more than a job or a ministry. It is a vocation. It leaves an indelible mark on your soul, so that a priest is a priest forever. A priest also receives the power to turn bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ (Eucharist) and the power to forgive sins (Confession). He receives these gifts because he is acting in place of Christ here on earth. The next nine chapters discuss roles of a priest, such as Father, Mediator, Bridegroom, etc.

Perhaps, the most troubling chapters to me were the one on priest as Father and the one on priest as Celibate Father. Both of these chapters take a very Roman Rite viewpoint. It assumes that priests must be unmarried, except in rare circumstances. However, if you look at the Eastern Rite churches (in full communion with the pope) married priests are allowed and quite common. However, there is no such thing as a married bishop. This Western focus aside, I found this to be a very informative book. Priests today have a very thankless "job," and are under a lot of undue scrutiny and criticism. If you would like to understand the vocation of priesthood better, read this book. Then, buy a copy for your parish priest(s) and seminarian(s).

First Comes Love is a book about family, but not family in the way that the world thinks of it. Instead, it focuses on the Trinity and the Church. If we look at the Gospels, we can see that Jesus used familial terms a lot. He even went so far as to say that his family wasn't his mother, brothers, and sisters, but those who do the will of God. Dr. Hahn touches on this theme and more in this book.

The book starts off with a personal love story from Dr. Hahn. He talks about how he met his future wife Kimberly, and it was basically love at first sight. He compares the love he felt to the love Adam must have felt for Eve, and explains that man is made for woman and vice versa. He then continues his personal story of love begetting more love with the pregnancy of their first child. However, something went wrong with the labor, and she had to have an emergency C-Section. It was a success and both mom and baby were okay, but it definitely made Dr. Hahn look at his wife in a new and more beautiful way.

The rest of the book explains who God is and what the Church is. God is Family, Covenant, and Love. God also became man for us. He also explains Trinitarian theology in simple terms, and how the Catholic Church is like a home and family. My favorite section was actually the appendix, which discusses the Holy Spirit. St. Maximilian Kolbe said, The Holy Spirit is the uncreated Immaculate Conception." It was also interesting to read about the concept of bridal-maternity of the Holy Spirit. However, this doesn't mean we should refer to God as "mother" or that the Godhead has gender at all. "God created the human forms of physical gender and sexuality to be created reflections of the purely immaterial relations unique to each member of the Trinity." That's a lot to grasp, but makes sense the more you reflect on it. If you are looking to better understand the role of family in the Trinity and the Church, then this is the book for you.

These books were provided to me for free by Image Books in exchange for an honest review. If you found the reviews helpful, please click here and/or here and hit Yes!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Beethoven for Kids and Verdi for Kids (Chicago Review Press)

We have a great number of publishers of children's literature available to us currently. I find myself looking through Amazon weekly to see what is out and what is coming out. A lot of the newer books seem silly, and borderline dumb to me. This makes me scour catalogs or Amazon even harder to find books that are both educational and a joy to read. Chicago Review Press has a great series called "For Kids." In this series, your children are introduced to "different people, events, and ideas that changed the world." The famous people include historical figures, people of science, artists, musicians, etc. Today, I will be reviewing Beethoven for Kids and Verdi for Kids.

Beethoven for Kids begins with an introduction explaining some of the many obstacles Beethoven had to overcome in his life. He was deaf, lived in poverty, and had an alcoholic father. He had poor health, and he had to support his mother and younger siblings. We are then treated to a timeline that chronicled major milestones in his life. The book then walks us through Beethoven's life and his major symphonies. Included in the chapters are extra boxes of text that tell you interesting background or factual information like who Beethoven's patrons were or what a symphony is. The greatest part of the book are the activities you can do with your children. The activities vary in degree of difficulty, from making a silhouette picture to making Austrian apple pancakes. This is a very engaging book perfect for kids 9 and older that not only teaches them about Beethoven and music, but also the time and place he grew up in. Highly recommended.

Verdi for Kids is laid out in a somewhat similar format as Beethoven for Kids. However, the Time Line comes before the Introduction in this book, instead of vice versa like Beethoven for Kids. The introduction focuses on Italian Opera, as opposed to Verdi. Verdi's life was filled with disappointment early on by having his application denied at a conservatory in Milan. However, it was tragedy that had a more profound effect on his life. He was married to a woman named Margherita, and they had two children. Both children died in infancy while he was working on his first opera, and she died shortly thereafter from encephalitis. A lot of the extra boxes tell us about different musical pieces, like what a cantata is or what a Bel canto is. One tells us about agriculture in Italy during Verdi's time, and another highlights the Franco-Prussian War. Activities for your children range from solving a word search to planting a "tomato sauce" garden. Having never been a huge opera fan, I find myself appreciating this style of music more. I have decided to give it another try, at least Verdi's operas. I can't wait to check out other books in the "For Kids" series.

These books were provided to me for free by Chicago Review Press in exchange for honest reviews. If you found them helpful, please click here and/or here, and hit Yes!

Monday, August 18, 2014

When the Church Was Young (Servant Books)

When the Church was Young is a book about the Early Church Fathers and the latest book from Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio, also known as Dr. Italy. The book covers more than 500 years; both Eastern and Western Fathers; and men from Asia, Africa, and Europe. Some of the big names in this book are St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Jerome, and St. John Chrysostom. However, there are many other names in this book including St. Basil, Terutillian, and St. Cyprian.

Dr. D'Ambrosio begins the book by trying to determine which Church Fathers to include in his book. It is definitely a tough list to trim and one that many people have had to wrestle with. He decided on the definition of "great Christian writers who passed on and clarified the teaching of the apostles from the second through eighth centuries." He then divides them into four periods - 1. Apostolic Fathers (50-150 A.D.), 2. Apologists (150-325 A.D.), 3. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (4th and 5th Centuries), 4. 6th through 8th Centuries (didn't see a name for this period).

We then take a chronological adventure through the Fathers starting with St. Clement of Rome and ending with St. Gregory the Great. The chapter which I really enjoyed was the one on Origen. The chapter begins by telling us about the piety of Origen's father Leonidas. In the middle of the night, Leonidas was taken away to be martyred. We learn about Origen's brilliant mind, him taking over the School of Alexandria, his many writings, his composition of the Hexapla (six Bible translations side-by-side). Unfortunately, we also learn that all his teachings weren't orthodox. He believed in ideas such as pre-existence of the soul and salvation for all. Of course these were wrong, but at his time, many of these doctrines weren't defined yet. It is because of these beliefs that many of his works were destroyed after his death, and it is also the reason that he is not a saint, which is a shame in my opinion.

At 26 chapters and 300+ pages, you can either breeze through this book or you can take a chapter a day and spend a whole month immersing yourself in the early Church. I did the former, due to my knowledge of the Fathers, but if you are unfamiliar with Patristics, then you will want to take your time with this book. It is a top-notch introduction to the Early Church Fathers and one that I would heartily recommend alongside other books on the Fathers, like those by Mike Aquilina. I hope Dr. D'Ambrosio keeps writing about the Fathers and chooses to write about Fathers from different eras, perhaps Desert Fathers, or just goes more in-depth on these Fathers. I feel like he has a wealth of information to share with us, and we have only seen the tip of the iceberg.

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

Friday, August 15, 2014

Fire from Ashes and From God to You (Ancient Faith Publishing)

I discovered Ancient Faith Radio at least 5 years ago. It was during this time of questioning and searching that I gained a new knowledge and appreciation of Eastern Orthodoxy. One of my favorite podcasters was Steve "the Builder" Robinson. He had two particular podcasts, Our Life in Christ (where I learned the most about Orthodoxy) and Steve the Builder (where I learned the most about Steve and living a Christian life in the secular world.) I reached out to Steve on occasion, and he was always a blessing to talk to. When he stopped making his podcasts, sadness doesn't even begin to describe how I felt. When I saw that he was releasing a book, I was over the moon happy and knew I had to read it!

Fire from Ashes is a brief book (less than 150 pages) written by Fr. Joseph Huneycutt and Steve Robinson, both podcasters or former podcasters at Ancient Faith Radio. The premise of the book is the struggle and need of perpetual conversion. There is no such thing as "once saved always saved," and anyone who tells you otherwise is in heresy. We must remember that even the righteous man falls seven times and rises again.

The book begins with the story of a heroin addict named Mark who used to work for Steve. Steve compares him to St. Dismas the Good Thief who died on the cross next to Jesus. Both lived less than stellar lives, but both reached out to Jesus on their deathbeds and took a chance on Him being able to save them. This story was taken from one of Steve's podcasts, so it was familiar to me, but it still moves me everytime I hear it. A lot of Christians don't like to hear these deathbed conversion stories, but we should rejoice every time a soul makes it to Heaven. The book says, "The 'deathbed conversion' is the instant realization of the futility of our life and the acceptance of our personal responsibility and guilt for our sin, but it is also a turning to the love of God in the sufferings of Christ for our sins." AMEN!

Chapter Three is one that I feel will relate to most people, because it discusses habitual sin. There are many types of habitual sin, but the authors choose to discuss pornography and masturbation. This seems reasonable, since that is a habitual sin that is much more prevalent today with the advent of the Internet. The authors take the time to remind us that it is good to struggle with sin. If we are struggling, we are least putting up a fight. It's when we stop fighting against our sins that we are defeated. However, we are not alone in this fight. God is on our side. The saints are on our side. The angels are on our side. Our Church is on our side.  We would do well to remember this.

Overall, this was a very approachable book and you could see the personalities of the two authors in not only the words on the page, but the illustrations they provided as well. What I especially loved about this book was all the examples they used from Scripture and the Church Fathers. The examples that St. John Chrysostom and St. Moses the Black provided will stick with me a long time. Though the target audience for this book is Orthodox Christians, I believe it would be helpful for Catholics as well. We are all sinners in need of perpetual conversion and this book does a fine job explaining what perpetual conversion is and how to live it.

From God to You is the second book on icons by John Kosmas Skinas. His first book was called Pictures of God. In this book, your children will trace the history of icons through the ages. The book starts by explaining that people have always tried to get rid of icons (even to this day sadly). However, they have survived thanks to the Church. Our journey then begins with The Icon Not Made by Human Hands and the story of King Abgar. Two icons later, we learn of the first Christian iconographer St. Luke, who painted an icon of Mary from her kitchen table.

Other features in this book are explanations of the Egyptian style of iconography; specific symbols early Christians used, like the peacock; and important icons in history like the Pantocrator from Mt. Sinai. We also learn about facial expressions, directions of the eyes, and the meaning of colors in iconography. The icons in this book are beautifully reproduced in these pages. The explanations are simple and easy to understand. I also really love how the author explains that saints are like "restored icons" because he used their lives to to make beautiful images. It inspires us and our children to imitate these great men and women so that we may be made into icons as well. If you are looking for a set of books to teach little ones about icons I wholeheartedly recommend Pictures of God and From God to You.

These books were provided to me for free by Ancient Faith Publishing in exchange for an honest review. If you found the review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Giver Quartet (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The Giver is premiering this Friday August 15th. To the younger generation of moviegoers, those in their teens most likely, this is another blockbuster in the same vein as Hunger Games. It's got some big names like Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd, Katie Holmes, and even Taylor Swift. To an older audience, those in their 20s to 30s, they know that this was actually a book released in 1993 by Lois Lowry. Some from this generation, like my wife, actually had this assigned as summer reading, which was pretty remarkable and groundbreaking for the time given the content of this book.

The Giver is a book that takes place in the future, a dystopian future. However, the book is initially painted in a utopian light that becomes more dystopic the more you read. The society has eliminated pain and other negative emotions from their society, called "Sameness." There is no privacy, and no one seems to really mind. There is one man, however, the Receiver of Memory who stores all past memores before the "Sameness."  The main character is a young boy named Jonas who has the same pale eyes as the current Receiver of Memories. Jonas has been chosen to be the new Receiver of Memories. By taking on this role, he experiences a lot of pain, but he also experiences genuine happy emotions for the first time as well. By receiving this influx of emotions, he learns one of the gruesome prices his community pays for peace. He also longs for a time and place different than his current one. I won't continue to give plot away, but just know that the end of the book leaves you at a sort of cliffhanger, wishing for more answers.

Books with unsatisfying endings always leave readers wanting closure. They also cause dedicated fans to write to authors and implore them to write more of the story. Some choose to, like L. Frank Baum who kept writing because children kept asking him to do so. Others choose not to, like J.K. Rowling. She is happy with how Harry Potter ended and has no plans to write more books in that world. It took seven years by Lowry wrote a somewhat sequel called "Gathering Blue." However, it didn't pick up where "The Giver" left off and introduced us to a new character named Kira. In 2004, Lowry released "Messenger"  which helped tie together "The Giver" and "Gathering Blue." "Son" was released in 2012 and also has strong connections to the first book.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt did fans of this series a HUGE service by combing all the books in a beautifully bound hardcover omnibus. It's just under 800 pages long, has a ribbon place-marker, and is a super reasonable price. I also really appreciate the fact that even though they turned The Giver into a movie that at least with this omnibus didn't make a new cover with the main actors and actresses. So if you have seen the movie already or are going to see the movie, I definitely recommend taking some time to read the book. It will be a bit different than the movie but in a good way.

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

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Church Ascending (Sophia Institute Press)

The Church Ascending is the latest work by Dr. Diane Moczar and the second I have read in the past two years. The first work I read of hers was The Church Under Attack. By all accounts, The Church Ascending could be considered a prequel to The Church Under Attack, because "Ascending" covers the 1st Century to the 14th Century, and "Under Attack" covered the 16th Century to modern time. Since this is my second time reading Dr. Moczar's work, I feel I have more realistic expectations going in. She also provides a helpful introduction on what this book is and is not for those not familiar with her writings. In a nutshell, Dr. Moczar is a Catholic historian. There will be some pro-Catholic bias, but it's not overwhelming. The book is meant to give the reader a basic view of Church History, not exhaustive by any means. The reader is supposed to be enticed by the glimpses they see to want to read and study more, about certain people or events.

The book is divided into seven periods - Beginnings, Dark Ages, End of the Dark Ages, Early Middle Ages, Twelfth Century, Thirteenth Century, and Late Middle Ages. Each period has two chapters devoted to it. The first chapter for each period gives you a taste of key people or events from that period. The second chapter for each period focuses on the Catholic thought and culture during that time. Each chapter contains little boxes of information that provide extra bits of knowledge related to a specific topic. For example, we learn a little bit about Arius and his heresy when Dr. Moczar talks about the Dark Ages. Honestly, my favorite part of this book was the suggested reading at the end of every chapter. Since Dr. Moczar is only able to provide a taste of the first fourteen centuries of Catholicism in these 175 pages, these suggestions will go a long way in satisfying your hunger for more information.

I was most intrigued reading about the Dark Ages. It is not a period I know a lot about, but this gave me a little bit of insight into what went on during this time and how we actually fell into the Dark Ages. It was also fascinating to read a brief section on Attila the Hun and made me want to read more about him and why he was the way he was. The downside of this book was the lack of information regarding Eastern Christendom and the Eastern Roman Empire. Since the Eastern Roman Empire was not conquered by the barbarians, their culture still flourished. I understand that it would be impossible to cover everything, but it does make you a bit disappointed that the book was so Western focused. There was also very little information on the Great Schism. Like The Church Under Attack, this book left me wanting more. 4 stars.

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

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Journey of Our Love (Pauline Books and Media)

When we think of Catholic saints, we think of great men and women of the Faith who lived centuries before us, died for the Faith in some way, and lived the life of a celibate. This is generally a fair assessment. Most of our saints are religious in some form or another, be they popes, priests, monks, nuns, etc. There are very few married saints, and even then, most of the married saints chose to live celibate lives as brother and sister. What about saints for the rest of us? What about the married man or woman who aspires to sainthood? Where is he to look for inspiration and example? Allow me to introduce you to St. Gianna Beretta Molla.

Before I review the book, The Journey of Our Love, I would like to share some background on St. Gianna Beretta Molla. She was born in Magenta, Italy in 1922 and was the 10th of 13 children. In 1942, she began to study medicine and received her diploma in 1949. In December of 1954, she met Pietro Molla. They became engaged in April 1955 and were married in September 1955 as well. They had three children Pierluigi born in 1956, Mariolina born in 1957, and Laura born in 1959. In 1961, St. Gianna became pregnant again but developed a fibroma on her uterus which left her with three options - abortion, hysterectomy (which would have terminated the pregnancy), and removal of the fibroma. She opted to remove only the fibroma, but still had complications throughout the pregnancy. On Holy Saturday of 1962, she gave birth to their fourth child Gianna Emanuela. Seven days later, St. Gianna Beretta died of septic peritonitis.

Now for the review. The Journey of Our Love is the personal correspondence of St. Gianna Beretta Molla and her husband Pietro Molla. The book is divided into five parts - Introduction (which includes information I covered above, the content of their letters, and their spirituality), Engagement Letters, Letters in the First Year of Marriage, Letters from Pietro's Trip to the United States, and Letters of Maturity. Some gems in this book are that Pietro Molla wrote a preface to his wife's letters, and their daughter, Gianna Emanuela, wrote a preface to Pietro's letters. The chronology of the husband and wife in the end is also extremely useful for putting the letters in the proper context of their lives.

There is no way to legitimately review this book. As these are personal letters between husband and wife, all you can do is read them and appreciate them. I would hate for someone to critique the life and/or love between my wife and I, so I will show St. Gianna Beretta and Pietro Molla the same respect. With that being said, the letters were beautiful to read. There was humor, joy, and most of all love. It was clear reading the letters that these two people loved each other and weren't afraid to show it. The letters also showed a growing maturity both individually and in their love.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. In a culture where the definition of marriage has been twisted, divorce rates are high, and people don't even know what love is anymore, this was a welcome and encouraging read. Saint Gianna Beretta Molla is a worthy saint, but in my opinion (and I'm sure many others), her husband Pietro Molla is also a worthy saint. Let us pray for his eventual sainthood. May we use them as a model for married love. Let us hold true to our beliefs like Saint Gianna. Let us fight for the unborn. And let us always say an emphatic YES to life.

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

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Once and Future King (Naxos Audiobooks)

We all have those books from our youth that we re-visit and reread every few years. For some, it's The Lord of the Rings. For my wife, it's Harry Potter and A Wrinkle in Time. For me, it's The Once and Future King by T.H. White. Unfortunately, with work, commutes, childrearing, errands, chores, the need for sleep, etc. who really has time to sit down and read a 600+ page book anymore? Here's a better question, how do we encourage our children to read these wonderful books and series, when we barely have time to read them ourselves? One of mine, and many people's, favorite solutions to this problem is AUDIOBOOKS! You have to be very careful when selecting your audiobooks, because they can be abridged or unabridged. Imagine the horror of buying an audiobook of your favorite book only to find half of it missing because it's abridged. Another thing to look out for is the narrator. Preview the audiobook, if at all possible, before buying it. If you hate the voice for a few minutes, imagine how crazy you'll feel after hearing it for 8+ hours. Maybe it'll grow on you. Usually, it just grates on you!

So what are my opinions about The Once and Future King, both the story and the audiobook presentation? Let's start with the story! Most of us know the basics of King Arthur, either because of Disney or popular culture. There have been movies, television shows, and even musicals about his mythology. Some people enjoy Arthurian legend in the form of poetry, like Tennyson, which are beautiful, but I prefer reading about King Arthur in prose. That is why The Once and Future King is my favorite work of Arthurian legend. The book originally had four parts:

  • The Sword in the Stone
  • The Queen of Air and Darkness (also known as The Witch in the Wood)
  • The Ill-Made Knight
  • The Candle in the Wind
A fifth part called, "The Book of Merlyn" was written in 1941 and published separately, but it was printed in later editions. "The Sword in the Stone" is the story that everyone knows in large thanks to Disney. It details a young Arthur, known as Wart, his upbringing, his tutelage under Merlyn. Merlyn prepares Wart for being a good king by turning him into different animals and teaching him a lesson that will help him in his later role as king. Of course, the Wart has no idea that he will be king eventually. Even though, Arthur and Merlyn are the main focus of, I like T.H. White's treatment of Kay. Disney portrays him as a bit of a villain, but it's not as bad in the book. He is described as such: "He was not at all an unpleasant person really, but clever, quick, proud, passionate and ambitious. He was one of those people who would be neither a follower nor a leader, but only an aspiring heart, impatient in the failing body which imprisoned him."

"The Witch in the Wood" introduces us to Morgause, Arthur's half-sister. She seduces Arthur and gives birth to Mordred, the son who will eventually be the downfall of King Arthur. The Round Table is also introduced into the series. "The Ill-Made Knight" brings in two key characters in Arthurian mythology - Lancelot and Guinevere. King Arthur meets Lancelot at an early age, and tells him about his want to end the world of the mentality, "might is right." Lancelot trains for three years and eventually becomes the greatest knight in King Arthur's court. Lancelot leads a troubled life. He unfortunately falls in love with Guinevere, but can't be with her as she is wed to King Arthur. He is tricked into sleeping with a woman named Elaine, and she bears a son named Galahad. Eventually, Lancelot and Guinevere give into their lust and have an affair.

"The Candle in the Wind" is where the story builds and reaches a bitter end. The glory of Camelot is under threat by Mordred and Agravaine. Mordred hates King Arthur and Agravaine hates Lancelot, so they come up with a plan to destroy them, by revealing the secret of Lancelot and Guinevere. There is very little happiness and joy in the part. "The Book of Merlyn" chronicles Merlyn's final lessons to Arthur before his death. After learning these lessons, Arthur wants a truce with Mordred, and it looks promising, but a solider on Mordred's side draws his sword to kill a snake. This sign is misinterpreted as treason, and battle ensues with Arthur and Mordred killing each other. After Arthur's death, Guinevere joins a convent and Lancelot becomes a hermit.

Hearing this book read to me by Neville Jason was a great treat! He has a very regal voice, which is the kind of voice you'd expect when reading Arthurian mythology. He also does different character voices, something not every audiobook reader does. The voices have a great tone to them and make the characters really come alive. You can listen to a sample by following this link. After listening to this book, I don't think I'll ever be able to read it with my own two eyes again. He literally transformed the book and took me to this mythological time and place. I want to research other audiobooks he did and buy them just because he reads them.

So what age should you let your children start reading these works? Only you know your child best, but your child can read/listen to "The Sword and the Stone" in elementary school. There is a little bit of swearing in the beginning by Sir Ector, so be warned of that. Boys will also like this more than girls, because of knights and jousting, but your girls might like it too. Luckily, you can purchase it separately from the other four parts by clicking here. The other four books have adult themes and would probably best be saved until high school. If they read it earlier, the concepts of incest, adultery, and sexual promiscuity will probably go over their heads. Whatever your child reads though, you should read with them so that you can answer questions that might arise. Some parents might dislike this book altogether because of black magic. However, it would be a shame to discount this entire book because of that and some adult themes. Just be a good parent. Give it to them at an appropriate age. Be there to answer any questions they have, and let them know what is morally right and what is morally wrong in the book.

This audiobook was provided to me for free by Naxos Audiobooks in exchange for an honest review. You can pick up a copy of this audiobook directly from their site in digital format, from Amazon in CD format, or Audible.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Encyclopedia of Saints (Our Sunday Visitor)

I'm a sucker for a good reference book. If you recall, I once had ambitions to read through the entire encyclopedia. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it), this never happened. With the advent of Wikipedia and religious websites like New Advent and OrthodoxWiki, hardcover encyclopedias are becoming a thing of the past. Luckily, there are still publishers like Our Sunday Visitor who are in the business of printing these hardcover texts!

Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Saints is the second edition of this massive tome. The first edition was published in 1998, so it was overdue for another edition, especially since Pope John Paul II canonized many saints during his reign as pope. The editors for this book are Matthew and Margaret Bunson. You might recognize these names as they were also the editors for the Encyclopedia of U.S. Catholic History. The book's tagline says, "From Aaron to Zygmunt and 10,000 in between - her are the 'holy ones' of the Church!" This tagline made me immediately turn to the end to read about St. Zygmunt. He was a "Ukrainian priest and founder of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph." He was beatified by Pope John Paul II and canonized by Pope Benedict XVI with his feast day on January 1st. How blessed for him to share a feast day with Mary, Mother of God.

Disclaimer: I did not read all 1,000+ pages of this encyclopedia. I read up on my favorite saints, did a lot of browsing/letting the book fall open and reading about a random saint. As this is a reference book, there is no right or wrong way to read it. I will tell you about some of my observations, though. Most saints received a few lines in the book. Some received a few paragraphs. Fewer received full pages. Those who received full pages would be considered "superstar" saints. As an example, Saint Pope John Paul II received slightly more than a full page. Early saints like St. Joseph or St. Mark the Evangelist received two paragraphs. I understand that space in this issue is at a premium; that more is known about recent saints than early saints; and that people tend to gravitate to the "superstar" saints. However, it would have been nice to see important saints get more words than they did or mentioned at all. For example, St. Augustine of Hippo received just over two pages of material. This was equal to the total space (pictures excluded) of the three Cappadocian Fathers (Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and Gregory of Nyssa).

Overall, this was a solid work. I was pleased that included both Saints and Blesseds in it. I also found the twelve (yes twelve) appendices extremely helpful. Just a few of the appendices are a glossary, list of U.S. martyrs, list of patron saints, and a list of Doctors of the Church. There was also a helpful introduction/history on the process of canonization. Was this book perfect? No, but it never will be. For starters, there will always be people, like myself, nitpicking entries and saying that they wish St. X had received more information and St. Y had received less information. However, if there was as much information printed as available, we'd need a 26 volume Encyclopedia of Saints! Also, there are new saints added every year. This book did include two of our newest saints, Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, but we could have new Saints and Blesseds next year that would then be missing from this book. You must do what I did, though, and appreciate the book for what it is. This is a well-researched, jam-packed tome for learning more about the saints in general and specific saints. Use this as a starting point for learning the basics about a particular saint, then dive deeper in your studies with primary sources and works written by them or about them to learn even more. This is a must-have book for every religion teacher, homeschooling mom, or lover of the saints!

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

Friday, August 1, 2014

Mary: A Biblical Walk with the Blessed Mother (Ascension Press)

As a former Protestant, a Southern Baptist to be exact, Mary one was of my biggest hurdles coming into the Catholic Church.  Looking back on it, I feel really stupid having such a hard time accepting her. It's not like she was any less in my Protestant New Testament than in the Catholic New Testament. In fact, the Protestant New Testament has the same number of books as the Catholic New Testament. It is their Old Testament that is lacking sadly, but I digress. Despite my acceptance of Mary as my mother, I unfortunately am not as close to her as I would like to be. The knowledge is there. The prayers are there. But through no fault of hers, the emotional connection and reliance is still lacking. That's why I was very pleased to receive the opportunity to review the latest Ascension Press study program called Mary: A Biblical Walk with the Blessed Mother.

Mary: A Biblical Walk with the Blessed Mother is a 4 disc/8 lesson program led by Dr. Edward Sri. The Catholic Church has a lot of great theologians at the moment. Pope Benedict XVI is par excellence in my mind, but other great ones include Dr. Scott Hahn, Dr. Peter Kreeft, and Dr. Edward Sri. I've only discovered Dr. Sri in the past few years, but he is very approachable in the way he teaches, and I quickly learned that if you want to learn about Mary, he's one of the top sources to go to. This study is based on his 2013 book Walking with Mary. The contents of the 8 lessons are as follows:
  1. Introduction
  2. The Annunciation
  3. The Visitation
  4. The Nativity
  5. The Presentation and The Finding in the Temple
  6. The Wedding at Cana
  7. Mary at the Cross
  8. Mary Crowned with Glory
Each lesson is approximately 30 minutes long and is filmed on site with the exception of her being crowned in glory in Heaven. If that was in this study program, it'd carry a much higher price tag. :) What you do get to see are the place Mary lived before Joseph, the cave where Jesus was born, the place where Jesus was crucified. These aren't grainy videos or videos shot far away behind a chain-link fence. They are high quality, up-close access videos that if you haven't been to the Holy Land (like myself) will take your breath away. They remind me a lot of the Catholicism series in terms of visual beauty, which is the recent gold standard in Catholic DVD study programs. I would argue the material is better, but perhaps I'm biased. The presentation quality also shows how much effort we have made in keeping up with the latest in technology, even in the last 5-10 years, to help with the New Evangelization and spreading the Faith to all corners of the world. You can see the official trailer below.

The material in the DVDs and the Study Binder is top-notch. When you have a brilliant mind, like Dr. Sri, presenting on a topic they are an expert on, you run the risk as a presenter to only reach 1%. By this I mean, you run the risk of alienating 99% of your audience and only the top 1% grasp what you are saying. I had this problem in college with a professor or two. Fortunately, Dr. Sri is not that type of teacher. He is engaging and approachable. He takes you on a journey and shows that he not only has a brilliant mind when it comes to Mary, but a deep devotion to her as well. The binder is very well-organized. The questions in it lends themselves to discussion easily, and it is a perfect complement to the DVD series.

I was highly impressed with this series, and cannot recommend it to you enough. It definitely made me feel closer to the Blessed Mother after completing it, and I hope to continue to grow closer to her still. It also had a grand scale pilgrimage feel to it. Many of us either can't afford to go on one or don't have the time. This was not an exact substitute for one, but it was the next best thing. Looking back at all the topics, it was like walking through the Rosary in some ways, so I have also developed a new appreciation for the Rosary as well. On a scale of 1-10, I give this series an 11, and advise all Bible Study leaders, Pastors, and Directors or Religious Education to purchase this.

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