Monday, September 29, 2014

Victory on the Walls (Bethlehem Books)

Most of us have heard the name Nehemiah before. Unfortunately, very little of us know anything about him or even where to find his book in the Bible. I can tell you that it appears in the Old Testament; after the book of Ezra, but not much else. That is pretty pitiful considering that I have actually read its contents. Unfortunately, it was when I was reading through the Bible in one year. If you've ever participated in one of those reading plans, you know how overwhelming it can be. The days come quickly, and you always feel like you are reading too many chapters in one day to appreciate what you are reading, let alone understand it. Therefore, when Bethlehem Books offered me the opportunity to review Victory on the Walls, I jumped at the chance.

Victory on the Walls: A Story of Nehemiah, to my surprise, is actually not a "Christian" book. In reality it is part of a series called Covenant Books, which were designed as an "expedition into the realms of Jewish experience," and to "stimulate the young reader's interest in his cultural heritage and prove a rewarding spiritual experience." That's not to say that a Christian audience won't benefit from reading this book, it's just they weren't the original audience. The two main characters in this book are Nehemiah and an author-created fictional nephew named Bani. True to the Bible, Nehemiah is cupbearer to the Persian King Artaxerxes. Bani is Jewish as well, but has lived in Susa (a Persian city) his whole life, so he identifies himself as Persian, not Jewish, which dismays his uncle.

The first 2+ chapters give us background for the main characters; introduce us to other minor fictional characters, such as Jadon and Oebazus; educate us on the city and culture of Susa; and give us a minor tease of the problems afflicting Jerusalem. In Chapter 3, we see passages in this book which are straight out of the Bible itself, including Nehemiah in ashes and beseeching the Lord. We also see Artaxerxes realizing Nehemiah was distraught in his presence and giving him permission to go rebuild Jerusalem. We then see the journey from Susa to Jerusalem, and are treated to an ancient history and geography lesson. Young boys will like some of these chapters because there are military tactics and battles as well. When they finally arrive in Jerusalem, we see politics abound and several people questioning and doubting Nehemiah or trying to persuade him to do things against God's will, as well as more battles. I won't divulge anymore of the book, so I don't completely give away the plot.

I found this book surprisingly enjoyable. I say surprisingly, because I am generally not a fan of Biblical stories that take such creative license. However, this book made the story of Nehemiah come alive. I found myself reading this book and reading the book of Nehemiah simultaneously, just to see what was actually in the Bible and what was not. This was great for building my interest in an important time in Jewish and Biblical history. I wish the Ms. Hyman's other work was in print as well. Be sure to check out Bethlehem Books for other great historical fiction works in their Living History Library series. Also like them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter to keep track of their monthly free eStacks book. This month's selection is ending tomorrow and is entitled Wild Cat Ridge!

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

Friday, September 26, 2014

Saxum: The Life of Alvaro del Portillo

The process to attaining sainthood in the Catholic Church is a fairly lengthy process. For starters, the man/woman must have been dead five years. A bishop is then placed in charge of an initial investigation of this person's life to determine if the candidate is deemed worthy of further consideration. If so, a Nihil Obstat is granted and the deceased is called a Servant of God. After this, documents and testimonies are gathered and presented to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome to prove a life of heroic virtue. When approved, the deceased is called Venerable. After this one miracle is required to be called Blessed (unless the deceased was martyred). Finally, a second miracle is required after beatification to become a Saint (though a Pope may waive this requirement). September 27, 2014 Bishop Alvaro del Portillo will be beatified, due to his intercession for the miraculous cure of a Chilean boy. If the name Alvaro del Portillo is unfamiliar, then you might want to check out the book Saxum: The Life of Alvaro del Portillo, available from Scepter Publishers.

The organization Opus Dei received a lot of negative attention the past decade thanks to the likes of Dan Brown misinformation and flat out lies in The Da Vinci Code. Real Catholics know the truth about this organization and its great founder - St. Josemaria Escriva. Who many Catholics don't know is Alvaro del Portillo. He was the head of Opus Dei after Escriva passed away. Escriva referred to del Portillo as Saxum, which is the Latin for rock. That is where the book gets its title.

The book doesn't start like most biographies, which is to say at the beginning of his life, but instead gives us a glimpse of how Alvaro del Portillo met Josemaria Escriva. It is instead in the second chapter where we get a brief look at his early life. However, unlike most biographies, which spend at least one chapter devoted to a figure's birth and parents, this book only gives a few pages of details. In those few pages, we see that even at an early age, Alvaro is different than other boys. Much focus is then given to his teen years, where we see him discerning schooling and a career. He waffled between law (like his father) and engineering, but ultimately rejected the idea of law, because he didn't like to speak in front of people and thought he'd be better suited to a job he could perform alone. Despite eventually becoming an engineer, little did he know that his ultimate vocation would be quite the opposite.

Chapter Four proved to be one of the most interesting ones to me. It is here that we see del Portillo's beginnings in Opus Dei. We learn that he was a very vocal proponent and recruiter for Opus Dei. We also learn that he chose a life of celibacy as part of his mission with Opus Dei. Most fascinating to me was reading about the pillars of his "plan of life." These pillars included such devotions as daily Mass, mental prayer, and daily recitation of the Rosary. He learned from Josemaria Escriva that we are not to see these as separate activities from work and rest, but to turn every aspect of our lives into prayer. This is the heart of Opus Dei's message.

In addition to the aforementioned chapter, this book teaches us about the social climate and wars which shaped Alvaro del Portillo. We see him become a priest for Opus Dei and later a bishop. We see the members of Opus Dei seek and gain approval from the Vatican, because like present day, the organization was under attack by certain groups. Also covered in this book is del Portillo's work at the Second Vatican Council and what life was like after the council. The reader gets to see some of the inner workings of Opus Dei, what the core teachings are, and the impact Josemaria Escriva had not only on del Portillo's life but on the lives of all those around him.

This was a very interesting and easy to read biography about a Blessed man, so many people don't know about, including myself before this book. Alvaro del Portillo's life was inspiring and made me strive to live a better life. If you want to know more about him, Josemaria Escriva, and Opus Dei, I highly recommend this book. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you pick up this book, you should also pick up Like Salt and Like Light, which contains a selection of del Portillo's writings and talks.

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!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Brother Francis: The Mass and The Saints (Herald Entertainment)

Today, is a two-for-one review day at Stuart's Study. This one is for the kids and isn't books, but DVDs. I am blessed by Herald Entertainment to review the latest two episodes in their Brother Francis series entitled The Mass and The Saints. These are episodes Six and Eight respectively. Other topics in this wonderful series include Prayer, Eucharist, Rosary, Confession, Baptism, and Christmas. It looks like the next one out will be called "Following in His Footsteps," which I imagine talks about being a disciple of Christ. I'm really hoping they make some for the rest of the Sacraments and Easter as well. But that's a different conversation. So without further ado, it's on to the reviews!

The Mass begins with Brother Francis vigorously ringing the Church bells and explaining that they are used to call people to Church. He then explains how the Mass is like a holiday or celebration and one that you can attend every day. Unfortunately, some of us (myself included) sometimes forget how special the Mass is and take for granted how lucky we are to be able to attend it so freely. He also tells us that "The Mass is not just about a ceremony and a celebration. The Mass is about Someone."

He then compares Jesus to a hero, for giving up Heaven and coming down here to die for us and our sins. We are then walked through the Mass from entering the door and crossing ourselves with Holy Water to the priest's Dismissal at the end, and reminding people to stay until the priest leaves, not sneaking out after Holy Communion. I particularly like that they included the Parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee in this DVD when explaining the Penitential Rite. This has always been one of my favorite parables, and is an excellent reminder that only in humility can we find true forgiveness. This is the perfect DVD for teaching your children or school children (8 and under) what happens at Mass, each part of Mass, and how to be respectful during Mass. 5 stars!

The Saints begins with Brother Francis teaching himself to roller-blade and falling down a lot. He asks the children to remember when they were learning to do something like how to ride a bike, swim, or read. I have to admit I wasn't sure where this was going at first, but once he said, "We all do better when we have encouragement and when we have someone to learn from," it clicked! We're going to talk about how the Saints are they to encourage us and serve as examples who have been there before us.

Before he starts talking about the Saints, he shows secular examples that adults and children look up to, such as musicians and athletes. Then, we dive into the Saints! Brother Francis explains that the Saints are like our family, even if we don't have a family. We see examples of children using the Saints in times of discouragement, but what I found fascinating was that we also see Mother Teresa (a future saint) also turned to the Saints, specifically St. Therese of Lisieux. One saint in particular receives special attention in this episode and that is John Bosco. Your children will learn a lot from this little boy, who grew up to become a great saint and led many people to Jesus. Also of great educational value is a step-by-step explanation on how people become Saints.

Both of these DVDs were as high quality as the previous six in the series. Whenever anyone asks me for good Catholic programs that their children can watch and will enjoy, Brother Francis are always the first two words out of my mouth. What's also great about this series is that it is more than DVDs. They have dozens of coloring books that correspond with the DVDs or focus on a particular saint. There are also kid-friendly Holy Cards modeled in the same style as the graphical style as the DVDs. Last, but not least, they have introduced a matching game that your young kids will both enjoy and learn a lot from!

These DVDs were provided to me for free by Herald Entertainment in exchange for an honest review!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Mount Thabor Publishing)

There are some books that earn a special place on your desk, next to your bed, on your prayer table, or wherever you keep important books in your house. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies is one of those books. I have been in possession of this book for several months now, and I have had a hard time putting it down, let alone trying to review it. I am going to attempt now, but before I do, I'd like to give some stats on the book.  It is a 750 page hardcover, measuring approximately 9" x 6". Within this tome are 63 homilies, which range in length anywhere from five to thirteen pages. At the end of the homilies, there are over 100 pages of notes on the homilies, including Scripture references, original Greek wording, and explanations of passages in the homilies. Finally, there are three indices - 1. Index of Scriptural References, 2. Index of Names and Subjects, and 3. Index of Greek Words. The editor and translator is Dr. Christopher Veniamin, who is a disciple of Archimandrite Sophrony of Sakharov, which is awesome in and of itself.

When reading through a collection of this magnitude by such a great Church Father you have to read through it slowly and carefully, because if you try and read too quickly you will miss a ton of beauty. I found even reading slowly that I still had to go back and re-read even slower because the depth which St. Gregory Palamas dives can be overwhelming sometimes. I appreciate the way Dr. Veniamin organized this book, which is in the order the Sundays or Feast Days appear in the Church Calendar. It gives the book a nice flow to it. Unfortunately, not all of Saint Gregory Palamas' homilies were saved, so you will find that not every Sunday or major Feast Day is covered in this book. However, when the homilies in this book come on successive Sundays (like Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent), you feel your knowledge increase exponentially.

It is impossible to pick the "best" passage in a book of this nature, because each of his homilies are edifying for the soul. If I had to pick the homilies I enjoyed the most, they would be the ones on Mary, particularly her Dormition and her Entrance into the Holy of Holies. In the West, we refer to Mary's Dormition as her Immaculate Conception, and her Entrance into the Holy of Holies is a GREATLY neglected Feast Day that I think 99% of Roman Catholics don't even know about. In his homily on the Dormition, St. Gregory Palamas explains how Mary's death was life-giving and the day itself should be remembered as joyful. He also recounts the tradition of all the Apostles being gathered to her funeral, despite them being spread throughout the world. There is also great explanation given to the fact that both her body and soul were taken to Heaven. Catholics believe that too, so this is a great point of agreement for Catholics and Orthodox that could be a good start toward unity.

This book is a treasure to be not only valued and held in high regard, but also read (repeatedly), pored over, and studied. It is also clearly a book that was a labor of love for Dr. Veniamin. I already find myself visiting this book, almost on a daily basis, and I know I will continue to study it and reference it even more, particularly on the Sundays that coincide with the homilies inside. This book is worth every penny and then some. If you are a serious student of Patristics, you need this book in your library. There are also individual paperback volumes of St. Gregory Palamas' homilies available, if the price of this book is out of your budget, or you need to buy them here and there.

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

Friday, September 19, 2014

To The Heights: A Novel Based on the Life of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati (TAN Books)

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati is a saint who has been receiving a lot of attention in the Catholic world as of late. Perhaps, it was because he didn't live that long ago (from 1901 to 1924). Maybe it was because he died at the very early age of 24. Or it could be that he was just an "ordinary" man, and not a member of the clergy, thus we see someone we can relate to and identify with. No matter the reason, he is a special figure who we could all benefit to learn more about. Brian Kennelly looks to provide us this knowledge in his latest book To The Heights.

To The Heights begins not with the birth of Pier Giorgio Frassati, but his death, more specifically a funeral procession. Two boys living at the Provincial Institute for Children are pretending to be sick. However, they are not doing it just to get out of classes or to raise mischief. Instead, they are pretending to be sick so they can sneak off to see their friend. Their friend isn't some boy from another school, but Pier Giorgio Frassati. He had passed away recently, and they wanted to attend the funeral procession of a man, a friend, who had stopped by to visit them many times and always made them feel important. This theme of Pier's love for mankind presents itself many times over in this book.

After this surprise opening, we are then taken back to the life of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. We see him first as a young boy born into a household of privilege. A drunk man comes to his household looking for food. How many of us have not experienced a very similar scenario before? To Pier's dismay, his father turns the homeless man away empty-handed. Pier begs his parents to reconsider and the next day they take him a loaf of bread. However, the man was drunk when they found him, so they didn't leave him the bread, and his father rubbed it into Pier that he was right.

We see other touching stories about Pier visiting the sick or connecting with some of the outcasts of society. However, we also see amazing stories that speak to the fire and passion of people in their 20s standing up for a cause they believe in, like when Pier fought against the Black Shirts. The most amazing story of all in this book happened in the last chapter. With Pier's death, thousands of people from all walks of life showed up to honor him. His parents finally realized how special their son was, and what an impact he had on the world. It took his death, but Pier finally accomplished his greatest challenge...bringing his family to Christ.

Like the subtitle says, To The Heights is a novel based on the life of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. It is not a biography per se (If you are looking for that, check out A Man of the Beatitudes by Blessed Pier's sister, Lucianna Frassati), but instead would fall into the category of historical fiction. That means some minor details required creative liberties to be taken by the author, so that he could paint a captivating picture of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. I highly recommend this book to all Catholics, young and old. Be sure to check out Brian Kennelly's other book Two Statues.

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!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Back to School Blog Tour with Nicole Lataif (Pauline Books and Media)

Today, I have the pleasure of participating in another blog tour. This one is sponsored by Pauline Books and Media. Children's author Nicole Lataif is posting today, and is going to share a little insight on what she was like as a child reader. Nicole is a talented children's author, and her book Forever You was one of the first children's books I ever formally reviewed. It's great if you haven't checked it out yet. She also has recently written a new book called I Forgive You, which I (thanks to Pauline Books and Media) will be giving away three copies of at the end of this post. So without further ado, here's Nicole! 

True Confessions of a Children’s Book Author: I Once Hated Reading
By: Nicole Lataif

I was in the second grade sitting in my room on a pink beanbag chair…reading.

My father came into my room after thirty minutes.

“How many pages have you read?” he asked me. “Two,” I said.

Thirty minutes after that he came back in. “Now how many pages have you read?” he asked.

 “Just three,” I sighed.

Although I have always loved writing, that was the day that I learned to hate reading. I learned that I wasn’t very good at reading, my pace of reading clearly perplexed adults and that even if I had two full days, I still wouldn’t have finished that boring, enormous book.

For years, “reading” meant so many things to me other than enjoyment. It meant embarrassment, arguments, frustration, and sadness. So, so many things.


Fast-forward a few years later.

I was in seventh or eighth grade and had just finished reading R.L. Stine’s entire mystery series in a month. A month! I couldn’t read his books fast enough. I read Beach House, Hit and Run, Blind Date…every last one of them. (Reading those book titles still gives me the creeps!) I LOVED mystery stories, which led me to love the show Law and Order, which led me to becoming an adult who is constantly scared that she’s going to get mugged (but, I digress)...

My point: I found out what I loved to read, and only then did I start to love reading.

Kids do need to learn to read about topics that do not interest them. As adults, they will inevitably need to read important material that they don’t find appealing. I’ve been there. However, some little second graders need an advocate. They need the opportunity to grow into a love of reading. Some kids can’t see past their frustration or fear of reading. Those feelings snowball into a kid who abhors the idea of picking up a book.

I wonder what would have happened if someone had asked me:
  • Do you like the book that you are reading?
  • What do you like or dislike about it?
  • Are there parts of the story that you don’t understand or find boring?
  • Do any of the characters remind you of someone you know?
  • Do you want to try reading another book and coming back to this one later?
  • Do you want to put that book down and hop a plane to Disney World right now? (Just kidding!)

I’ve obviously grown up and over my struggles with reading. I write children’s books; (one book even won an award!), for Pauline Books & Media, the publishing house of the Daughters of St. Paul.  I am a reformed reader turned writer and I love helping kids to do the same.

So, I petition you—if your child hates reading, find out why. It may not be that they hate reading, but rather, they haven’t yet found that perfect book.

Nicole Lataif is the Founder and Editor of and Author of the 2013 Catholic Press Association Award and 2013 Christopher Award winning book Forever You: A Book About Your Soul and Body, published by Pauline Books & Media. Forever You is also available in Spanish as Siempre Tu. Her second book, I Forgive You: Love We Can Hear, Ask For and Give teaches kids 4-8 what forgiveness is all about. Nicole is available for speaking engagements, school visits, interviews, and guest blogging. Media inquires may be sent to

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Philosophy 101 by Socrates (St. Augustine's Press)

Today, I am pleased to share with you my review of Philosophy 101 by Socrates. This is my first review of a book from St. Augustine's Press, so I am very excited about that. For those of you unfamiliar with this publishers, their mission is to publish "outstanding scholarly works, principally in the fields of philosophy, theology, and cultural and intellectual history." With no university backing them, they are able to stay true to this mission. They also are the publisher of the St. Austin Review, which is a journal of Catholic culture, literature, and ideas. Without further ado, here is my review.

Philosophy 101 by Socrates is one of the first book in Dr. Peter Kreeft's "Socrates Meets" series. It was originally published by Ignatius Press, but St. Augustine's Press has republished it. For those unfamiliar with this series of books, Dr. Kreeft assumes the role of Socrates and argues against philosophers such as Kant, Freud, etc. I would argue that Philosophy 101 by Socrates is a prequel to this series and should be read before reading the rest of the series, but to each their own. There are three introductions in this book - 1. Introduction to Socrates, 2. Introduction to Philosophy, and 3. Introduction to this Book. I already knew who Socrates was, but in this first introduction, I learned that there were three great introductions to philosophy, Hortensius by Cicero, Protreptikos by Aristotle, and the Apology of Socrates by Plato. Only the latter text survives, and it is the basis for Dr. Kreeft's book.

After the introduction, the book is divided into three parts - 1. Philosophy Defended (based on the Apology of Socrates), 2. Philosophy Exemplified (based on Euthyphro), and 3. Philosophy Martyred (based on Phaedo). In Part One, Dr. Kreeft discusses forty things that philosophy is, i.e., ignorant, selfish, countercultural, agnostic, etc. One doesn't often describe philosophy in these words, but Dr. Kreeft uses the Apology of Socrates masterfully to argue his case. In Philosophy Exemplified, there is about 25 pages of the Euthyphro included, Dr. Kreeft provides commentary throughout the text, and then presents us with questions of God and morality. He concludes this part of the book with reactions of an atheist; theist; agnostic; and religious Jew, Christian, or Muslim would have toward Euthyphro. In the last section, we read Phaedo, where Socrates dies, Dr. Kreeft explains that even if Socrates was just a figment of Plato's imagination, philosophy does not die. This is different than if we were to find out if Moses, or Muhammad, or Jesus were fake. The respective religion (Judaism, Islam, or Christianity) would cease to be.

Overall, I found this to be an excellent introduction to philosophy. The advanced high schooler or freshman in college would benefit greatly from reading this. The curious adult, who was sorely disappointed with his Philosophy 101 class, like myself, would benefit from reading this book as well. I truly believe if I had this book as a reference in college, I would have done better in my introductory class, and perhaps even minored in philosophy. I can't wait to pick up another one of the books in this series.

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

Friday, September 12, 2014

TOON Books Reviews

When I grew up I read comic books, like most young boys. I read Superman, Batman, and the likes. It wasn't high literature by any means, but I was reading right? When I was in high school and college, I discovered Japanese comic books, also known as manga. Manga at least had many genres, and you could find series with better writing and more depth than most American comics. Recently, I have discovered an even higher brow of comics, called graphic novels. I feel behind the times, however, as they have been around for a while, and I am just discovering them. Today, I will be reviewing two from the publisher TOON Books.

Theseus and the Minotaur is a Greek myth that needs no real introduction or explanation. Master French cartoonist, Yvan Pommaux, does a masterful job starting the story from the very beginning though. We learn of Theseus' mom, Princess Aethra, and how both Poseidon and King Aegeus, "had" her. We see a brief glimpse of her raising her son, Theseus, but during that time we learn a great deal about the background and bitter hatred between Aegeus, King of Athens, and Minos, King of Crete. We are then taught where the Minotaur came from. It wasn't explicit, but there were a few images that were surprising. After this, we see Theseus as an adult and learn of his feats, before he finally meets his father, Aegeus. Theseus then goes off to slay the Minotaur, and does so with some help that he received from King Minos' daughter.

There were things I liked and disliked about this book. Let me start with what I didn't like. For starters, it did not read like a comic book. There were text bubbles, but they were few and far between. It more felt like reading a narration than characters interacting. The other thing I didn't like was the sexual themes in the book. Yes, it's Greek mythology, so it is to be expected, but the suggested reading level is 8+. With these themes, it should be middle school, and probably late middle school at that. What I liked is that this adaptation stayed true to the mythology. I also liked that there was phonetic pronunciations of the hard to pronounce Greek names. This is helpful for kids and adults alike. The index and further readings at the ends were also a nice touch and super helpful. Last, but not least, the illustrations were great, but of course I knew they would be! Overall, a very good graphic novel, just use your judgment on what age to let your children read it.

Hansel and Gretel is a joint collaboration of Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti. I decided to review this book, because my wife loves Neil Gaiman, so I thought I'd finally give him a shot. The illustrations in this book are shades of black and white. These monochromatic illustrations present a very shadowy and haunting story. That makes them perfect for accompanying this chilling tale that many of us only think we know. This, however, is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, so it's supposed to be dark.

The story stays true to the original version, with the exception of the mother. In the original, I believe it was the father's second wife, not first wife. This makes the story a little darker, because it is the wife (mother) who convinces the father to leave the children in the woods to starve. The rest of the story is pretty well known. They go to a witch's house. She tries to cook them. They stuff her into and oven and escape. They then find their way home to their father. The mother died from unknown causes, so it's mostly a happy ending. At the end of the book is a brief history lesson on the story of Hansel and Gretel, which would be good for older readers in a school or homeschool setting. Overall, I was very pleased with Lorenzo Mattotti's illustrations and Neil Gaiman's storytelling lived up to my wife's hype.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Feasts (Image Books) Review and Giveaway

It's been a few months since the last blog tour I participated in, but I am participating in two this month. The first one is sponsored by Image Books and is spotlighting their latest book The Feasts by Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Mike Aquilina. Those involved in the blog tour will provide you with a review of the book and a personal reflection on the Feast or Season. My season is Advent. There will also be a giveaway at the end of this post open to all in the U.S., so read all the way through and don't just skip to the bottom. Finally, you might see #TheFeasts on Facebook or Twitter, if you click on it, it should take you to other people's reviews, thoughts, and reflections. Without further ado, here is my review!

The Feasts is the third, and most likely final, book in a series of books written by Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina, which are designed to instruct Catholics and non-Catholics on important aspects of the Catholic Church. The first two books in this series are entitled The Mass and The Church. In The Feasts, the authors begin by explaining the value and importance that man places in calendars and tracking of time. They use the example of fishermen using the lunar calendar and farmers the solar calendar to grow rich, and state that if we follow the Church Calendar, we can grow spiritually rich. They then walk us through the Jewish feasts that Jesus celebrated when he walked this earth. Following this a whole chapter is dedicated to defining terms like Memorial, Solemnity, Season, and Octave.

The book then gets to the heart of the matter with the remaining chapters. The authors first start by talking about the importance of Sunday and then there are individual chapters dedicated to Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Next, they dedicate individual chapters to important solemnities of Jesus, including Epiphany, Ascension, Corpus Christi, and Christ the King. Unfortunately, the Annunciation and Presentation of Jesus in the Temple got lumped in with Christ the King. These are two important feast days, and considered part of the Twelve Great Feasts in Eastern Christianity. Next, we are treated to various other feasts and seasons, including Holy Trinity, Marian feasts (which could have easily taken up more than one chapter), and the Holy Angels.

I was very pleased that they devoted a chapter to Advent, as it is my favorite liturgical season. In this chapter, the authors discuss the beauty of Advent. Advent is a time of waiting and preparation, not a spend four weeks shopping season. In this season, we are preparing for the two-fold coming of Christ, both at Christmas and again at the end of the age. They also explain that the Eastern Christians view this as a season for purification and penance. I particularly enjoy Advent, because it is the start of a new Church year. It is a time to start over, begin again, and grow closer to God.

Overall, this was a good book with a lot of great information. I appreciate that the Eastern Catholics were not ignored in this book. However, there are a few things I would have changed. As I said earlier, I wish there had been more focus given to some of the particular feasts. I also think the book could have been a bit better organized. Since there was a great bit of focus on the importance of calendars and seasons, I think the book should have been arranged in the order the seasons and feasts appear on the calendar, starting with Advent and ending with Christ the King. Those complaints aside, this was still a good book that can teach both converts and cradle Catholics a lot.

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Monday, September 8, 2014

The Screwtape Letters: Annotated Edition (HarperOne)

The Screwtape Letters is a masterful work of Christian fiction, allegory, and satire that is recognized globally. However, I have found it to be a hot-button piece with as many people loving it as hating it. I wouldn't say I fall into the "love camp," but I definitely have a great respect for it and C.S. Lewis for writing it. Parts of the book still send chills up my spine, and it took a special author to go that dark place in his mind and write a book of this nature. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis' death, HarperOne published an Annotated Edition of this book.

For those unfamiliar with the Screwtape Letters, I will provide some background information on it. It was first published in 1942. The format of the book is a series of letters from Screwtape (a senior demon) to Wormwood (Screwtape's nephew). Screwtape is trying to train Wormwood on how to claim the soul of a man (referred to as The Patient) for Satan. The setting is Britain during World War II. What makes the Annotated Edition special, apart from being a sturdy hardcover with nice sized font, is that there is tons of notes (in red font to contrast the black font of the actual text), which reference Scripture and other Lewis writings. There are also interesting facts about his life in these notes. Also included in this book is "Screwtape Proposes a Toast," which is a brief sequel that is a criticism of public education.

I would classify this book as one for the serious lovers of C.S. Lewis. To those who want to dig deeper into this text, and read the texts cross-referenced in the notes, this book will be invaluable as they will better understand why he wrote what he wrote. To those who just want to read this text for what it is, the notes will get in the way and perhaps be more distraction than help. I personally enjoyed all the notes, the two prefaces, and even the list of C.S. Lewis' favorite books. I feel like I have a better appreciation for both C.S. Lewis the man and C.S. Lewis the author. Plus, as I said earlier, it's a nice hardcover book, so it will stand the test of time. If you can get it for a good price, by all means get it. I read this book often enough, I'm glad I now own it in hardcover as my other edition was starting to show major wear.

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

Friday, September 5, 2014

Primacy in the Church from Vatican I to Vatican II (NIU Press)

Primacy in the Church from Vatican I to Vatican II is a book written by the Very Reverend Maximos Vgenopoulos, who is the Grand Archdeacon of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. In this book, the author examines the concept of papal primacy from an Orthodox perspective using the two most recent "ecumenical" councils as a guideline. Vatican I issued the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, which defined the doctrine and affirmed papal infallibility. Vatican II issued the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, which reaffirmed Vatican I and also reaffirmed the doctrine of collegiality of bishops.

The book spans four chapters, two on Vatican I and two on Vatican II. Two of the chapters go into great detail on each of the councils, including what led to the councils being called and key declarations on papal primacy. The heart of the book, however, is the other two chapters, which include Orthodox reactions to each council. To my great surprise, there was disagreement among the Orthodox reactions. Each chapter begins with several figures arguing against Catholicism and primacy and then concludes with several other figures, not necessarily arguing for primacy, but presenting a more balanced view. The arguments in this book basically boiled down to several Greek Orthodox people against primacy and several Russian Orthodox people against the Greek Orthodox arguments.

John Zizoulas is the name you will see repeatedly in this book, as he has a unique theology on primacy. He starts by saying that Catholics and Orthodox do not agree on the role of Peter in the New Testament, so using history as an argument for or against primacy is futile. For him, it is the principle of "the one and the many" that will prove to be the most fruitful for discussion and dialogue. He then compares the ordering of local churches to the Trinity, because even though the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal, there still exists a hierarchical order with the Father being the first. Zizoulas also agrees with Alexander Schmemann in the belief that primacy is necessary to "express and manifest the unity of the Church at the regional and universal levels."

As a convert to Roman Catholicism, it's easy to see why the doctrine of papal primacy has been a cause of disagreement and discord. I found myself pleasantly surprised reading this book, as it was thought out, balanced, and unbiased. Granted, it was a challenging read and an academic read, but I expected nothing less. For that reason, it took me a bit longer to read this book than I anticipated. I found myself reading and re-reading sections to try and fully grasp what was being said. The general conclusions section in the end proved extremely helpful in making things clearer for me. The real beauty of this book is that Orthodox and Catholics alike can benefit from reading this work.

This book was provided to me for free by Northern Illinois University Press. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

d'Aulaires' Books (New York Review: Children's Collection)

When it comes to reading mythology, I have three trusted people to which I turn - Edith Hamilton and Ingri and Edgar d'Aulaire. The former's book Mythology was a classic I read in high school and the husband and wife's Book of Greek Myths served as a jumping off point when I was younger. Recently, I have been discovering mythology in other cultures. Egyptian mythology has featured heavily in movies like Prince of Egypt, but lately Norse myth is gaining traction thanks to movies like Thor and The Avengers. Today, I am going to review two books that deal with Norse mythology, and possibly a third book by the same authors, if I have time, so let's get started!

D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths is a gorgeous hardcover that is approximately 12" x 9". It was originally named "Norse Gods and Giants" before New York Review Books reissued and renamed it. The book is over 150 pages long and is slammed with illustrations! On the inside of the front cover and back cover is an illustration that shows you the Nine Norse Worlds, with their original Norse names. For example, Hel & Nifl Heim is the Underworld. This illustration is very helpful in understanding Norse mythology. There is also a very useful glossary in the end with very detailed definitions, as well as page references for where the terms appear in the stories.

There are approximately thirty stories in this collection. As to be expected a great deal of them focus on Loki and Thor (two of the more well-known figures in Norse mythology). The first several stories are creation stories, which includes who the first gods were, how the world was created, and how man was created. I found these most fascinating, as I am a sucker for a good origin story. For example, man and woman were originally trees that three gods (Odin, Hoenir, and Lodur) gave life to. Unlike in Biblical accounts where people grew more sinful, in Norse mythology people grew better in every way. In fact, a disguised Odin walked among them teaching them how to behave. The book closes with the tale of "A New World." In this conclusion, there is a new sun and new earth and two people have survived. However, they don't worship the old gods anymore but God Almighty. Truly a fascinating book!

D’Aulaires’ Book of Trolls is a companion book to D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths. Both books have the same dimensions (12" x 9"), which I greatly appreciate for vain shelf placement aesthetics. In this book, we see the nighttime side of Norse mythology, for everyone knows that trolls only come out when the sun goes down. There aren't many specific tales about trolls in this book, but it is more a guide to what trolls are, what they look like, customs, etc.

Some of the things I learned in this book is that the more heads a troll had, the harder it was for him to eat because all the heads were hungry and greedy. I also learned that the number of knots a troll could tie in his tail indicated his rank among trolls. Trolls are also very rich, because they own the gold and silver under the mountains. Lastly, trolls turn to stone and shatter in the sun. Most/all of the trolls probably turned to stone, and this is why you don't see them anymore. As an adult, I enjoyed learning and reading about trolls. From a child's perspective, I could see how it might be a little frustrating to have few clear stories and instead be presented with a FAQ on Trolls. It is still engaging and full of great illustrations, so if you buy D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths, you will definitely want to pair this book with it.

D'Aulaires' Book of Animals is an exquisite book that spans approximately 30 pages, but in reality is one long front and back page. The front page is in color and shows a variety of animals ranging from whales to elephants. These color pages show the animals in their natural habitat and contain few words at the bottom describing the location where they live (like North or South) and why they live there. The reverse side is black and white and shows you the same animals, but this time the text at the bottom tells you the different sounds the animals make. I've seen the age range on this book for children ages 2 to 5, but I would say 5 is the minimum age. More rambunctious children might tear or rip this illustrious foldout page. Still a very pretty book!

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

Monday, September 1, 2014

The People of Ancient Israel (Angelico Press)

The People of Ancient Israel is the shortest book in Dorothy Mills' six volume history set, spanning only 210 pages. The book begins by describing the land of Palestine, including its size, terrain, vegetation, and climate. Ms. Mills then briefly details both the Hebrew Scriptures and "tales" such as Creation, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. She points out that the world owes a great deal to the Hebrews, because they taught the world about God in their writings.

After these few brief chapters, we reach the main focus of this book - the people. Of course we start with the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Included in this section is a lot of what you would find in Scripture. However, there is also some personal commentary on certain topics, like why Abraham would listen to God and agree to sacrifice his son Isaac. Her reasoning and viewpoint seems centered on cultural reasons for this near-sacrifice and that Abraham obtained the idea from culture and not from God. She also doesn't say that God sent an angel to stop the sacrifice, but that Abraham reached a level of understanding that this sacrifice would not be pleasing to God. That is definitely one way of looking at it, but not how I would teach it.

After the Patriarchs is mention of Joseph and Moses. Following Moses, we begin to see the nation of Israel take shape with their wandering in the desert. The reason for this is because they were issued the Law (or the Ten Commandments). The nation finally gets roots with their conquest of Canaan, and leaders (also known as Judges) ruled over the people. Ms. Mills talks about several of the more famous judges, primarily Samson and Ruth. The nation then becomes a kingdom under Saul, who was followed by David and then Solomon. The most interesting sections to me dealt with the Divided Kingdom, Israel's fall, and their time in captivity.

The book then ends with "In the fulness if time, the Teacher came. At Bethlehem, in the days of Herod the King, seventy years before the destruction of Jerusalem, Christ was born, who by his life and teaching made possible the fulfilment of the ancient visions." I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, Dorothy Mills does a nice job making history interesting and come alive. On the other hand, there are a few troubling statements in the book. Overall, I would give this book 4 stars.

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