Friday, January 30, 2015

Three D'Aulaire's Titles (University of Minnesota Press)

Today, I am reviewing three beautiful hardcover books available from the University of Minnesota Press. You may recall that back in November I reviewed another one of their lovely books, The Troll With No Heart in His Body. I admit that it is unusual to think of a university press printing children's books, but if they are going to be this high quality and gorgeous, I say keep printing them! All three of the books I will be reviewing are by Ingri and Edgar D'Aulaire, and they fall under the category of Scandinavian children's literature. Like me, you probably know the author-illustrators from their mythology books, but they wrote so much more than that. With this post, I hope to share with you some of their lesser known books.

Apart from their tales on mythology, Leif the Lucky is one of my favorite D'Aulaire tale. The book begins by telling us about Erik the Red and his three sons - Torstein, Torvald, and Leif. When Leif was a young boy, Erik the Red took a boat to a new land that he had "discovered." Along with 24 chieftains in 24 boats crammed with people, cattle, and food, they had to battle harsh weather on the sea. Not all the ships made the trek successfully. Some of them sank, and others turned around out of fright. In the end, Erik's boat made it with thirteen other chiefs. The land they "discovered" was Greenland. We then read of Leif growing up, travelling to Norway, and "discovering" America, which he dubbed Vinland. There are tales of Leif sending people to Vinland for commerce and tales of Leif converting his mother and people in Greenland to Christianity. All of this is very interesting and fascinating to read, because it reads like a saga or mini-epic. Apart from the story, which has a nice blend of history and legend, the make-up of this book is what makes the book. For starters, it is a 9 x 12 hardcover with a dust jacket. The illustrations make up two-page spreads, with each spread alternating between color and black and white. The pages even have an old-timey look and feel to them, which matches the illustrations perfectly. I know this is a book that I will read often to my son, and I think it would make a great addition for any parent who homeschools as well.

Ola is similar in construction to Leif the Lucky. It is a 9 x 12 hardcover with dust jacket with illustrations alternating between color and black and white. Unlike Leif the Lucky, whose subject was an actual historical figure, Ola is the fictional tale of a young Norwegian boy who goes on many adventures. The adventures start with Ola skiing and simultaneously chasing a rabbit. He wrecks on his skis and lands in a tree, where he meets a group of girls who take him to a wedding party. From there he joins a peddler of wares, who puts him on a fishing boat. On this fishing boat, he learns local legends about why codfish have beards and what makes a maelstrom. Eventually, he realizes that while his adventures were fun, he wants to go home. This was a cute story, and one that your children will find a treat to read. The Norwegian elements might be lost on them, but I love books that show your children places, cultures, and customs they might not otherwise get a chance to see.

Children of the Northlights is the story of two Sami children named Lise and Lasse. They are also referred to as Lapps in the book. Sami people or Lapps are indigenous to Scandinavia in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, and Finland. This book is based on the actual travels of Ingri and Edgar D'Aulaire to the land of the Sami. In this tale, Lise and Lasse, are children who think they live at the top of the world, and they aren't too far from the truth. We see them getting into mischievous events, like racing reindeer or dressing up as a bear and scaring people. We also see day to day events, like them going to school or getting clean in a sauna. Like other D'Aulaire books available from the University of Minnesota Press the pages alternate between color and black and white. This publisher has done a wonderful job of making classic works like these available to readers again. Being in a hardcover means, they will stand up to many readings. The size of these books also helps illuminate the illustrations and introduce these wonderful stories to a new generation. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

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

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Ancient Path (Image Books)

When it comes to reading about the Church Fathers, one of the first names people think of is Mike Aquilina. Aquilina's works have introduced the Church Fathers and Mothers to a whole generation of Catholics and made them accessible and relatable. His most recent book, The Ancient Path, is a joint effort with John Michael Talbot. Talbot is most widely known for his music career, but he is also the founder of an integrated Catholic monastic community called the Brothers and Sisters of Charity. This book, The Ancient Path, is the result of conversations that Talbot and Aquilina had one November week in 2012.

The book begins with Talbot discussing his monastery, Little Portion Hermitage, and the events of what happened April, 29, 2008. There was a massive fire, which completely engulfed the chapel. In addition to the tragedy of seeing something you built by hand destroyed, the community also lost their library which consisted of thousands of volumes. I have never experienced this level of literary loss, but as someone who himself owns a large library of books, my heart ached for him and his community. Talbot, however, used this tragedy to teach us a lesson in both detachment to worldly goods and the fact that once you have read and pored over some works, they are forever etched on your heart. He then concludes the the chapter with a juxtaposition of physical fire and spiritual fire. His example for spiritual fire involves the popular story of Abba Joseph encouraging Abba Lot to become all flame.

Other topics discussed in this book include charity, community, and stewardship. Each chapter has roughly the same format. Talbot talks about his life, his community, and what the Church Fathers taught him as it applies to the specific topic. Chapter 6: The Prayer of the Heart talks about The Jesus Prayer, "Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner." Most Western Catholics aren't familiar with this prayer, but it is one of the chief prayers in Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism. The author does a great job discussing the history and evolution of the prayer, the impact it had on him; and also breaks the prayer down phrase by phrase. I do wish he would have offered a bit of caution in both practicing this prayer and reading the Philokalia. Someone advanced in their wisdom, like him, might not find it troublesome, but it is highly discouraged for a novice to attempt reading the Philokalia, and strongly urged you consult your spiritual advisor before trying.

Overall, this was an interesting book. It reminded me a lot of Aquilina's other works and Dr. Scott Hahn's early works. By that I mean, it mixes theology with personal experiences to make the subject matter more approachable. It also reminded me a bit of My Sister the Saints in that it read like a personal memoir with the Church Fathers serving as our guide through Talbot's life. If this sounds interesting to you or you can't get enough to read about the Church Fathers, then this book is for you.

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

Monday, January 26, 2015

Pope John Paul I and Life for Life (Ignatius Press)

Pope John Paul I: The Smile of God is another papal movie available from Ignatius Press, like Pius XII: Under the Roman Sky and John XXIII: The Pope of Peace. The biggest difference between Pope John Paul I and the other papal movies is that this one is in Italian with English subtitles. Had I read the description a little better, I might have avoided this film, because when I watch a movie I want to watch it, not read along, but I am glad I gave it a shot.

The biopic begins with Cardinal Albino Luciani (future Pope John Paul I) on a pilgrimage in Fatima, Portugal speaking about Our Lady of Fatima. He receives a message that a nun would like to meet with him. That nun is none other than Sister Lucia of Fatima. In their meeting, she keeps referring to him as Holy Father, even through he tries to correct her saying that she is mistaken. She then reveals to him that he will one day be pope. We then are taken on various flashbacks of Albino Luciani's life. We see a near death experience when he was a youth that made him want to become a priest. We see his father's initial refusal of him wanting to be a priest, but relenting when he promised to serve the poor if he became a priest. In the flashback of World War II, we see a juxtaposition of the gruesome reality of it all with Luciani's mercy shown toward a Jewish family hiding from the Nazis. There are also glimpses of his tutelage under the future Pope John XXIII.

Throughout this whole movie, we see Luciani's smile, both in good situations and bad situations. The actor, Neri Marcorè did a wonderful job portraying why this holy man was indeed called "The Smile of God." While, this wasn't a complete movie of Pope John Paul I's life, it was enough to give you a glimpse at the significance of this man and his short papacy. I wasn't an initial fan of the movie being in Italian, but it grew on me. Church just sounds better and prettier in Italian for some reason. This is definitely a movie worth watching if you want to know about this recent, but largely overlooked pope.

Life for Life: Maximilian Kolbe is a recent movie release by Ignatius Press of a movie that was originally released in 1991. The film gets the title from the story of how Maximilian Kolbe took the place of another prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1941, and ultimately gave up his own life. If the movie was about this alone it would have been enough for me, as it would show how modern day people can be like Jesus. Instead, the film decided to make that story more of a back-story.

The movie begins showing life and work in a concentration camp. There is little to no dialogue at all, just many people working and the sound of machinery squeaking and honestly making an awful sound. We then see a man, Jan, digging in a pile of dirt that collapses on him. I believe it was intentional, but the way he emerges from the dirt, you'd think he almost died down there. Work has ended for the day, so he uses that moment to escape. Because of his escape, ten people will now die. As stated above, Kolbe is not one of the ones selected to die, but takes the place of one.

Jan's survivor's guilt and guilt that ten men died because of him serves as a big part of the story. I wish that they had started at the beginning of Kolbe's life and walked us through up to his heroic death in Auschwitz. Instead, we got this artistic view of Kolbe instead. Another point that made the movie a bit difficult to watch was that it was in Polish. As I've said before, I'm not a fan of reading while watching a movie, because you can miss a lot and you are left at the mercy of the translator. I did appreciate there being an Ignatius Press study guide included with the DVD. Overall, I'd give this move 4 stars.

These movies were provided to me for free by Aquinas and More Catholic Gifts and Ignatius Press. If you found these reviews helpful, please click here and/or here and hit Yes!

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Complete UnWind Dystology (Simon and Schuster)

If you are a student of languages and how words are formed, then when you hear the word dystology, it should immediately evoke a reaction. "Dys" means bad or difficult and "ology" is associated with the study of something. So is the message Neal Shusterman, the author of The Complete UnWind Dystology, trying to send us is that this is a study of something bad and difficult? Is he trying to be clever and play on the words to form a dystopian anthology (can't be a trilogy, since there are four books)? I don't have the answer to that, but instead I am just going to tell you about the four books in this Shusterman series that my friend, Sarah Reinhard, introduced me to.

The entire Unwind story takes place in the future, a dystopian future. (Side note: Dystopian futures seem to be the latest trend in YA novels with Hunger Games; Divergent; and the one that started it all, The Giver.) In Unwind's dystopian future, there was another civil war fought in the U.S. This one was fought over reproductive rights with the resolution being that life is considered inviolable from conception until age thirteen. Pause and think about that statement for a minute. It sounds almost Catholic. Life begins at conception and you cannot abort unborn children. However, there is a catch at the end of the statement. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, adults can have their children "unwound." The unwinding process takes all of the teen's organs and transplants them into others. "Life" therefore is not terminated, in the coldest of technicalities and with no regard for the soul of a human.

In the first book, UnWind, we are introduced to three teens, who will travel with us throughout the rest of the series. They are Connor, Rissa, and Lev. Each of them are scheduled to be unwound for different reasons. Connor's family has given up hope on reforming the rebel. Rissa is a ward of the state, so she is basically a cost-cutting measure. And Lev comes from an extreme religious sect. His parents consider him a tithe, since he is the tenth child. The book follows these teens throughout many adventures, including Connor and Rissa trying to escape to live, and Lev trying to turn himself in, because he believes being unwound is a great honor. They soon find out they are not alone among teens trying to escape being unwound. There is a whole group of them at an airplane graveyard, which try to live out their existence until they turn eighteen and can no longer be unwound. The whole story has good pacing and will leave you fascinated and uneasy that a society like this could exist.

In book two, UnWholly, the three teens from book one (Connor, Rissa, and Lev) have brought light to the horrible practice of unwinding. Before them, it was just an inconvenient fact of life. Now the practice's morality has come into question. We are also introduced to a new teen, Cam, who is made up entirely of unwound parts. This leads to other moral questions, like is Cam really human? Does he have a soul, or is he just a being that is less than the sum of his parts? Other teens are also introduced and become a part of the trio's group. However, these characters are a little more 2-D and at times feel a bit of a carbon copy of some of the main characters, as there is another tithe teen. There is also the obvious villain, a lot more action and fighting, the inevitable angsty love triangle found in all books of this genre, and a lot less thinking in this book.

UnSouled and UnDivided were supposed to be one book, but it was running long, so it was split into two books instead. UnSouled again introduces us to a new character named Grace, a teen with a simple mind in most regards but brilliant at strategy. There is also the character of Sonia, who the teens believe have the answer to stopping unwinding completely. In this book, Lev gets a bit more of a prominent role and we see him develop more. Overall, the book feels like and does lead to a cliffhanger like when Hollywood split up Harry Potter 7 and Hunger Games 3. Luckily, I received all the books at once so didn't have to wait for the resolution. UnDivided ties up all loose ends but not before some final fireworks, conflicts, and DRAMA! I don't want to give away too much and spoil the series and how it ends. You'll have to read the series to see if there is a chance for peace and a world without unwinding.

As a whole, this was a very enthralling series. Most of the Young Adult dystopian future series start out really strong, and with each subsequent book fizzle more. While, The Complete UnWind Dystology is not a perfect series, it is certainly one of the best I have read in a while. If you are a super big fan of the series, there is also an e-book called UnStrung that takes place between the first two books and fills in some gaps. As a Catholic, I don't generally recommend the latest dystopian future series because they are trite and usually devolve into a girl having to choose between two boys. This book, though not Catholic, hits you over the head with Catholic themes. Pro-Life vs Pro-Choice. When does life start? It even makes you think about your views on life. So many of us are pro-life, but only think about it in terms of abortion. This book reinforces (what should be a widely held belief) that all lives are valuable. This includes the unborn child and the prisoner on death row. Overall, I give this series 4.5 stars.

These books were provided to me for free by Simon and Schuster in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Made for Love, Loved by God (Servant Books)

Made for Love, Loved by God is the latest book by Fr. Peter John Cameron. In addition to being an author and editor of Magnificat, he is also a playwright with a Master of Fine Arts degree in playwriting from Catholic University of America. In this book, Fr. Cameron uses Scripture, primarily the Gospels, to explain God's love in a way that the reader can easily understand. He also addresses common misconceptions about God's love and impediments to letting God love us.

The book begins with Fr. Cameron discussing how we all long for from others and love from God. He then goes on to explain God's love for us, and that He loves us the way we are. The chapters on mercy and suffering were the most interesting to me. Fr. Cameron says, "To experience mercy is to be loved when we deserve love the least." He then presents us with St. Peter and St. Paul and how they received mercy. Finally, the chapter on suffering puts suffering in perspective. Cardinal Ratzinger tells us that we cannot have love without suffering. We also are reminded in this chapter that we are willing to embrace suffering as long as it has meaning.

Overall, I'd give this book four stars. There were parts which were very profound, like when Fr. Cameron drew from Scripture, the Church Fathers, and recent popes. There were parts that were personal, like when he referenced experiences in his own life. There were also references to movies and plays, which Fr. Cameron admits no one should bother watching. I felt the point of the book could have still been made by removing those references.

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

Monday, January 19, 2015

TOB for Tots (Pauline Books and Media)

Theology of the Body (TOB for short) can be a deep and sometimes confusing subject for even the most educated Catholic. Pope John Paul II talked and wrote on the subject extensively, even before his pontificate. In the simplest of terms it discusses the human body and sexual love. That is the barest of barest details about it, and I have tried to read on it many times and have always walked away scratching my head and with more questions than answers. That's not to say it's not worth studying. It just means I don't have the intelligence to tackle it yet, but hopefully one day. With all of that said, imagine my surprise when I open up a box and discover three board books dubbed TOB for Tots. "How are toddlers supposed to grasp these concepts, when even I can't?" I said to myself, but I decided to give them a shot.

The book titles in the series are Everybody has a Body, Every Body is Smart, and Every Body is a Gift. Looking at the product codes, I believe this is the "proper" reading order. That's not to say you can't read them in any order as the message of each book can stand on its own. Each board book is twelve pages and contains pictures of children of all different races (always appreciated) in the toddler range, as well as their parents, and grandparents. The word body is in bold lettering everywhere it appears to reinforce the focus of the books. Everybody has a Body's main message is that God made our bodies, and how boys and girls are alike, but also stresses that boys and girls have different bodies as well. It does this without explicitly spelling out the differences. Everybody is Smart talks about listening to their bodies when they are hungry or tired and making good choices, like knowing to be quiet in church or eat something healthy and not just cookies. Everybody is a Gift teaches the children about love and how we can show love to others. At the end of each book is a section for adults to help you put the book and teachings in perspective for you and your children.

Overall, I was very impressed by this series. We are just now starting to slowly understand the beauty which is Theology of the Body, and I believe we should be trying to teach it children as early as possible. These books help accomplish that. I hope that there will be more in this series, and also a that there will be series for older children, tweens, teens, etc. I highly recommend these books for parents of young children, teachers, and catechists.

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

Friday, January 16, 2015

Wolf Story and The Bear That Wasn't (New York Review of Books)

As a fairly new father, I have quickly learned that reading to my son is about what he wants to read, not what I want to read. I can suggest a book until I am blue in the face, but if he finds some of his favorite books, we will read those books ad nauseum. I will admit, I have hidden those books a time or two just to give him exposure to other books and to give myself a break, but they don't stay hidden for long and before you know it, the old favorites are being read and re-read and re-read. It is for that reason that I, like most parents, can relate so well to Wolf Story.

Wolf Story is a story within a story. One night a man was putting his five-year old son Michael to bed. The man began to tell Michael the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but Michael asked for a new story. The new story involved a hen, named Rainbow; a wolf, named Waldo; and a boy, named Jimmy Tractorwheel. Unlike most stories, where there is one narrator, Michael chimes in on his father telling the story to add his own personal details and make the story his own. The storytelling is not a one night event, but spans many nights and various outings Michael and his father make. In addition to the book being very funny (for kids and adults), I just liked the idea of the book, because it showed a special bond between this father and son and a memory they will be able to look back on when they are both older. This is one book I can't wait to share with my son when he is older, and it is also one I actually hope he asks me to read over and over to him again! Just be sure to read it slowly, like a chapter a night, and not rush through it!

The Bear That Wasn't has been dubbed a modern fairy tale or a fable for adults. In this story, a bear did what bears do and found a cave to hibernate for the winter. When he woke up, a factory was built around the cave. He thought it was a dream, but all of a sudden a factory foreman came running in and ordered him to get back to work. Despite the bear's insistence that he was in fact a bear, no one believed him. He tried to convince all the foremen and vice-presidents that he was a bear, but they didn't believe him either. They even took him to a zoo and a circus, and the bears told him he wasn't a real bear either. You'll have to read the rest to see how it ends.

This book has been re-printed by other publishers, but the hardcover from New York Review of Books is the best edition to get because of the size that capture all of the illustrations beautifully. Apart from the illustrations in this book, it also comes with a good message to remember who you are and be who you are, despite what other people try and make you into. A lot of people have said this was their favorite book as a child. and I can see the merit in it. It wasn't the best book I read, but it is a good book, and if you can find it for a reasonable price, then I'd pick up a copy. 4 stars.

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

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Tolkien's Sacramental Vision and The Hobbit Party (Angelico Press and Ignatius Press)

Despite the insistence of many atheist/agnostic Middle Earth fans, Tolkien's works are bursting at the seams with religious, more precisely, Catholic themes and values. To try and ignore or dismiss the Catholicism that is found in his works is an insult to Tolkien and a sign of ignorance on the reader's part. In Craig Bernthal's work Tolkien's Sacramental Vision, he examines different scenes, objects, and characters in Tolkien's works (mainly The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) under the light of Catholic Sacramentality.

The book begins by explaining what exactly a Catholic novelist is, and then defends Tolkien's place as one. Other topics discussed include the creation story in The Silmarillion; Baptism and the character of Frodo; Penance and Reconciliation; and Galadriel and her gifts, to name a few topics. I learned a lot of interesting things, which I missed in my readings of The Lord of the Rings. For example, I learned that Boromir took Faramir's place at the Council of Elrond. Perhaps, if Faramir had gone like he was supposed to things would have turned out differently. My favorite section of the book discussed Leaf by Niggle. I could definitely relate to Niggle in many ways including time-wasting and the need for perfection to a fault. This brief section in the book led me to reading this work, and hopefully becoming less of a "niggler."

Overall, this was a very fascinating book and one I would highly recommend to any Catholic or Christian who loves Tolkien. It opened my eyes to many nuances in Tolkien's works and made me appreciate The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings on a whole new level. If I had more time, I would break out my copies of the two works and read through them again with this book by my side. Unfortunately, that is not feasible for me at this time, but it is something I plan/hope to do in the future. Five stars and cannot recommend this book more highly.

When you hear the title for The Hobbit Party, you might think the word party is referring to a gala of sorts, like I did. In actuality the title is a play on politics, like the Republican or Democratic Party. While most authors/commentators on Tolkien's work tend to focus on the religious themes in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the authors, Jonathan Witt and Jay Richards, chose to focus on how the political environment of his day shaped his writings and the political and economic themes we find in his writings if we look closely.

Some of the interesting topics discussed include just war, free market/capitalism, and big government. The most interesting chapter to me however was the last one which touched on the topics of love and death. The authors begins this chapter by stating that "Death and the desire for deathlessness was Tolkien's central theme of The Lord of the Rings. We are then given a litany of examples, including the obvious One Ring and Gandalf's death and resurrection; as well as less obvious example of the White Tree of Gondor. Despite all the mention of death, Tolkien however had the right perspective on death. He saw it as a gift, and not a curse. This may sound confusing at first, because death is a consequence of the Fall, but without death we would continue to live on and sin and never reach the ultimate reward of Heaven.

Overall, this book was an interesting read. While it is hard to argue that these political and economical messages/themes are in Tolkien's work, I question whether it is worth reading this much into the works of Tolkien. Sometimes you can over-analyze a work that you risk killing it. Just my two cents. If you are a fan of Tolkien and politics, then this is the perfect book for you. If politics aren't your cup of tea, then you're probably better off avoiding this book. I will end by saying that the book is worth checking out for the End Notes section alone. It contains a great deal of interesting/edifying works that I plan to read in the future.

These books were provided to me for free by Angelico Press and Carmel Communications, respectively, in exchange for honest reviews. If you find these reviews helpful, please click here and/or here and hit Yes!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching and Defending Marriage (Sophia Institute Press and Saint Benedict Press)

Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching is a recent book by Dr. Anthony Esolen which dives into the writings and teachings of Pope Leo XIII and seeks to offer "a defense of the Church's true teachings on marriage, family, and the state." The first chapter is entitled "Man, in the Image of God." Dr. Esolen describes this as the most fundamental truth and states that "any society built upon other premises will be radically deficient." He then goes on to explain what would happen to society if we completely removed God from the picture. The next chapter discusses free will and human liberty. His explanation of Dante's vision of Satan in hell is chilling, to say the least, but it gives us a good example of how we think we are free when we are too blind to see we are not.

Esolen then dives into topics of marriage and the family, as he views them as the building blocks of society. In these two chapters, again shows the dignity of the person and explains how society is twisting views of marriage and the family. He doesn't come out and directly blame one issue for this, i.e., divorce or homosexuality, but instead puts them all on equal ground and states that "Every sin against marriage is a sin against the very possibility of any kind of society." The chapter on the family shows how a rightly ordered family mirrors a rightly ordered society, discusses education of children, and explains what the family is for. The remainder of the book discusses social life, the Church as society, work, and the state.

The text in this book is heady material, and the way Dr. Esolen writes comes off that way as well. That's not to say that it wasn't brilliantly written, because despite the philosophical tone of the book, I still found it quite readable without feeling the need to have a dictionary for every other word. He also did a nice job of explaining both the big picture and the details that make up the big picture. I also found it fascinating just how astute Pope Leo XIII was when it comes to society and the direction he saw it heading. I definitely plan to re-visit this book and read it a little more slowly the second time through so that I may absorb more of it. If you have an interest in Catholic social teaching or are looking for a good homeschool text on the subject, I recommend this book!

Defending Marriage is another recent book by Dr. Anthony Esolen, with the sole purpose of defending traditional and natural marriage. To do this, Dr. Esolen presents twelve arguments that every Catholic, every Christian should make in defense of marriage. Some of the arguments are, "We must recover the virtues of modesty and purity," or "To celebrate an abnormal behavior makes things worse, not better, for those inclined to engage in it." Dr. Esolen uses art, literature, theological, and cultural arguments to make his point. When you grow up hearing, "Because God said so," as the main argument for why some things are sins, Dr. Esolen's argument make for a refreshing read.

All of the arguments made were very convincing and compelling. However, one stuck with me more than others. The first argument that really rang true was. "We must not condone all forms of consensual activity among adults." In this chapter, Dr. Esolen starts by telling us that no culture, not even the ancient Greeks ever approved of homosexual "marriage" or activities, but that they instead engaged in pedophilia which too is morally wrong. He then explains that if our society accepts homosexual "marriage," a union which cannot create life, then we have passively said that polygamy is acceptable. As Dr. Esolen succinctly says, "You can't have half a jungle." If we want a moral civilization with traditional and natural marriage, we must uproot all sin against marriage.

The great thing about this book is that Dr. Esolen doesn't focus solely on one issue as a danger to marriage. In our given day and age, it would be easy to blame homosexual "marriage" as the thing that is killing traditional marriage. Dr. Esolen is much wiser than that, though, and he blames a combination of the sexual revolution, no fault divorce, and homosexual "marriage" for the death of traditional marriage. There are some books that every Catholic should own, and I firmly believe that this is one of them. In our growing secular age, we need to be able to articulate and defend our core beliefs, and marriage is one of those core beliefs. Read this book. Read it again. Teach your children the arguments for traditional marriage, and instill in them the right beliefs of a moral society.

These books were provided to me for free by Sophia Institute Press and Saint Benedict Press, respectively. If you found these reviews helpful, please click here and/or here and hit Yes!

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Iliad and The Odyssey (Naxos Audiobooks)

Homer is believed by ancient Greeks to be the first and best of the epic poets. The greatest works attributed to this blind poet are The Iliad and The Odyssey. Like many classics, there are scores of translations. Some are very literal and stay true to the original structure. Others are a bit more free with their translation and go for readability and understanding to try and attract the modern reader. Everyone has a translation they prefer. Translations of Homer are not my hill to die on. I just want to be able to understand what I am reading/listening to. Today, I will be reviewing The Iliad and The Odyssey, translated by Dr. Ian Johnston and read by Anton Lesser.

Most all of us know the story of The Iliad and The OdysseyThe Iliad takes place towards the end of the Trojan War and features such warriors as Achilles, Agamemnon, and Hector. It is a very gruesome book with a lot of fighting and bloodshed. The Odyssey takes places ten years after Troy fell. Odysseus (a minor character from The Iliad) is the main character and he has been lost at sea and not returned home. His wife remains faithful to him, despite the numerous suitors bidding for her affection. Odysseus undergoes an epic journey with the gods conspiring against him and suffers many perils along the way before returning home safely. These should be required reading or listening for all high school children. I say listening because these tales were originally told orally, so it only makes sense to listen to them!

In order to show you how Dr. Johnston's translation differs from an older translation, I am going to provide you with the opening stanza of The Iliad from Alexander Pope's translation and Dr. Ian Johnston's translation.

Alexander Pope's translation
Achilles' wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber'd, heavenly goddess, sing!
That wrath which hurl'd to Pluto's gloomy reign
The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.
Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!

Dr. Ian Johnston's translation
Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus
that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans
to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls
deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies
carrion food for dogs and birds
all in fulfillment of the will of Zeus.

As you can see, Pope's translation is more flowery and poetic. It has a couplet rhyming structure, but oddly uses Roman god names, not Greek ones. Johnston's translation does not have a rhyming structure but is much more approachable in that he avoids archaisms, ancient, and Medieval language. As you can see there, is no perfect translation. It is all a matter of preference. If you are a seasoned veteran at epic poetry, you might prefer Pope's or another flowery translation because you can understand and appreciate all the references. If you are a younger student or this is your first encounter with epic poetry since high school, That is why I prefer Dr. Johnston's translation at this moment in my life, but I hope to one day appreciate the older versions.

The audio itself is very regal. Anton Lesser, one of Britain's leading classical actors, does a good job with pacing and flow of the story, which can be hard to do, especially in The Iliad when it gets kind of bloody! People might recognize his voice from other Naxos Audiobooks, if you are a Charles Dickens fan, because he has read many of those works including Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities! You won't be disappointed by him! So if you are looking for a well-performed reading of The Iliad and The Odyssey, in unabridged or abridged (though I don't know why you'd choose the latter), you can buy directly from Naxos Audiobooks or find them on Audible as well!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Joan of Arc and The Maid of Orleans (Lighthouse Catholic Media and Ignatius Press)

If you had to pick Mark Twain's greatest work what would it be? Tom Sawyer? Huckleberry Finn? The Prince and the Pauper? All of these are all great novels, and you could make a strong case for any of them. However, if you asked Mark Twain what his greatest work was, he would tell you it was Joan of Arc. In fact, he spent twelve years in France researching the subject and went through several drafts and iterations before finally feeling like he had done Joan of Arc justice.

The book itself is told in the format of a novel, which was translated from the memoirs of Louis de Conte (a fictional characterization of Joan of Arc's page, Louis de Contes). There are three sections to this novel. Book I begins with the birth of the narrator, Louis de Conte. It also talks about Joan's early life in Domremy and how she was different from other children. She came off as wise and learned, despite being an illiterate peasant. Book II largely deals with Joan's military exploits. It takes place when Joan is 17 and is seeking to gain control of the King's army. This is unheard of not only because she is a girl, but because she is so young. In this section we see the opposition she faced, not just on the battlefield but from her own country. The king's counselors were evil men and always in the king's ear, trying to make Joan look foolish or get her killed. Book III deals with her imprisonment, trial, and eventual martyrdom. Here we see people take advantage of her illiteracy by getting her to sign a false confession. They also forbid her from wearing men's clothes, but while in prison, they took her female apparel and replaced it with men, so she would either have to wear nothing or put on the male garb and be branded a lapsed heretic. She chose modesty, knowing that it would ultimately result in her death. There is also a brief summary, which tells the fate of Joan's family, King Charles VII, and several other figures.

I was pleasantly surprised reading this book. Mark Twain is not known for his reverence or piety, but he did a remarkable job keeping this book respectful and enthralling. Lovers of history, saints' lives, or homeschoolers/history teachers will find a great treasure in this book. Lighthouse Catholic Media is currently selling copies for $5 a piece. This is such a great price that you can buy one for you and several for friends.

The Maid of Orleans is an Ignatius Press reprint of a title that was published in the 1950s. The author, Sven Stolpe, was a Swedish writer/journalist and wrote numerous books, including this one on Joan of Arc and one on Queen Christina of Sweden. Stolpe's book on Joan of Arc begins with background information on The Hundred Years' War and the state of France during that time period. In fact, Joan of Arc isn't even mentioned until the third chapter of the book. This creates a good background for the reader who does not know much about the era in which Joan grew up and lived. Stolpe presents a very detailed account of Joan. The level of detail is astounding and it seems he took to heart the advice to always assume your audience knows nothing about the subject.

As someone with a degree in psychology, Chapter 4 stood out to me as the most interesting. In this chapter Stolpe discusses the voices which Joan heard. He explains that people will ever agree on the voices Joan heard. Believers will see these voices as God. Skeptics will see these voices as hallucinations. He then cites several examples of the voices and a psychologist's rebuttal. The other interesting section to me was the trial almost two decades after Joan's death. It ultimately showed how unfairly treated Joan was, that her trial was held in a kangaroo court, and that her death was unnecessary. Stolpe's concludes that "Joan's real greatness is her willingness to die as shameful a death as the Savior upon the Cross."

This was a very detailed account of Joan of Arc. Stolpe's goal in writing this book was to show that Joan's life was more than just trying to free France, but that she was to share in Christ's Passion. The book was very dense, and there were times I had to put down the book often because of the depth and level of detail that Stolpe took in this book. It also had parts that were hard to read, because the level of betrayal and cruelty that Joan suffered was overwhelming. If you have an interest in history and/or a devotion to Joan of Arc, this book will be of great interest to you. If on the other hand you do not, you might find yourself weighed down by information overload and be unable or uninterested in finishing the book. That's not to say the book is bad, I just believe you have to be interested in the subject or in the right frame of mind to read a book this dense with facts.

These books were provided to me for free by Lighthouse Catholic Media and Ignatius Press, respectively, in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Liguori Catholic Bible Study - Introduction and The Gospel of Mark (Liguori Publications)

With the start of a new year, people make lots of resolutions. Some they end up keeping. Others not so much. One popular resolution among Catholics and other Christians is to read through the Bible in one year. If you have never done this before, I will testify as a survivor that it is doable. I use the word survivor, because it feels like a war of attrition. You have to average approximately 4-5 chapters a day, and books like Leviticus or Numbers can really weigh you down and make you question your decision. I do believe that everyone should read through the Bible once in their life (albeit not in the span of a year), and I believe the best way to do that is slowly. This year I am using the commentary series Liguori Catholic Bible Study. It isn't new (been around since 2012), but it is new to me! Today, I will be featuring two of the books from this series.

Introduction to the Bible is a 100 page book which not only serves as a guide to the Bible but is also an excellent jumping off point for the Liguori Catholic Bible Study. Before diving into the meat of the book, there is an introduction to the Bible study series and Lectio Divina. Fr. Anderson then begins by describing what the Bible is. A lot of people mistake it for one book, but it is in fact a whole library of books bound together. There are history books, prophetic books, wisdom books, etc. He then explains coventantal theology, talks about the Dead Sea Scrolls, and addresses different translations of the Bible. He seems to encourage use of the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE), which I agree with, because that is what we hear at Mass every Sunday.

Chapters Two and Three walk us through the books of the Old Testament, providing summaries, key figures, key events, and/or historical context. The remaining chapters focus on the New Testament, but in a different way than the Old Testament was focused on. First, we see a chapter dedicated to what life was like in Palestine during the time of Jesus, which included politics, religious groups, and religious feasts. Next, we see a chapter that explains what life was like after Jesus' death and when the books of the New Testament were written. This chapter, like the previous one, again touches on the political rule of the time, but it also talks about the different sources the writers used when composing their New Testament book(s). The last chapter talks about the message from Jesus and the New Testament and how the ways we receive the message, study the message, and interpret the message have changed.

Overall, this was a very brief, but thorough introduction to the Bible. It was simple enough that anyone could understand it, but it waded into the deep end occasionally to keep the more advanced reader interested enough to continue reading. I appreciated that every chapter had review and reflection questions. These types of questions are vital for small group leaders, especially those lacking experience in leading a Bible study. The only thing that I wish would have been different is the end of the book. It felt like a very abrupt ending. I would have preferred a couple of closing pages that point you in a direction on what to do next. Perhaps, the author could have said something like, if you're completely new to reading the Bible, start with The Gospel of Mark, or if you have studied the Synoptic Gospels before try The Gospel of John. That gripe aside, I still recommend this book as you need some background before embarking on Bible study.

The Gospel of Mark is the first commentary from the Liguori Catholic Bible Study that I decided to study. It is approximately 150 pages, like most of the commentaries in this series and also includes an introduction to Lectio Divina and a how-to guide for both individuals and group study. There are eight lessons total with all of the lessons containing sections for group study and individual study, with the exception of Lesson One, which only has a section for group study.

Both group and individual study have ample review questions and opportunities for Lectio Divina with the individual study dividing the readings up into days of the week between group studies. The thing that surprised me most was that the individual sections didn't invite you to study Scripture passages from the group sections more deeply but instead focus on  passages that were not covered. It took a bit of getting used to, but I defer to the wisdom of those more experienced than me when leading Bible studies. The other surprising element was that the Scripture was not provided in the book. You have to have your own Bible. This is a pro (the book is smaller) and con (less convenient having to remember two books).

The aspect I enjoyed most about this book is that in addition to providing commentary on the passage you just read, there is also a guided reflection to ponder for Lectio Divina. I don't know about you, but my biggest stumbling block with Lectio Divina is that I never really know what I'm supposed to focus on when reading a Scripture passage and can oftentimes miss the forest for the trees. I have not completely worked my way through this book, as I am trying to go through it slowly, but I felt the need to share my positive experience with this book. It is very practical and provides you with an insight into how it was during Jesus' day and what message we can take from it presently. I look forward to continuing with this book as well as others in the series, so stay tuned as I plan to feature another one in the coming months.

These books were provided to me by Liguori Publications in exchange for an honest review. If you found them helpful, please click here and/or here and hit Yes!

Friday, January 2, 2015

A Child's Guide to the Divine Liturgy and The Monk Who Grew Prayer

A Child's Guide to the Divine Liturgy is a pocket-sized, fully illustrated walk through the Divine Liturgy and the Orthodox faith. It is divided into six color-coded sections:
1. Preparing for the Divine Liturgy
2. The Divine Liturgy
3. Salt and Light
4. The Twelve Feasts
5. Words to Know
6. Glossary

The first section includes subjects such as proper attire; preparatory prayers; observations when entering the Church, i.e., lighting candles and kissing icons. The second section illustrates each part of the Divine Liturgy from the opening prayer to the prayer on leaving the church. There are words included in each of these parts. However, the words are sparse because this book isn't supposed to be a missal, but a guide. The author wants you to be aware of the divine taking place and participate fully in the Liturgy, not have your nose in a book the whole time. Salt and Light is one of the shortest of the three sections, but possibly one of the most important ones. This brief section encourages your children to be witnesses to the whole world in words and deeds. The final three sections are a catechism of sorts as they include icons of the Twelve Great Feasts; images of clergy, vestments, and items found in the church; and lastly a fairly extensive list of terms including words like Epiclesis and Proskomedia.

For a book geared at children, I found myself much more knowledgeable after reading this book. As a Roman Catholic, I have attended Divine Liturgy a handful of times, and I admit that I was able to follow about half of it, but felt a bit lost during the other half. Though, I have no plans of converting, I would like my children to be exposed to the Orthodox Liturgy and its beauty, and this book will prove to be an excellent resource for just that. The book is simple, yet stunningly beautiful. I highly recommend this for all Orthodox parents.

The Monk Who Grew Prayer isn't a new book at all. It's over eleven years old! However, each time I read it and reflect on its simple words and pictures I am reminded of perception and reality. The main character is a monk who lives deep in the forest. We see him doing mundane tasks like chopping wood, drawing water from a stream, repairing his favorite chair, etc. These tasks were his prayer. He was not only praying with words, but with his actions as well.

The rest of the book is dedicated to the different hours of the Church, i.e., Vespers, Matins, etc. This book educates subtly and then overtly, but its simple message is one that you and your children will visit and re-visit time and time again. So each time you read it to/with your children, let the message of the book seep in, and remember that even in our busiest and dullest tasks, we can sanctify them and make them prayers to God.

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