Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Catholic Stories for Boys and Girls (Neumann Press)

Catholic Stories for Boys and Girls is a four volume set of children's books that were written by Catholic nuns in the 1930s. They are similar in style to the set Angel Food for Boys and Girls, but I would say for a slightly older age as the Catholic Stories are longer and contain chapters. Each book contains between four and six chapters and is approximately 150 pages long. The Catholic Stories books are also similar to Angel Food in the color scheme. Volume I is blue. Volume II is red. Volume III is green. And Volume IV is white. The illustration style for Catholic Stories can best be described as silhouette, which allows the reader to focus mainly on the story and not let the images overpower the message. Each chapter of the story closes with a two-line rhyming verse that provides both a chapter summary and pithy message. I would now like to share some summaries of some of my favorite stories from this series.

Volume I begins with a story called "The Best Deed." In this story, there is a class of Confirmation students. Their teacher has a beautiful statue of Mary that is admired by all the children, so the teacher issues the children a challenge. Within the next week, find a remarkable deed to perform. One little girl decides to give up candy, which I'm sure was a challenge for her. However, the deed she performed was more amazing than that. Since her dad was a doctor, she often went to the hospital to visit him. During this week before her Confirmation, she met a dying man in the hospital. He was not a good man, but she visited him daily, bringing him little gifts and pleading with him to see a priest for Confession and Communion. Her persistence finally paid off, and he did what she requested. So instead of just giving up candy, she saved a man's soul, and that was indeed the best deed of all!

Volume III has a story called "The Tower of London," which tells the true story of Edmund Campion. He was a Jesuit priest during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. During her reign there was great persecution towards Catholics. Priests and laypeople were pressured into converting to Protestantism. Those that did not convert were imprisoned and/or murdered. Fr. Campion did not back down from his convictions and beliefs. He still said the Mass and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. While there, he was put on the torture rack many times. He eventually was martyred by hanging. At the time the book was written, he had been beatified but it would take until 1970 for him to be canonized.

The above two stories were just a couple of the great stories found in this wonderful series. It is truly a blessing that Neumann Press cares enough about classic Catholic books like this to continue to print them. I cannot recommend this series enough, but that is true of all Neumann Press books. If you are looking for a great selection for the Catholic classroom or the homeschooling environment, you will want these in your collection. I will be reading these aloud to my son, until he is old enough to read them himself, and the books are so well-made that I know they will stand the test of time, just like the stories within them.

These books were provided to me for free by Neumann Press in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Man Who Founded California (Ignatius Press)

It's been less than a week since Junipero Serra was canonized. Yet, his canonization is already surrounded with controversy. There are people upset with the Pope that the canonization did not take place in California. There are people upset that the canonization happened at all, as they think there were more deserving people. I am ignorant to this now saint, but to better understand him and his mission I read the book The Man Who Founded California.

The Man Who Founded California is a reprint of a 2000 hardcover edition, also by Ignatius Press. The book begins by talking about the statues on the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall. St. Junipero Serra currently has a place there, but probably not for long, as he will soon be replaced by Sally Ride. The book then leads us into a differentiation of Spaniards and Majorcans, which is what Serra was in fact. Majorca is the largest island off the Spanish coast, but they don't share a language or really a culture. Majorca claims a more Mediterranean heritage. They also have a small Catholic population, which is evidenced by only having one bishop. Because of the lack of a convenient bishop, people received sacraments at different ages. Serra, for example, was confirmed before he was two! At age fifteen, he told his parents he wanted to be a priest, which was a sacrifice for the a poor farming family, but one they accepted. The chapter on Majorca ends with Fr. Serra and other Dominicans and Franciscans arriving to Mexico for missionary work.

Fr. Serra and one other friar decided to walk from Vera Cruz (where the boat landed) to Mexico City. This was keeping with the Rule of St. Francis and was also a form of penance for the mission they were about to embark upon. What we learn in this chapter dealt primarily with the different aspects the mission. For starters, the mission was trying to unite all of the Indian people. Another component was that these people were seen as uneducated and childlike, which unfortunately heavily restricted their freedom. However, their culture was considered when it came to spiritual education as they realized the cultural affinity for music and drama. Lastly, we learn that Fr. Serra was responsible for building the church at Jalpan. The final and longest chapter focuses on his time in California. The main positives of Serra's time in California was reflected in the missions he founded, including San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, and Santa Clara to name only three. However, there were also negatives with his time there, which included the isolation he felt from the rest of the world and the poor actions the Spanish soldiers performed against the natives. Serra was opposed to this kind of behavior, and the book says he complained about it, but it seemed like more should have been done to stop it.

The book is FULL of photographs and illustrations that aid the reader in better understanding the life and mission of Fr. Serra. I knew nothing about Serra before reading this book, but after reading it, I feel I have at least a basic understanding. Those looking for a shining story of perfection need look elsewhere. Serra is indeed a saint, but saints were still men and women, just like the rest of us. They sinned, but they sought forgiveness, just like we should. They were also always striving to do the will of God and spread his Gospel message. Overall, I found this book to be a solid introduction on Serra's life and work. If you are like me and need a book to start with on Serra, this is the one.

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

Friday, September 25, 2015

Mistress Masham's Repose and The Glassblower's Children (New York Review Books)

T.H. White wrote one of my favorite books ever in The Once and Future King. When I discovered that some of his other writings were back in print, like Mistress Masham's Repose, I knew I had to give it a chance. The story begins by telling us about a ten-year old girl, who is described a girl with musical talent and a loving nature. Sadly for her, she was an orphan, who lived on a massive estate called Malplaquet. Her life in Malplaquet was a sheltered one, as her vicar, Mr. Hater, has a governess, Miss Brown, to watch after her. Those two conspire to keep the girl free from friends, and fun, as well as keeping her poor. Her only two real friends are the cook and a old professor who lived on the grounds. One day, when Miss Brown was ill, Maria decided to explore Malplaquet, in particular the lakes. What she discovers will change her world completely.

In the middle of the lake is an island, which is where the book gets its title from. Maria decides to explore this island, and on it she finds a race of little people. These aren't just any little people though. These are the Lilliputians from Gulliver's Travels. At first, Maria is a domineering big person, who sees everything in Malplaquet, including the Lilliputians as her property. Because of this viewpoint, and the way she was raised by Mr. Hater and Miss Brown, she also has a sense of tyranny running through her. (Who can really blame her? If you have been ruled over unfairly your whole life, you won't really know how to treat those smaller than you either.) It is for that reason that she captures a Lilliputian woman and her baby early on. Over time and through numerous interactions, Maria learns how to be a better person towards them.These encounters are what makes up the heart of the book, and there are some funny encounters. It is through these encounters that Maria eventually gains her freedom and the Lilliputians are able to remain free from the clutches of people who would exploit them for profit.

I found myself very impressed reading this book, and I was pleased that my expectations for a T.H. White book were not only met but exceeded. In fact, I wanted to immediately read it again after finishing it, but I didn't have that luxury at the moment. In addition to a great story, New York Review Books preserved the original illustrations of Fritz Eichenberg, which are the icing on the cake. T.H. White knows what makes a good children's book, and he manages to put it in there without dumbing down the content. My only regret is that I did not know about this book as a child. This is fate that my children will not experience, as I cannot recommend this book highly enough!

The Glassblower's Children tells the tale of Albert the Glassblower, Sofia his wife, and their children Klas and Klara. Albert is a very talented man in the art of glassblowing and makes the most beautiful creations that eye has ever seen. However, what he has in talent, he lacks in salesmanship. For that reason, he and his family are very poor. His wife has to work in the fields to help make ends meet. Klara seems oblivious to being poor, and Klas seems like a very sensitive boy who gets sad whenever one of his father's glass creations breaks. Albert is unfortunately a negligent husband, because his mind seems to think of glass only, which Sofia resents.

One day the family goes to the fair so that Albert can try and sell his wares. Sofia has her fortune told first, and the lady, named Flutter Mildweather, told her that if Sofia ever needed her help, all Sofia had to do was give Flutter her ring. Albert was skeptical of Flutter and thought she was merely after the ring, so he has his fortune told next. We are not told what his fortune was, but it was enough to scare him and cause a complete change in his attitude and behavior. He spent more time with  his family, and he also spent less time in his shop. The family went to another fair, and Albert's luck seemed to have turned around. He was finally selling his glass and things seemed to be changing for the family.Albert and Sofia were so busy selling glass that they lost track of the kids, and as a result the children were kidnapped. This was what Albert had been dreading the entire time.

Part Two of the book deals with what the children endure while being kidnapped and their eventual return home. Yes, I know I spoiled the ending for you, but I'm afraid some might not want to read it if they thought it would be too traumatic. The book is beautifully written, if not haunting in its words sometimes. This quote about their reflections is a perfect example. "Klas and Klara realized that the only children they would ever meet in the house were the Mirrorchildren. At first thet felt less forlorn and abandoned every time they met, as if they shared their fate with these children who said nothing, whom they could never reach and touch. But then one day surprise and joy had gone from the Mirrorchildren's faces; they saw only sorrow and anxiety, and then Klas and Klara were very much afraid." Chilling! This book is recommended for children ages 8 to 12, but I would err on the side of caution and go for older children in the tween to teen range.

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

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

16 Marriages That Made History (Scepter Publishers)

The World Meeting of Families is currently underway and Pope Francis is officially in the United States. It is an exciting time in the Northeast, and a part of me is a bit envious of those taking part in the meeting and the festivities. But if you are like me and cannot be there, you can offer up your prayers for a fruitful meeting and papal visit. In addition to praying for the Pope and those involved with the World Meeting of Families as well as the upcoming Synod, we can also take some time out of our day to read and educate ourselves. There are many books out there that talk on both the meeting and the synod, but there are few out there that just talk about marriage in general and the beauty of it. One such book that does is entitled 16 Marriages That Made History.

16 Marriages That Made History begins with the briefest of prologues explaining how marriage when faithfully honored is beneficial to both spouses. The author, Gerard Castillo, then adds "An awareness of a constant history of marriages that are united, faithful, and happy in the midst of great difficulties is a valuable reference for the present-day debate over the institution of marriage." We then are presented with the sixteen marriages that date from 40 A.D. to 1960. They are arranged by order of marriage, except that Chapters Three and Four seem out of order chronologically, which is merely a niggle. Some of the couples in this book include Aquila and Priscilla; G.K. Chesterton and Frances Blogg; and J.R.R. Tolkien and Edith Bratt. Each chapter provides both biographical information and details on their married life. There is also a theme related to married life in each chapter. For example. the theme for the Chestertons was two people succeeding as living as one despite being very different from one another.

Reading about all these marriages was equal parts fascinating and fruitful, but the one I enjoyed reading about most was Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra Fedoronova. There are very few real examples of love at first sight, but Castillo does an exquisite job explaining their love story. Nicholas knew he was going to marry his wife when they first met, and he had to wait ten long years before he finally could. This is different from most fairy tales of true love, because their version of love at first sight usually has a quick resolution. Despite these ten long years of difficulty, pressure to choose different spouses for political convenience, and questions of which religion they would practice (Anglicanism or Orthodoxy), they eventually were wed. Despite the tragic ending they suffered, this couple showed us how to approach a potential marriage partner and how to persevere in love, despite great hardship. They did not go into marriage speedily and blindly, but they took their time. They got to know each other thoroughly and that helped their marriage to be so stable and full of love. There weren't secrets or unexpected surprises, but two souls knew each other and belonged together.

One of the best things about this book is that the sixteen marriages weren't limited to Catholic marriages. This gives the book universal appeal for all Christian denominations. What I didn't like about this book was that there were two marriages in the 1st Century A.D. and then a huge jump to the 13th Century. Surely, there were history-making marriages in the 1100+ years in between. We are living in dark times right now with countries all around the world providing a new human definition of marriage. (Sorry, but God and the Church's view of marriage will never change.) If you are looking for an inspiring book that gives concrete examples of authentic marriage, then this is the book for you. I just wish it had been longer, because when it ended, I found myself wishing for more of these stories.

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

Monday, September 21, 2015

Abolishing Abortion (Thomas Nelson)

Before I begin my review of Abolishing Abortion, allow me to share a quote with you from the Introduction. "I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?" This profound quote is from the Blessed Mother Teresa, and it speaks volumes to the pro-death culture we currently live in. In it, she equates abortion to murder, which it is. She also likens it to war, though, which is a way I never saw before. The only part of the quote I disagree with is that she only blames the mother for this crime. The father is nowhere to be found in her quote, but he too is equally guilty.

After the introduction, the book begins by talking about the public square, separation of church and state, Roe v. Wade, and how the political landscape has changed over the past 200 years. We went from life being an inalienable right to all men, to babies never even having the chance to that right. Chapter Three was a bit of a troubling read to me. Fr. Pavone talks about how people ask him what their first spiritual duty is on the abortion issue. Instead of answering prayer, he instead responds with repentance. He says we are all responsible for abortion becoming so rampant. Even if we have never had an abortion or aided someone in abortion, he still sees us as guilty, because we could have spoke out more strongly against it, but we chose not to due to cowardice. I respectfully disagree with assessment, and I think it feels over-scrupulous.

Subsequent chapters discuss what individuals and churches can do to combat abortion. He goes into speaking on the issue from the pulpit and tax-code and how it relates to whether a church can or cannot lose their tax-exempt status for speaking out against abortion. Churches cannot be afraid to stand up for the rights of the unborn over a matter of tax dollars. Chapter 9: Collision Course is one of the more interesting chapters. He points out the gap people seem to experience when they see a difference between killing a child outside of the womb and inside the womb. There isn't one! He also defends the use of graphic images on the Pro-Life side.They are disturbing and haunting to look at, but they are reality, and people need to have their eyes opened to the reality that what they are doing is murder. It is easy to ignore something if you don't have to see it as it really is, but it's hard to ignore the cold reality of images.

The book ended talking about the "Foundation of Love." "Abortion is the exact opposite of love.  Love says, 'I sacrifice myself for the good of the other person.'  Abortion says, 'I sacrifice the other person for the good of myself.' And isn’t it amazing that the very same words used by the culture of death to justify abortion are the words used by our Lord to proclaim life and salvation and love: 'This is My body!' " There were absolutely brilliant points made in this book, and there were parts of this book that got bogged down and were dry to read. However, I do believe it is a book all Christians, not just Catholics should read. If you are looking for a book to give to someone to talk them out of the abortion, this is not it. The aim of this book is not one to convince people that abortion is wrong or explain why it is wrong. Instead, the aim seems to be a calling to arms all Christians to fight in this battle for life and death, not just of the innocent unborns but of society and civilization. If we continue down this path, it will only lead to destruction. May we turn the tides before it is too late!

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

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Adventures of Hermes, God of Thieves (Pushkin Children's Books)

The Adventures of Hermes, God of Thieves is a dust-jacketed hardcover, available from Pushkin Children's Books. It contains 100 adventures or episodes, as the book calls them, which involve the Greek god Hermes and other notable gods, goddesses, and mortals. The book begins with Hermes being born to Maia and an unknown father. His birth is mysterious, though, because he is not a baby but a boy who can walk and talk and explore. Being curious, as all children are, he decides to go into the world and explore. It isn't until Episode Four that his father is revealed to be Zeus.

The episodes are more than just Hermes' adventures, but the episodes serve to introduce us to various aspect of Greek mythology. We witness the birth of the world, the world's first crime, and the defeat of Cronus. In addition to historic events, we also meet some of the more interesting creatures that you can only find in Greek mythology, such as Cyclops, Hundred-Handed Giants, and Gorgons! We also meet heroes like Perseus, Jason, and Odysseus. I especially enjoyed reading about his time in the Underworld. What originally started out as a punishment for his mischief turned into an extraordinary time for Hermes. He befriended his Uncle Hades, regaled him with tales, and earned a new job. He was now the escort to the Underworld for the departed and served the dual-purpose of guide and entertainer so that no one would be terribly distraught before entering this place.

The way this book was structured was very clever. Instead of individual chapters or stories, it was written in serial format. Each episode wasn't the end, but was merely continued in the subsequent episode. This made the book an exciting and ongoing adventure to read over the course of months, or if you're like me and can't put it down, days. There are only a few things that I would change about this book. First, there should be a Table of Contents. If you ever want to re-visit your favorite episodes, you'll either have to make your own notes, or put some tabs in the book to highlight them. I also wish there had been illustrations in this book, not an abundance but enough to catch your eye. These two quibbles aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. If you are looking for an exciting romp through Greek mythology that is told through the lens of a lesser-known god, then you will enjoy this book too!

This book was provided to me for free by Pushkin Children's Books.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Greek and Latin Commentaries on Revelation (IVP Academic)

The Book of Revelation is the most widely interpreted of all the books in the Bible. Coming from a Protestant background, I was exposed to this book at an early age. Taught by those with an apocalyptic viewpoint, I was schooled in the thinking that you could pick up a newspaper and the Book of Revelation and the two would connect to form a picture of the end of the world. It took a lot of years and a lot of reading to erase that slant. That reading came in the form of Catholic Scripture commentaries and from reading Church Fathers. InterVarsity Press Academic has released two commentaries on Revelation in their Ancient Christian Texts Series - one Greek and one Latin. Allow me to tell you about them.

Greek Commentaries on Revelation is a 250 page hardcover, which contains the commentaries of Oecumenius and Andrew of Caesarea. There is not a consensus on who exactly Oecumenius was, but there is a general consensus that his commentary was written in the early 7th century. His interpretation of Revelation focused more on the spiritual meaning than literal meaning, much like Origen. He also focuses on the three ages (past, present, and future) within Revelation. Lastly, he places great emphasis on both the Incarnation of Jesus and the seven seals in Revelation and how they related to Jesus.

Andrew of Caesarea's commentary occurs shortly after Oecumenius's commentary, as he uses it as a reference for his own. In fact, very little of Andrew of Caesarea's commentary could be called original. A lot of people might see this as a bad thing, but it is quite the opposite, as novelty and heresy usually go hand in hand. His commentary became the one that was most widely accepted in the Byzantine tradition, and his is also my favorite commentary on Revelation. He has an interesting way of dividing the book. He divides Revelation into 24 books (for the 24 elders mentioned in Revelation). He the divides each of those books into three chapters, which corresponds to the body, soul, and spirit of man. This creates 72 chapters and very brief commentary on each of his chapters with the occasional depth where he deems necessary.

Reading the two commentaries, it is clear that they do not agree on many points, even though they were written so closely together. In fact, Andrew uses Oecumenius' commentary in his merely to show where he offers a differing viewpoint. In addition to these great translations, there are also brilliant introductions which give us insight on the two commentators and valuable insight into their methods regarding their commentaries. This book is a wonderful resource to those interested in how the early Church viewed the Book of Revelation and a must have for the serious student of Scripture. I would highly recommend this volume and then if you are still thirsty for more knowledge, get Latin Commentaries on Revelation.

Latin Commentaries on Revelation is a 250 page hardcover book, which contains four commentaries on Revelation from Victorinus of Petovium, Apringius of Beja, Caesarius of Arles, and Bede the Venerable. I confess to being ignorant of all of these men. except for Bede. Thankfully, the introduction contains information on each of these four men. Victorinus was a bishop in the 3rd century. Apringius was a bishop in the 6th century. Caesarius was also a bishop in the 6th century. And Venerable Bede was a monk in the 8th century. Thus, these Latin commentaries all occurred fairly close in time to one another, if you consider that the Church is over 2000 years old. In addition to providing biographical information on these four men, there is also background on their other writings and their commentary style of Revelation.

Victorinus' commentary was surprisingly short at only 22 pages. Each chapter of Revelation only received about one page of commentary, except for the first chapter. At times, it reads more like a summary than an actual commentary. Apringius' is slightly more robust at 40 pages in length. He takes a verse-by-verse approach with his commentary, and if I'm being honest with myself that is how I like my commentaries. Since he borrowed the bulk of his commentary from Jerome's editing of Victorinus, the only parts in this section that are his are commentary on Revelation chapters 1 through 5 and 18 through 22. Caesarius' section is composed of nineteen homilies, which appear addressed to monks. It is mainly expositions, but it also contains personal messages to his audience as well. Bede's commentary is the longest and most intact, and it too follows the verse-by-verse approach. I particularly enjoyed reading about Chapter 21, as Bede walks us through the significance and meaning of each of the precious stones of the Holy City.

The real jewel of this work is Bede's commentary. The other three are a nice bonus and given an interesting perspective of how earlier Christians viewed this controversial book of the Bible. It also provides a sort-of timeline view of how the Church's view of this book changed as well. With some of the commentaries, primarily Apringius', you'll have to take into account the cultural bias in what is said. It was not as good to me as the Greek Commentaries on Revelation, but if you can get it for a good price, you should so that you can have both an Eastern and Western view of the book of Revelation.

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

Monday, September 14, 2015

Embracing the Icon of Love (Liguori Publications)

There are a lot of things I love about Christianity. I love reading Scripture and commentaries that point out things I miss. I love the complexity of the Rosary and the simplicity of the Jesus Prayer. I love the knowledge of the Church Fathers and the simplicity of the childlike Saints! And I love the beauty of icons, but more than that I love the depth of icons. Brother Daniel Korn shares this love of iconography, and it is on full display in his book Embracing the Icon of Love.

Embracing the Icon of Love begins with a two chapter introduction that explains what an icon is and how to read and pray with icons. In his words, "Icons are not static objects of sacred imagery that remind us of the holy. Rather, they're energy-filled realities that draw us into a relationship with what the image represents." He goes on to explain in simpler terms that when we pray before an icon of Mary, "we are also in the space of God that resides within Mary." Part II of this book walks us through praying with one of the most famous icons, the Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. There are five elements of the Gospel story of Jesus:

1. The Face of the Blessed Mother
2. The Right Hand of Mary that points directly to the heart of Christ
3. Jesus (or the Infant God) that Mary presents to us
4. Angels flanking Mary and Jesus
5. The Golden Background of the Icon

Each chapter goes into more detail. For example, the chapter on the Face of the Blessed Mother focuses on her eyes, ears, mouth, and the eight-pointed star which adorns her head. Each chapter also includes a Scripture reflection, reflection questions, and in the middle of the book is full color images zoomed in on the particular aspect of the icon being studied. Brother Daniel meticulously explains many facets of the icon one could easily overlook. For example, most of us focus on the faces of Christ and Mary, but did you notice that his sandal is falling off? If you did, do you know what it means? I did not, but I will share it with you. It represents Christ's humility in taking on His human nature. Every element; every color; every detail of an icon is deliberate, so you must take your time when praying with an icon, so take your time and don't rush!

The book contains a concluding two parts - one with prayers and exercises before the Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and the other with a history on the icon and its restoration. In fact, this book was published to announce the 150th Anniversary of the icon being given into Redemptorist care by Pope Pius IX. His mission for the Redemptorists when placing this icon in their care was to make Our Lady of Perpetual Help known to all. They have certainly done that through the years, and this book is taking that mission a step further. So whether you have a love for iconography' like me; a devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Hope; or just are an inquiring heart, you will find beauty and truth in this book. I highly recommend it!

This book was provided to me for free by Liguori Publications in exchange for an honest review. To see an interview of Brother Daniel Korn by Fr. Mitch Pacwa, click here. And if you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Face of Mercy and Mercy: A Bible Study Guide for Catholics (Pauline Books and Media and Our Sunday Visitor)

The Year of Mercy will begin before we know it. It begins on December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, for those who didn't know. Announcing a special theme for a year is nothing remarkable, as we have had The Year of the Family, The Year of Saint Paul, and The Year of Faith to name only a few in the past decade. So what makes this year so special? In a nutshell, it's an Extraordinary Jubilee Year! The last one was promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983. That was over 32 years ago, so this is truly an exciting time in the Church! If you want to prepare yourself for this Year of Mercy, then I have several book recommendations for you.

The Face of Mercy is the Bull of Indiction (formal proclamation in layman's terms), which Pope Francis issued about The Jubilee Year of Mercy. Pauline Books and Media is the only publisher I know of to print this document, and it is a brief 32-page one at that. In it, he begins by explaining that Jesus is the face of God's mercy. He then goes on to explain what mercy is and why our salvation depends on it. He also tells us that there are times we must focus on mercy more, and that is the reason for his proclaiming this upcoming year The Year of Mercy. The rest of the document explains procedure of when the year starts and opening the doors; Scriptural passages related to mercy to enlighten us on how to be merciful like Christ and God the Father; the importance of a pilgrimage during a Holy Year; and under what circumstances indulgences will be granted.

After reading The Face of Mercy, I recommend you turn your attention to the book Mercy: A Bible Study Guide for Catholics. The book is divided into the following six sections:

1. Human Mercy
2. Withholding and Granting Mercy
3. An Overview of God's Mercy
4. Mercy and Covenant Love
5. Lord, Have Mercy
6. Mercy as a Saving Act

The book's focus is on Israel's experience of mercy and closes with Jesus and His sacrifice as the ultimate example of mercy. Each chapter is full of Scripture to read, sections to make notes on specific Scripture verses, discussion questions, and practical ways to apply what you learned in the chapter. "Withholding and Granting Mercy" was the most interesting and enlightening chapter to me. In this chapter, we are presented with examples of God withholding mercy (primarily against nations who opposed the Israelites) and God granting mercy. One of the discussion questions dealt with the phrasing of God hardening a particular leader's heart and what we think it means. It is definitely a troubling phrase, but I have recently come to see it as human authors trying to explain a Divine Being, which is like trying to gather the ocean into a thimble. God is not responsible for making these leaders have hardened hearts. Instead, it is the leaders willfully rejecting God on their own and to their own demise.

Like the many Bible Studies from Our Sunday Visitor that Fr. Mitch Pacwa has penned before, he has once again delivered a solid Bible Study for the reader to use individually or in a small group setting. By working us through a historical view of mercy, he leads us to the importance of us extending God's mercy to everyone around us. I recommend picking up a copy and studying it either before or during The Year of Mercy!

These books were provided to me for free by Pauline Books and Media and Our Sunday Visitor, respectively. If you found the reviews helpful, please click here and/or here and hit Yes!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Brother Hugo and the Bear and Brother Giovanni's Little Reward (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers)

Brother Hugo and the Bear is a charming hardcover book that tells the fictional tale of a monk named Hugo and the bear he encountered one day. Lent was just beginning, and brother Hugo had a book due at the monastery library. However, he could not return it, because a bear had eaten it. It sounds a lot like "The dog ate my homework" excuse. The abbot in charge of the monastery gave him the task/penance of going to another monastery to borrow a copy of the missing book and transcribing a replacement copy. This is a tough task to do, let alone in 40 days, so his brother monks help him. It is in this book that we learn the many steps that went into making a book in that day and age. There was sheepskin to be turned into pages, feathers to be turned into quills, and ink to be made. Brother Hugo learned a lesson about brotherhood and that many hands make light work. Once he finishes the book, he must return the original back to the other monastery, but the bear begins to follow him again. If you want to find out if he made it, you'll have to buy the book. This was a beautiful book that is equally entertaining and educational. I especially enjoyed the illustrations, as it felt like reading an older book with gilded and embellished letters. At the end of the book, you will find a historical note as well as glossary to further your child's knowledge on the subject of making books/manuscripts in the 12th century. Five stars!

Brother Giovanni's Little Reward tells the story of naughty children refusing to learn their prayers and a Bishop coming to visit. The monks are distressed, because all of them have tried various methods, but none have worked. Thus, they task Giovanni, the baker monk, with the job of teaching the children. He tries different approaches including being stern and dancing with them, but they all fail. One night it hits him! He will bake them a special treat to motivate them to learn. He thinks for a while, and he soon arrives at the design for the pretiola or what we know today as the pretzel. This treat is a hit and the children all learn their prayers perfectly! At the end of the book is a note to the reader that tells them that it was indeed a monk who created the pretzel, but it is not clear who or what country he was from. There is also a recipe and instructions for how to make your own pretzels. Cute story. Five stars!

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

Monday, September 7, 2015

Laudato Si

It has been a little over three months since Pope Francis released his encyclical Laudato si'. People have read it and misread it; interpreted it and misinterpreted it, but it has been anything but ignored. A big reason for this is because of the "Francis effect," which is surprisingly still going fairly strong. The liberal media still are trying to convince us that he is going to "bring the Church into the 21st Century" with women priests and accepting same-sex unions. To that I say, "Never going to happen!" We can also see their spin in their "reading" of this encyclical. They chose to focus only on the part about the environment, and completely ignored Pope Francis' message of human ecology, which includes respect for all of humanity the evils of abortion. The encyclical is not addressed to just bishops or the lay faithful (like most all encyclicals), but is instead addressed to all people. It is divided into six chapters:

1. What is Happening to our Common Home
2. The Gospel of Creation
3. The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis
4. Integral Ecology
5. Lines of Approach and Action
6. Ecological Education and Spirituality

There are many good points in this document that it is hard to pick your favorite passage. In one part, Pope Francis reminds us that the earth was here before us and has been given to us. He makes it known though that this doesn't give us the right to abuse the earth, but we must treat it as a gift from God, because that is what it is. Another part I particularly like was when he addresses our technological "progress." He goes on to list important inventions of the past two centuries and the good it has accomplished. However, technology has also given us "tremendous power" in terms of nuclear energy, biological knowledge, and information technology that can easily be used for evil. We must therefore use technology as a tool to better people's lives and not a mere distraction or superficial object for our amusement. The last part I will discuss that I really like is where Pope Francis talked about us not putting the environment over people. It is all well and good to protect the earth and animals, but not at the expense of people.

So while you can read this document for free online, it is quite long and I recommend you buy a copy to read and mark up, if you so wish. But which edition should you get, because nearly every Catholic publisher printed a copy? When it comes to encyclicals, I always get copies from two different publishers. The first one I get is the Ignatius Press version, because it is a beautiful hardcover and they have been publishing beautiful hardcover encyclicals since Pope Benedict XVI. Now, if only they would go back and print Pope John Paul II's also! The other version I get depends on which publisher provides supplemental material with their copy. Several did that this time, but I ended up with the Word Among Us Press version this time because of the study questions. The study questions proved helpful for individual and small group study with their release of Evangelii Gaudium, so I trusted that it would be the same for Laudato Si, and I was not disappointed! It's up to you which version to get, but my advice if you have the funds is to get both.

These books were provided to me for free by Ignatius Press and Word Among Us Press in exchange for honest reviews.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Silmarillion and Tales from the Perilous Realm (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Being a book reviewer, you don't always get to take your time and read books for pleasure. Sometimes you are under a time constraint to get a review done. Other times publishers you faithfully work with send you a book that you don't really want to review, but you feel obligated to. Sometimes, there are just too many books and not enough time. There are some people who are more successful at slowing down and only reviewing one book a week, and I applaud them for that. I haven't been able to accomplish that, and it's probably because I'm so greedy in wanting ALL THE BOOKS! Anyways, I'm rambling, when all I really needed to say was, "Today, I am reviewing two books I really wanted to review." Without further ado, here are my reviews for today.

I own several copies of The Silmarillion, but one thing they were all lacking was illustrations. I know that it's a more adult tale than The Hobbit or even The Lord of the Rings, but sometimes when you're reading fiction, you just want some illustrations to accompany what you are reading. The only edition I have found so far was published in 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The illustrator is Ted Nasmith, who is known for his Tolkien-inspired paintings. What's impressive to know about him is that as a teenage Nasmith mailed Tolkien some pictures of his artwork, and Tolkien replied to him! This correspondence and honest critique of his artwork improved his work, which led to him being invited to work on the conceptual art for The Lord of the Rings movies and providing the artwork for the first ever illustrated edition of The Silmarillion.

For those unfamiliar with The Silmarillion, it is divided into five parts. The first part deals with creation of Eä, the second part talks about Valar and Maiar, the third part (the longest one) is historical events before and during the First Age, the fourth part takes place in the Second Age and primarily deals with the Fall of Númenor, and the last part talks about the Third Age and events that led to the events in The Lord of the Rings. I particularly love the Creation account, but I'm a sucker for tales like this in mythology. The illustrated edition contains "the revised and corrected second edition text;" a letter written by Tolkien himself, which explains his conception of the earlier Ages, and a fold-out map Beleriand. I personally think the map should not have been glued in the book, but instead tucked in a sleeve so you could look at it easier, but alas.

So if you already own an edition of The Silmarillion, why should you get this one? For starters, it's a hardcover edition. If this is a book you plan to devote some time to and read over and over, you want a hardcover, so that it will hold up better. The other reason you should get this book is because it's illustrated! There are about 50 color paintings/illustrations in here by Ted Nasmith, and they will captivate you! I found myself studying those as much as I studied the text, and I kept wishing there had been more. So if you are a casual Tolkien fan who wants to know more or an avid Tolkien fan who wants a lasting edition of one of his tougher works, I highly recommend the illustrated version of The Silmarillion!

Tales from the Perilous Realm is like owning a set of some of Tolkien's lesser known works in a single volume. In this hardcover are his book of poems entitled The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and his four novellas Farmer Giles of Ham, Leaf by Niggle, Smith of Wootton Major, and Roverandom. Also included in this book is also a speech Tolkien gave entitled On Fairy-stories. The illustrations are done by Alan Lee, who has illustrated other Tolkien works, including The Lord of the Rings and The Children of Húrin.

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil contains several poems about Tom, several poems found in The Lord of the Rings, and other poems about fairy tales and whatnot. Farmer Giles of Ham is a fun tale about a farmer battling a dragon named Chrysophylax. Leaf by Niggle is about an artist named Niggle in a society that doesn't appreciate art. He is also a perfectionist, so he never completes the grand masterpiece he set out to do. Smith of Wootton Major was a fairy story meant merely to serve as a preface to George MacDonald's story The Golden Key, but instead became a standalone story of its own. Lastly, Roverandom is a story about a dog who is turned into a toy and goes on many adventures including a trip to the moon.

Each tales is beautiful in its own right and shows the reader that there is more to Tolkien than hobbits, elves, and dwarfs. So why should you buy this edition of Tales from the Perilous Realm? The main selling point I see for this book is convenience and affordability. At $28, you get five of Tolkien's under-appreciated, but exceptionally great works. It also means you only have to carry around one book, instead of five. The illustrations, for me, are not a huge selling point in this book. Alan Lee is a fine illustrator, but he is not my favorite Tolkien illustrator - Pauline Baynes. Therefore, I would give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

This books were provided to me for free by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in exchange for honest reviews. If you found these reviews helpful, please click here and/or here and hit Yes!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Unlocking the Mystery of the Bible (Ascension Press)

Do you want to study the Bible, but don't know where to start? Or perhaps the idea of embarking on a journey is daunting because you think it will take you years and you don't know if you have the time to commit to it? Never fear! Ascension Press has thought of you and has a study designed just for you. It is called Unlocking the Mystery of the Bible, and it is a completely revised and updated version of their previous program A Quick Journey Through the Bible! Jeff Cavins is still leading this study, thankfully, as he is a wonderful speaker, and the Starter Pack comes with the DVDs, Leader's Guide, Student Workbook, a Bible Timeline Chart, and a Bookmark. The eight lessons in the program are as follows:

1. Introduction
2. Early World
3. Patriarchs
4. Egypt and Exodus, Desert Wanderings
5. Conquest and Judges, Royal Kingdom
6. Divided Kingdom, Exile, Return
7. Maccabean Revolt, Messianic Fulfillment - Part 1
8. Messianic Fulfillment - Part 1, The Church, Continuing the Journey

The Introduction begins by telling us what we will learn in this study, and introduces us to the color code, which is essential to all the study programs in "The Bible Timeline." There are twelve colors in all, and I know without the helpful bookmark, I would not remember half of them. For example, Egypt and Exodus is the color red, which corresponds with the Red Sea. Desert Wanderings is tan, because that's what color the desert is. The color code is a great tool and one that makes sense with the associations. It's just that my memory isn't as sharp as it used to be. It also introduces us to the fourteen books of the Bible that will be studied in this series. Fourteen books might sound like a lot, but when you consider that there are 73 books in total, you are only getting a concise narrative of the Bible.

The DVD sessions are approximately 30 minutes each and each session is brilliantly outlined in the workbook. Additionally, there are discussion questions for small groups to answer. Thankfully, the Leader's Guide provides suggested answers, because Bible Study leaders (rookies and pros) sometimes need all the help they can get. What I really like about the workbook are the maps, graphs, and charts. Visual aids always help materials stick and seeing maps of Israels progression from north to south and back north really made some things make sense that hadn't before. This study does a wonderful job of explaining how the Old and New Testaments relate as well as the different covenants through salvation history. I particularly enjoyed the session on Egypt and Exodus, but I'm just a fan of that section in the Bible, so what's not to love? At the end of the workbook is a 90 day reading plan for the fourteen narrative books that this study was based on, so I highly recommend you commit to that reading guide either while you're doing the study or afterward.

So why should you get Unlocking the Mystery of the Bible? For starters, it is affordable at only $99.95 for the entire starter pack. Secondly, it is brief at only eight 30 minute lessons. These two aspects make it the perfect program for someone at a beginner's level of Biblical knowledge looking to advance to intermediate level. There's also a great promotion currently going on at Ascension Press, At the parish-level, you can run this study program for free. Yes, you read that right...FREE! Go to this link, and follow the instructions. Participants in the program will have to buy their own workbook, but this is a great way to introduce your parish to the Bible and help them progress from spiritual milk to spiritual meat! Imagine if every parish took advantage of this, we could set the world on fire with the Gospel. Then, after you complete this study, I encourage you to study another and another! If you are looking to go deeper in your Bible study, then I recommend The Bible Timeline for a more in-depth look at what you just studied. But if you are interested in a different topic of similar length to Unlocking the Mystery of the Bible then A Biblical Walk Through the Mass or Mary: A Biblical Walk with the Blessed Mother are also great choices!

This study was provided to me for free by Ascension Press in exchange for an honest review.