Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Book Review: O Radiant Dawn

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

O Radiant Dawn: 5-Minute Prayers Around the Advent Wreath
by Lisa Hendey
Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2012
It’s hard to believe but Advent is right around the corner. Are you searching for a meaningful Advent practice to bring more faith and spiritual growth into this busiest of seasons? “O Radiant Dawn: 5-Minute Prayers Around the Advent Wreath” may be just what you are looking for. 
Hendey, founder of and best-selling writer of The Handbook for Catholic Moms and A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms, offers a series of twenty-eight short reflections, one for each day of Advent. The title of the booklet comes from one of the “O Antiphons” of Advent: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, son of justice; come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” It is a reminder to reflect on the glory of God’s majesty, a majesty we often miss when we are preoccupied with ever-growing to-do lists.
She has designed the prayers to be used around the Advent wreath. As she writes, “The wreath’s simple circle of evergreens represents the never-ending promise of eternal life. Upon the wreath or in its middle we arrange four candles – three purple and one rose. The purple candles mark the solemn tone of the season and call us to wait patiently, eyes set on Christ. The rose candle marks our great joy as Christmas approaches.” While an Advent wreath is a beautiful symbol (with small children, my family uses a paper version), the prayers contained within this book can certainly be used without one.
The prayers and reflections can be used by individuals or by families. Each day offers a short gathering prayer, a relevant Scripture passage, a reflection and closing prayer. An added bonus is that Hendey offers a separate reflection for those with younger children. For those able and wishing to spend more than five minutes, the questions for reflection can offer much to ponder and perhaps journal about. 
“O Radiant Dawn” is truly a great gift in a small package. It would be a perfect devotional to make available in large numbers to parish communities. Those who use it will find their Advent season to be greatly enhanced, with the emphasis placed first where it rightly belongs – on the coming of Christ.

Can You Homeschool a Child with Autism?

Sunday, June 10th, 2012
In some ways I was fortunate. We received the diagnosis that my son has Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of Autism, after we had already been homeschooling for two years. Therefore, I never had to wonder if I could homeschool a child on the autism spectrum – I was already doing it! A diagnosis merely gave me more understanding and tools to work with. 

For those considering homeschooling a child with autism for the first time, however, I can certainly understand how the thought of taking on such a challenge could be intimidating. Making the decision to take the path less traveled and homeschool a “normal” child can be scary in and of itself. Homeschooling a child with special needs definitely adds some complications, but it unquestionably can be done, and in many cases, may be the best parenting decision you make for your child. 

Homeschooling the Child with Autism: Answers to the Top Questions Parents and Professionals Ask (Jossey-Bass Teacher)is a very helpful book for anyone considering traveling down this road. Written by Patricia Schetter and Kandis Lighthall, two teachers with Master’s degrees and expertise in special needs, explore the positives and negatives associated with this decision (the positives vastly outweigh the negatives).  A general discussion of homeschooling is included, as well as an exploration of different teaching strategies, transitioning back into a traditional school environment or into college and preparing for life after school. They also offer suggestions for dealing with executive functioning difficulties and managing meltdowns. They also interviewed several parents who are homeschooling children on the spectrum.  Schetter and Lighthall write:

Autism impacts a child’s ability to think and learn in a typical way. A host of challenges present themselves in a traditional school program, including sensory, social and communications challenges, along with struggles accessing the necessary academic accommodations. . . Families indicate that homeschooling decreases the external stressors the child is exposed to in traditional school settings, and it relieves much of the anxiety . . .Homeschooling allows parents to directly address the core deficits of communication, social skills, social understanding, and organizational thinking, while providing functional academics that are real-world and experientially based. 

Those who do choose to homeschool will most likely need outside help of some type – whether that be behavioral counseling, speech therapy, physical therapy and/or other needed assistance. Every child is different and the needs are different. It is possible to get the help needed and to incorporate it into one’s homeschool life. My own son has been receiving behavioral counseling for over two years and it has made a tremendous difference in his behavior and ability to function in the world. 

 It is also possible to arrange for appropriate social interactions – whether these be with other homeschoolers, who are usually very tolerant of children who are different in some way, classes at a library or community center, or other extra-curricular activities. Of course, there are also the very important social interactions that take place within a family, especially if there are siblings and grandparents involved. 

An educational program can also be devised that meets the particular strengths and weaknesses of the child involved. Those on the higher end of the Autism spectrum may need only minor modifications to a traditional academic program, while those who suffer with more advanced communication challenges may need to focus on practical life skills. The beauty of homeschooling is that there are an infinite number of options as to how an academic program and schedule is constructed. It can truly meet the needs of the child. 

Deciding to homeschool a child on the autism spectrum can be a difficult decision to make, and it isn’t for everyone. But, if it is something you are considering, it definitely can be done and done with remarkable success!

Book Review: The Aspie Teen’s Survival Guide

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

The Aspie Teen’s Survival Guide: Candid Advice for Teens, Tweens, and Parents, from a Young Man with Asperger’s Syndrome
by J.D. Kraus
Arlington, TX: Future Horizons, 2010

I picked up The Aspie Teen’s Survival Guide: Candid Advice for Teens, Tweens, and Parents, from a Young Man with Asperger’s Syndromeby J.D. Kraus because I have an eleven-year-old son with Aspergers. As we start to navigate those challenging tween and teen years, I need all the help I can get!

I read the book first with the intent of deciding whether I would let my son read it. In the end, I chose not to have him read it. This is because he is still very young in the whole tween/teen age range and much of the information does not concern him yet – he suffers from high anxiety as it is and doesn’t need to start stressing about issues that are still a few years away. Also, the author is on some medications to help with anxiety and depression, and he discusses this. While they have proved helpful for him and I know that they certainly can be of use in certain situations, I’m trying really hard to not go that route with my son, focusing instead on counseling and behavioral therapy. Lastly, Kraus is very intelligent in all his academic subjects, whereas my son has some definite struggles and I think he might feel pretty badly about himself if he compared his academic life.

However, that being said, as a parent, I found this book to be incredibly helpful and I would recommend it highly to any parent with an Aspie kid as well as any teachers who work with these children. It is always good to have these first-hand accounts of what it is like to live with this brain difference. I can’t be inside my son’s head, but books like this give me a window into his world.

A large portion of the book deals with school-related issues. After reading this, I’m more thankful than ever that I chose to homeschool. Bullying (by both students and unsympathetic teachers) is a major issue and Kraus covers it well, offering suggestions on how to cope and report issues one may be having.

The chapter that interested me most was the one on driving. I really wonder if my son will ever be able to drive a car. Kraus explained well how he tries to limit the stress involved in driving, and gave me some hope that my son may indeed be able to manage this with the proper training for unexpected circumstances. The chapter on dating was interesting as well.

Overall, I found this to be a very informative book. Kraus is a young man, so he doesn’t have the perspective an older person might have, but what he does bring to the table is the immediacy of having just been in these situations. His memories haven’t had time to be softened. This world is as real to him as it is to our own children navigating it. Anything that can help us understand how our Aspie kids see that world is of tremendous benefit.

Book Review: My Other Self

Monday, February 20th, 2012

My Other Self: Conversations with Christ on Living Your Faith
by Clarence J. Enzler
Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2010

“My Other Self: Conversations with Christ on Living Your Faith” was originally published in 1957. It has been reprinted as part of Ave Maria Press’ Christian Classics line. The author, Clarence J. Enzler was a father of thirteen children who was ordained to the deaconate in 1972, four years before his death. He is best known for his “Everyone’s Way of the Cross.” In the introduction to “My Other Self,” his children bear witness to the fact that he was a man who truly lived his faith. They write, “he was a model Christian, an outstanding Catholic, a defender of the faith, a gifted and skilled writer, a fabulous husband and an unparalleled father. But most of all, he was a man of God.”

“My Other Self” was modeled after “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis, but updated to include more modern theological ideas – for example, the writings of St. Therese, the Little Flower. Enzler writes as if Jesus were speaking directly to the reader, instructing him on the way he should go. In reading these pages, it is easy to believe that it is, in fact, Jesus speaking to you, inviting you to turn your whole life over to Him. He does not promise that the road will be easy. In fact, it will involve suffering. But, it is the only way to true happiness. Those who seek happiness in sinful pursuits will be bitterly disappointed, because such happiness can never last. “A saint is a person who is happy – forever.”

Enzler speaks of the need for surrender and detachment, prayer, and developing virtue. His directions are simple and straightforward, always loving and very practical. Enzler makes holiness seem possible, even in the midst of our brokenness. Every page of this book contains wisdom and offers much to reflect on. “My Other Self” is the type of book one should refer to again and again as one progresses (or perhaps takes a step backward) on one’s spiritual journey and is in need of encouragement.

There are so many wonderful quotes in this book (I literally took pages of notes while reading), but here are a few thoughts to carry with you:

“If you would be holy, surrender yourself to me.”

“I send you nothing that is too heavy for you to bear. Everything is fitted precisely to your strength.”

“You must faithfully perform all your daily duties, big and little, out of love for me.”

“Strive to love me equally in all things: in sickness or health, life or death, wealth or poverty, pleasure or pain, consolations or desolations.”

“Do not complain, but do not hesitate to ask the Father for aid to bear your cross and your sufferings.”

“Patience with me is simply trust in me. To trust me completely is the utmost in patience.”

“I require action, but I must have action firmly founded on prayer. The more you lead a life of prayer, the more fruitful your work must inevitably become.”

“Sin is turning away from your King toward some other creature, living or inanimate.”

“Give your present and your future completely into my hands. Accept here and now all that my plan for you entails. This is a great sacrifice, but it is also a great joy.”

The Santa Club

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

I know that some people don’t allow their children to believe in the Santa myth for a variety of reasons. My parents fell into this category. But, when my children were little, I decided to allow them to enjoy that magic while making sure that they were truly aware that the true reason for Christmas was Jesus. Belief in Santa Claus was only a small part of our Advent and Christmas celebration. They knew that Mom and Dad provided most of the presents underneath the tree but each year, Santa brought one. They also knew that they had to make or buy presents for other people. Still, that belief was important to them.

My mother broke the news to my children that there was no Santa last year – two weeks before Christmas. It wasn’t pretty. My two boys were crying uncontrollably and we made an extremely hasty retreat from Memere’s house that day.

They were certainly old enough to know the truth, and I had planned on telling them right after Christmas, but my younger son asked my mother and she had no problem at all dishing out the cold, hard facts of the situation while I could only watch in shock.

In a way, it was a blessing. She saved me from being the bearer of bad news. Their anger was directed at her, rather than me. And truly, they got over it rather quickly. Thankfully, they still had a wonderful Christmas and still enjoyed watching Santa circle the globe on the Norad Santa Tracker (a great geography lesson!)

Still, it seems like there should be a better way to handle that inevitable question. I think that Kelley Moss has found it. Sixteen years ago, her six-year-old son posed that same query to her and she was speechless. Thankfully, she was in her mother-in-law’s kitchen and the elder woman took over quickly. She explained about St. Nicholas and how he secretly gave gifts to poor children and families. When he died, others started a club to continue the tradition. This was a group of other secret “Santas” who went on to give gifts to others to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. She invited the young boy to become part of this club. He was thrilled to join, and the following year, when his younger brother was old enough to ask that same question, he was ready with an invitation to the club!

This year, Kelley Moss, a national speaker on “The Gift of Giving,” published The Santa Club, designed for parents and children to read together when the time is right. Beginning with the Biblical quote, “It is more blessed to give than receive,” (Acts 20:15) the book helps to foster generosity in children. It even contains a certificate at the end to officially designate a child as a member of the secret organization. The Santa Club has met with wonderful reviews, even winning a Mom’s Choice Award, awarded to those who create family-friendly media resources.

The corresponding website, The Santa Club, offers more information on the book as well as suggestions of ways to give.

Book Review: Difficulties in Mental Prayer

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

I recently had the pleasure of reading Difficulties in Mental Prayer: A New Edition of a Classic Guide to Meditaion by M. Eugene Boylan, O.C.R. Ave Maria Press has issued a new edition of this work which was first published in 1943. Obviously the world has changed a great deal in nearly seventy years. The Church has changed a lot as well, as has the way we speak about prayer.
One thing that hasn’t changed is human nature and the difficulties we can have with prayer. That is why this book is still of great value for those struggling with prayer. As Michael Casey, O.C.S.O. states in the Foreword of this new edition, “whatever the difficulties encountered by someone trying to pray, those caused by not praying are greater.”

Fr. Boylan does indeed emphasize this point. “Spiritual reading and mental prayer are as necessary for the life of the soul as the daily food is for that of the body.” When one engages in spiritual reading, one should always send up a quick prayer for help so that one may discern God’s particular message for that individual. A good example of such a prayer is “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” Mental prayer is thinking about and talking with God, “a conversation which may develop into ‘looking at God and loving Him.’”

One of the main difficulties in mental prayer is that of distraction. Our minds seem to wander everywhere but the task of the prayer at hand. Fr. Boylan offers a simple solution. “If there is something that keeps coming in as a distraction, let us turn that into a prayer by talking to Our Lord about it. . . The great way to convert distractions into prayer, and to change a bad or an imperfect will into holy determination, is to talk to Our Lord about them, just as one speaks to a friend.”

Fr. Boylan also speaks of the importance of orienting our whole life towards God in order to progress in our spiritual lives. “Prayer will not develop unless the soul is advancing towards the fourfold purity of conscience, of heart, of mind, and of action.” Unfortunately, all too often, “we want to meet God on our own terms; we want to make a compromise; we want to work with Him at certain times and in certain ways, but to put it crudely, we want to be rid of Him in other circumstances. That is just the trouble: One cannot get rid of Our Lord for a time. He is there all the time, and one either treats Him as a permanent friend, or else has a ‘difficulty’ in prayer.”

Fr. Boylan also speaks of the value of sacrifice and mortification. “We only put ourselves to death – that is what ‘mortification’ means – in order to clear the way for Christ.” He also addresses the argument of not needing to pray because we are involved in lives of service and our lives are therefore prayer. “Although all our acts can be prayer, they will not be so unless there are some acts which are nothing else.”

Difficulties in Mental Prayer is of great value to anyone seeking to deepen his or her relationship with God. At one time or other, we all struggle in our prayer lives. Fr. Boylan offers encouragement and concrete suggestions to help us strengthen our prayer and commitment to God.

Book Review: Come My Beloved

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Come My Beloved: Inspiring Stories of Catholic Courtship
by Ellen Gable Hrkach and Kathy Cassanto

When I was asked to review “Come My Beloved: Inspiring Stories of Catholic Courtship,” I wasn’t sure what to expect. I find reading “courtship” stories difficult because my experience of dating was so far removed from that ideal.

Yet, despite my hesitation, I found myself enjoying these love stories. Ellen Gable Hrkach and Kathy Cassanto asked a wide spectrum of couples to share their stories of how they met and came to the decision to marry. There are couples of all different ages, from different locales, and different backgrounds. Those who are familiar with Catholic writers will recognize the names of Sarah Reinhard and Regina Doman. It is a joy to read their stories. What all these courtships share is prayer to meet the right person before marriage and a commitment to live a married life centered on Christ.

That doesn’t mean these couples didn’t experience hardships along the way. There are times when the woman wanted nothing to do with the man at the beginning, but the man’s persistence ultimately paid off. There are couples who had to struggle with being from different faith traditions and long-distance relationships and exploring a religious vocation before committing to marriage. There is one couple that married after both lost their spouses.

This book is an enjoyable read for anyone who likes a good love-story (made all the more enjoyable because they are true life.) I think that it’s best purpose would be for teens starting to think about finding that special person. It would offer them hope and encourage them to seek to have a relationship rooted in God. This book gives me hope for my own children, that perhaps they can experience these types of relationships.

The School of the Family

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

It’s always painful to read a book that makes you feel like you have failed /are failing in every way that truly matters. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it. I felt that way after reading “School of the Family” by Chantal R. Howard.

Howard has had an eventful life. Although still only in her twenties, she was homeschooled from 4th through 12th grade, trained and competed as a high-level gymnast, lost her father as a young teenager, traveled many places, discerned a religious vocation, married theologian Peter Howard, S.T.D. , and has given birth to four children whom she is now homeschooling. Her story is truly fascinating and she tells it well and with an honest heart. She obviously experienced her share of challenges and heartache especially in the death of her father at such a young age. However, she also seems to have been greatly protected from many of the usual challenges most young people face. Her life was amazingly centered on God from a young age and she never deviated from the path. In that, she was truly blessed.

The purpose of “The School of the Family” is to emphasize the role of the family in the formation of children, especially their faith formation. While much of the book is about her own experiences and what they have taught her, the last chapter provides a “Family Rule” intended as a roadmap for how to live as a Catholic family. As Howard states, “My own experience has led me to the conclusion that adopting a rule of life is necessary to keep our lives ordered to the spiritual goals we wish to achieve. So, too, the family needs the support of such a rule of live in order to help fortify our efforts as we seek to live the school of the family. What follows is the apex of all that I have shared thus far, highlighting what such a rule should embody through the authority of the Church and the saints of our day.”

What Howard sets forth is truly the ideal. It presumes a family in which all members have a single minded purpose and focus on getting to heaven. It encourages frequent attendance at Mass as well as a weekly holy hour set aside for prayer and adoration, dedicating one’s life to Mary, saying a family rosary and reading the Word of God daily. It creates an environment in which prayer should be the first priority of daily life. It also requires simplicity and detachment from worldly goods.

Howard also provides special guidelines for husbands and wives and children. Her “Rule of Life for Children” is especially interesting. There is a tendency not to take children’s spiritual lives as seriously as we should. There have been several saints who were children and children are called to holiness just as much as those of us further along life’s journey. Howard emphasizes the need for obedience, daily prayer, penance, love of Scripture and of Mary, and adherence to the Ten Commandments.

So, then, what can those of us who fall far short of this ideal learn from Howard’s book? First of all, it is always good to have something to strive for. Yes, we are imperfect. We are going to come up short. Yet, the life Howard encourages is the one encouraged by the Church. I would suggest that the struggling Catholic family aim to incorporate one or two of her suggestions into their lives. Every step toward God is a step in the right direction. When those efforts become habits, then more steps can be added.

I think that it is also important to realize that, with the help of God, imperfect parents can still do a good job of bringing up their children. Howard’s parents were far from perfect, yet she obviously developed a deep love of God and her faith. She states that she learned from their mistakes. We do the best we can on this parenting journey, but it is a fact of life that we are going to screw up. We can hope and pray that God helps our children learn from our mistakes as well.

Our families are schools whether we ever thought of them in that way or not. Children learn much from how our lives are lived – both our actions and our words. They learn from our life of prayer or lack thereof, our commitment to, or disregard of Church teachings. What messages do we want to send our children? If our family school is not imparting the lessons we desire, “The School of the Family” by Chantal Howard can offer a starting point for some corrective action.
To learn more about “The School of the Family,” please visit

Book Review: “Angelic Tails”

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Angelic Tails: True Stories of Heavenly Canine Companions
by Joan Wester Anderson
Chicago: Loyola Press, 2011

Joan Wester Anderson, who has written several best-selling books on angels and miracles, was inspired to write “Angelic Tails: True Stories of Heavenly Canine Companions” after reading the story of St. John Bosco and his guardian angel “Grigio” – a huge grey dog that protected him for 30 years and never aged. In her research for her other books, she had come across many stories of dogs acting in “angelic” ways, but she regarded them with a healthy skepticism. She states that she came to realize that “the journey on earth is difficult at times, so our loving Father has provided many helpers for us. Friends, special teachers, gentle companions, and more. Some may not fit the traditional mold. But a furry embrace and a cold nose work just as well.”

The stories in these pages truly bear witness to the idea that God uses dogs to help us. One dog alerted it’s family to a fire that was about to start in an electrical outlet. Another appeared at a house and stood guard the very night that an escaped killer decided to camp out on their property. A lost toddler was saved because the family dog refused to leave her side. Still another guided a neighbor family safely home through a blizzard.

Our canine companions bring us love and devotion and companionship. It is possible that in times of need, they may also save our lives. After reading this book, you will never look at a dog in the same way.

Book Review: The Invisible World

Monday, April 11th, 2011

The Invisible World: Understanding Angels, Demons, and the Spiritual Realities That Surround Us

by Anthony Destefano
New York: Doubleday, 2011

In writing “The Invisible World- Understanding Angels, Demons, and the Spiritual Realities that Surround Us,” Anthony Destefano sought to “try to make the invisible realities that surround us just a little more visible.” To do so, he stays away from the anecdotes so common in most books about angels, demons, and the life after this one. Instead, he relies on “solid theology, informed by common sense and logic, and backed up by Biblical scholarship and the universal teaching of the Christian Church over the past two thousand years.” This is what makes this work such a valuable resource.

Destefano explores the role of angels and demons and why they continue to battle over our souls. Demons want desperately to hurt God, but they can’t hurt God Himself. Therefore, they instead try to “hurt that which bears the image of God. . . In other words, you do everything you can to hurt those miserable, fallen, and inferior creatures known as human beings. . . If the demons can persuade us to turn against God, that represents the only ‘victory’ they can ever achieve against the one whom they despise so much.” The angels, on the other hand, are there to help us. They “have a mission to accomplish – our ultimate salvation – and that’s what they spend their time focusing on.”

Destefano also examines the importance of free will and the choices we make. He also emphasizes the importance of putting God first in our lives. Even good things can be held up as idols. “If God is anything but number one in your life, then your priorities are screwed up – period. Knowing that, the devil’s primary objective is always to get you to set up ‘false idols,’ and thereby relegate God to the number two position in your life . . . or even better, get him off the list completely.”
The importance of pain and suffering and the incredible power of grace in our lives are also discussed in depth. Heaven and hell, personal and final judgment are also discussed.

Destefano is Catholic, but aims his books at a wider Christian audience. In his own words, “I try to take the CS Lewis approach, and write books which focus on those beliefs all Christians have in common.” Therefore, he does speak about the importance of God’s forgiveness but does not discuss the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In the same vein, his discussion of heaven and hell includes no mention of Purgatory. He does, however, encourage the very Catholic practice of “offering pain up” in order to help others.

He largely aims his books at those who are not currently practicing their Christian faith in the hopes of encouraging them to return. This being noted, “The Invisible World” is also of great value to committed Christians and Catholics. It will help you set priorities in your life and focus on eternal , rather than solely temporal realities. It will help you understand the importance of the decisions you make, and hopefully make better decisions as a result.