Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Have You Been to a World Youth Day?

Next month, I will be featuring two books that are great for young people going to World Youth Day or wish they could.  I would love to hear the experiences of people from the Peoria diocese who have been to a World Youth Day or are going to this year's World Youth Day.  If you can help, please leave a comment here and I will be in touch with you.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth" Reads Like a Great Song

My print Catholic Post column is constrained by space (unlike a blog!), which means I'm always hacking away at the many, many words I manage to write about the various books I review.

This month, I've decided to take some of that extra writing to share some longer reviews of a couple of the new titles I reviewed, to share more about what I love about the books.  Here's a little more about why I enjoyed Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth by Dion DiMucci with Mike Aquilina.


I’m too young to have followed or known of famous rocker Dion in his original “Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue” days, but he’s a “rock star” to those who love and know his music from the earliest days of rock’n’roll.

Dion:  The Wanderer Talks Truth is Dion’s spiritual autobiography, a fun book with surprising spiritual depth and gems scattered throughout the war stories of  rock’searly days and Dion’s transformation from rocker addict to faithful Catholic apologist, singer throughout.  Dion seems genuinely a seeker, honest about his shortcomings, and always pursuing the truth, and darn it, just very Italian (I feel confident about accusing him of this as I, too, am Italian, and I’m also married to one). 

My favorite part of Dion are the “quotable” short quotes that are great Catholic zingers, for lack of a better word. Yes, they are fun and memorable and truly Catholic, but would also make a great song lyric.

The more I changed, the more I became myself.

Humility is truth.

Relationships don’t end.

Love is a school of sacrifice.

The older I get, the more I’m knocked out by the glory of the truth.

Just like a great song, Dion:  The Wanderer Talks Truth is a great, fun read for these summer months, that also offers room for inspiration and deeper reflection.  Just like a great song.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Interview with Manga Hero author Gabrielle Gniewek

After reading the manga titles from Manga Hero and reviewing them in my June column I knew I wanted to interview one of the authors.  I had the great good fortune to e-interview with Gabrielle Gniewek, writer of the Manga Hero series:  Judith: Captive to Conquerer and the special edition, Habemus Papem.  This has been one of my personal favorite interviews in recent months because of her insights about writing, her newfound discernment of a religious vocation, and her love of joining East and West in our Catholic faith.  Thanks, Gabrielle, for your candid answers!

Q.  How did you come to be a Manga writer?  Would you say you were a writer first and then Manga creator, or the opposite?

A. You have to be able to write before you can tell the types of stories you actually want to. It’s a matter first, of being born with the capacity to write, then secondly, getting enough practice by writing annoying book reports or pointless class assignments, before many years and bad scripts later, you’re able to tell an entertaining and grammatically correct story on paper. It’s along the way that you learn what types of stories styles you like (in my case, manga and anime) but having that initial talent and cultivating it comes first.

Q. You’re a student of John Paul the Great University in California.  Why did you decide to attend the university, and how does its mission and vision help you be creative in this way?

A. I will be graduating JP Catholic with a B.S. in Communications Media this September.
My faith is the most important thing to me, so my parents and I knew that no matter what college I attended, it was going to be authentically Catholic. The only problem was that I’ve had a passion for movie-making ever since I was young, and at the time there weren’t solid Catholic media-major colleges out there. By the grace of God, the only ad JP Catholic ever posted in the Faith and Family Magazine reached our kitchen table, and about a year later flew to CA and began my education there.
Its mission statement was exactly what resonated with me and convinced me to go. To “impact culture for Christ” as JPII said, was exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to tell great stories on the page and on the screen. It was through the experience JPCU offered, and the amazing script-writing classes they provided, I was able to get a running start and progress much further into the world of writing than I could ever have thought.

Q.  Tell us more about Habemus Papem, that will be distributed at World Youth Day in Madrid later this summer.  What parts of Benedict XVI’s life does this cover, and how do you expect it to impact WYD participants?

A. The manga is meant to be a brief glimpse into the Pope’s schedule for the “average” day. A walk-through of what the Pope does from the moment he wakes up, to the moment he calls it quits. Through a few flashbacks (you can’t have a manga without the regularly scheduled sentimental or traumatic flashback!) the audience will also get a sneak peak at people and events in Ratzinger’s life that effect the decisions he makes today.
The story as a whole is meant to help the audience familiarize themselves with the Pope on a more personal level. I feel that story is what really draws people in through a catharsis that a history book or biography can’t stir up.

Q.  Will you be at WYD for the release?
A. I wish!

Q.  When will Habemus Papem be available in bookstores?

A. The WYD edition will only be available in Madrid for the occasion. We’re currently working on an extended edition that is similarly meant to make the audience sympathize with the pope on a personal level, by delving even deeper into his past experiences and life, and will be available in bookstores tentatively later this year.

Q.  You wrote on the Manga Hero blog that you are discerning a religious vocation.    Do you mind sharing some of your story with Catholic Post readers?  Do you still plan to write, and if so, what is your next project?

A. I’m officially living with the Workers of the Vineyard at the Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Fields (whew!) as a Pre-Postulant – a stage of discernment that lasts 6 months. If things go as well as they have been, I’ll don a Postulant habit for a year in November. After that, it’s Novitiate, Temporary Professed, and Final Vow years down the road, but let’s cross one bridge at a time, shall we?
I am living proof that God has a sense of humor. You may have read in my blog that the order I’m joining is Chaldean Rite (Chaldeans are Catholics from Iraq). They’re a new active order that serves in the Chaldean community in El Cajon, CA. One of their major functions is streaming liturgical content to their Catholic brethren currently under persecution in Iraq. They’re a powerhouse of activity, running a Chaldean Media Center, starting a school, and running retreats, among other things. For more information about the Chaldean community, visit their website (We’re always looking for donations to help the refugees, hint hint.)
I went through a rough time in life this past December, and I sought spiritual direction from a priest who taught philosophy classes at our school. What he said in those classes really impacted me, and I thought I had finally found a solid, brilliant priest who could give me the truth I so ardently desired, and needed, to hear. This priest was also, conveniently, Chaldean -- the spiritual director for the Workers of the Vineyard, in fact.
You can see where this is going.
After talking with me once, he asked me if I thought I had a calling to the consecrated life. One thing led to another, and four months later I moved into the convent and have been living happily ever since.
Yes I still plan to write – gotta pay off college loans somehow! After the extended edition of Pope Benedict XVI, I might be working on an online manga series. On the side, one of the Sisters and I are going to be writing tele-plays and screen-plays in an attempt to sell them to studios to make money for the convent.

Q.  Is there anything else you would like to add or wish I would have asked?

A. I find the majority of Eastern cultures fascinating, and am shocked that so many people are so unaware of, or turned off by anything that can’t be considered “Western.”
Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a Ukrainian Rite Catholic that Japanese arts, Chaldean culture, and all things labeled “East” fascinate me. Regardless, there is a vast treasure-trove of knowledge to be had, and information to be shared, if people only glanced across the border that divides us, East and West.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Meet a Writer: Matt Pope

This month on the book page of the Catholic Post, I tried something a little different.  Instead of "Meet a Reader," in which I interview a local reader, I featured two local writers, and why they love to write.  On the blog, there are not space considerations, so I'm able to feature the longer answers and my mini-reviews.

Today I'm featuring Matt Pope, author of a slim but beautifully inspiring poetry-novel called Emily's Verse.  The book is a little hard to describe--it might sound strange, a novel in the form of poems--but Emily's Verse is easy to read and quite moving, with a pro-life message that is well-done and powerful. 


Who: Matt Pope

How You Know Me: I work as a copy machine repair technician,  and write in my spare time. My wife Mandy, a teacher at Holy Cross school in Champaign, and I have two small children, and our family attends St. Patrick’s parish in Urbana.

Why I love writing;  I love writing because it gives me the opportunity to introduce potential readers to the pantheon of characters that are running around in my head.  As writers we see the world around us in a slightly different vein, we see potential characters and story lines.  This is the way of a writer and part of the reason why I love to write.  The other reason I love to write is because it is who I am as a person.  I have always been scribbling things down in notebooks for as long as I can remember.  No with the advent of the smart phone, my little notebook has been replaced, but the outcome is still the same.

My current book;  My current book is Emily's Verse, a book in poem form about the full, rich, long  lifethat “could have been” of an aborted baby.

This book had been bouncing around in my head for the better part of 2 years.  I really put off writing, EV because I was working on other projects.  My hopes for this book would be that as young women read this book as possible.  I would be proud if this book saved the life of one baby, but I think that it has the potential to save many babies.

What I am Writing next:  Since I have a 2 and a 4 year old at home, my next project is a book of poetry for little kids.  Little rhythmical poems that make kids laugh, and introduce them to God at the same time.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Meet a Writer: Jo Fredell Higgins

This month on the book page of the Catholic Post, I tried something a little different.  Instead of "Meet a Reader," in which I interview a local reader, I featured two local writers, and why they love to write.  On the blog, there are not space considerations, so I'm able to feature the longer answers and my mini-reviews.  Enjoy!

First is Jo Fredell Higgins, who has a long connection with the Catholic community in the Peoria diocese.  Her new book, A Song for Cecilia, is historical fiction located in Peoria, chock full of oral histories of longtime Peoria residents and local Catholic history.  I found the slice-of-life descriptions of places like the Academy of Our Lady, St. Bernard parish and other places in their early days charming. 

Who:  Jo Fredell Higgins

How you know me: I attended St. Thomas Grade School and the Academy of Our Lady in Peoria. I taught second and fourth grades at St. Cecilia's and third grade at St. Philomena's before relocating to Aurora, Ill. I worked with Msgr. Peters and Fr. Dietzen in 1963-4 before I left for ISU. Both priests were tremendous human beings.

Why I love writing: I always say I live in Aurora, but my heart belongs to Peoria so writing about Peoria is a love affair. I enjoy research at the Bradley Archives and also at the Peoria libraries. My childhood was spent at the Prospect Branch Library, the Glen Oak Park swimming pool and tennis courts.

My current book: My sixth book is titled A Song for Cecilia and centers on an Orphan Train child Cecilia Rose Delaney who comes west and is adopted by a prominent Peoria family.

My next writing project: I have already completed my next book. It is a memoir of the year I lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Its title is Souls: A Portrait of Belfast.  I will submit to publisher this summer sometime. I also write a weekly column for The Voice newspaper, a monthly column for Oracle magazine and do profiles for Patch Montgomery online newspaper.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy...

Here is my Catholic Post column for June.  Enjoy, and be sure to share your favorite summer reads in the comments or on Facebook.


During my growing-up years, summer meant a week or two at the beach, so trust me that I take“beach reading” seriously.   But that doesn’t mean books can’t be fun and nourishing to our Catholic faith.  Here is my annual list of great finds, in fiction and non-fiction, for young and no-so-young, to enjoy this summer:

* Dion:  The Wanderer Talks Truth by Dion DiMucci is the spiritual autobiography of one of the first (and first one-named) rock’n’roll stars.  It’s also a great read with surprising spiritual depth and gems scattered throughout Dion’s transformation from rocker addict to faithful Catholic apologist.  Dion seems genuinely a seeker, honest about his shortcomings, and darn it, just very Italian (I feel confident about accusing him of this as I, too, am Italian, and I’m also married to one).

*Wow!  Is my one-word review of Manga Hero, a Catholic publisher of well-crafted manga (Japanese style-comic books) stories on  Catholic themes.  I know I’ve got a winner when I can’t get the books back from our kids, who tore through the 3-volume Paul: Tarsus to Redemption and 2-volume Judith: Captive to Conquerer. 

Manga Hero’s founder and publisher is Jonathan Lin, a young Catholic who takes seriously John Paul II’s call to evangelize in all ways, even manga.  Lin plans to distribute 300,000 copies of a new release, Habemus Papem, at World Youth Day in Madrid later this summer.  Go ahead, discover Manga Hero ahead of the WYD crowd.

Three novels with specifically Catholic themes:

*For years friends have recommended that I read Junia:  The Fictional Life & Death of an Early Christian by Michael Edward Geisler, and I’m so glad I did.  It’s a powerful, well-done story of a privileged Roman young woman, Junia, whose life is changed by her encounter with early Christians.  Junia reminded me of the popular Louis de Wohl novels published last century, where de Wohl imagines fictional characters in the lives of saints like Catherine of Siena, Thomas Aquinas and others.  Many of his novels are now republished by Ignatius Press; any of those would also make excellent summer reading.

*Awakening by Claudia Cangilla McAdam is a time travel novel from the Imagio Catholic Fiction series from Sophia Institute Press.  I raced through this story of an American teen, Ronni, who finds herself in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ Passion.   Ronni’s emotions and self-centeredness are so realistic, as is the ways she is changed—and not—by her encounter with Jesus.

*Secrets of Siena by Diane Ahern, is #4 in the series” Adventures with Sister Philomena, Special Agent to the Pope.”  Yes, it’s just as silly as it sounds, and therefore, yes, this book is great for young readers.  Two kids have adventures with a spy nun who solves improbable faith-related mysteries in Italy.  Cute!

Three recent novels with more general interest, but also great for summer reading:

*For adults, The Forgotten Garden is Kate Morton’s first and best novel, a multigenerational tale spanning the 20th century with secrets, English country houses, Australian antique dealers, and early 20th century writers.  What’s not to love?  Even though the book jumps around in time each chapter, the book reads smoothly and as a whole.  One of the best elements of The Forgotten Garden is the complicated love between grandmother and granddaughter, ultimately providing the answer to the book’s central mystery.

*If you haven’t discovered the Penderwick family yet, you’re in for a treat.  Brand new and third is the series, The Penderwicks at Pointe Mouette, is Jeanne Birdsall’s delightful take on a family of four unique sisters.  The entire family will love these wholesome adventures about the best –and worst—of siblings and growing up.

*The Emporere of Nihon-Ja is John Flanagan’s 10th and last installment in the enormously popular 10-book Ranger’s Apprentice series.  Flanagan has championed all sorts of unpopular virtues in these adventurous stories, from honesty to servant leadership to courage and hard work.  They are easy to love and hard to put down.

What are you reading this summer?  Be sure to check back on the blog all month long for author interviews, longer reviews of some of these and other titles, and more.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

First, What are You Reading? Volume 10, June 2011

Here are my answers to the four questions I ask on the first of each month:
first, what are you reading?
what do you like best about it?
what do you like least?
what's next on your list/pile to read? 

As always, I hope you'll consider your current reads on your blog and/or sharing here in the comments or on Facebook.  Happy reading!

What are you reading?  

 Getting More:  How to Negotiate to Achieve Your Goals in the Real World, by Stuart Diamond, a Wharton Business School professor who teaches a famed negotiating course.  It’s a great book I wish I had more time to mine for strategies and ideas on achieving realistic goals.

A fun, six degrees of separation/Kevin Bacon I have with the book & author: When I was in Seattle last month for a family first Communion, I had the good fortune to have coffee with Pia di Solenni, the Catholic theologian and writer.  When she mentioned that her husband graduated from Wharton, I told her I was reading Getting More, and she exclaimed, “I’m in that book!”  Her husband had taken the course, and then used the skills to negotiate a vacation to India.  I’m not sure if that’s exactly a stamp of approval from a Catholic theologian, but it does make me feel pretty cool for reading it.

What do you like best about it?

Wow, where to start?  I think my favorite part of this is how Diamond counsels people to be transparent in their negotiations with others.  Rather than use hidden techniques to try to manipulate people into sales or doing what we want, he recommends letting people know what we want, our strengths and weaknesses, and work from there.  It’s fairly unique, but definitely suits my style better, whether in personal or business relationships.

Keeping your goals in mind is another great take-away from Getting More.  Diamond tells the story of when he was admitted to Columbia Journalism School, one of the top schools in the country, and then also got a job at Newsday newspaper in NYC.  He didn’t know what to do, so he called Columbia’s dean, who promptly told him, “Stuart, you go to Columbia to get a job at Newsday.  Take the job.”    Diamond writes this to show the importance of one’s goal—is it going to Columbia or getting a good newspaper job?  And then doing things to achieve the goal, not just things that seem to be good but may delay achievement of one's ultimate goals.

I’ve had the opportunity to use many stories from this book multiple times just in the last few weeks.

What do you like least about it?

The extra-long subtitles; there are two:  How to Negotiate to Achieve Your Goals in the Real World, and The 12 Invisible Strategies That Change Everything You Thought You Knew About Negotiating.  Yes, they are both truthful and relate to the book, but they are both a bit unwieldy (and at least one too many), in my humble opinion.

Actually, I believe I might have a future career in book titling and subtitling, as I have such strong opinions about this.  For instance, I loved The How of Happiness by psychologist and happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, but hated the subtitle:  A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want.   It sounded to me like something written by a pr person, not the author; when I said so on my blog, the author actually  responded and agreed she didn’t like it!  So there, publishing industry.  And I’m available for subtitle consulting. (wink) 

Otherwise, Getting More is extremely useful and a great book.  And so is The How of Happiness, by the way.

What’s next on your list to read?

After loving Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden, I’ve been slowly making my way through The House at Riverton.  Not because I haven’t loved it as much, but because I cannot seem to carve out time for fiction like I’d like.

I’m also working my way through the YOUCAT.  There’s another wow, and I hope to be reviewing it and at least one more wow book for my column next month along with a few other great new releases.