Category Archives: Book Reviews

Meet a Reader: Shirley Plaag

“Meet a Reader” appears on the monthly book page of The Catholic Post, and it features someone within the diocese of Peoria who enjoys reading.  Here are the four questions I ask “readers” to answer: how you (meaning Post readers) know me, why I love reading, what I’m reading now, and my favorite book.  This month, I feature Shirley Plaag, a delightful young woman who is a fellow volunteer on the Behold Conference.

How you know me: 

I was born and raised here in Peoria and have lived here just about my entire life, minus four years of college at Franciscan University of Steubenville and a year of mission work at St. Gianna’s Maternity Home in North Dakota. I am currently a member of St. Jude Parish in Peoria were I work with a wonderful group of 4th graders every Sunday. I most recently began teaching religion to another wonderful group of middle school students at St. Mary’s School in Kickapoo. Last, but not least, I sell books at Lagron-Miller Company alongside the lovely Gina McKenna. When I’m not working or reading, I love to cook and bake. Just ask my friends and family!

Why I love reading:

I love reading quite simply because it transforms my life. After studying four years of Theology and Catechetics, I have covered a lot of ground in spiritual reading. God speaks to me through the things that I read by challenging me and calling me to a deeper conversion. My favorite thing about reading- whether it be a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the life of a great saint or the writings of the Holy Fathers- is that it is something that I can share with others to deepen their understanding or devotion as well as my own.

What I’m reading now:

 I think that I may have a bookmark in at least 10 books at the moment! I just finished Mystery of Joseph by Fr. Philippe, founder of the Community of St. John. This beautiful book sheds a new light on the Gospel accounts where St. Joseph is present and gives an intimate look into the life of the Holy Family. Scott Hahn called this book “profound and deep” and I wholeheartedly agree. In the spirit of the coming feasts of Christmas, I am also reading the classic Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol and Come, Lord Jesus: Meditations on the Art of Waiting by Mother Mary Frances P.C.C. Recently, I have picked up Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints by Colleen Swaim to share with my students.

My favorite book:

Choosing a favorite book is a challenge. There are many that I am passionate about, but there are two that stand out among the stacks. The first is A Serve Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken. This is a poignantly written memoir about the journey of the author and his wife from “A Pagan Love,” a love that is turned in on one another to a selfless love of the living God, Jesus Christ. This true story is full of beauty, poetry, joy, despair and honesty about what it means to fully convert our lives to Christ. This message is clear: there is no middle ground and there is no turning back once we have encountered Him. [The following is my favorite excerpt from the book, written by the author before his conversion: “How did one find joy? In books it seemed to be found in love- a great love- though maybe for the saints there was joy in the love of God. He didn’t aspire to that, though; He didn’t even believe in God. Certainly not! So, if he wanted the heights of joy, he must have, if he could find it, a great love. But in the books again, great joy through love seemed always to go hand in hand with frightful pain. Still, he thought, looking out across the meadow, still, the joy would be worth the pain- if indeed, they went together. If there were a choice- and he suspected there was- a choice between, on the one hand, the heights and the depths, and on the other hand, some sort of safe, cautious middle way, he, for one, here and now chose the heights and depths.”]

The second is I Believe in Love: A Personal Retreat on the Teaching of St. Thérèse of Lisieux by Fr. Jean d’Elbée. This book has changed my life time and time again. It is one that I go back too when I need to relearn the “Little Way” of St. Thérèse. This book, written with a great deal of gentleness and love has brought me through many trials in life and reminded me that I am a joy for Jesus because “His delight is to be with the children of men” (Prov. 8:31).

I am also a big fan of anything written by C.S. Lewis, Peter Kreeft, and Archbishop Charles Chaput just to name a few. But, I digress. I can’t write about them all. I must join St. John the Beloved Disciple in saying “were every one of them to be written, I suppose the that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

Meet a Reader: Andrew Bland, MD, MBA

I’m delighted to feature this month a local physician-leader and very busy person, Dr. Andrew Bland.   Thanks, Andy, for agreeing to share your love of books with Catholic Post readers!
How you know me:
Until August, I was a partner at Illinois Kidney and Hypertension; in August, I became the Chief Medical Officer at Proctor Healthcare.  My wife Melissa and I have three daughters; we attend St. Anthony’s Parish in Bartonville.  I also have the honor of serving on the Board of Trustees for Limestone Fire Protection District.
Why I love reading:
 Reading gives you a chance to look into the author’s mind and gain a different perspective on the world.  Reading relaxes me.  I love reading multiple books at the same time; it is like having ongoing e-mail conversations with different friends.
What I’m reading now:
Great By Choice by Jim Collins- How great companies and people survive in chaotic times.    Dear and Glorious Physician by Taylor Caldwell:  a fictional history of the live and conversion of St. Luke.  The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton: a witty and paradoxical book that examines the history of man and Christ from a Christian perspective in rebuttal to H.G. Wells Outline of History.  This was the book that converted my favorite author, C.S. Lewis, to Christianity.
My favorite book:
Mere Christianityby C.S. Lewis.  This one title systematically disarmed every single concern I had about being a Christian.  Until I read this book, I was lukewarm about my faith.  The quote below literally scared the hell out of me (I don’t enjoy visiting dentists):
“Now, if I may put it that way, Our Lord is like the dentists. If you give Him an inch, He will take an ell. Dozens of people go to Him to be cured of some one particular sin which they are ashamed of (like masturbation or physical cowardice) or which is obviously spoiling daily life (like bad temper or drunkenness). Well, He will cure it all right: but He will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if once you call Him in, He will give you the full treatment.”
I was not sure I wanted the “full treatment;” just an increased sense of peace, so I put the book aside for a time.  The compelling logical explanation of what it means to be a Christian brought me back to start the “full treatment”.
And this quote from Mere Christianity is likely my favorite quote from any book:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Meet a Reader: Rebecca Sitte

Many thanks to the new campus minister at Peoria Notre Dame, Rebecca Sitte, for agreeing to be my Meet a Reader this month
How we know you:  Originally from North Dakota, I moved to the Peoria diocese six years ago while working with FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students). Currently, I’m working at Peoria Notre Dame High School as a full-time campus minister, where I plan class retreats, start small group Bible studies, and offer mission trips. PND students receive a great religious education, and with campus ministry, we hope to provide more opportunities for students to truly encounter Jesus Christ and to see just how relevant He is to their daily lives.
Why I love reading:  Reading opens the mind and heart to new ideas and can help us grow. I’ve loved to read since I was a small child, and I still enjoy gaining new knowledge and new perspectives from different books. And it’s a great way to unwind! In the past couple of years, most of the books that I’ve read are about the faith in some way or another. I especially love to read the lives of the saints and to hear how God has worked in their lives—it helps me to see how He’s working in my life today.
What I’m reading now:  I usually have a stack of eight books on my nightstand! Right now I’m reading The World’s First Love by Fulton Sheen. I love the way Sheen writes—it’s engaging and insightful, and this book has helped me to see Mary in a new light. I’m also reading Interior Freedom by Jacques Philippe. It’s a wonderful book with practical advice on how we can maintain peace in our hearts even in the midst of exterior trials.
My favorite book:  My favorite book is the Bible. Even though I’ve read some passages time and time again, I still learn something new every time I pick it up! A few of my other favorites include Story of a Soul (St. Therese of Lisieux), God is Love (Pope Benedict XVI), The Lamb’s Supper (Scott Hahn), and Letters to a Young Catholic(George Weigel).

Meet a Reader: Corey Krengiel

I’m delighted to feature another seminarian as a “Meet a Reader.”  Our family met Corey this summer as he was one of the four energetic team members of our parish’s summer “sort-of, but much better than a VBS” program, called Totus Tuus.  Quick ad here:  if you are not aware of the fantastic Totus Tuus program, you can read a little more about it from its home diocese, Wichita.  I cannot stress enough how amazing Totus Tuus program is.  We feel extremely fortunate that our pastor brought the program here and it will continue in future years.  Thanks, Corey!


How you know me: 

I am Corey Krengiel, a seminarian for the Diocese of Peoria, and I’m originally from Lemont, IL.  I attend Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD.  If God wills it, I will be ordained in 2014.  I invite your prayers for me.
Why I love reading: 

I love reading because learning new things gets me very excited about life, and we should be excited about life.  I love reading books, and making them my own.
What I’m reading now: 

I’m reading Three to Get Married by Servant of God Fulton Sheen.  Archbishop Sheen’s wisdom seems bottomless, and he writes is such a clear and dlever way.  Hacing a good understanding of how God intended marriage to work provides an important part of a Catholic sacramental worldview.
My favorite book: 

My favorite book is In the School of the Holy Spirit by Father Jacques Philippe.  I am reading it now for the third time because each time I read it, I gain deeper insight into how to live a life rooted in God.  I also like it because it is broken into many short sections, making it easy to pray with.

Meet a Reader: Birgitta Sujdak Mackiewicz

This month I wanted to feature a “Reader” who had something to do with medical ethics, since my review this month discusses the need for loving, well-educated professionals in this area.  The person I know best in this area happens to be my husband, a Catholic moral theologian & ethicist; however, the prospect of nepotism accusations prevent me from featuring him.  I’m half-joking, but it is too bad, as he is a great reader, and would be an interesting subject.  In the meantime, I notice frequent mentions of books in the Facebook updates of my friend Birgitta, and thought she would be willing, despite being in the middle of completing her doctoral dissertation. Thanks, Birgitta, for taking the time to answer so thoughtfully the “Meet a Reader” questions!   My library request list is much longer after reading some of your current favorites. 
How You Know Me: 

I am the Director of Ethics at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center & Children’s Hospital of Illinois and volunteer at various community agencies. My husband Darin, and our son John, and I are members of St. Philomena’s parish. I am an Oblate of the Community of Saint John. 

Why I Love Reading: 

I have been an avid reader since the beginning. I can remember bringing home stacks and stacks of books from the library and bringing home the order form for the school book fair with nearly every book checked. I would be caught reading books inside of my text books at school or at home in my room when I was supposed to be doing homework. I used to stay up until the wee small hours of the morning reading books with a flashlight. 

A few weeks ago around 11 p.m. we found our three-year-old son out of bed in his recliner reading a book — the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree! I’ve found my self collecting and re-acquiring books that I want my son to experience as he grows up, especially the classics such as Winnie the Pooh, Paddington Bear, the Beatrix Potter stories, and The Chronicles of Narnia. There’s a secret stash for him and I wait for the right moments to cuddle up on the couch together and introduce him to my old friends! 

Reading is a way to explore new ideas and places without leaving the comforts of home, but a well-written book truly can transport you into another world. Reading also allows you to explore at your own pace, to carefully and even prayerfully reflect on a word, passage or idea. There are some books that present a true dilemma when you are enjoying them so much that you can’t put them down, but you like the subject or characters so much you don’t want them to end. Books like those I find myself savoring slowly. Books are also great conversation starters. I’m always curious when traveling to see what others are reading in different parts of the world.  I’ve been known to leave a book I’ve finished in an airport for someone else to discover. 

My Favorite Book:

Like many Catholic Post readers, I have various favorites depending on the genre, but here are a few particular books and authors that stand out to me that may be of interest to readers of the Post. 

Maurice and Therese: The Story of a Love. This is a collection of letters between St. Therese ofLiseux and Maurice, a young priest, that are presented intertwined with a narrative by Bishop Patrick Ahern to give the context of the letters. The book really made St. Therese come alive to me in a way that other writings by her hadn’t. If you have found St. Therese to be a bit out of reach this book will bring her into your heart. 

As for authors one perhaps not well known to Americans is the late Cardinal Basil Hume who was Archbishop of Westminster, England for over two decades until he died in 1999. As one who entered religious life as a Benedictine Monk and later became a cardinal his writings on spirituality and the human journey are simultaneously humble, profound, and accessible. Many of his books are less than 100 pages, but they are packed and draw you in to contemplation of Christ in a way that not many contemporary authors do. Of Hume’s writing my particular favorites are The Mystery of Love and To Be A Pilgrim

George Weigel is another favorite author of mine who has written numerous books including those about the late Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI, but his book Letters to a Young Catholic (which is for Catholics of all ages!) is a walk through what it means to be Catholic via stories, visits to sacred places, by engaging our various senses and in doing so brings Catholicism alive in a way that a historical or doctrinal account does not.   For example, he explores the death of St. Peter via his letter which considers the “Grittiness of Catholicism.”  The letter style allows the book to be read and shared in shorter parts. 

What I’m Reading Now: 

I’ve recently acquired an e-reader after losing a book I was reading.  Now I can pull up whatever I’m in the mood for without actually hunting for the book! It doesn’t replace the joy of holding a book in hand but is more practical for me right now.

I find myself reading a number of books at a time. I’ve just finished The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time by Jeff Deck and BenjaminHerson. Yes, this is a book about people traveling around the USA looking for typos on signs. If you’re an avid reader, a former Lit major, a teacher, or someone who wonders what’s happened to the proper use of the English language chances are you’ll enjoy this book. Interestingly, the book started as a blog — a sign of how technology is changing what we read! 

We’ve just returned from Paris where we climbed up to the top of Notre Dame and were wandering about amongst the gargoyles and in the dimly lit bell tower and I realized I’d never read The Hunchback of Notre Dame, so I’ve just started that. I was also recently inspired to read another classic I’ve somehow missed, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, after watching a documentary about the train. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is also in progress. This fascinating book is about a woman who died young of cancer.  Her cells which were taken for medical research without her knowledge and consent (as was the custom at the time), her family, and the medical advances and knowledge gained from those cells and the impact this seemingly small action has had on generations of her family and on medicine.
As for spiritual reading I’m slowly working my way through Light Of The World, Peter Seewald’s interview of Pope Benedict XVI. I find that I have to dose myself on it to give it the time it needs and to grasp all the Holy Father is trying to impart. Finally, I’m reading Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life by Kathleen Norris (who also wrote The Cloister Walk) which explores the spiritual sloth, apathy and indifference that is experienced by many at some point along their spiritual journey. I am fascinated by this concept which I have not often explored in contemporary spiritual literature, but I think plagues us all to greater or lesser degrees as we are faced with the demands of everyday life.

Meet a Reader: Dana Garber

I’m excited to be able to feature one of the many young people from our diocese traveling to Madrid, Spain for World Youth Day next month.  You can read the Catholic Post article about the ISU group here.

How you know me:

I’m Dana Garber, a student at Illinois State University in Normal, and involved with the John Paul II Newman Center at ISU.  I am part of a group called “Witnesses to Love,” that recorded a song, “Planted,” for World Youth Day (WYD), and I will be one of a group of 29 students from the Newman Center attending WYD in Madrid next month.

Why I love reading:

I love to read because I love to learn. Learning and understanding more about God and our Faith helps me to grow as a believer and to love Him more.  I usually get recommendations from my friends or family.

What I’m reading now:  

I am reading Transforming Your Life Through the Eucharist by Father John A. Kane.  This book has been really good because it explains the beauty and grace of the sacrament. I am also reading Benedict of Bavaria by Brennan Pursell.  I’m reading it so I have a better understanding of the Pope and his life before I see him in Madrid for World Youth Day.

My favorite book:

One of my favorite books is The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis.  This is more of a devotional book and is very rich.  It focuses on the interior, every-day life.  Another one of my favorite books is Practicing the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence.  He was a French Monk in the 1600s.  This book is an easy, simple read.  It explains in practical terms how our lives are a constant prayer and how to live that out.  I also love all Scott Hahn books; the last one I read is Rome Sweet Home, which is one of my favorites.

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.

Meet a Reader: Johnathan Steffen

There’s such a funny story to go with how I found this month’s reader.


The deadline for this month’s print Catholic Post book page fell during Holy Week (prompting many “Catholic” jokes between my editor and me), and I was really scrambling to get everything completed.  As usually happens, I seem to have some trouble lining up a person to be a “Meet a Reader,” and in my haste to finish my column, I had completely let it slip again.  I was at our diocese’s Chrism Mass, held on Tuesday of Holy Week at the lovely Cathedral of St. Mary, because my three children were among the students representing our Catholic school.  In front of our pew sat a group of young men, and they struck me as seminarians.  I thought during the Mass, I bet I can get one of these guys to be my “Meet a Reader.”  Turns out they were high school students (our family runs pretty short, and they were tall). 
But the idea of finding a seminarian for “Meet a Reader” had taken hold, so after the Mass I enlisted the help of a bolder-than-I, dear, and talented friend also at the Mass to help me find one.  She assured me she knew several, so we walked around the cathedral looking for a likely candidate.  We found the absolutely delightful young man featured here. 


Thanks, Johnathan, for being such a good sport and providing such thoughtful answers to the four Meet-A-Reader questions!  We will be praying for you as you prepare for ordination.

How you know me:  I am a seminarian for the Diocese of Peoria studying at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio.  I have been in seminary for five years and am looking forward to being ordained to the transitional diaconate on Sunday, May 22, 2011, at the Cathedral.  Before entering seminary, I taught high school English for five years and practiced law for 4 years.


Why I love reading:  Mostly, I enjoy reading because I like watching what an author can do with words.  Without ever having seen the 19th century unsettled prairieland of the Midwest, Willa Cather in My Antonia can place that prairie with its scents and colors and sounds directly in my mind simply by arranging letters on a page.  James Joyce in Ulysses can expand a single day with his words in a novel that takes a couple weeks of sustained and deliberate reading.  Truman Capote, Nathaniel Hawthorne, A.S. Byatt, and hundreds more all have special gifts:  keen description, shrewd commentary, textured characters….  Books are just wonderful places for readers to hide in for a while, and then reappear in the real world hours later with a sort of secret knowledge. 

What I’m reading now:  Currently, I am making my way through the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction 7th ed., a compendium of shorter titles from the American and English literary canons.  Short fiction—or poetry—works well for me during the academic terms in seminary since I am frequently interrupted with other classroom projects and don’t always have the leisure for longer works.  So far, my favorite stories from the collection include “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin;  “Death by Landscape,” by Margaret Atwood;  and “Heart of Darkness,” by Joseph Conrad.

My favorite book: I have never quite been able to convince myself of established criteria for determining what makes a novel a “good novel,” but if I find myself still thinking about the book, its characters or plot, months or even years after I’ve finished it, the story must have impressed me in some way.  

Of the novels I have physically laid down years ago but have never quite been able to put away from my own thoughts, two stand out:  Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet and Of Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham.  Jealousy is an experimental French novel that subordinates plot and character to the details of the world perceived through the obsessive mind of the jilted narrator.  Its genius is that while the author explores so thoroughly the theme of jealousy and goes so far as to name his entire work with the word, the story never once describes any emotion at all.  Of Human Bondage is a more conventional novel in form that introduces the reader to a main character who struggles with grinding poverty, finding his vocation, and resolving philosophical ideals, but ultimately finds that the most perfect patterns in life are often the simplest.

Poetry Friday, Beatification Edition: A Poem by John Paul II

I feel honored to be able to share one of my favorite poems from Karol Wojtyla, who became John Paul II, who will be beatified the day after tomorrow.

I had a nice time searching through the several books of JP II poetry I own, for just the right “one.”  I think I might have to post another one later today, there are so many that I like.  This post may end up being Poetry Friday, Part 1, so stay tuned.

This poem is from “The Church,” written at the Basilica of Saint Peter, Autumn 1962, when Wojtyla would have been in Rome for the beginning of Vatican II.

Marble floor

Our feet meet the earth in this place;
there are so many walls, so many colonnades,
yet we are not lost.  If we find
meaning and oneness,
it is the floor that guides us.  It joins the spaces
of this great edifice, and joins
the spaces within us,
who walk aware of our weakness and defeat.
Peter, you are the floor, that others
may walk over you (not knowing
where they go).  You guide their steps
so that spaces can be one in their eyes,
and from them thought is born.
You want to serve their feet that pass
as rock serves the hooves of sheep.
The rock is a gigantic temple floor,
the cross a pasture.

Meet a Reader: Father Don Roszkowski

How we know you:  I’ve been a priest of the diocese for nearly 14 years, and I’ve had a number of assignments, from Peoria to Clinton to Bloomington to Odell to my current post of pastor of St. Mary’s Parish, Metamora, and St. Elizabeth, Washburn. 

Why I love reading:  As many people know about me, I have a form of dyslexia.  Throughout my school years, I worked hard at remedial classes, partially to prove wrong those people who thought I wouldn’t do well.  Because reading was so difficult at first, I have a great love for learning and reading and finding out about so many things. 

My favorite book:  I primarily like reading theology, and I especially enjoy Father Robert Barron’s writing style and his analogies.  Probably my favorite book of Barron’s is The Priority of Christ: A Postliberal Catholicism. Another classic I really love is Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s Life of Christ. 

What I’m reading now: Right now I’m reading two books.  One is what I call a “popcorn book,” an easy read with a short reflection for each day: Spirituality You Can Live With: Stronger Faith in 30 Days by Chris Padgett.  I’m also reading Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week.