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A Romance and a Romp Through 30 Years


THE CHRISTMAS STAR, by Catherine Lanigan. Banbury Publishing. 317 pp. $16.95.

Reviewed by BARBARA BECKWITH, book review editor of this publication. She was raised in the Chicago area and graduated from Regina Dominican High School in Wilmette. If the heroine in this book were real, she’d probably have gone there, too, the same years.

ONCE EVERY 30 YEARS or so, Venus aligns with the moon to form a celestial event that may be what the magi saw in the sky that first Christmas. Two lovers see this celestial phenomenon on Christmas Eve and consider it a blessing on their relationship.

This romance novel by Catherine Lanigan, author of Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile, starts in 1965 with young lovers attending Christmas Eve Mass at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, and fornicating immediately afterward.

Susie and Tommy incur her parents’ disapproval just by dating because he’s a steelworker’s son from Calumet City on scholarship at Northwestern University and she’s a rich high school senior from Kenilworth. She gets pregnant; he flunks out and enlists in the Marines. When he gets leave from boot camp, they marry in a quickie civil ceremony in San Francisco. After Susie returns to Chicago, she’s thrown out of her parents’ house for bringing scandal on them. Tommy’s sent to Vietnam by summer 1966, gets involved in covert ops and ends up listed as MIA.

And here’s where the story really begins: how the families pull together, how Susie and Tommy survive, how Tommy struggles to recover from amnesia and how Susie’s faith in his eventual return never falters.

It’s an unbelievably corny story, but with the same sentimental appeal as An Affair to Remember and Sleepless in Seattle. Unlike those, it’s a 30-year romp through history, in a Catholic milieu which includes a kindly priest from a Catholic high school in Syracuse, who informs Tommy he’s not the man whose identification papers he carried as part of his covert-operations work.

Susie even lights vigil candles that are blue, “the color of Mary’s robes”—though Tommy points out that traditional artists could have been wrong about the color. “Silly,” she answers him. “Don’t you think somewhere along the line even one of those artists was inspired to tell the truth the way it really was?”

The patriotism that made Tommy enlist is similarly innocent—he gets goosebumps when he hears “America the Beautiful.”

That kind of charming innocence pervades this book. It somehow managed to keep a curmudgeon like me up until 3 a.m. because I just had to know how the story came out.

But I think The Christmas Star needed a better editor because it suffers from sloppy punctuation and spelling, inconsistent indentation on paragraphs, and major factual, continuity and believability problems.

This novel presumes Northwestern was on the semester system, but in 1965 it used quarters—and still does. This means exams would have been before Christmas, not in January.

How could a student go from the top of his class to four D’s and one F in one grading period? Students in danger of losing scholarships are usually given a warning and one grading period to improve their performance.

In 1965, the bus system in Chicago (CTA) demanded transfers in the Loop for those going from the South Side to the North, and didn’t go into the suburb of Evanston, the home of Northwestern.

How could Susie’s business of designing children’s clothing take off so quickly? How could both Tommy and Susie sail through college classes and, for him, law school? How could he, too, be so successful in his career?

Most of all, given the fact that armed services’ personnel are fingerprinted, why wasn’t his true identity discovered when this admitted amnesiac left the Marines or applied for the New York Bar, which also requires fingerprints?

And the music of the ’60s did not have a “Mercy Beat,” but a “Mersey beat,” a shorthand that uses the river in Liverpool to sum up the Beatles and the rest of the British invasion.

Despite these aggravations, I found The Christmas Star a fun read and a reaffirmation of the power of love and faith. The book was awarded Book of the Year Gold Winner for Romance Fiction at the 2003 Book Expo. I predict it too, like others by this author, will end up as a movie.

You can order THE CHRISTMAS STAR from St. Francis Bookshop.

GREAT LOVE: The Mary Jo Copeland Story, by Michelle Lynne Peterson. Quixote Publications. 249 pp. $22.95.

Reviewed by EMILY McCORMACK, poet, author and adult education teacher, who lives in Willowbrook, Illinois.

MARY JO COPELAND is a household name in Minnesota, and her fame is spreading rapidly throughout America. She has appeared on prime-time television with Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings, among others, and has received dozens of well-deserved and prestigious awards. Jim Ramstad, U.S. congressman from Minnesota, calls Copeland “America’s Mother Teresa.” Indeed, in their love of the poor, Mother Teresa and Mary Jo Copeland are soul sisters.

Michelle Peterson’s biography of Mary Jo Copeland is uplifting and eminently readable. It is made to order for a wonderful movie, especially now, when America is sorely in need of an inspiring true story.

Life was never easy for Mary Jo. Her unusually dysfunctional family caused her much pain as she grew up. Her grandparents reared her during the first part of her life, “shielding” her from outside influences such as childhood friends. As a result, she was lonely and felt unloved. Later, when she and Dick Copeland married, his parents never accepted her.

Dick and Mary Jo Copeland had a large family, 12 children in all. Added to the burden of this tremendous responsibility were serious illnesses, continual money problems and, at one time, even bankruptcy. Later, almost like a page from the Book of Job, Mary Jo suffered a severe, deep depression resulting in a serious addiction to painkillers. Biographer Peterson does not whitewash any of the story.

Mary Jo’s greatest asset was the tremendous love and ministrations of her husband, Dick, who guided her back to health.

As the years progressed and her family grew to adulthood, Mary Jo gained strength. More and more she became aware of the sufferings of the poor, the downtrodden, the dispossessed. Tapping into her own personal experience of what it meant to be unwanted and unloved, Mary Jo felt a special affinity toward those in need.

Mary Jo visited many homeless shelters and volunteered on a part-time basis. She became impatient with the entrenched bureaucracy she encountered. So Mary Jo started her own shelter.

Her love for the poor was infectious; “losers” especially were drawn to her. She attracted volunteers who were impressed by all that she was accomplishing and by the way she welcomed each and every comer.

More and more, Mary Jo was realizing the enormity of the needs of the poor. Their problems were awesome: drug addiction, poor health, homelessness, physical abuse, despair.

But Mary Jo persevered. People began contributing to her organization, which she named Sharing and Caring Hands. Philanthropists were intrigued and fascinated by this woman, who actually washed the feet of those who came to her in need.

Not all was sunshine and love, however. When Mary Jo planned to expand her home for the poor, she met strong “not in my backyard” resistance. She had to buck zoning laws, politicians and naysayers. But she continues to be an active friend to those in need. (Mary Jo and her organization were featured in St. Anthony Messenger in December 1989.)

Michelle Lynne Peterson, in a stroke of genius, titled this biography Great Love.

You can order GREAT LOVE: The Mary Jo Copeland Story from St. Francis Bookshop.

CATHOLIC CUSTOMS: A Fresh Look at Traditional Practices, by Regis J. Flaherty. Servant Publications. 189 pp. $10.99.

Reviewed by WAYNE A. HOLST, a writer who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

REGIS FLAHERTY, author of this comprehensive survey of Catholic customs and practices, sets out to help readers cultivate a deeper understanding of the Church’s spiritual traditions.

At least three audiences would benefit from reading this book. The first would be veteran Catholics who have long been part of the Church but consider themselves unfamiliar with certain classic practices or are awkward in explaining them. Catholic Customs provides understandable interpretations to such matters as the value of praying the rosary or the purpose of purgatory.

A second group that should appreciate this book might be called “the new faithful.” Some modern studies indicate that younger people have a growing interest in orthodox Christianity. The author is unapologetically a traditional Catholic. He suspects that many older Catholics like himself have failed to communicate to the young a commitment to the essentials of their religion.

Non-Catholics are the third constituency that could find this book helpful. While the author concentrates on Catholic themes, he is usually quite careful to suggest why his beliefs and practices may differ from those of Orthodox or Protestant Christians. Effective interchurch dialogue happens only when those participating are aware of what separates as well as what unites them.

There are four parts to the book. The first deals with living the spiritual life through faithful engagement with the Church’s seven sacraments.

The second accompanies the reader on a journey through the seasons of the liturgical year.

The third part distinguishes between sacraments and sacramentals. The former were instituted by Christ, the latter by the Church. The author provides informed opinion on a range of topics such as why families could benefit from the devotional use of holy water in their homes, or the difference between an icon and a statue, or about how experiencing the Way of the Cross can enrich one’s faith journey.

A concluding chapter deals with prayer in its many manifestations. Again, explanations are provided on issues like the meaning of indulgences, the significance of the saints and why it is still important to have a guardian angel.

Those seeking eternal verities will find them here. Those longing for change in some of the ways the Church understands and supports the Christian life might be helped to see that adaptations can occur in form, but not in substance. The author’s interpretations will satisfy some but not all readers, since his tend to be the classic explanations.

In times such as ours, it is important that Christians make the effort to understand their faith and its core values. Flaherty believes that many long-standing Catholic customs and practices have survived because Christ established or inspired them. Religious fads come and go. The Tradition of the Church, on the other hand, has staying power.

You can order CATHOLIC CUSTOMS: A Fresh Look at Traditional Practices from St. Francis Bookshop.

HUSHABYE BEARCUB, written and illustrated by Strawberrie Donnelly. McGraw-Hill Children's Publishing. 20 pp. $13.95.

PERFECT PRUDENCE, by Peter Harris. Illustrated by Deborah Allwright. McGraw-Hill Children's Publishing. 24 pp. $15.95.

PIRATE JAM, written and illustrated by Jo Brown. McGraw-Hill Children's Publishing. 24 pp. $15.95.

PRINCESS FIDGETY FEET, By Pat Posner. Illustrated by Philip Norman. McGraw-Hill Children's Publishing. 24 pp. $15.95.

A DAY AT CAMP, written and illustrated by Mercer Mayer. McGraw-Hill Children's Publishing. 24 pp. $3.95.

Reviewed by SUSAN HINES-BRIGGER, an assistant editor of this publication, and her daughter, Madison.

ONE OF MADISON’S and my favorite times together is reading at bedtime. Whenever we come across some new books to add to our rotation, it’s always exciting.

So when we were given these five books to review, we jumped at the chance—and weren’t disappointed. All of the books are published by McGraw-Hill Children’s Publishing, and judging from the range of subjects and presentation, they certainly know what they’re doing.

The thing that most impressed Madison about the books was the artwork. At four, she’s devised her own way of reading by simply explaining what she sees in the pictures. These books, with their wonderful illustrations, provided her ample opportunity to do just that.

One added bonus for both Mom and Madison was the additional reading activities at the end of Mercer Mayer’s A Day at Camp. The book is one of the Level Two books (Grades K-1) of the First Readers series.

This mom also liked the fact that the books provided stories and humor that she could also enjoy. The only downfall I have found, so far, is that my daughter now dances around the house proclaiming herself Princess Fidgety Feet. Even that, however, is a good sign that these books have made an impression.

I would highly recommend these books for reading to your children or  grandchildren, and look forward to future offerings from these authors and this publisher.

You can order HUSHABYE BEARCUB, PERFECT PRUDENCE, PIRATE JAM, PRINCESS FIDGETY FEET and A DAY AT CAMP from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

 

Book Briefs

Although it’s hard to find the time for books at Christmastime, reading can focus us on what we’re really celebrating..

DAILY REFLECTIONS FOR ADVENT & CHRISTMAS: Waiting in Joyful Hope 2003-2004 Year C, by Mark G. Boyer (Liturgical Press, 107 pp., $2), comes from one of my favorite authors, a priest of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Missouri. We always “wait in joyful hope,” as the priest says after the Our Father at Mass—but never more so than at Advent and Christmas.

CHRISTMASTIDE: Prayers for Advent Through Epiphany from The Divine Hours, compiled and with a preface by Phyllis Tickle (Image/Doubleday, 239 pp., $9.95, U.S./$14.95, Canada), renders the Church’s time-honored prayer for this season in readable form.

A MEDIEVAL CHRISTMAS (Ignatius Press, 28 pp., $16.95) pairs the words of the Christmas story in the Revised Standard Version with glorious miniatures—intricate in scale, radiant in gold and colors—from the Book of Hours found in the British Library.

CHRISTMAS PAST: A Novel, by Robert Vaughn (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 144 pp., $14.99), is the sweet story of a couple on the brink of divorce who decide to “Celebrate Christmas Past” with their two children in the Great Smokey Mountains with a group of 19th-century reenactors. The power of love reaches across time.


Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 1618 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-6493, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling. Ohio residents should also add 7.0 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.


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