#OpenBook: November 2017 Reads

The first Wednesday of each month, Carolyn Astfalk hosts #OpenBook, where bloggers link posts about books they’ve read recently. I added a new category, Christmas stories, this month because I am all about reading Christmas novels and novellas. Here’s a taste of what I’ve been reading:

Fiction: Christmas Stories

best of all giftsBest of All Gifts by Sheila Cronin. Two Thanksgivings ago, I read Sheila Cronin’s The Gift Counselor, a perfect Christmastime read. In that story, we meet Jonquil, a young widowed mom who has carved out a unique job as a department-store gift counselor. She helps customers examine their motivation for the gifts they give, while advising them on good gift choices. Jonquil uses data gathered at work for her thesis so she can complete an advanced degree. Jonquil’s story continues in Best of All Gifts, in which we find that her work nemesis is assigned to be her assistant, her new thesis advisor seems to have it in for her (and she’s inexplicably attracted to him), and the father who disappeared when she was eight years old resurfaces. And there’s more: Jonquil’s son has a very scary health crisis and she just isn’t sure that Claude, the contractor she began dating in the first book, really wants to marry her. And Thanksgiving is coming. Read my full review.

christmas at gate 18Christmas at Gate 18 by Amy Matayo. A Sports Illustrated cover model tired of being objectified for her looks (but not tired enough to quit her job) meets a Hollywood executive when they’re both stranded in the Dominican Republic due to a late-season hurricane just before Christmas. I enjoyed the story. I didn’t so much enjoy the attempt at “chemistry” between the two that mostly devolved into Colt’s objectification of Rory. It wasn’t very explicit, but it definitely took away from the message the rest of the story seemed to be trying to convey.

Fiction

they see a familyThey See a Family by Amanda Hamm. Kay reaches out to her friend William for help when an accident kills Kay’s sister and brother-in-law, leaving their baby and toddler in her care. Kay and William had been friends for a long time, and both harbored unspoken crushes. As they navigate the pitfalls of caring for two young children and dealing with Kay’s grief, each tries to figure out how to reveal the feelings of growing love to the other — even as they cook up a plan to become a family out of necessity. Highly recommended. (Advance review copy received from author; book coming in late January.)

sweetbriar cottageSweetbriar Cottage by Denise Hunter. When Noah finds out his ex had never followed through on filing their signed divorce papers, he angrily demands that she set things right. Josephine, who admits the fault in both the failed marriage and messed-up divorce, tries to go one step further and deliver the paperwork to his remote ranch to save him a trip to town. Then the two are stranded due to car trouble and snowy weather, and Josie makes mistake after mistake as she tries to help the two of them out of increasingly difficult circumstances. Finally, when they find themselves in a true crisis, Josie opens up about her harrowing past. This is an intriguing story, well-paced, with lots of flashbacks and a loose end or two.

odds of you and meThe Odds of You and Me by Cecilia Galante. Bernadette “Bird” has less than two weeks to complete her probation for writing bad checks to pay for diapers and food for her young son. A single mom with a complicated history with her mom, Bird is trying hard to make a new start when she discovers her former coworker James, a badly-injured fugitive with a stolen gun, hiding in her local church. Bird must grapple with the dilemma of whether to help him as he once helped her, while balancing her job, parenting, her grief about some events in her past, and her difficulties with her mother. This book contains a few inaccurate representations of what the Church actually teaches.

surprise meSurprise Me by Sophie Kinsella. This author never disappoints — she puts terrific characters in believable situations, and she lets them (and the reader) feel just the right amount of discomfort. When a young couple’s doctor tells them on their tenth anniversary that they’ll probably live long enough to be married 68 years, they panic: how will they keep it fresh? But their manic, hilarious (and expensive) attempts to surprise each other come dangerously close to breaking them up. A fun read. (Netgalley review.)

YA/Children’s

Final Julia's Gifts Front revJulia’s Gifts by Ellen Gable. Prepare to be charmed! I loved Julia’s hopefulness, shown that December of 1917 when she spent nearly all she had on a gift for someone she had not yet met. These gifts figure significantly in the story — because she brings them to a war zone with her, in the hopes that she’ll get to give them to her one true love. Instead, she finds that she’s called to sacrifice them in ways she never imagined. This is a well-researched piece of historical fiction about a time period that’s often overshadowed by the World War II era. This was written for the YA audience, but adults will enjoy it too. Read my full review. (Advance review copy received from author.)

caleb and kitCaleb and Kit by Beth Vrabel. Caleb has cystic fibrosis and the burdensome care routine and restrictions that keep him alive are getting him down and causing problems with his peers. In the summer he meets Kit, a girl his age who’s pretty much on her own. The two of them form a secret friendship where they can both take a break from the burdens each of them bears. Beautiful novel for middle-school students, with a sensitive treatment of what it’s like for a young teen to live with a chronic illness — and for his family.

Nonfiction

tied in knotsTied in Knots: Finding Peace in Today’s World by Greg Willits. This is a book I’ll probably revisit again, with highlighter in hand. I appreciate Willits’ openness about his own struggles with anxiety and what it has cost him. However, I was distracted by all the personal stories and I know I missed the crux of the book because of that. It was too easy to get carried away by the personal accounts. This book begs for a second read, this time with less concentration on Willits’ own story and more on the advice he offers. The end of the book features a useful guide to the Rosary and the Novena to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots.

reading peopleReading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything by Anne Bogel. I love all things personality theory, so I was prepared to love this book. But it was really more of a beginner’s guide; I’d read many of the books Bogel used as resources for this book. There wasn’t much in there that was new to me, and I don’t think the book really kept the promise it made in the subtitle. I’d have called it “a beginner’s guide to seeing the world through the lens of personality.” Bogel spent a lot of time sharing what she discovered about herself with each form of personality theory, but there wasn’t much on what everyone else can learn.

PrintThe Peace of Christmas: Quiet Reflections from Pope Francis by Diane Houdek. The reflections begin with a gratitude-themed essay that is perfect for Thanksgiving and continue through Advent and the Christmas season. Each entry in this book is only a couple of pages long (so you won’t feel stressed-out trying to keep up with it) and has three parts: a quiet reflection from Pope Francis, followed by “A Christmas Reality” — a reality check from the author on how to live out Pope Francis’ teaching, and “Your Christmas Gift Today,” an action item that’s not something so taxing that it will cause you to feel you have yet another obligation on a day that’s already packed with things to do, places to go, and stuff to check off your ever-growing list. Read my full review. (Advance copy received from publisher.)

another place at the tableAnother Place at the Table by Kathy Harrison. This book about the plight of foster children in very difficult circumstances was written from the point of view of a foster mom. She’s very honest about her wish to be able to save all children who are facing extreme family challenges, even when she knows she’s spread too thin already. She’s also honest about the occasional error in judgment — which, let’s face it, we all make as parents. But it’s clear that she is operating from a true love of children and a wish to give kids who’ve had a horrific start in life a chance at a better future. Due to its sometimes graphic nature, this book is for older teens and adults.

catholic hipster handbookThe Catholic Hipster Handbook by Tommy TIghe is packed with plenty of Catholic inside baseball without making the reader feel unworthy. This book won’t teach you how to be a cool Catholic. Instead, it revels in what’s cool about being Catholic and invites the reader to revel in it too. Tommy Tighe gathered together 15 cool Catholics, many of whom you’ll find speaking and tweeting and writing and hosting Catholic radio shows, to help put this handbook together. Read my full review. (Advance reading copy received from publisher.)

Links to books in this post are Amazon affiliate links. Your purchases made through these links support Franciscanmom.com. Thank you!

Follow my Goodreads reviews for the full list of what I’ve read recently (even the duds!)

Visit today’s #OpenBook post to join the linkup or just get some great ideas about what to read! You’ll find it at Carolyn Astfalk’s A Scribbler’s Heart and at CatholicMom.com!

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Favorite Things, and a Wish or Two: Christmas Gift Guide

This post contains Amazon affiliate links. Purchases made via these links benefit this writer. Thanks!

I love reading gift guides. They’re a peek into what other people treasure. In case you’re in need of gift ideas, I figured I’d share some of the things I use and enjoy most. Unless otherwise noted, all of the items in this guide are things I’ve purchased (or received as a gift) and that I’d wholeheartedly recommend. There are a few wishes on there as well, because that’s just fun.

I didn’t include anything in the “books” category, because my book reviews are all over this blog, and there’s just so much space and time to write!

For your listening pleasure

oh hellos christmasThe Oh Hellos Family Christmas Album. My older son introduced me to this, saying he knew I’d love it. He’s right. It’s not even Advent, but I’m already playing this. Very homespun sound with tight harmonies. The album has four movements, each of which are medleys of familiar tunes. Play it on repeat — but not on shuffle, since it tells a story. My only complaint? I wish it were longer!

anna nuzzo be loveAnna Nuzzo: Be Love. If you didn’t discover this in 2014 when it came out, be ready to enjoy it now! Subtitled “Songs of Faith, Hope & Love,” this album has my very favorite Anna Nuzzo hymn: “Memorare.” The music is very peaceful and prayerful, with simple piano accompaniment.

TSO Christmas EveTrans-Siberian Orchestra: Christmas Eve and Other Stories. This is the album we cue up every year when we decorate the Christmas tree. I can’t help but conduct an imaginary orchestra during some of the more dramatic pieces. (No, I will not put that on Facebook Live.)

CD Christmas CDA Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. This is my daughter’s favorite study music during final exams. It’s also just about the only jazz I’m willing to listen to. Enjoy this as background music during Christmas dinner.

Movie Time!

CB ChristmasA Charlie Brown Christmas, because it’s not Christmas without watching this one. Who doesn’t love Snoopy’s doghouse decorations and Linus’ creativity in turning his blanket into a costume? And then there’s the best moment in any Christmas movie ever: “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

grinchDr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It must be this version — the one with Boris Karloff singing, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” My favorite moments? Anything involving Max — watch his facial expressions. They’re priceless. And I’d love to learn the song the Whos sing, even after they find that their Christmas gifts and decorations have been stolen.

wonderful lifeIt’s a Wonderful Life: the ultimate Christmas romance. Yes, I said romance. When Jimmy Stewart promises to lasso the moon … I do love this movie. George Bailey seems so real, and you really want things to turn out well for him and his family. This version offers both black & white and colorized versions of this iconic holiday movie.

year without a santaThe Year Without a Santa Claus. I’m including this one because it’s my husband’s favorite. Always a weather buff (even before he majored in meteorology in college) he gets the biggest kick out of the Heat Miser and Snow Miser. We still watch this one every single year, just because it’s fun.

last holidayLast Holiday. Not really a Christmas movie but my daughter and I enjoy this sweet rom-com every year during Christmas vacation. Here’s the story: Cautious Georgia learns she has only a few weeks to live, so she cashes in her carefully-saved retirement funds and decides to take her dream trip to a European resort. Meanwhile, the shy coworker who’d been crushing on her doesn’t want to let her slip away.

christmas vacation dvdNational Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Not for the kids, but oh, so funny. Our family tradition is to watch this one either on the day when Clark Hubs hangs up the outdoor lights or on his last day of work for the calendar year. We know half the lines and laugh at the jokes and gags before they even happen. There’s a little bit of Clark in all of us at Christmas, and watching this movie is a good way to get rid of some of that tension.

In the Kitchen

instant potInstant Pot 6-qt 7-in-1. This is the model I have. I’m still learning how to use it, but so far I’ve had good success with it. The sauté function is terrific for browning roasts before slow-cooking or pressure-cooking them, and this appliance makes it easier to cook potatoes for mashed potatoes (and you can mash them right in the cooking insert!)

oggi utensil holderOGGI utensil holder. I’m short on drawer space in my kitchen, but I have more wooden spoons, spatulas, and other utensils than anyone reasonably needs. This stainless-steel utensil holder accommodates an awful lot of my tools, is easy to clean, and looks pretty on the countertop, too. It measures 7 inches in diameter, and it’s heavy enough that it won’t tip over even if you have a lot of whisks and ladles hanging over the edge.

cuisinart chef's classic 7 pcCuisinart Chef’s Classic cookware. I purchased this cookware two years ago to replace some worn-out Farberware, and I never looked back. It’s dishwasher-safe, oven-safe to 500°, and the pots feature tapered rims for easy pouring.

nordic ware sheet panSheet pans, because sheet-pan cooking is a thing and you can never have enough of them! I’m a fan of these made-in-USA NordicWare half-sheet pans. I use them for cookies, roasting vegetables, and sheet-pan cooking — plus they make great trays in a pinch! I also have a couple of the quarter-sheet size. Sometimes I’ll have one half-sheet and two quarter-sheet pans in the oven all at once. Cover in foil for easy cleanup.

Drink Up

aeropressAeropress. Make individual cups of coffee quickly and without a lot of mess. You can adjust the brew time to customize the taste of your coffee. These are easy to use, easy to clean and don’t take up a lot of space on the counter. If, like me, you don’t have a large kitchen, this is a big consideration!

marhet coffee frotherMilk frother. This Marhet frother is about the third one I’ve tried and it’s lasted longer than the others. I heat the milk in the microwave, froth it, and then add coffee for a fake “latte” that makes a nice treat. I usually replace the batteries once a month if I use the frother daily.

swell bottleS’well bottles really do keep beverages cold; I’ve had ice cubes last 24 hours in it! My daughter gave me one of these for Christmas last year. I’ll drink water if it’s icy cold, and I carry this bottle around with me everywhere. These bottles look nice and are easy to clean.

pop up straw capThe only thing I didn’t like about the S’well bottle is the cap. The screw top had no handle, so it wasn’t easy to carry the bottle around, and it required two hands to open the bottle and drink. I discovered this Iconiq Pop-Up Straw Cap that fits the S’well bottle. I can slide one finger through the loop and tote that bottle around even with full hands. It’s easy to flip the top up to drink.

Gadgets and Fun Stuff

Kindle Paperwhite. This is my second Kindle. I have a tablet with the Kindle app, but the Paperwhite’s lighting is much easier on my eyes. Being able to change the lighting as well as the font size is a game-changer, and since the Paperwhite isn’t backlit, it’s easy to use outdoors even in full sun.

bluetooth earbudsBluetooth earbuds. It’s nice having earbuds that are not tethered to your phone with a cord; I always got tangled up with that! These are great for walking and comfortable to wear. They recharge pretty quickly too.

pencil wrapA pencil wrap that holds up to 72 colored pencils, gel ink pens or markers is great for the coloring-book fan. I bought this one because I liked the way it looks, and that it folds up to about the size of a paperback book. It doesn’t come with pencils, so make sure you fill it!

staedtler triplusStaedtler Triplus Fineliners are my new favorite pens, and they come in a terrific range of colors. They don’t bleed through most paper and they dry very quickly, so they’re almost smear-proof.

This sturdy Baggalini hobo tote is great for travel or just running errands. It has pockets on both sides as well as front and back, and a key fob on the inside as well as a small change purse. I have it in charcoal (like you see here) but it comes in tons of colors. Mine is bright pink on the inside, which is nice because you can see things in it — they don’t get lost at the dark bottom of the purse. This bag is big enough to hold an iPad Mini either inside or in the front pocket, and my S’well bottle fits in the side pocket.

Fill the Stockings with Socks!

 These are my favorite socks–they’re so soft and comfortable. They’re a little higher than a crew sock; perfect for booties if you like wearing those. They’re all-cotton but have that ragg pattern like many wool socks, so if you like this look but don’t like itchy socks, these are for you!

I also like these fun patterned socks. I already own a set of these Flora & Fred Nordic-patterned socks, but I wish-listed the pattern pictured here too! These are a thinner and slightly shorter sock, great with a dressier shoe or loafer and super cute.

For the Kids

playmobil nativityPlaymobil Nativity Set. Let your kids play with this Nativity set! They can arrange the figures and animals however they like. If your kids are anything like my kids, the Fisher-Price School Bus will arrive at the manger for a field trip … but that’s fine!

wits and wagersWits & Wagers is a fun party game that mixes trivia with bets to see which person has the right answer — which is always a number. You can win the game without even getting one question right! It’s quick to play, too. There are other editions of this game, but this Family Edition is fun for kids and grownups.

Advent Wreaths

These are in the “wish” category. We have an Advent wreath that has been in Hubs’ family since he was a kid — so we’ll never get rid of that. The plastic greenery is getting kind of tired, and I’ve tried to spiff it up by adding a few embellishments. That’s probably the best I can do. But since a girl can dream, I like these three …

journey to bethlehem wreathJourney to Bethlehem Advent wreath — this is a very pretty Advent wreath. I like how they show it filled with ornaments on the inside; I’d never considered doing that, but it looks lovely.

anticipation advent wreathAnticipation Advent wreath — this one is carved wood. Love the look!

believe holy family advent wreathBelieve Holy Family Advent wreath — this is so cute!

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Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz

On Barb’s Bookshelf: Best of All Gifts

I’m all about the Christmas novel (and novella). Follow me on Goodreads in the fall and winter and you’ll see that a big chunk of my fiction reading falls straight into the holiday-read category. There’s no shame in that; these are light reads, with sweet stories that pair perfectly with a white-chocolate mocha, fuzzy socks and a warm blanket.

Two Thanksgivings ago, I read Sheila Cronin’s The Gift Counselor, a perfect Christmastime read. In that story, we meet Jonquil, a young widowed mom who has carved out a unique job as a department-store gift counselor. She helps customers examine their motivation for the gifts they give, while advising them on good gift choices. Jonquil uses data gathered at work for her thesis so she can complete an advanced degree.

best of all gifts

Jonquil’s story continues in Best of All Gifts, which is just the right novel to enjoy now — at Thanksgiving time. Jonquil’s work nemesis is assigned to be her assistant, her new thesis advisor seems to have it in for her (and she’s inexplicably attracted to him), and the father who disappeared when she was eight years old resurfaces. And there’s more: Jonquil’s son has a very scary health crisis and she just isn’t sure that Claude, the contractor she began dating in the first book, really wants to marry her. And Thanksgiving is coming.

My favorite character from The Gift Counselor, Rita, doesn’t get very much face time in this story, but we do get to meet Jonquil’s grandmother, who is lovable and wise.

Grab a cup of tea and a slice of pumpkin pie and savor this well-told story. You’ll love Best of All Gifts.

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Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz
This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

On Barb’s Bookshelf: Catholic Fun from Ave Maria Press

Barb's Book shelf blog title

Celebrate the fun of being Catholic with two clever offerings from Ave Maria Press.

Tommy Tighe’s Catholic Hipster Handbook reminded me of what I love about handbooks.

True confession: when I was in high school, The Preppy Handbook came out. My high school was preppy long before Lisa Birnbach told the rest of us how to imitate the real deal, complete with detailed drawings of what to wear for all occasions. I studied that book relentlessly, though it was clear from the subtext that as alligator-logo shirts and Weejuns weren’t in my budget, I wasn’t worthy to be among those who were to the manor born.

The Catholic Hipster Handbook is packed with plenty of Catholic inside baseball without making the reader feel unworthy. This book won’t teach you how to be a cool Catholic. Instead, it revels in what’s cool about being Catholic and invites the reader to revel in it too.

Tommy Tighe gathered together 15 cool Catholics, many of whom you’ll find speaking and tweeting and writing and hosting Catholic radio shows, to help put this handbook together. One of my favorite essays was Tommy’s own “Take a fresh look at that rosary” which encouraged readers to explore other forms of the rosary and chaplets. I’d add the Franciscan Crown to Tommy’s list of rosary-based prayer alternatives. Lisa Hendey details the must-have apps: I love the way she uses Evernote! And Anna Mitchell’s essay on the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) is excellent as well. And and and …

This isn’t a book you need to read start-to-finish. Skip around. Open at random. The only thing this book doesn’t have (that I wish it did) is a detailed table of contents that includes the title of each essay. In a book of this nature, that would have been very helpful.

Who should read it: anyone who’s into history, trivia, and great stories — and who possesses a healthy sense of humor.

Speaking of trivia, reading The Catholic Hipster Handbook will prove very handy when you open up Catholic Puzzles, Word Games, and Brainteasers. (It’s not cheating if you read the Handbook before you do the puzzles! It’s priming your brain!)

Matt Swaim included puzzles of all kinds in Catholic Puzzles. If crosswords aren’t your thing, there are plenty of anagrams, code scrambles, word-link puzzles, and more. Do you like a challenge? Try the word search with missing vowels.

Some of the puzzles are quick to complete, like “Misspelled Books of the Bible” (of course I did this one first!) and “Scrambled Partner Saints.” Others, such as “Alphabet Fill-Ins,” will take a while.

When you’ve filled in all the blanks in Catholic Puzzles, Word Games, and Brainteasers, you’ll be relieved to note that there’s a Volume 2 with even more Catholic-puzzle fun.

Who will love it: teachers, youth-group leaders, and anyone who enjoys puzzles! Pair it with a pack of mechanical pencils for a terrific gift.


Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz
This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

On Barb’s Bookshelf: Julia’s Gifts

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When you open up Ellen Gable’s newest novel, Julia’s Gifts, prepare to be charmed.

As you continue reading, prepare to weep a little — and smile a little more.

Julia’s Gifts begins in Philadelphia during World War I, but the scene quickly shifts to France as the plucky twenty-year-old protagonist gamely makes her way to the battlefront to serve in a field hospital.

Before crossing the Atlantic, however, Julia is busy purchasing Christmas gifts for her family. Years before, when her mother suggested that she begin to pray for her future spouse, Julia decided to take things one step further and make or purchase a Christmas gift for her beloved each year. She already has two pairs of hand-knit socks, plus a leather-bound pocket notebook,  stashed away; this year, determined that this will be the year she meets her beloved, she overspends on a beautiful engraved pocket watch.

I loved Julia’s hopefulness, shown that December of 1917 when she spent nearly all she had on a gift for someone she had not yet met. These gifts figure significantly in the story — because she brings them to a war zone with her, in the hopes that she’ll get to give them to her one true love. Instead, she finds that she’s called to sacrifice them in ways she never imagined.

 

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Because I enjoyed Julia’s story so much, I was happy to learn that this is the first of a trilogy called “Great War Great Love.” Here’s what you can expect from the next two books:

Charlotte’s Honor is Book #2 and takes place at approximately the same time as Julia’s Gifts, but focuses on a different female protagonist, Charlotte, who finds her purpose in life when she begins working in the death ward and holding men’s hands as they die.  She is attracted to Canadian Dr. Paul Kilgallen. During an advance by the enemy, everyone at the field hospital evacuates, except for Charlotte and Dr. K.  They remain hidden in the basement of the chateau to take care of the terminally ill men and those soldiers who can’t be moved. Charlotte becomes convinced that Paul is her own “beloved.” But when she loses contact with Paul, she fears not only for his safety, but begins to doubt his love for her.  Charlotte’s Honor will be released in late 2018.

Ella’s Promise is Book #3 in the series. It is about the daughter of German immigrants, Ella, an American nurse who (because of the time period) was discouraged from continuing on in her studies to be a doctor.  She works as a nurse for three years in Philadelphia but reads medical books every opportunity she gets. During the Great War, she travels to Le Treport, France to work at the American-run hospital. She meets her own beloved in the last place she would expect to meet him.  Ella’s Promise will be released in mid-2019.

Julia’s Gifts is written for a YA audience and will appeal to young teen readers as well as adults. Be assured that while it is a historical romance, it is a “clean romance” and you can feel safe handing it to your daughters to enjoy — as long as they have the stomach for the inevitable description of war injuries.

Read the first few pages:

December 17, 1917

The bustling streets of Center City Philadelphia shimmered with electric lights, heralding that Christmas was near. Julia Marie Murphy lifted her head and gazed upward. The night sky was filled with snow clouds, the air brisk. She pulled on her gloves and buttoned the top of her coat. Her thoughts turned to her future husband. Dear God in heaven, please protect my beloved.

Tens of thousands of American men had already enlisted to fight in this “Great War.” The gentlemen that Julia knew seemed anxious to join, and Julia thanked God that her three brothers were too young to fight.

In a few short weeks, it would be 1918.  All of her father’s friends and acquaintances expected the war to end soon, hopefully before the middle of the year.  But 1918 held far more significance for Julia.  This would be the year that she would turn 21.

She approached Lit Brothers department store, admiring the display windows that were outlined with colored electric lights. Julia was thankful that it was Monday. If it were Thursday, the ban on electric lights (in support of the war effort) would mean the windows would be dark.

Julia stared, transfixed, through the window at the tall display. Shimmery red fabric hung from a back wall, a beautiful sterling silver pocket watch lay on top of a cylindrical pedestal.  Her eyes widened when she saw the price tag: $12.25, almost 20 percent of her annual salary. But it was beautiful and every man needed one. The price notwithstanding, this would be a perfect gift for her beloved. Yes, it was extravagant, especially during wartime. Yes, there were less expensive items she could purchase. It didn’t matter. This was the ideal gift.

After purchasing it, she took it to the engraving department on the second floor. Behind the counter, the tall, lanky middle-aged man with a handlebar mustache smiled. “What would you like engraved on this?”

“To my beloved, next line, all my love, Julia.”

His eyebrows lifted.  “I’m certain the gentleman would prefer to have his Christian name engraved on this lovely timepiece.  Don’t you agree?”

“Well, yes, I imagine he would.  But I don’t really know his name or who he is yet.”

The man’s mouth fell open and he stuttered.  “I’m..I’m…s…sorry, Miss. I…I don’t understand.  You’ve bought an expensive pocket watch for someone you don’t know?”

Julia sighed.  She shouldn’t have said anything.

“Please just use the words I gave you.”

The man nodded and regarded Julia with an expression of suspicious curiosity, a look one might give a person in an asylum.

“How long will it take?”

“For the engraving?  Ten days.  Sorry, Miss, but you won’t have it in time for Christmas.”

“That’s all right.” Julia turned and walked a few steps and heard the salesman mumble, “Now there’s an odd girl.  Buying a gift for someone she doesn’t know. Tsk tsk.”

Sighing, she checked her own wristwatch and hurried out of the store to begin the three-block walk to her trolley stop.  If she didn’t get there in time for the five p.m. streetcar, she would be waiting half an hour.

This year Julia was determined that she would meet her beloved, the man for whom she had been praying these past four years. Why hadn’t she met him yet?  Some of her friends were already married. Her beloved was out there and she would find him.  Yes, 1918 would also be the year that she would meet her beloved.

Each December, Julia wondered what she would buy her beloved for Christmas. Last year, she searched different stores but found nothing special. She finally discovered — and bought — a brown leather pocket journal at a specialty store at Broad and Bigler Streets. She didn’t know whether her beloved would be the sort to write in one, but it seemed like an appropriate gift, especially since it had a delicate leaf embossed on the cover. The year before, she had bought a sterling silver Miraculous Medal because her beloved would be Catholic.

That first year, her mother suggested that she begin praying for her future husband.  After a few weeks of doing so, Julia felt inspired to do more. It had been the week before Christmas, so she decided that she would buy or make him a Christmas gift each year until they met.  With no job and no money that year, Julia knit him two pairs of socks, one blue-green and one green-brown, with finely-made yarn that her mother had given her.

The fact that she had made or bought gifts, and had spent hard-earned money for her future husband, had not pleased her father as he thought it too impractical and sentimental. Her mother, however, had declared that it was a beautiful gesture. Of course, if Mother knew how much she had spent on the most recent gift, she was pretty certain her mother wouldn’t be happy.

Julia’s Gifts is available on Kindle and in paperback from Full Quiver Publishing.
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This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.
Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz

Fierce like Francis

While all Secular Franciscans follow the same call, to live a Gospel life in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, every Secular Franciscan follows this call differently, according to his or her own abilities and state of life. Every Secular Franciscan has a particular way in which we can say that he or she is like Francis.

Eileen was fierce like Francis.

Despite the many difficulties, health crises, and hardships she endured in her later years (or maybe because of them), Eileen was not about to waste time thinking but never acting. She challenged us: are we doing enough? Are we praying enough? Are we listening to God enough? What is God telling us to do?

Sometimes Eileen would come to a Secular Franciscan gathering and ask bold questions, seemingly out of nowhere. But those questions were born of her deep faith and constant prayer. When she was not physically able to do more, she always prayed and contemplated.

In Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious, Pat Gohn noted,

The good of the Gospel is that it leads us to new life in Christ and, ultimately, eternal life in heaven. This gospel of life has a very practical application for Christians. A woman’s influence in the world consists of being a guardian of life. We give witness to it in our very nature, and that should extend to the moral leadership we have wherever we live and work. (161)

Indeed, Eileen was a mother and grandmother, giving witness to the gift of life; but her work did not stop there. Eileen had a deep concern for the unborn, and she participated in the March for Life as she was able. Throughout the year, she worked to keep the cause of the vulnerable unborn in the public eye by writing letters to the editor of our local newspaper, many of which were published.

St. Francis had many fierce moments in his life: his embrace of the leper, his journey to Egypt with the aim of converting the Sultan, his refusal to stay in the fine monasteries he’d advised the brothers not to build, his renunciation of his father’s wealth. Some might call these reckless moves, but they were not at all reckless. They were born of faith and prayer and a wish to live up to very high ideals. They required courage and fierceness.

Giotto_di_Bondone_-_Legend_of_St_Francis_-_6._Dream_of_Innocent_III_-_WGA09125
The dream of Pope Innocent III: Francis holds up the Lateran Basilica with his shoulder. Giotto di Bondone [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Early in his ministry, St. Francis traveled to Rome to receive papal approval of his rule of life. Pope Innocent III hesitated in granting this approval, thinking that Francis’ way of life was impractical. But according to legend, Innocent dreamed he saw Francis propping up the Basilica of St. John Lateran with his shoulder — and this convinced him to give his blessing to the Franciscans. It’s fitting, then, that we celebrate Eileen’s life today, on the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, the first physical church building and the symbol of the Church that Francis had set out to rebuild.

Not all of us are courageous enough to be fierce like Francis. But Eileen was, and all of us who knew her are better for her boldness.

Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon her. May her soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

fierce like francis


Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz, OFS
This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you!

New from Lisa Hendey: A Prayer Calendar for Catholic Moms

Lisa Hendey's Prayer Calendar for Catholic Moms -f

Space on my desk is precious real estate, only to be granted to the things that really need to be there: computer, planner, Post-It notes, a box of tissues, a mini-storage unit for clips and stickers, and a mug of pencils, pens and markers. I’m trying to keep my office neat. But I’ve added a perpetual calendar next to the Our Lady of Fatima figurine who stands by: Lisa Hendey’s new Catholic Mom’s Desk Calendar.

Flipping to the correct date, I found my very favorite psalm waiting for me, along with a beautiful prayer by Lisa.

CMdeskcalendar
Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz. All rights reserved.

As you can see from the photo above, the color scheme is a calming blue, tone-on-tone. I’ve chosen almost that exact shade for more than one room in my home. The serene colors invite the reader to slow down, quiet down, and enter into a moment of prayer.

You don’t have to have a desk to display this prayer calendar. You could keep it on your nightstand, bureau, or even the kitchen counter (though I fear that if I tried that in my tiny kitchen, it would be splattered with marinara sauce in short order).

I have plenty of calendars in my office. I display two months of the calendar at a time, because I need to see that much for work. I have a Google calendar on my computer. And I have a planner on my desk. But this calendar is different. It’s not part of yet another to-do list for my family, my household, or my job. This calendar reminds me that “only one thing is necessary,” as Jesus told St. Martha, and I need to embrace that.

Here’s a sneak peek at January’s calendar entries! Note that this is a spiral-bound perpetual calendar, not a book as pictured below, but you can get a good look at what the beautiful pages look like.

Each day begins with a quote from Scripture, a saint, a pope, or the Catechism, followed by a brief prayer related to that reading.

Place this calendar where you’ll be sure to see it each day, and enter into a quiet moment of prayer in the midst of your busy life.

9781593253202 (1)


Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz
This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

#OpenBook: October 2017 Reads

The first Wednesday of each month, Carolyn Astfalk hosts #OpenBook, where bloggers link posts about books they’ve read recently. Here’s a taste of what I’ve been reading:

Fiction

hometown girlHometown Girl by Courtney Walsh. Beth had always dreamed of life in the big city, but she felt bound to a family business after her own business decision left it endangered. She blames herself for her father’s death and won’t forgive herself for her mistake, or tell anyone about it. When her sister Molly buys a local farm with a tragic secret, Beth finds herself caught up in turning the farm back into a tourist destination, with the help of Drew, a young man who has a link to the farm’s decades-old tragedy. He can’t tell anyone about his past either. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and stayed up too late reading it.

just maybeJust Maybe by Crystal Walton. What hooked me on this story right off the bat? Quinn is a magazine editor who just can’t help herself: she corrects people’s grammar under her breath or feels the need to run away when a conversation gets too grammatically off-track. Too funny. Quinn is on assignment to get the dirt on self-made millionaire Cooper Anderson. She wants to succeed with this story, because her job is on the line and she fears her boss, whom she’s nicknamed “Cruella.” But when she shows up at Cooper’s house, she finds him packing to leave the country, putting his home on the market and trying to find a permanent home for the toddler who was just delivered to him after the death of Cooper’s ex: a child he never even knew he had. But Quinn has secrets too: she grew up in that neighborhood and ran away from it several years ago, putting her family’s country ways — and her father’s serious health problems — behind her. A fun story, a clean romance, and characters you can easily enjoy. Well done.

tidbit of trustA Tidbit of Trust by Elizabeth Maddrey. A fun, light read. A contractor and youth pastor runs into a woman from his own parish while on a mission trip to Jamaica. She’s at a local resort, and he knows her reputation — but he’s attracted anyway. Meanwhile, she’s trying to shake off that old reputation and turn her life around, but too many people from church won’t let her make a clean break with her past. (Note: people on the cover are not at all as I pictured them, which is perhaps a good reason to read books on Kindle, where you don’t see cover art.)

woman in cabin 10The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware. Lo Blacklock is a journalist trying to prove herself. On a press junket aboard a newly-launched semprivate boutique cruise ship, she sees and hears something she shouldn’t: a scream — and then a woman goes overboard. Suspense builds as Lo receives anonymous warnings to stop digging for information about what happened; things go missing from her cabin; and she winds up in mortal danger. I’m not entirely sure I bought the ending (then again, I don’t generally read thrillers — this book was a gift) but the book definitely kept me reading.

three godfathersThe Three Godfathers by Peter B. Kyne. I loved this little book. Written a century ago, its style would be perfect for a read-aloud (not for young children, but for grownups — I could picture the adults in a family settling down to enjoy it together after the small children were asleep. The prose was lyrical and carried the reader through the story of The Three Bad Men who, on the run in the southwestern-US desert after the fourth in their number was killed in a bank robbery gone wrong, encounter a young widow in labor — but no water. The dying widow entreats them to be the godfathers of her newborn, and they take this responsibility very seriously. The Three Bad Men are changed spiritually by agreeing to be godfathers for the baby in a wonderful story of sacrifice (and maybe even redemption).

one pink lineOne Pink Line by Dina Silver. At its heart, I found this book to center on selfishness. Even as the reader has to applaud the young college student for keeping her baby when she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, it’s hard to get past the selfish decisions she made that got her there in the first place (cheating on her longtime boyfriend). It’s even harder to get past the fact that she keeps her daughter’s parentage a secret (though there’s a rich grandmother in the picture who only sends gifts to that child, not the younger ones in the family … ). The can of worms opens up when her daughter is at school and learns about conception in biology class — and figures out that her family might not be what she’s always assumed it is.

sweet tea tuesdaysSweet Tea Tuesdays by Ashley Farley. Good friends are hard to find. This novel takes on the crises several friends are experiencing, some of which could cost them their treasured friendship. It seems like a lot for 3 people to go through all at once, and the secrets they keep from each other threaten to tear these friends and neighbors apart. Bring tissues.

 

Nonfiction

forgiving motherForgiving Mother by Marge Fenelon. This book speaks to the heart of those who carry the burden of wounds from the past. Marge’s honesty and courage in sharing the harrowing details of the abuse she suffered from her mother as well as the redeeming power of the relationship she developed with Mary, Mother of God and Mother to us all, will encourage any reader who needs to find healing, forgiveness and hope in a difficult relationship. Read my full review. (ARC received from publisher)

Franciscan saintsThe Franciscan Saints by Robert Ellsburg. The saints in this book come from all walks of life: missionaries, princesses (yes, a princess!), poets, widows, martyrs, reformers, Secular Franciscans, prophets, mystics, stigmatists, and popes. Teens preparing for Confirmation would do well to check out this book; the biographies of each saint are brief (averaging 2 pages) and include a quote (usually a quote from the saint). Read my full review. I enjoyed this peek into the “who’s who of the Franciscan family” and flagged several saints for further study. (ARC received from publisher)

… And with that, I have reached my Goodreads goal of 99 books read in 2017, 2 months ahead of schedule.

Links to books in this post are Amazon affiliate links. Your purchases made through these links support Franciscanmom.com. Thank you!

Follow my Goodreads reviews for the full list of what I’ve read recently (even the duds … and this month, there were some duds!)

Visit today’s #OpenBook post to join the linkup or just get some great ideas about what to read! You’ll find it at Carolyn Astfalk’s A Scribbler’s Heart and at CatholicMom.com!

open book new logo


Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz

Halloween: the Death of a Neighborhood Holiday

Today is Halloween. It’s Tuesday.

On Friday, my town hosted “Trunk or Treat.” On Sunday, the local public high school hosted “Track or Treat.”

I’m not expecting to see too many kids today for Trick or Treat.

And that makes me sad.

Halloween used to be a time when you’d walk around the neighborhood with your kids, meeting and greeting your neighbors, who normally spent their outdoor time in their backyards, or on their back decks, behind fences and arborvitae. If you weren’t on the sidewalk waiting for your kids to say “thank you” as they stuffed another fun-size candy bar into their pillowcase or plastic pumpkin, you were manning the candy bowl at the door, admiring cute and clever costumes and gamely accepting the middle-schoolers’ challenge to guess what their costumes were.

But as these special Halloween events have gained popularity, regular old Trick or Treat in the neighborhood has dropped off.

Luke Halloween 2003
Halloween 2003. Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz. All rights reserved.

Maybe it’s because parents believe that “Trunk or Treat” is a safe alternative to making sure small children in dark-colored costumes don’t run out into the street. No cars, no streets to cross.

Maybe it’s because it’s on a weekend, at a scheduled time.

Maybe, as a young adult I was talking with at a rehearsal over the weekend maintains, it’s because people don’t want to watch their kids — and at “Trunk or Treat” and “Track or Treat” they can get in, sit down with their Starbucks and their phones, and let the kids run for it in a contained area until the event is over.

I hope it’s not the latter, but the pessimist in me thinks there’s some truth in all three of these possibilities.

All I know is: for me, Halloween is about hospitality — whether you’re greeting your neighbors as you pull the wagon down the street in case your toddler gets too tired to keep walking or  your ten-year-old’s pillowcase gets too heavy to carry, or you’re waving to your neighbors as you toss little packs of M&Ms into their kids’ toy pumpkins. Earlier this month, Caryn Rivandeneira noted the same in an article at Aleteia.

Halloween is a holiday people of any age used to be able to enjoy. If you didn’t have kids, or your kids weren’t of Trick or Treat age anymore, you could still have fun seeing kids in costumes and greeting your neighbors.

But when “Trunk or Treat” comes along, it robs the rest of the neighborhood of Halloween fun. You can only go to those things if you have kids of Trick or Treat age. If you don’t, then too bad, so sad, no Halloween fun for you.

Now that all of my kids are too old for Trick or treat, I’ll miss getting their costumes together. Hubs will miss taking them around block after long suburban block until they couldn’t walk anymore (seriously: that was his motto.) And yes, I’ll miss exacting the Mom Candy Tax.

Feed Mom Candy fund
Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz. All rights reserved.

But mostly, for me, the fun of Halloween was answering the door. It made me smile.

“Trunk or Treat” just makes me sad.


Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz

On Barb’s Bookshelf: Forgiving Mother

Barb's Book shelf blog title

Born of a mother-daughter relationship that goes way beyond “it’s complicated,” Marge Steinhage Fenelon’s Forgiving Mother: A Marian Novena of Healing and Peace (new from Servant Books) speaks to the heart of those who carry the burden of wounds from the past.

forgiving mother

I need to state right up front that I have a good relationship with my own mom. But this book about healing touched me deeply — because there are relationships in my life that have been difficult and hurtful, and I’ve hung onto those hurts for too long.

Citing the Gospel story where Jesus heals the blind, crippled man at the Sheep’s Gate (John 5: 2-9), Marge shares this thought that anyone who’s holding onto old hurts can relate to:

Do you want to be made well? Believe it or not, for a very long time, my answer to that question was no. I was afraid of what it would take to be made well, so I preferred to stay just as I was, ignoring my pain and hiding my past. (Chapter 1)

Healing is hard. It takes work. Jesus isn’t going to wave a magic wand and make everything better. We have to want it, and we have to work for it.

Marge’s experience of healing hinged on developing her relationship with the Blessed Mother, noting that

God decides and provides the means by which you eventually can let go of the past, live in the present, and look to the future with hope and confidence. There are two keys to attaining this: trust in God and love of Mary. … Our Lord Jesus Christ is the ultimate healer; he will mend your wounds and restore you to health and vibrancy. Mother Mary will nurture and protect you. In her tender, loving way, she will accompany you each step of the way. She is, and wants to be in every way possible, truly your mother. … [Mary] is anxious to fill the void that has been left in you. She hears—has heard and will hear—your cries of distress, and she anxiously waits to answer them. (Chapter 9)

Marge’s book is a primer on forgiveness. It’s not easy to forgive, especially those hurts we know we’ll never be able to forget. Quoting St. John of the Cross, she notes in Chapter 3 that “the devil can use our memories to gain influence over our souls.”

Healing our hearts, healing our memories, healing our relationships (when possible) is at the heart of this book and the novena prayers accompanying it. The titles of the novena prayers speak to the essence of this book:
Day 1: Lord, give me the grace to want to heal
Day 2: Mary, let me grow closer to you
Day 3: Mary, help me look back
Day 4: Mary, let me see myself as a child of God
Day 5: Mary, let me see my mother as a child of God
Day 6: Mary, let me be transformed in the Spirit
Day 7: Mary, draw me into your heart
Day 8: Mary, let me grow
Day 9: Mary, let me be healed

Marge’s honesty and courage in sharing the harrowing details of the abuse she suffered from her mother as well as the redeeming power of the relationship she developed with Mary, Mother of God and Mother to us all, will encourage any reader who needs to find healing, forgiveness and hope in a difficult relationship. Forgiving Mother is not easy to read. The prayers are not easy to pray — but God’s mercy, freely given, becomes easier to accept as healing begins.


Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz
This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book via Netgalley, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.