Tag Archives: biography

A gift book for budding readers and writers

September 22, 2014

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Roget coverLovers of good writing, those who chew on words, savor their sounds, relish the way they strike pictures in the mind or prompt emotions, those are the kind of people who will want to pick up “The Right Word” and buy it for all the young readers and writers they know.

Author Jen Bryant’s bright-and-tight prose fits well with this young person’s version of a biography of Peter Mark Roget, whose famous thesaurus, first printed in 1852, continues to be updated and published more than a century and a half later. It’s a life story worth knowing.

And Melissa Sweet’s creative, playful illustrations make for just as good reading as she pulls in definition after definition from Roget’s lists of the synonyms for words. When young Peter tells his mother he is “fine,” for example, Sweet’s silhouetted caricature of the boy considers if “fine” is the right word for how he feels, and bubble thoughts including possible options like “glad,” “cheerful,” “well,” “dandy,” “never better,” “splendid,” “middling,” “nice” and “happy as the day is long.”

This Eerdmans Book for Young readers is a splendid way to introduce anyone age seven and up to one of the writing world’s riches.

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Dion ‘The Wanderer’ wends his way back to the Catholic faith

July 8, 2011

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Among rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Famer Dion DiMucci’s hits is “The Wanderer,” and wandering is just the right word for Dion’s life.

With the help of author Mike Aquilina, Dion recaps both his career and his faith journey in an interesting, intriguing book that’s a combination of autobiography, pop music history and personal testimony about his search for a religion he could believe in. “Dion: the Wanderer Talks Truth (stories, humor & music)”  is a 141-page Servant Books paperback that you could read in a single setting.

Biography, history and more

The boomer in me ate up the nostalgic trip through the early days of rock ‘n’ roll with Dion and the Belmonts and doo-wop harmony. Why drugs and alcohol have to be part of so many celebrity lives is a mystery to me, but thankfully Dion admits to succumbing to that lifestyle without dwelling on it or saddling readers with too much of how he was able to quit.

He devotes a lot more space to his musical influences, and gives major props to Dick Clark, the “American Bandstand” emcee who not only brought rock ‘n’ roll talent to the attention of a nation but offered sound moral, ethical and business advice to the acts that made it to Bandstand.

I hadn’t considered this before, but Dion pointed out that the explosion of television in the 1950s changed radio and in doing so made the modern pop music industry. As he explained it, the dramas and comedies that made network radio popular were swallowed up by TV — “The Lone Ranger,” Sid Caesar, for example — forcing radio to go another direction. That direction was to music, and it was perfect timing for the burgeoning youth culture of the post-World War II era.

But music is the focus of just about half of the book. The second half takes readers through Dion’s search for a spiritual home and an in-depth explanation of how and why he came to settle on Catholicism. A Brooklyn born and raised Italian-American, he was baptized Catholic but never practiced the faith. Throughout his like, though, he tried more than a handful of Christian varieties, including storefront churches.

The book touches on all the reasons that Dion found them all to be less than fulfilling and why when he looked again at Catholicism he found that fulfillment. I’ll let you taste that for yourself, but just quote a couple of lines that seem poignant:

“The son of God came to show us how to live and love,” Dion wrote. “He has the authority. I accept it. The problem is, most people don’t. They’re trying to reinvent the wheel. I was there, and I know it doesn’t work. I used to be outside the Church, screaming, yelling, and kicking it. I discovered that the problems weren’t so much with the Church as with me. Even with my problems, and even after I speck all that time kicking at its walls, the Church was willing to take me in and give me a place to work out God’s will for me.”

The impact that decision has had on his life, his family and his music pours off the pages as easily as Dion sang “Runaround Sue,” “A Teenager in Love,” “Abraham, Martin and John” and of course “The Wanderer.” While he comes close to being preachy, what I was left with was an impression of an intelligent man who authentically wants others to understand Jesus Christ and the Church he founded.

That he’s now involved in prison ministry just adds to that authenticity.

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Tommy James tells a rockin’ story about his life in rock ‘n’ roll

January 15, 2011

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As you’ve bounced up and down on the dance floor at your cousin’s wedding, admit it, you’ve always wondered who was “Mony,” the inspiration behind the monster rock ‘n’ roll classic that gets even Uncle Clem to loosen his inhibitions and boogie down.

Tommy James  lets us all in on the secret in “Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells.”

This may be the best semi-autobiography I’ve ever read. It’s a page-turner right from the start, close to drama, overbrimming with nostalgia for boomers.  Writer Martin Fitzpatrick has crafted taped interviews with the hit-making guitar player into a 225-page Scribner hardback that reads as if Tommy James is sitting in your living room telling you about his life.

How so many of the Shondells’ hits came to be and how they came to climb the charts pulled me back to those heady days of the sixties and seventies when I first heard “Hanky Panky” and “I Think We’re Alone Now” pouring out of the radio. If you were a teenager then, I’ll bet you still know all the lyrics.

Backstage in the music industry

But as interesting as the making of the songs are, it’s the back story of the music business that adds a fullness to the story of this kid from Niles, Mich., whose songs got played every 20 minutes on Top 40 radio.

New York mob connected Roulette Records and its president Morris Levy share the Tommy James story right from the start, and it maybe because the principals are dead — some violently — that James can publish this tell-all.

James himself is probably lucky to be alive, lucky the mob didn’t turn on him but even more fortunate the pills and alcohol life of a rocker didn’t kill him as it did his contemporaries like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

In those No. 1-record years, James admits to doing everything but what is expected of the Christian he eventually becomes. The drugs, the booze and jumping into bed with whomever was convenient play no small part in two divorces.

James credits the Betty Ford Clinic with sobering him up, and says it was there that he turned back to Christianity.

It makes for a feel-good ending, but then feel-good songs by Tommy James and the Shondells have pumped life into dance floors everywhere for more than 40 years now. — bz

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Catholic and want to know more about Jesus?

June 28, 2010

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Jesus cover

“Jesus,”

by Paul Johnson

Ever felt uncomfortable discussing religion in a mixed-faith setting because you don’t feel you’ve really “kept up” with matters of faith?

Paul Johnson’s brief (226 pages) easy-reading story of Jesus — subtitled “A Biography from a Believer” — will get you up to speed with some facts Catholics should know. It will also remind you what Christianity values and why you value your faith life. Johnson is an unabashed cheerleader for the faith, and he writes early on that he wants to share “the joy and nourishment” of following Jesus’ footsteps and pondering his words.

Although I’ve read a lot of religious material, reading “Jesus” gave me a much better mental picture of the era in which he walked this earth, helping me place his life in the time of not just Julius Caesar but Ovid, Livy and Seneca, the Romans whose writing has put life in the Roman Empire into our hands.

But I’d hesitate before giving Johnson my complete trust as a biographer or historian, and I think he’d find that perfectly acceptable.

Meet a new Jesus

In my notes I kept jotting down “first I’ve heard of that,” which did make me suspicious that some of Johnson’s “biography” might be suspect. For example, he writes that Mary was a source for Luke’s gospel, that Jesus’ baptism was witnessed by a large crowd, that one task of the apostles was to “protect” Jesus, and that Jesus’ “few days of rest were spent fishing.”

What these might very well be called would be “guesses.” Johnson says they are “mere deductive supposition.” When he describes Jesus’ appearance and the way he held himself, I’d call that analysis without basis of fact. Yes, Jesus did teach at meal time, but did he “love” to?

But whether or not Jesus could recite Homer and Virgil is less important than the aura of Jesus that I think readers will get about the subject of this “biography.” You’ll meet a new Jesus here, one you’ve likely never thought about in the same way.

Johnson offers us a pleasant, colloquial way of absorbing Jesus’ teachings in somewhat of a condensed version of the gospels, and he follows up by explaining why Jesus taught those lessons.

Don’t miss the homilies

The most useful section of the book may be Johnson’s explanation of why Jesus came and what Johnson charges might be a “New Ten Commandments” Jesus taught. You can see the list below, but it’s Johnson’s writes a page or more about each, and every one could serve as a homily worth hearing.

Johnson calls Jesus’ teachings a moral and social framework that have been invaluable to our world, and, if this book were this section alone it would be enough to inspire every Christian to re-commit themselves to following Jesus’ more closely. Here’s the best part:

“Human progress has proved an illusion as often as not. In many ways our society is no better organized and led than in those weary days two m ago when men like Herod and Pilate ruled. Insofar as we have improved — in the way we look after the poor, the sick, the infirm, the powerless; in our treatment of children; in moral education and training; in penology and the redressing of grievances; in the effort to spread material welfare and to encourage people to show kindness to one another and help their neighbors in difficult times — these improvements have come about because we have had the sense, the sensibility, the intelligence, and the pertinacity to follow where Jesus led. If goodness has a place in our twenty-first century world, it is because Jesus, by his worlds and actions, showed us how to put it there. No other man in history has had this effect over so long a time, over the whole of the earth’s surface, and over such a range of issues.”

If that’s not enough evidence to believe in God, I don’t know what would be. — bz

“Jesus’ New Ten Commandments”

1. Each of us must develop a true personality. We have a duty to be aware of our existence as an act of God’s creation

2. Accept and abide by, universality. Each soul is unique, but each is part of humanity.

3. Respect the fact that we are all equal in God’s eyes.

4. Love is a must in human relationships, at all times and in every situation.

5. We are to show mercy just as God shows mercy to us.

6. Keep balanced; don’t be an extremist.

7. Cultivate an open mind.

8. The pursuit of truth, unabridged, simple and pure, unstained by passion, is the most valuable of human activities.

9. Use power carefully, and pay due respect to the powerless.

10. Show courage.

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