Tag Archives: history

German Catholics in WWII play role in modern mystery

February 16, 2013

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“The German Suitcase”  (Premier Digital Publishing, 2012) is one more novel to feed my World War II addiction.
Greg Dinallo puts complex, likeable characters into an interesting plot with flashbacks to Nazi Germany to fill in the mystery.
Prescient readers may solve that mystery relatively quickly, but that doesn’t make “The German Suitcase” any less of a good read.

german suitcase coverThe fictional story includes a family of Catholics who assist Jews to escape the Holocaust. The fact that a contemporary author is writing anything positive about Catholics makes Dinallo’s bit of fiction unique today.

Of course, the page-turning story was going along swimminglywhen for some unknown reason there is a gratuitous reference to how the Vatican has handled the clergy sex abuse crisis. For the love of God I can’t understand why Dinallo included that in the novel; it doesn’t do one thing to advance the plot.

But here’s a theory: Major publishers think it helps sell books if there’s something in them to bash the church. Have you noticed, too? I’d love to hear from those who’ve found evidence in other novels that either prove or disprove my theory. — bz

 

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A feast for hungry lovers of superb writing

June 20, 2012

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I’ll tell you how I know good writing: I savor the words and sentences as I read them.

I go back and slowly re-read paragraphs, tasting the language in the same way I slowly enjoy a sip of cabernet or a bite of an Italian beef sandwich, the Chicago kind that drips gardiniere down my arms and onto my shirt.

When writing is good, it lingers in the tastebuds of the brain.

Like you I’ll bet, I usually can’t wait to get to the end of a good book. But with the best books, I tend to read in small bites, stretching out the joy of reading to make it last longer.

I’ve been doing that with “Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns.” There are 400 pages in this Overlook Press hardcover, and although I bought it sometime this winter I’ve just finished the last entry here in June.

Yep, it’s that good.

Columnists, my heroes

Okay, maybe it’s because I’m a newspaper guy that I’ve been so taken with this is collection of commentary pieces that appeared in American newspapers over the past 250-plus years, Ben Franklin’s from before this country even was this country.

But no matter what your life’s work, if you want a thorough refresher course in history, if you want to know what Americans have cared about over the years, if you want to get in touch with the spirit and soul of the United States, just read these columns.

 There’s Ernie Pyle writing from the front lines of World War II about “the God-damned infantry,” Mary McGrory covering the funeral of JFK, Mitch Albom on a college basketball team you’ve never heard of and Mike Royko skewering the infamous Picasso that sits (where else?) but in Chicago’s Daley Plaza.

There’s great sports stuff. You can re-read the renown Grantland Rice’s piece on the famous Notre Dame football backfield – you remember, “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again.” There’s equally famous Red Smith on the ’51 Dodgers, the “Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff.”

But there’s also intriguing columns about obscure people and events. A guy a never heard of from the LA Times, Bill Plaschke, wrote a beauty of story, one I didn’t want to end, about a letter-writer who used to rip him — and, well, you gotta read that one yourself to find out the ending.

Back in 1956, a Southern writer named Harry Golden wrote this hilarious and courageous column satirizing racism in his neck of the woods with an ingenious idea called “The Vertical Negro Plan.” The theory? Black people are only a problem for whites when they “set.” So his solution to school segregation is to remove all the seats, so that white students don’t have to “sit” next to a black student. And that’s just the start of Golden’s superb commentary piece.

There’s so much more. There’s Art Buchwald and Dave Barry. There’s Ernest Hemingway (yeah, he was a newspaper guy) and Dorothy Thompson. There are writers newspaper junkies of a certain age (always wanted to work that phrase into my writing) hold up as heroes, folks like H.L. Mencken, Langstson Hughes, Damon Runyon, Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill and so many more.

With time running out…

Perhaps the one piece that jumped out at me as the penultimate example of the columnist’s art – superb writing as the clock ticks toward the newspaper’s press deadline — was written by Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald, a piece syndicated in newspapers across the country.

It was carried in papers on 9/12/2001.

It was headlined, “We’ll Go Forward From This Moment.”

It was addressed to the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center towers.

It asked the questions, “What lesson did you hope to teach up by your coward’s attack?…What was it you hoped we would learn? Whatever it was, please know that it failed. Did you want us to respect your cause? You just damned your cause. Did you want to make us fear you? You just steeled our resolve. Did you want to tear us apart? You just brought us together.”

There’s more, so much more. In this and in just about every entry.

If you savor good writing, treat yourself to a great big serving. But one bite at a time.

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Irish immigrant way became the American way

February 22, 2012

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Hyphenated-Americans — which includes just about all of us — will grasp a solid understanding of the challenges our ancestors faced in emigrating to the United States by taking in the history of what author James R. Barrett calls America’s first ethnic group, the Irish.

No matter if your family roots are traced back to Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia or anywhere else, the way immigrants from the Emerald Isle became Americanized and moved up the social ladder provided a blueprint for immigrants that came afterward from other countries.

Treated sometimes as less than human, parodied as dumb and dirty, the Irish were the first mass group of arrivals to U.S. shores to face hostility from those who, ironically, had emigrated here themselves, just on earlier boats.

How those Irish immigrants not only survived but came to thrive — and set the standard for immigrants from other lands to do the same — is documented superbly in “The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City.” Penguin Press has set a March 1 release date, do you think with the coming St. Patrick’s Day in mind?

Stories galore

James R. Barrett tells the story well by telling interesting, factual, funny, maddening, humiliating stories in some very readable 300 pages. A professor of history at the University of Illinois, Barrett nails down the facts of the Irish-American experience, with more than 70 pages of footnotes to back up his work.

Catholics will find nearly 50 pages focused on the religious angle of the immigrant experience, and as much as this is a history of the Irish, Barrett shows how that history impacts other, non-Irish immigrants who are Catholic. The section titled “The Parish” details how the Irish came to dominate to the point that, as Barrett writes, “By 1920, two-thirds of all Catholic bishops (three-fourths in New England) were of Irish birth or descent.”

What makes this such worthwhile reading is that “The Irish Way” isn’t depicted as always on the side of the angels, even when it comes to the church. This is history, warts and all whether we like it or not, and the warts — the machine politics, the not-what-you-know-but-who-you-know hiring practices, the racism — are historical facts.

But so too are the struggles for a “living” or “family wage,” as Barrett points out, the six-day work week, old-age pensions,  the right for labor to organize and bargain collectively, all strongly supported by the Catholic Church.

The section on the Irish immigrant in the workplace puts facts in place where many may have simply anecdotal examples passed along from ancestors. There’s real value that, in documenting the history of the Irish and their climb up the social ladder, “The Irish Way” clarifies the struggles of those from later immigrant groups — the Italians, Poles, Jews and blacks – who found the entrenched Irish a barrier to their own economic and social mobility.

The role of the stage Irishman is paid its due, and the role the immigrant Irish played in the political history of the United States is a well. In all, “The Irish Way” is history that reads as well as a novel, perhaps because it’s a history that has had such an impact on what America is today and who we are today as Americans.

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Quilts, yes, but so much more

January 10, 2012

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A poet and an illustrator patch together history, art and spirituality in boisterous words and blooming color

What it was like to be a Black slave in the American South — the back-breaking work, the pain, the evil masters, the broken hearts and yet the joy, the inner satisfaction, the compassionate masters, the deep faith — all of it comes at readers full bore in “I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery.”

Cynthia Grady has provided the poems — themselves named for quilts and structured like the patchwork craft of the seamstress — and illustrator Michele Wood uses quilt patterns to the max to dress the poet’s stories in form and color that simply can’t be ignored.

A book just of the poetry itself would be worthy. Grady’s storytelling is teacher-like, thought-provoking as all good poetry is, and musical in the dialect of the slaves themselves.

Phrases like “the devil hisself,” “fetch a good price” and “make your skin goose up” grab your senses — and your sensitivity to what Black people went through during those pre-Emancipation Proclamation decades.

Just like a quilt, each poem incorporates three layers — intentionally, Grady explained — with spiritual, musical and sewing references. Even the shape of each poem – 10 lines of 10 syllables — mirrors the squares of quilt blocks.

Each poem is accompanied not only by one of Wood’s creative illustrations but by a paragraph or two or three of historical background that makes each two-page spread even more informative.

Looking for something different yet spiritual and substantial for Black History Month in February? This Eerdmans Book for Young Readers would fill the bill nicely. Order here from the publisher or check at your local bookstore.

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Publishers must think church saints are back in

July 28, 2011

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Saints are cool again. At least book publishers must figure they are.

Here’s a quick look at recent releases that target niche markets — teens and moms — people who might be searching for role models among the heavenly blessed — and one that could be for just about everyone.

Liguori Publications is aiming both at teenage readers and on-the-go mothers who might be looking for a spiritual boost — or at the least empathy.

In “Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints,” Colleen Swaim (http://www.liguori.org/productdetails.cfm?sku=820298) tells the real-life biographies of eight young people who lived relatively recently, all in an effort to help today’s young people understand that holiness is real and attainable.

Catholics will recognize names like Maria Goretti and Dominic Savio — well-known teens saints, but names new to me like St. Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception, an Indian nun, and St. Kizito, a  Ugandan martyred for his faith.

What makes the this 130-page paperback work is that Swaim knows her audience has short attention spans so she keeps the stories brief and interesting, but she also challenges teens to put themselves in the situations the saints found themselves, asking them to reflect upon questions like:

“Think back to the last time you were in physical pain. How did you react to it?”

And, “Do you remember making your first Holy Communion? How did you feel? How do you approach the Eucharist differently today?”

Even the brief text is broken up with definitions and info boxes scattered throughout along with prayers, quotes, and “Saintly Challenges” like, “With the zeal of a new convert, fearlessly tell one person about your faith.”

 

For Moms-on-the-go

In a similar vein but purse-size and just 79 pages is “Saints on Call: Everyday Devotions for Moms” (http://www.liguori.org/productdetails.cfm?PC=11903. Author Christine Gibson takes common, real-life situations — for example, “When you feel ‘sacrificed-out’ for your family…” — and offers a simple explanation how a saint dealt with a similar issue. Each brief story is followed by a quote from scripture to ponder and a prayer.

For the sacrificed-out mom, Gibson holds up St. Gianna Molla who chose to deliver her baby knowing it would cost her her own life. Gibson’s prayer hits home:

“St. Gianna, you made the ultimate sacrifice for your little one. I ask you to please pray for me that I may rejoice in the sacrifices I can make for my dear children.”

Among the more than four dozen other situations — each tied to a saint — are issues such as “When you feel like life is not going as you planned it…” (St. Rose Philippine Duchesne); “When you can’t stand another house guest…” (St. Lydia Pupuraria); “When you are worried about your wayward child…” (St. Monica).

Every single one is a winner.

 

For scholars, art lovers and, well, everyone

Finally, there’s this book that will appeal to a number of niche groups — and perhaps a general audience, too —  with stories about saints from Agatha to Zachariah.

“The Lives of the Saints through 100 Masterpieces” (http://www.dupress.duq.edu/pubDetails.asp?theISBN=9780820704364) is a Duquesne University Press paperback is going to be loved by those who cherish Christian art, but those interested in saints’ stories, myths, legends and history will find it compelling reading and viewing.

Written by Jacques Duquesne and Francois Lebrette and translated from the French by M. Cristina Borges, this 221-pager is a collection of saints’ biographies — and tales, to be honest — each accompanied by classic paintings that hang is places both well-known — The Louvre, The Prado — and obscure (to me at least), and almost all in Europe.

Even if you think you know the stories of saints you’ll find new information here. I especially appreciated the transparency of the authors who frankly acknowledge when something about one of the saintly heroes may have been passed down as mere legend.

Readers will appreciated learning why a saint is pictured in a certain way — St. Denis carrying his own head! – or typically painted with a certain object — a sword, a palm leaf, a stag, which would be St. Hubert, patron saint of hunters.

There are saints, too, that you may never have heard of — St. Fiacre, for example — that show the European bent of the authors. But those tales are interesting, too, and the paintings that help tell the story are indeed masterpieces. Warning: The retail cost is a bit steep at $29.95, but it isn’t cheap to print all those color paintings, and the print job is superb, even in the smaller format.– bz

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State record muskie?

July 15, 2011

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Muski

The angling community in Minnesota is abuzz with the news about a possible state-record muskie caught July 1 on Lake Sallie near Detroit Lakes by John Gergen of Phoenix.

Unfortunately, we may never know if this fish beat the state record of 54 pounds, set by Art Lyons in 1957. The state government shutdown kept Gergen from being able to contact someone from the DNR to certify his fish. It is now at a Detroit Lakes taxidermy shop and already has been cut open, though the taxidermist says he has all of the remains.

I am very curious about what this fish weighs. The state record muskie measured 56 inches, and this one was 57 1/2, so it seems possible it could weigh more than 54 pounds.

Actually, there are other fish that may have been state records, too, but the anglers released them before putting them on a scale. The catch-and-release ethic is so strong that many avid muskie anglers choose to release their fish no matter what.

That’s amazing to me. I don’t see a problem with someone keeping a fish that could be a record. Besides, I believe that at least some of those released fish end up dying anyway. The muskie doesn’t bounce back quickly from a fight, like bass do. So, there is some mortality caused by simply catching them, although muskie anglers have developed  techniques for minimizing the stress after landing.

In any case, the muskie fishery in Minnesota is in fine shape, to the point where our lakes are attracting muskie chasers from other states. More and more folks are targeting the big fish, and the DNR is continuing to stock them in lots of lakes — and adding more lakes to its list.

I’ve caught a few muskies over the years, up to 45 inches. After reading stories like Gergen’s, I’m tempted to try again. But, I’d like to catch a few bass first.

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Inside the head and heart of famed newspaper cartoonist Bill Mauldin

February 5, 2011

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On Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963, the back page of the Chicago Sun-Times carried what may be the most memorable editorial cartoon of the 20th century.

Cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s drawing of a weeping Abraham Lincoln from his Lincoln Memorial chair captured the emotion of a nation when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

That Mauldin was able to get to the core of human feelings shouldn’t have been surprising to those who had been able to literally be in the foxholes with soldiers during World War II thanks to the cartoons of “Willie & Joe” that Mauldin drew from the front lines and newspapers across the nation carried.

How Mauldin was able to document history in the space of an editorial page cartoon is documented itself by Todd DePastino in a thorough biography published by Norton in 2008 and now out in paperback, “Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front.”

There’s all the usual biographic information, of course, but DePastino takes us inside the complex artist-journalist-author to learn what drove the man to do all he did. Readers will learn not only how Mauldin crafted those “Willie & Joe” cartoons by why he did them and why they were important enough to society to earn Mauldin the Pulitzer Prize.

The war-time “Willie & Joe” cartoons first made Mauldin a celebrity, but the cartoonist’s path to fame took him first to Army life where pettiness and inequality reigned, allowing Mauldin to take the side of the underdog, the abused foot soldier, with the aim of helping them make it through the grim, grimy, death-filled, often hopeless side of combat and army life.

Mauldin’s confrontation with Gen. George Patton — and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower telling Patton to leave the cartoonist alone — is a freedom-of-the-press scene that never made it into the award-winning “Patton” movie but DePastino tells well.

Like each of us, though, Mauldin was not without his faults, and DePastino isn’t shy about recording the lows of his subject’s life as well as the highs. The ambiguity of human life becomes clear as we read how this one talented artist could prick the conscience of so many — and really have an impact that forces change — while having conscience failings of his own in his personal life.

More than a few Mauldin cartoons help illustrate each chapter, but this isn’t a picture book. For a complete list of that kind of work, go to http://www.billmauldin.com. Most of his work is out of print, but they might make for a fun search when your browsing your local used books store. — bz

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Hidden heroes of World War II given their due in entertaining format: Pulp history

October 30, 2010

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Remember “Classics Illustrated”?

The comic book-style versions of “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “Treasure Island” and “The Three Musketeers”, were my first taste of great stories.

Simon & Schuster taps into some of that cartoon format in “Shadow Knights: The Secret War Against Hitler,” one of the publisher’s “Pulp History” series.

First, though, these are great stories that keep you turning the pages.

  • A one-time school teacher is dropped into occupied France and organizes resistance groups that badger the Nazis. Will he survive?
  • A young female refugee parachutes into France to send wireless messages right under the noses of the Germans. Will she escape before she can be caught?
  • Norwegians face impossible odds and endure incomparable suffering to try to blow up the factory making heavy-water that the Allies fear the Germans will use to create nuclear bombs. Will they get there to place their explosives, and, if they do, will they get out alive?

Great writing by Gary Kamiya of these stories of the agents of the British Special Operations Executive makes for 163 pages of entertainment, and the illustrations by Jeffrey Smith would make great posters if any of these stories of behind-enemy-lines fighters were to become movies.

Archival photos and propaganda posters from both sides of the conflict and informative sidebars add to a unique fun read that’s educational as well.

Yet, as thrilling as the spy stories are, as exciting as it is to read about the hidden heroes that helped to win the war, the post-script of “Shadow Knights” makes this work of history something to make today’s reader think about the events of our own time.

It isn’t far-fetched to read about the deaths of innocent civilians when a spy blows up a Nazi boat and think of both the deaths of thousands of innocents at the World Trade Center and the leaked informaton about the deaths of thousands of innocents in Iraq due to the terribly named “collateral damage.”

“Shadow Knights” makes it clear that the stories of the SOE agents is a tribute to the power of humans to sacrifice for others and achieve incredible feats for a greater goal; they do not glorify war.

An excerpt carries that message. David Howarth, who helped run the legendary small-boat service between Scotland and Norway for SOE, wrote:

” To ascribe glory to the violent death of any yong man loving life is only to add further folly to the failure of human wisdom which is the cause of war.”

Amen. — bz

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So you think you know Pope Benedict

October 17, 2010

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I tend to shy away from books that look like “Benedict XVI: Essays and Reflections on His Papacy,” a new release edited by Mary Ann Walsh, because it looks like one of two things I don’t usually value: a coffee table book or a hagiography, the kind of puff writing that glorifies the subject.

Can’t judge a book by its cover.

If you want to know what the pope thinks about the critical issues of the day, if you want to give yourself a quick course in church teaching on those issues, read the essays Sister Mary Ann has gathered.

And, if you want to know a lot more about Joseph Ratzinger, the man, read the personal reflections that make the Holy Father not just human but someone you’d like to meet and know better.

Know, though, that you won’t find anything negative in the book about B16 (thanks, Adam Robinson, for the shortcut nickname!). I can live with that because this Sheed & Ward imprint does well what it aims to do.

Photos aren’t superb

If there’s a weakness it’s that, in a book with a lot of photos on its 224 pages, there aren’t a lot outstanding images. There are a couple that are gorgeous, some that capture history, but many are pretty pedestrian. There are just a few too many boring shots of B16 greeting dignitaries. However: A wise editor once said, all photos look better the larger they are printed, and the design of “Benedict XVI” gives even those average pictures the kind of play that is attractive if not stunning.

The excellent photos, for my taste, are a couple shots I’d never seen before: a shot from the air of what B16 sees out his window when leaving Vatican City, and a beautiful image of the pontiff resting on a garden bench, looking like your grandfather resting after a tiring day, alone with his thoughts and at peace.

The essay I appreciated the most was Stephen Colecchi’s insight into B16′s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth) — summarized in almost bullet points. And I loved one by Don Clemmer headlined “Shepherding Cats.” Who knew the pope was a cat person?

Getting to know the pope

Just about every one of the personal reflections told me something I didn’t know about our German pope. Several American cardinals and archbishops — including Minneapolis-St. Paul’s own Archbishop John Nienstedt and native son Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis — shared anecdotes about times they’ve come in contact with the Holy Father, and like all good anecdotes they give us an insider’s perspective and tell us something about the pope we might never otherwise know.

He plays the piano? He skis?

Sister Mary Ann, who is director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, adds one of the best anecdotes — telling about the time the pope made a mistake and how he acknowledge it with self-depricating humor. And Nancy Wiechec, a great photographer and the visual media manager for Catholic News Service, gives readers an insight about the Holy Father that only comes from numerous opportunities to view the pope through her camera lens.

Even the 16-page resource section is fact filled. Did you know Joseph Ratzinger entered the seminary at age 12? That was in 1939 — the same year the Nazis invaded Poland to start World War II.

It’s a book worth its $29.95 price tag. –bz

Benedict XVI: Essays and Reflections on His Papacy

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So you think you know Pope Benedict

October 16, 2010

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I tend to shy away from books that look like “Benedict XVI: Essays and Reflections on His Papacy,” a new release edited by Mary Ann Walsh, because it looks like one of two things I don’t usually value: a coffee table book or a hagiography, the kind of puff writing that glorifies the subject.

Can’t judge a book by its cover.

If you want to know what the pope thinks about the critical issues of the day, if you want to give yourself a quick course in church teaching on those issues, read the essays Sister Mary Ann has gathered.

And, if you want to know a lot more about Joseph Ratzinger, the man, read the personal reflections that make the Holy Father not just human but someone you’d like to meet and know better.

Know, though, that you won’t find anything negative in the book about B16 (thanks, Adam Robinson, for the shortcut nickname!). I can live with that because this Sheed & Ward imprint does well what it aims to do.

Photos aren’t superb

If there’s a weakness it’s that, in a book with a lot of photos on its 224 pages, there aren’t a lot outstanding images. There are a couple that are gorgeous, some that capture history, but many are pretty pedestrian. There are just a few too many boring shots of B16 greeting dignitaries. However: A wise editor once said, all photos look better the larger they are printed, and the design of “Benedict XVI” gives even those average pictures the kind of play that is attractive if not stunning.

The excellent photos, for my taste, are a couple shots I’d never seen before: a shot from the air of what B16 sees out his window when leaving Vatican City, and a beautiful image of the pontiff resting on a garden bench, looking like your grandfather resting after a tiring day, alone with his thoughts and at peace.

The essay I appreciated the most was Stephen Colecchi’s insight into B16′s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth) — summarized in almost bullet points. And I loved one by Don Clemmer headlined “Shepherding Cats.” Who knew the pope was a cat person?

 Getting to know the pope

Just about every one of the personal reflections told me something I didn’t know about our German pope. Several American cardinals and archbishops — including Minneapolis-St. Paul’s own Archbishop John Nienstedt and native son Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis — shared anecdotes about times they’ve come in contact with the Holy Father, and like all good anecdotes they give us an insider’s perspective and tell us something about the pope we might never otherwise know.

He plays the piano? He skis?

Sister Mary Ann, who is director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, adds one of the best anecdotes — telling about the time the pope made a mistake and how he acknowledge it with self-depricating humor. And Nancy Wiechec, a great photographer and the visual media manager for Catholic News Service, gives readers an insight about the Holy Father that only comes from numerous opportunities to view the pope through her camera lens.

Even the 16-page resource section is fact filled. Did you know Joseph Ratzinger entered the seminary at age 12? That was in 1939 — the same year the Nazis invaded Poland to start World War II.

It’s a book worth its $29.95 price tag. –bz

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