Surviving High School, by Lele Pons with Melissa de la Cruz

Social media has become the message in several recent fictional works. The plot of Ngozi Adichie’sAmericanah, for instance, recounts the development of a commercially successful blogger, with some chapters take the form of blog posts. Surviving High School traces the spectacular journey of “Vine” impresario, Lele Pons. It serves as a verbal interpretation of her Vines—short, looping videos, like video tweets. Almost eleven million people follow Lele’s Vines. Her collection has set a world record for the number of “loops” or repeats.

Although Lele writes within the context of surviving the high school experience, she also unwraps a unique marketing strategy, adds a note of authenticity to young adult fiction, and shares her personal perspective on teen life in Miami with its over-the-top drama, anxiety, and elation.

She and co-author Melissa de la Cruz describe Surviving High School as a “fictional memoir” inspired by Lele’s life and her Vines. The story begins as Lele transfers to Miami High School as a junior. Any hopes for acceptance, let alone popularity, fade when her unconventional attire, her braces, and her lack of allies at school mark her as an outcast worthy of scorn. Nevertheless, Lele demonstrates remarkable buoyancy, because no one mocks her more completely than she does in her Vines. Bursting with creative energy, each day after school she writes, produces, acts in and publishes her videos online. As time passes, so many of her classmates watch her Vines that she gains the acceptance and popularity she craves.

To truly appreciate the book, view some of Lele’s Vines. The PG-rated slapstick and self-effacing content deliver moments of levity, naughty language, and sometimes a wry observation. For example, a chapter in her book describes the characteristics by which Latinas recognize each other—reggaeton (a kind of rough, monotone rapping in Spanish accompanied by dance moves), the telenovela slap, and loud cursing. Lele’s Vine, 3 Signs That Show a Person Is Latin, humorously demonstrates each feature.  After actress Cameron Diaz shared this particular Vine with her fans, thereby validating it, the number of Lele’s followers jumped from 6,000 to 600,000. Lele’s current followers number 10.9 million with 7 Billion views or “loops” of her Vines. Although she has achieved the popularity she sought, Lele has also learned the cost of celebrity and often pines for the days when she could merely hang out with her friends.

In June 2016, Lele Pons turns twenty. She works as a fashion model and aspires to become an actress. Her punishing physical comedy reminds me of Lucille Ball’s role in I Love Lucy. Should a studio revive Lucy, it might consider Lele as its star and rename the series, “I Love Lele.”

YA author and high school teen, Lele writes about herself and her friends. Clearly, Lele has something to teach older YA authors—whose stories are based on their own lost youth or the lives of their children—about the current iteration of teen life. Her writing and her Vines show today’s teens in action, with their language, values, and wardrobe. Although many of the videos feature pranks, others address issues of jealousy, relationships, and Lele’s observations on human behavior. Lele makes it a point to maintain a high personal moral standard, unlike characters in some YA novels. She also uses her celebrity to teach her followers kindness toward each other.

Surviving High School may entertain and subtly instruct YA readers, but it offers older readers and YA authors fresh insights to young adult characters and the role and value of Vines and other social media in marketing books.

 

The Last of the Fairhaven Coasters: The Story of Captain Claude S. Tucker and the Schooner Coral, by Robert Demanche, Donald F. Tucker and Caroline B. Tucker

coasterOnce, the masts of sailing vessels rose like forests growing in the bays along the east coast of the North America. The most visible species of sailing vessels was the schooner, the workhorse of coastal commerce. Competition from improving roads, the development of railroads and motorized boats gradually clear-cut the marine landscape. The story of Captain Tucker and the schooner Coral remind today’s reader of the way it was, and how something so vital and seemingly imperishable could pass into history. The Coral may have gone, but thanks to the authors, it left its mark. The schooner, Coral represented the end of an era in maritime history. Its master, Captain Claude S. Tucker and his family have documented the exploits of this versatile cargo craft, using primary sources, logs, and personal experiences to portray the life and death of Coral. Launched in 1878, battered by the Northeast’s hurricane of 1938, it languished in a shipyard as funding ran out. During its lively sixty years of marine enterprise, Coral hauled an amazing assortment of cargo between ports along the middle Atlantic and New England coasts. The authors describe the human interactions between Captain Tucker, his crew, his family and the various clients. They explain the understandings and contracts that governed life onboard coasters and led to their economic success or failure. History buffs, seamen and the general public will delight in this readable and well-documented account of the proud, versatile and industrious schooner, Coral.

Saint Magnus, The Last Viking, by Susan Peek

Susan Peek invites her readers to meet Saint Magnus, one of her friends in high places. Although he lived 950 years ago, he speaks, through his heroic example, to modern readers on the most fundamental of current problems.

Standard definitions tell us that Vikings were pirates, plunderers, and raiders known for their use of the sword and axe to conquer land from Scandinavia to Normandy, subjugating many island in between. Saints, on the other hand, are persons of exceptional holiness recognized by the Church through the process of canonization. How then might a person of great holiness, virtue and benevolence also claim the title, Viking?

Magnus belonged to the family of the Chieftain or Jarl (Earl) of the Orkney Islands, located south of the Shetland Islands, west of Norway and north of Scotland. While raised in a warrior culture, it was not his military prowess in which he demonstrated his heroic virtue. His greatest challenges included external hostilities and betrayal within his own family. As a devout Christian, he forgave even his most despicable and treacherous enemies, for their sake and for the sake of his friends and family. He challenged Christians of all generations to pray for and forgive their persecutors and those who debase even the most sacred trusts and the most fundamental human values.

Susan Peek recreated daily life in the Orkney Island circa 1065— the farming communities, the governmental process and the personal profiles of the ruling family. An attempt by the dying Jarl to insure stability led to tragic consequences. The author brings the reader along for daring rescues, pitched battles among blood-splattered swordsmen, sea voyages and the horrors of imprisonment.

She explored the Dark Ages with its horrors including the agony of surrender, and the realization that the defeated warriors may die of their wounds or worse. They could only watch helplessly as their women and children fell under the power of their merciless enemy. The author analysed the psychology of revenge among those who lust for power, wealth and pleasure and the inevitable clash between Christian and pagan worldviews.

The light of St. Magnus serves as a beacon in this sea of darkness. His gentleness and mercy won the lasting respect of some of those who took up arms against him. He repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to seek peace and spare his enemies with no thought for personal gain and usually at a great personal cost. The power of Providence repeatedly saved him from certain destruction so that he could complete his crowning achievement for the sake of his family and the entire Orkney community.

Susan Peek clearly loves Saint Magnus and after reading about The Last Viking, chances are that your will love him too.

Take away lessons and applications:

  • The Year of Mercy – Beginning on 8 December 2015, the church will celebrate a year in which the gates of mercy will swing open. Mercy comes to the merciful. Saint Magnus exemplifies a truly Christ-like mercy that will challenge everyone who may hold a grudge, even against the most despicable person or group they know.
  • Sainthood runs in families – Saint Magnus is not alone among the members of his extended family when it comes to canonization. Think of all the other examples families with two or more saints. For instance, the cause of canonization for Louis and Zélie Martin, parents of St. Thérèse represent a recent example of how a strong family life leads to sanctity. How many others can you name?
  • Geography and History – Susan Peek serves as tour guide to the Orkney Islands, Shetland Islands, and neighboring Scotland and Norway all the way down to Wales and Ulster. I kept a map of the United Kingdom next to my copy of St. Magnus, so I could follow his many adventures and voyages. St. Magnus will leave you better informed about this important part of the world and its history.

A Man of Good Zeal: A Novel Based on the Life of Saint Francis de Sales, by John E. Beahn

     
     
     

Saint Francis de Sales, aristocrat, swordsman, lawyer, author, priest, bishop, loving evangelist, Doctor of the Church and inspiration to millions–his life and message remain particularly relevant in today’s world where discord and violence run rampant, often in the name of religion.

Beahn’s novel considers the life of Francis from the point of view of his cousin, Louis. When the cousins studied in Paris, despite the attitude of his father, who waged war against Calvinists, Francis befriended many Calvinists, seeking to persuade them to return to the ancient faith.  Francis realized “that the mind will not accept what the will rejects.”

Francis upset his father’s plans for his worldly success by answering his vocation to the priesthood. After ordination, with permission of their bishop and a supportive proclamation from Duke Charles, Fathers Francis and Louis traveled to the town of Thonon where they sought to first win the hearts of the Calvinist residents by avoiding public preaching which might have disturbed them. In response, many cordially responded to the “papist priests.”

Francis sent each of the Magistrates an Epistle to the Gentlemen of Thonon elegantly outlining the content of his evangelical message, but much time passed without a response. Harsh conditions and lack of progress prompted Louis to return home, but despite his loneliness, and personal danger Francis trusted that change took place on God’s schedule and by His means. Francis believed that for him to desert his reluctant flock would have spiritually damaged the citizens of Thonon.

When his father learned of his circumstances he sent an armed servant to protect Francis. His name might have well been Felix Culpa, because his presence prompted an attack in which Francis captured one of the assailants. Soon all three attackers were arrested. In the controversy that followed one of the Magistrates, Pierre Poncet offered to prosecute the assailants. His concern for Francis changed his heart enough to listen to his arguments, prompting Poncet’s return to the ancient faith. Soon the majority of the town also opened their hearts and minds.

Although the local bishop and even the pope rejoiced, Duke Charles took offense because Francis succeeded by suffering for his flock, whereas the Duke failed in his effort to convert these same Calvinists by means of force. When Francis needed assistance in his ministry, the diocesan clergy wouldn’t come into the area without military back-up. When Jesuits and Franciscans volunteered and effectively ministered to the converting populace, then the former pastors returned accusing Francis and his colleagues of stealing their parishes. In the years to come, the Duke stood in the way of Francis, the young, enthusiastic priest and potential successor to the aging bishop. Despite or maybe because of all of this adversity, Francis continued to grow and set an example to all priests and bishops.

In 2013, Pope Francis I* called for “shepherds who smell of their sheep” and has asked Papal Nuncios to find candidates to serve as bishops who are “close to the people, fathers and brothers.” They should be “gentle, patient and merciful; animated by inner poverty, the freedom of the Lord and also by outward simplicity and austerity of life.” They should “not have the psychology of ‘Princes.” Certainly Saint Frances de Sales exemplified these pastoral characteristics as both a priest and bishop. May he intercede for those blessed with a calling to each level of Holy Orders.

John E. Beahn’s novel based on the life of Saint Francis de Sales provides a readable story, rich in details, that honors this great saint. I recommend it to all who love the Catholic Church and all who desire to draw it closer to their hearts.

Beahn, John E. A Man of Good Zeal: A Novel Based on the Life of Saint Francis de Sales. Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 2013.

*Vatican Radio, June 21, 2013

(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)

Race with the Devil by Joseph Pearce

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Raised in the Shire, he left its tranquility for an adventure that brought him through battles, dungeons and peril until he found an immense treasure. To possess it, he fought a monstrously evil dragon. We speak not of Bilbo Baggins, but noted Catholic biographer Joseph Pearce.

To know the identity of author Joseph Pearce, you must first meet Joe Pearce, just as you must first encounter Saul of Tarsus to fully understand the greatness of Saint Paul. Like Paul, Joseph Pearce endured more than one beating, stoning (actually they used bricks) and imprisonment. Teresa of Avila equated humility and truth. Through Race with the Devil, Pearce opens his early life to the world, revealing pain, promise and God’s hand in his miraculous transformation.

If you judge a book by its cover, particularly the dust jackets of Pearce’s 2012 Saint Benedict Press publications, Candles in the Dark and Bilbo’s Journey, beware the photos, rich in Hobbit-like dimples and engaging smile. This impression clashes with the cold, determined, mask-like face that stares from the cover of Race with the Devil. When first I viewed this image, I wondered as to the subject’s identity. Imagine my shock at the subtitle: “My Journey (What, this is an autobiography?) from Racial Hatred (This can’t be the noted Catholic author that I’ve read.) to Rational Love.” In this amazement, I share, but in reverse order, the impression of Abbot Richard Yeo, OSB, who in the year 2000, “seemed genuinely astonished that (Pearce) had not only become a Catholic but had written books such as Literary Converts and (his) biography of Chesterton of which (the Abbot) was clearly familiar.” Although mine appears the mirror image of the Abbot’s shock, we both rejoice that “God can indeed mould the most unpromising of clay.”

Pearce dedicated his conversion story to the memory of his father, Albert Arthur Pearce, who taught Joseph to love his heritage, to fistfight-observing the Marquis of Queensberry rules, to appreciate English literature and to educate himself throughout his life. Albert also reinforced powerful nationalistic sentiments and bigotry, all of which played a part in Joseph’s life and set the tone for Race with the Devil.

At the age of sixteen, Joseph founded, published, edited, distributed and wrote for the Bulldog, the newspaper of the Young National Front, an auxiliary of the National Front, a “white supremacist organization that demanded the forced removal of all non-whites from the United Kingdom.” Joseph’s precocious achievement brought notoriety and, if not awards, two all-expenses-paid prison terms. Pearce opposed the immigration of Jamaicans, Indians, Pakistanis and others. (Observe that in Candles in the Dark, Joseph embraced the Jamaican people and the ethnically diverse members of the Missionaries of the Poor.)

His anti-Catholic sentiments brought him “across the sea to Ireland,” not to Galway Bay, but Belfast, “On the twelfth of July when it yearly did come…”* to march with Orangemen, “to the sound of the drum.”* Unprepared for the deadly “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, Joseph nearly became a “statistic.” Many of his friends in the Orange Order later died in that conflict.

Pearce made both friends and enemies. As political positions changed some friends became enemies. In Race with the Devil, Joseph reaches out to his former friends, apologizing for infractions even as small as failing to return a borrowed book or record. Thanks to Albert’s influence, Joseph learned to say something nice even about his enemies, such as the Irishman who broke his nose. The kindness of strangers deeply impressed the young Pearce: the policeman who loaned him the price of a ticket to a Chelsea football match, an adversary who after a heated radio debate, invited Joseph to lift a pint at his favorite pub, as well as the American Jewish attorney who resigned from the British equivalent of the ACLU, when that organization refused to let him defend the anti-Semite Pearce

While still sixteen, Joseph, now a full-time employee of the National Front, commuted four-hours, round-trip each work day. If Hobbits lived in burrows, Pearce spent nearly the equivalent of a day each week in the “Tube.” He read his way back and forth beneath London, completing the mandatory list of White Supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-Communist tomes. Although still a teen, Joseph’s critical thinking skills kept him from swallowing the entire bait and hook. His reading extended to Orwell to whom Joseph gives credit for part of his conversion. In contrast to Orwell’s bleak, inescapable despair, Joseph considered Alexander Solzhenitsyn a hero who continued to hope despite his confinement in the Gulag Archipelago. In time it was Solzhenitsyn who read the works of Joseph Pearce, opening the door to Joseph’s writing Solzhenitsyn’s authorized biography.

Conversion to Catholicism snuck-up on Joseph Pearce about the time of his second imprisonment. Solitary confinement, like the hours spent riding in the “Tube,” afforded Joseph time for spiritual reading, including two of Newman’s conversion stories, the works of Tolkien, Chesterton and others. Joseph emerged from the chrysalis of prison with his wings not quite ready for full flight. Nourished by the liturgy and a devotion to Our Lady, he still waged many a battle before his acceptance into the Roman Catholic Church and subsequent participation in the Catholic Literary Revival.

Like Bilbo, the dragon slain, Joseph had returned home with treasured faith, but the journey’s not quite done. It may be Joseph’s task to train a Frodo or a host of Frodos to meet and best even greater evils and rescue and share far more glorious treasures. I eagerly anticipate the sequel to Race with the Devil which may well flow from the pen of one of those fortunate few who now studies with this Catholic Literary Giant, Joseph Pearce.

*Modified from “The Old Orange Flute.”

(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)

Emusoi: Maasai Girls Tell Their Stories by Kasia Parham

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Kasia Parham relates the story of the struggle the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania as they face extinction as a people. The Maasai have lost much of their traditional cattle raising lands through drought, encroachment from large-scale farms and the expansion of national parks that cater to lucrative tourist safaris. In response, many displaced, young Maasai men have migrated to cities in search of employment as security guards and other trades while the uneducated young women have remained at home, ill-prepared for the changes that swirl around them. Emusoi means: discovery or awareness, so The Emusoi Centre proposed an innovative alternative to pending extinction: the education of girls.

Gareth Thomas, a Minister in the UK Department for International Development wrote in the forward to this book, “educating girls is one of the most important investments any country can make in its own future.” For some, this is a radical concept. Too much of the world regards girls and women as property. That portion of the world asks, “Why would a father educate his daughter when he plans to trade her to her future husband, perhaps a much older man, already with many wives?” Maasai fathers have exchanged their girls, as young as twelve, for cattle or even cases of beer.

The author presents stories by six Tanzanian Maasai girls, a perspective from one of their teachers along with addenda and testimony by Maryknoll Missionary, Sister Mary Vertucci: Director of The Emusoi Centre. The author enumerates the benefits of and obstacles to the Emusoi project as she unravels the complex interactions within the ecological, political, social, economic and cultural forces arrayed against the survival of the Maasai.

At first appearance, this richly illustrated, 56 page book seems destined for a young audience. Actually, young adults may find its contents challenging, but will, perhaps learn why the Maasai girls and their mothers have placed such a high premium on education. Both generations have risked emotional and physical suffering, including running away from home and beatings by husbands and fathers. All of this happened so that educated girls could begin to save the Maasai from assimilation and cultural extinction.

The author’s startling description of the role of women in this ancient society will evoke an immediate response in all readers. The good news is that The Emusoi Centre and its mission to educate girls have endured. In its first ten years, the enrollment at Emusoi sponsored programs, rose from six to more than 600 girls in primary, secondary, university and graduate schools. Some early graduates of the Emusoi program have joined the Centre’s staff. These and future alumnae will insure the longevity of the Emusoi dream for generations of Maasai girls. Through the efforts of The Emusoi Centre, the Maasai may also endure as a unique people.

Unlike many developmental efforts that separate native peoples from their land, heritage and language, the program of The Emusoi Centre arms the Maasai with the means to resist the destructive influences of disease, poverty, ignorance, and bureaucracy, with women trained in medicine, business, education and law. The Emusoi Centre offers the prospect of a Maasai people surviving indefinitely on their own land, with the best of their culture intact.

This publication, certainly appropriate for school-wide teen reading programs, fits many a niche. Every school child in the developed world needs the perspective provided herein, not only as a lesson in cultural diversity, but as a means of appreciating their own educational and economic advantages. The book could serve as a prologue to that famous “coming of age” conversation between parents and children. It can assist citizens of developed nations as they refocus their world view to embrace and revere a broader vision of cultural diversity. It also details contact information and specific directions for channeling funds to The Emusoi Centre.

Callista: A Tale of the Third Century, by John Henry Cardinal Newman

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First published in 1855, Newman’s novel remains fresh. Its foundation is a comparison of hereditary Christians to converts and those who seek happiness in the comforts of the material world to those who can be satisfied only by union with God.

Newman warmly and vividly details a story of death and new life in and about the Roman colony of Sicca Veneria in North Africa, circa 250 AD. As tour guide, he portrays the delicate shades of fields ripe with grain, rose gardens, vineyards, olive groves and orchards set against “the fantastic forms of the Numidian Mountains.” He escorts his readers through the hidden door to the wonderfully cool catacombs to share in the liturgy. He and his readers shop the market stalls of the forum. As barrister, he details the legalistic implications of the multiple forms of Roman marriage and then explains the process of the provincial courts along with their dreadful incarceration pits and their means of torture and execution. Mercifully, Newman also offers a peep at the beatific vision. The Cardinal adds a touch of the authenticity with the frequent use of contemporary Latin phrases, such as the infamous: “Christianos ad leones!” (Christians to the lions.)

As the story begins, the Christians had not seen a major persecution in fifty years. Worshipers of the Roman and local gods had come to tolerate, and even marry Christians. Bishops, priests and deacons grew more concerned with their business interests than their flocks. Their sheep strayed as they cooled in spiritual ardor. Christianity drifted toward extinction, as many idol worshippers hoped. Some thought a persecution would finish them off. Others remembered that previous persecutions had actually won converts to Christianity.

Then Rome celebrated its millennium with spectacles and sacrifices to honor the very gods that made Rome the ruler of the world. Decius, the emperor, decreed that the entire world should congratulate Rome through the worship of Jove and swear by the genius of the emperor. Decius promised that atheists (i. e. Christians) who refused to so swear would suffer a painful death. The onset of a persecution drew near.

In Sicca, the avuncular Jucundus, an innovative, prosperous but aging purveyor of idols, lived only for the moment with no thought to the hereafter. Unfortunately, his aspirations for a glorious legacy depended upon his nephews, Agellius and Juba. Agellius, widely known as a baptized Christian, avoided contact with the residents of Sicca, especially during their religious celebrations. Juba, his brother, would bend his knee neither to god nor man. His unpredictable behavior annoyed his uncle as much as did the stubbornness of Agellius.

Jucundus desperately hoped that Agellius might forsake Christianity if he married Callista, an artisan in his employ. Jucundus suggested to Callista’s brother, Aristo, that he urge her to accept Agellius. Aristo advised his sister: “I say he’s a fellow too well off to be despised as a lover.” Agellius needed no urging to approach Callista. Knowing that she admired Christianity he hoped this predisposition would lead her to accept him and that she would convert to the worship of the true God. Instead, Callista responded, “You have stood in the way of Him, ready to speak for yourself, using Him as a means to an end.”

Callista remembered Chione, a slave and a Christian who “spoke as if a Christian’s first thoughts were good will toward others; as if his state were of such blessedness, that his dearest heart’s wish was to bring others into it.” Callista has seen no such blessedness in Agellius. Chione had cared for nothing, Agellius wanted Callista for himself. Shortly before her death, Chione dreamed of a beautiful Lady who pledged to lead Chione to her Son, Jesus. Chione died joyfully, freed of her slavery and the bonds of earth as the Lady welcomed her into the beatific vision. Callista thought Agellius a cold Christian more interested in laws and restrictions. If anything he damaged what faith Callista still had.

On this low note the real troubles begin. Newman spares no detail in his descriptions of a locust plague, famine, riots; the brutal murder of Christians by the mob; the Roman legion’s methods of crowd control, as well as Callista’s arrest as a suspected Christian. She denied that she was a Christian, but refused to offer incense to Jove or swear by the genius of the emperor. Jucundus and Aristo used their influence to postpone Callista’s execution. They claimed that she must be out of her mind. The respite allowed a visit from a mysterious stranger.

Caecilius, a Christian priest had met Callista shortly before her capture. Their conversation stoked the embers of her faith. He trusted her with a scroll: The Gospel According to Saint Luke. Callista paid it no heed until her imprisonment. By the time Caecilius visited Callista in her cell, she was a Christian in all but baptism. Caecilius baptized her, conferred confirmation and fed her with the Eucharist. Before her ordeal, she dreamed of the radiant face of Chione. It gradually morphed into the visage of the Lady that had welcomed Chione and then changed again into that of her Son. Callista had found the love and meaning she sought all her life. She too, would soon enjoy freedom.

As Newman relates through his story, materialism twists the ethics of those who see nothing beyond this life. They might otherwise seek Christ but instead, freely reject the foolishness of Christianity because they know too many cold Christians rather than the likes of Chione and the new Callista. I highly recommend this book to all who seek to deepen their faith so that they may more freely articulate the true joy of Christianity to others.

You may find “Callista” at:

 

 http://www.newmanreader.org/works/callista/index.html.

(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)