Brother John: a book review

A few years ago, I read one of those genre-busting books by this guy I never heard of. It was called Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks by August Turak. Turak took the wisdom of the monks of Mepkin Abbey in Raliegh, North Carolina and applied their insights to business. I enjoyed the book, and I even reviewed it here. The book was unique enough that it stayed with me, though I have to admit, I forgot the author’s name.  

Brother John

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that my latest genre-busting read about monks, was actually by the same guy and set in the same monastery. This time it wasn’t a business book, it was a picture book, called Brother John. It was written for adults but nothing suggestive( not that kind of picture book). In it, Turak describes his time on a Christmas retreat at the Mepkin Abbey, and how the particular witness of a monk-saint called Brother John stoked Turak’s spiritual hunger and helped reveal to Turak his life’s purpose. 

This book is two decades in the making. The events described in the text happened over twenty years ago (1996). In 2004, wrote of his experience at the monastery for an essay contest on “the purpose of life” from the John Templeton Foundation. The essay won him the coveted Templeton Prize. Turak was able to turn this same essay into a picture book by enlisting award-winning artist, Glenn Harrington to illustrate it. Harrington provides over twenty full-color paintings of the Monks and Mepkin Abbey.  

The book describes Turak’s encounter with a holy life, revealed to him, first by a selfless act, Brother John walking him back to his cottage in the rain. But this small act opened up space for Turak to examine the condition of his own heart and his hunger for the holy.  

This is a quick read (it’s a picture book) but thoughtful and evocative. The art is stunning. I love the way the book communicates a sense of the sacred. It is set in a monastery, and the monks are located in the Christian tradition, though Turak writes broadly and inclusively enough that all spiritual seekers could find themselves in these words. I give this four stars. 

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the author or publisher via SpeakEasy for my honest review. 

Watch a Trailer for the book. 

The 8lb 6oz Baby Jesus: a kids’ book review

I am a father of four and I appreciate a good Christmas picture book, something that explains the meaning of Christ’s coming, in ways which are accessible and vivid for my children. And of course, cultural sensitivity is important too. There are too many Jesus books where Jesus, Mary and Joseph appear in Northern European guise, instead of as olive-skinned Mediterarian Jews. That Baby in the Manger by Anne Neuberger discusses how one Catholic parish wrestled with how Jesus appeared in their annual Christmas crèche and how they expressed the message that Christ came for one and all.
Anne Neuberger, the author, is a religious educator and children’s author who has produced teaching resources on Catholic customs and kids’ books on saints, notably Saint Francis & His Feathered Friends (Tau Publishing, 2013), and Saint  Kateri Tekakwitha, Lily of the Mohawks  (Novalis, 2013). That Baby in the Manger is illustrated by Chloe Pitkoff, a Brooklyn artist and student at Davidson College.

The story begins with first graders from the parish school visiting the church during Advent to look at the Christmas crèche. Mr. Gonzalez sits in the pew, watching and listening as the students discuss how Jesus is missing, not yet placed in the crèche, and the ways the Jesus used in the church crèche has blond curls and blue eyes. Father Prak explains to the children that the real Jesus probably had dark hair and eyes and that their statues are just there to help them reimagine Jesus in the stable.

Mr. Gonzalez remembers a similar discussion with his daughter when she was a little girl. He goes home after the children leave, and digs out his daughter’s old doll, swaddles it and returns to the church and lays it in the manger, offering it as a more accurate proxy for baby Jesus. On Christmas Day the church is full. The first-grader each came to Mass lovingly carrying their own dolls, with a wild diversity of shapes and sizes. They sang Away in a Manger and each placed their doll near the manger.

The story shows how Jesus came to us all. Neuberger’s words are illustrated by Pitkoff’s drawings—watercolor and colored-pencil sketches—in vibrant color.  I enjoyed this book a lot, as did my kids (though, it didn’t hold the attention of my two-year-old). This is a perfect addition to our Advent & Christmas library. Four stars -★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review