Saturday Review of Books: April 18, 2015

“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

You can go to this post for over 100 links to book lists for the end of 2014/beginning of 2015. Feel free to add a link to your own list.

If you enjoy the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon, please invite your friends to stop by and check out the review links here each Saturday.

Mikis and the Donkey by Bibi Dumon Tak

This 89-page little gem of a story takes place in Corfu, a Greek island in the Mediterranean, and it’s about a boy and his donkey. Well, it’s really his grandfather’s donkey. The boy Mikis, however, is the one who names the donkey Tsaki and the one who cares for Tsaki when he is hurt and the one who insists on building Tsaki a new stable and the one who finds Tsaki a lady-friend.

This one reminded me of Red Sails to Capri by Ann Weil, a 1953 Newbery honor book: Mediterranean island, simple family life and family dynamics, children exploring the island and learning about their heritage and their place in their culture. Mikis and the Donkey also won an award from the ALSC, the Batchelder Award for children’s books originally published in another language and translated into English.

Anyway, it’s a lovely book, and I wish I had a copy for my library. It’s definitely going on my wishlist.

Genuine Sweet by Faith Harkey

I think this book, about “a small-town girl with big-time magic”, a middle grade novel that hardly mentions God and never references prayer as such, has something important to say about prayer and the way we relate to God and his generosity and grace, nevertheless. I’m just not sure I completely understood what it had to say, even though there’s a chapter at the end in which Miss Genuine Sweet tries to wrap it all up in a great big bow and present The Lesson(s) to the reader who’s made it all the way to the end of the story.

Genuine Sweet finds out near the beginning of the story that she has inherited the family shine for wish-fetching. Like her mother (deceased) and her grandmother before her, Genuine is a wish-fetcher. Gram tells Genuine: “Wish fetchers are real. The underlings of angels, my ma used to say, with humbler clothes.”

Of course there are rules. The most important rule is that “wish fetchers can’t grant their own wishes.” And they only grant “good-hearted wishes”, not wishes for revenge or evil gain at the expense of others. Wish fetchers draw down magic from the stars and find a way to grant other people’s wishes.

So Genuine Sweet, twelve year old inhabitant of the very small and isolated town of Sass, Georgia, becomes a wish fetcher. And it’s not long before the whole town is in an uproar over Genuine’s ability to give people what they want and need with her wish biscuits, made out of liquid starlight and special miracle flour. And Genuine wonders what good it does to grant other people’s wishes when her drunken Pa is unemployed, she and her family are about to starve, and the electric is about to be turned off because they can’t pay their bill.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help but turn Genuine’s wish-fetching into a metaphor for prayer in my mind. What good does it do to pray for other people when it seems as if I have needs and wants of my own that God isn’t satisfying? How do we know how to pray and what to pray for? If we try to help others will our own desires be granted somehow in the end? What if the one you’re wishing for/praying for doesn’t want to be healed/strengthened/given whatever it you’re asking for on their behalf? Should you wish a good wish or pray a good prayer for someone who doesn’t want it? Jesus actually told us to ask God for our daily bread and for His provision for other needs, but sometimes (most times?) His answer to those sorts of prayers comes in the form of our own hard work and ingenuity. What if our prayers go unanswered?

At least one of the conclusions that Genuine Sweet comes to after all her adventures in wish-fetching is that “there’s nothing in the whole world—except our own selves–that can keep us from our good.” Her conclusion sounds a lot like a secularized version of a Bible verse I know: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:28-29)

I really enjoyed the story and the writing and the thoughts that the book brought to mind. If you read it, I’d be interested to hear what you think. Leave me a comment.

Books about Books, with Book Lists

Maybe you’re not as addicted to book lists as I am. But I often get questions about what books are really good to read aloud or to give to my seven year old or nine year old. Or what should I give to my son who reads nothing except Redwall or Encyclopedia Brown or whatever the latest fad is? Or how can I help my voracious reader find more good books? Or what books do you suggest that are set during the Middle Ages? What about books for science-loving children?

Well, I almost always have some to suggest. However, when I run out of ideas, or when I want to dream about more books for my future reading or for my library, or when I want to remind myself of all the great books I’ve already enjoyed, these are the books I go to. Books about books for children and for young adults:

Picture Book Preschool by Sherry Early. I am putting my book first, not because it’s the best, but because it’s for the youngest of our children—and their parents, of course. The simple spiral-bound book is a preschool curriculum, suitable for ages three to five, based on picture books that I have been reading to my children for the past twenty years. Each week of Picture Book Preschool is built around a theme, and includes a suggested character trait to work on, a Bible verse, and at least seven suggested picture books to read to your children. Available in print from Cafe Press or on Amazon as an e-book.

Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt. First published in 1969, this guide to “the imaginative use of books in family life”, is in its fourth edition (2002). Ms. Hunt recommends Harry Potter and other “modern classics” as well as as older books by more established authors, writing about all of these varied authors and books from a Christian perspective. Even if you’re anti-Potter, you can still get a lot out of this well-loved book about the joys of reading together as a family. Gladys Hunt also has two other books, Honey for a Teen’s Heart and Honey for a Woman’s Heart, both with excellent reading recommendations.

The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. Mr. Trelease’s book has been around for quite a while in several editions. (Latest seventh edition, 2013) It’s not written from a specifically Christian or homeschool perspective, but I didn’t find any of the ideas or the recommended books to be offensive or inappropriate for Christian readers. About half the book talks about why you should read aloud to your children, impediments to reading aloud, studies and thoughts about how reading aloud to children is foundational to their education, and the creation of a climate of reading the home and at school. The other half is an extensive list of suggested books: wordless books, predictable picture books, reference books, whimsical picture books, short novels, full-length novels, poetry, anthologies, and fairy and folk tales. I have the 2006-2007 edition in my library, and in it Mr. Trelease recommends lots of good books, some of which I have yet to experience and others of which I am quite fond myself.

Read for the Heart by Sarah Clarkson. Sarah Clarkson is the daughter of Christian homeschooling inspiration, Sally Clarkson, and her book, subtitled Whole Books for the Wholehearted Family, is a treasury of wonderful reading suggestions. Sarah is a kindred spirit, including many of of my slightly lesser-known favorite authors such as Nancy White Carlstrom, Mem Fox (Australian, not as well known in the U.S.), Joan Aiken, Caroline Dale Snedeker, Brinton Turkle, Sydney Taylor, Barbara Willard, and many more. Ms. Clarkson’s newest book is Caught Up in a Story: Fostering a Storyformed Life of Great Books and Imagination with Your Children. Long title, great book with even more reading suggestions.

Books Children Love: A Guide to the Best Chidren’s Literature by Elizabeth Wilson and Susan Schaeffer Macaulay. (Revised edition: 2002) Susan Macaulay is another daughter of a well-known Christian thinker, Francis Schaeffer. Her book of book lists is based on Charlotte Mason’s ideas about the use of “living books” (another term for good, enriching books) in the education of children. The books are listed by grade level, and many of them are old classic books that would enrich any child’s, or adult’s, education.

Who Should We Then Read? by Jan Bloom. The ungrammatical title notwithstanding (the author explains and defends her reasons for choosing to use “who” rather than “whom”), this guide to “authors of good books for children and young adults” is invaluable for its listing of wonderful authors and series from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, authors who wrote wonderful, imaginative books for children and who are in danger of being forgotten and not enjoyed by a new generation. Some of my favorites listed in this book, with information about the author and an exhaustive list of each one’s works, are: Patricia Beatty, L.M. Boston, Leon Garfield, Elizabeth Janet Gray, Cornela Miegs, Lois Lenski, F.N. Monjo, Leonard Wibberly, Glen Rounds, Katherine Shippen, John Tunis, and again, many, many more. Ms. Bloom’s book is ring-bound so that it lies flat, and there’s a sequel: Who Should We Then Read, Volume 2.

The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had by Susan Wise Bauer. This book is more for mature students and for adults who want some sort of guide to reading the “best” books that they never managed to read in high school or college. Ms. Bauer writes about training your mind to read thoughtfully and wrestling with books and keeping a reading journal, and then she recommends books for “jumping into the Great Conversation” in the areas of classic novels, autobiography and memoir, history and politics, drama and poetry. The book is somewhat intimidating to some folks, but I just read it as another book of old friends and new book suggestions, not as a definitive list of the books one must read in order be properly educated.

You should know that these books were all published at least ten years ago. Many of the books in them are out of print, and many public libraries have weeded these older books out of their collections in spite of their quality and excellence. Librarians must keep up with the new and the popular because of public demand, but when they do so, these older books are endangered. That’s why some homeschoolers and others I know are making it their work to preserve, publicize, and in some cases loan to others, these endangered titles.

If you have any of the books on this list or any of the out of print and hard to find books that are listed in these guides that you would like to donate to my library, please feel free to contact me.

The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson

The Circle Maker: Praying Circles Around Your Biggest Dreams and Greatest Fears by Mark Batterson.

Prayer is a mysterious thing. Mark Batterson, pastor of National Community Church in Washington, D.C., writes about answered prayers and unanswered prayers and prayer circles and praying through and specific prayers and dreams and life goals. I found the book inspiring, and as I indicated, somewhat mysterious. Appropriately enough. If I had prayer figured out, I would very nearly think that I have God figured out, and that would be presumptuous and unwise of me.

“Most of us don’t get what we want because we quit praying. We give up too easily. We give up too soon. We quit praying right before the miracle happens.”

“We shouldn’t seek answers as much as we should seek God. If you seek answers you won’t find them, but if you seek God, the answers will find you.”

“Sometimes the power of prayer is the power to carry on. It doesn’t always change your circumstances, but it gives you the strength to walk through them. When you pray through, the burden is taken off of your shoulders and put on the shoulders of Him who carried the cross to Calvary.”

“Faith is the willingness to look foolish.”

“There is nothing God loves more than keeping promises, answering prayers, performing miracles, and fulfilling dreams. That is who He is. That is what He does. And the bigger the circle we draw, the better, because God gets more glory. The greatest moments in life are the miraculous moments when human impotence and divine omnipotence intersect – and they intersect when we draw a circle around the impossible situations in our lives and invite God to intervene.”

“if God doesn’t answer the way you want, you still need to praise through. That is when it’s most difficult to praise God, but that is also when our praise is most pure and most pleasing to God.”

I am in the midst of a prayer journey with God, and it looks impossible. I’ve been asking him to do something, something good and right and big and important, for nigh on ten years now. So far it’s not happening. In fact, as far as I can tell, nothing is happening that moves us closer to God’s glory or my desires. However, I’m determined to keep praying, keep wrestling, until God gives me what I am asking or until I die and go to be with Him. And if I’m in heaven and my prayers are still not answered, I’ll keep asking there.

I think that’s what this book is all about, and that’s what God asks us to do in the Bible:

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7

And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. John 14:13

And if we know that he hears us—-whatever we ask—-we know that we have what we asked of him. 1 John 5:15

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. John 15:16

The other thing I got out of this book was a new encouragement and vision for goal-setting.

“Goal setting begins and ends with prayer. God-ordained goals are conceived in the context of prayer, and prayer is what brings them to full term. You need to keep circling your dreams in prayer, like the Israelites circled Jericho.”

Maybe I’ll share some of my “life goals list” with you soon. What life goals has God given you?

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming

The Family Romanov: Murder Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming.

Were the Romanov family a Christian family, persecuted by the evil Communist revolutionaries and ultimately martyrs to their (Orthodox) faith?

“Alix (Alexandra) . . . spent hours a day on her knees in prayer.” (p.28)

“God’s will must always be accepted without complaint. After all, everything that happened in life was the result of God’s will, so it was pointless to question the meaning of events. ‘God knows what is good for us,’ Nicholas often reminded himself. ‘We must bow down our heads and repeat the sacred words, ‘Thy will be done.”” (p.43)

“Typically Nicholas believed Alexei’s illness was God’s will, and so he accepted it passively. ‘My own fate and that of my family are in the hands of Almighty God.'” (p.55)

“Alexandra believed Rasputin’s healing powers were a gift from God, the answer to all her long hours of prayer.” (p.87)

“Alexandra wanted to do more. So she enrolled in nursing courses, and she took nineteen-year-old Olga and seventeen-year-old Tatiana with her. . . Working in the wards, the students washed, cleaned, and bandaged maimed bodies, mangled faces, blinded eyes.” (p.138)

“‘It is necessary to look more calmly on everything,’ she (Alexandra) said three months after her husband’s abdication. ‘What is to be done? God has sent us trials, evidently he thinks we are prepared for it. It is a sort of examination—to prove we are ready for His grace.'” (p.185)

“Their mornings began and evenings ended with prayers.” “Marie offered to read aloud from the family’s favorite collection of sermons.” (p.228)

Or was Nicholas an evil, violent man and was Alexandra blinded by her near-idolatry for Rasputin and for her icons to which she turned in faith that they would make her son well?

“They (the police) shared Nicholas’s view that ‘the Yids,’ as he derisively called his Jewish subjects, ‘must be kept in their place.'” (p.69)

“Nicholas decided to crack down on all of his subjects. Now, he declared, they would ‘feel the whip.’ Perhaps then they would think twice before rebelling.” (p.79)

“Their work (the pogroms) delighted Nicholas. Once, after reading a particularly gruesome report of hangings and beatings, he turned to an aide. ‘This really tickles me,’ he said. ‘It really does.'” (p.80)

“Alexandra firmly believed Rasputin was God’s messenger, sent to guide them through the war. ‘I fully trust in Our Friend’s wisdom endowed by God to counsel what is right for you and our country,’ she wrote Nicholas.” (p.148-9)

Both, I think, however contradictory that may be. The book is certainly a warning to those of us who are Christians: we may be blinded by our own prejudices and those of our culture into believing things that are contrary to the gospel of Christ and into acting upon those erroneous beliefs. We must always compare our actions and beliefs with the yardstick of Scripture and ask for specific guidance from the Holy Spirit. I believe that if Nicholas and Alexandra had done so in regard to the Jews and to Rasputin, that guidance would have been granted to them.

Ms. Fleming does a good job of presenting a balanced and intriguing picture of the Romanovs, and I recommend the book.

Saturday Review of Books: April 11, 2015

“I read for one reason: because my father read to me and it made me feel so good I never forgot and I wanted my children to taste it, too.” ~Jim Trelease, The Read-Aloud Handbook

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Sorry, I’m running late this weekend.

Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

You can go to this post for over 100 links to book lists for the end of 2014/beginning of 2015. Feel free to add a link to your own list.

If you enjoy the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon, please invite your friends to stop by and check out the review links here each Saturday.

Soulprint by Megan Miranda

The premise of this YA novel is that souls enter new bodies when people die, i.e. human reincarnation. And someone has a computer database record of whose soul has gone where and what that soul did in a past life. This database is controversial, secret, and important because of the other premise in the novel: souls of evil people (in new bodies with new identities) tend to repeat their past crimes. In other words, if I was thief in this life, my thieving soul gets passed on to the next person who inherits my soul.

So, in spite of the philosophically flawed idea of reincarnation, I found the book’s questions intriguing. Nature vs. nurture. Can we overcome or transcend our own past mistakes and sins, even those in this life? How? Why do we often repeat those bad decisions and sinful patterns? How do we become something better than what people expect us to be?

The book begins with seventeen year old Alina Chase, in seclusion on an island by order of the government to keep her from repeating the crimes of her past life. Alina doesn’t know much about who she was in her past life or what she did, but she’s tired of being blamed for something she didn’t really do and can’t even remember. When three other young people help Alina to escape the island, the four go on the run together, but Alina finds that the others have their own agendas and want to use her to gain their own ends. There’s romance, a bit of a triangle, but it’s fairly chaste as YA novels go these days: lots of heavy breathing and some intense kissing.

I liked the book, but the reincarnation thing bothered me because I just don’t believe in it. I found it hard to suspend disbelief and take the “database of past lives” seriously. However, that’s a flaw in my imagination. Otherwise, I thought it was deftly plotted and intriguing enough. It’s for teens looking for a psychological romance thriller in a sci-fi world.

Weight of a Flame by Simonetta Carr

Weight of a Flame: The Passion of Olympia Morata by Simonetta Carr.

I received this book, from the author, for possible review a long time ago, started reading it, and then misplaced it. Then there was the fire, and I thought it had been lost. Then, I found it!

It is the somewhat fictionalized, but historically accurate, story of a 16th century Italian Reformation scholar and poet, Olympia Morata. The book is one of the series, Chosen Daughters, published by P & R (Presbyterian and Reformed) Publishing, whose mission is “to serve Christ and his church by producing clear, engaging, fresh, and insightful applications of Reformed theology to life.”

Weight of a Flame does serve that purpose with the story of an unusual Christian woman. I particularly liked this description of Olympia’s mother, Lucrezia: “Quiet and reserved by nature, she had learned the power of silence, leaving all matters to God.” I am trying to learn that lesson myself, but I don’t find it easy to “leave all matters to God” and remain silent in situations when I know that I should keep quiet. I sometimes have a tendency to rush in where angels fear to tread.

Olympia Morata was a classical scholar in an era when women often did not even learn to read. She was a Protestant Calvinist Christian in a largely Catholic country, Italy. She wrote poetry, essays, and letters in Greek and in Latin and translated many of the Psalms into metered poetic settings which her husband then put to music.

Some of Olympia Morata’s poetry (translated from the Greek that they were originally written in):

I, a woman, have dropped the symbols of my sex,
Yarn, shuttle, basket, thread.
I love but the flowered Parnassus with the choirs of joy.
Other women seek after what they choose.
These only are my pride and delight.
(Translator: Roland Bainton)

PSALM 23
The King of great Olympus and the bountiful earth,
He shepherds me. What shall I desire? For in a soft meadow
He lays me down, where beautiful living water flows
to refresh me whenever toil overwhelms me.
He himself leads me in righteousness to straight paths
for the sake of his own great compassion and mercy.
If through the dark glooms of monstrous Hades I go,
all the same my mind and heart shall be unmoved,
for always have you been an aid to
Your rod and staff help me when I fall.
A most beautifully prepared table you set before me,
a great strength empowering me, if I am overcome
with hostile hands in fierce battle.
You anoint my head richly with oil, and the cup
you give me overflows with honey-sweet wine.
Always is your heart merciful to me, in order that all the days
I might dwell within your high-vaulted, great and beautiful house.
(Translator: Chris Stevens, Westminster Seminary)

WEDDING PRAYER
Wide-ruling Lord, highest ruling of all,
Who has fashioned both male and female.
To the first man you gave a wife,
So that mankind would not fade away.
And the souls of mortals should be a bride to your Son,
And he should gladly die for the sake of his wife,
You give a united heart of happiness to husband and wife,
For the ordinance, the marriage couch, and the weddings are yours.
(Translator: Chris Stevens, Westminster Seminary)

The last poem seems particularly apropos for 2015. I would that its sentiments and assumptions were as uncontroversial now as they were in the 16th century.

Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky by Sandra Dallas

What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be an American when your own country’s government distrusts you, mistreats you, and sends you to a relocation camp far from home?

Tomi Itano lives in California with her mother, her father, and her two brothers. Her father grows the best strawberries around. Tomi is a Girl Scout, and her older brother Roy plays clarinet in a high school band called the Jivin’ Five. Her little brother loves baseball. But all that all-American normality is about to change after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor.

Now Tomi’s jovial father is arrested as a spy, and Tomi, and her shy, reserved mother, and her brothers are sent first to a temporary camp in Santa Anita and then to Tallgrass, a made-up name for a Japanese relocation camp in Colorado (the real camp in the desert of Colorado was called Amache). Will Tomi’s mother, Sumiko, be able to take charge of the family while her father is away? Where is Tomi’s father, and when will he come back? Will Tomi learn to accept life at Tallgrass, or will she become bitter like others who only see the injustice of their situation and cannot seem to enjoy anything about their life as it is?

It’s another take on the Japanese internment camps, and I suppose it’s just as appropriate and needed as any other book on any other aspect of World War II, but I am growing tired of the sub-genre. Particularly, I am tired of books about the Japanese relocation camps that have nothing new to say about the admittedly shameful episode in American history. However, I am fifty-seven years old, and I’ve read about it all before. For a fictional introduction to the subject, this book was not bad at all. If it had been the first or even the second book I ever read about the Japanese internment camps, I probably would have liked it a lot more than I did.

See also:
Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. (memoir)
Journey To Topaz: A Story Of The Japanese-American Evacuation by Yoshiko Uchida. (memoir)
The Fences Between Us by Kirby Larson. (fiction)
Imprisoned: The Betrayal of Japanese Americans during World War II by Martin W. Sandler. (nonfiction)
I am an American: A True Story of Japanese Internment by Jerry Stanley. (nonfiction)
Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata. (fiction)
A Diamond in the Desert by Kathryn Fitzmaurice. (fiction)
Barbed Wire Baseball by Marissa Moss. (biography)
Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki. (memoir)
The Bracelet by Yoshido Uchida. (picture book fiction)