Escape From Aleppo by N.H. Senzai

The two previous books by N.H. Senzai that I read, Shooting Kabul and Saving Kabul Corner, were both about Afghan immigrants to the United States, and they were both good, informative reads. Escape From Aleppo is set in Syria, mostly in 2013, as the protagonist, Nadia, becomes separated from her family and is caught between government troops, rebel brigades, and ISIS fighters, as she tries to flee to Turkey for safety and to find her family.

The story is a little heavy on the “informative” side, probably necessarily so considering the ignorance of most Americans in regard to Syrian history and politics. Nevertheless, I enjoy learning about history and current events through the medium of fiction, and Escape From Aleppo tells a good tale of life and the struggle for survival in a war-torn country.

Fourteen year old Nadia, even as she is escaping the bombs and snipers of Aleppo, remembers her twelfth birthday, December 17, 2010, which happened to coincide with the beginning of the “Arab Spring” insurrections and demonstrations, all ignited by a young man’s suicide in Tunisia. The civil unrest and rebellion against “authoritarian regimes” moves to Syria in 2011, and to Aleppo where Nadia lives in 2012. All of this history is covered in the book by means of interspersed flashback chapters that interrupt the flow of the narrative about Nadia’s journey to safety at the Turkish border through war-torn Aleppo and through the Syrian countryside. However, I’m not sure how the background information could have been conveyed in any other way, and I did learn a lot about recent Syrian history and government, and a little about more ancient Syrian history.

The story includes some mystery; who is the mysterious old man with the donkey who agrees to help Nadia reach the Turkish border? And there’s quite a bit of suspense and adventure. Of course, since it takes place in the middle of a war, there’s violence and tragedy, but none of the descriptions is too horribly graphic. Nadia is the central and most fully realized character in the book, and readers will identify with her fight to grow up quickly, be brave, and take charge of her life and her journey.

Saturday Review of Books: January 20, 2018

“Be as careful of the books you read, as of the company you keep; for your habits and character will be as much influenced by the former as by the latter.” ~Paxton Hood

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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.

The Stranger from the Sea by Winston Graham

This eighth installment of the Poldark Saga begins with King George III and his final descent into madness in 1810, and it ends with a marriage proposal for one of the Poldarks, refused, in 1811. Ten years have passed since the ending of the seventh book in the series, The Angry Tide. The growing-up years of Ross and Demelza’s children—Clowance, Jeremy, and little Bella—have been largely happy and uneventful. The Ross Poldark family are neither immensely rich nor poor, neither socially active nor reclusive, and finally comfortable and happy. Ross and Demelza are comfortable in their marriage; the enmity between George Warleggan and Ross Poldark has moved into a phase of distant truce, after the death of Elizabeth Warleggan at the end of The Angry Tide. Ross’s tin mine produces an adequate living, but not too much.

George Warleggan continues in this book to be rich, although he nearly loses his fortune in a bad investment decision. Ross Poldark continues to be idealistic and somewhat eccentric. Demelza is still salt of the earth and beautiful and commonsensical, all at the same time. In fact, all of the old characters from the previous seven novels make an appearance, each one playing his part. But the focus has shifted in this book to the younger generation: Ross and Demelza’s children, Valentine Warleggan, Geoffrey Charles Poldark, the progeny of the Sawle villagers, and other turn of the century young adults who are now coming of age and making their own decisions about love, friendship, and business.

Then, there’s the “stranger from the sea”, one Stephen Carrington, rescued from drowning by Jeremy Poldark and friends. It’s a bit odd that the book is named for Stephen Carrington, and I wonder who had the authority to give titles to these books, the author or the publisher? If Mr. Carrington were not the eponymous “stranger” of the title, he would not be nearly so important a character in the book as he seems, given the reference. Stephen Carrington is certainly mysterious throughout the book; I never did know whether to believe a word he said, even though he was a likable, perhaps harmless, liar. But the story is really about Jeremy and Clowance, not Carrington or any one of the other suitors attracted to Clowance, and certainly not either of Jeremy’s erstwhile flames. Jeremy is really more in love with steam engines than with with girls, although he manages to have loved and lost (a girl) by the end of the book.

I find the history woven into these novels—the Napoleonic wars, the madness of King George, the political maneuverings of Whigs and Tories, the Industrial revolution—by Mr. Graham to be fascinating, and the picture Graham draws of a society in the midst of upheaval and change is excellently well done. I recommend all of the Poldark Saga novels that I’ve read so far, and I plan to read the next one, The Miller’s Dance, post-haste in hopes of finding out what will happen to Miss Clowance Poldark and Master Jeremy Poldark as they come into adulthood.

You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

A multigenerational story of a family that combines and stands out with so many common traits and differences that it’s hard to keep up with who resembles whom and who’s going to defy cultural and family expectations and strike in a new direction.

The Das family is Bengali to begin with, immigrants from India/Bangladesh to the United States, via England and Ghana for brief stays in both of the latter places. Over the years in the U.S. the Das girls, Sunny and Starry, find their own connections to their Bengali heritage while forging a new connection to the United States and to its many peoples and varied cultures. And their children, the third generation, also have to negotiate the sometimes delightful and sometimes treacherous decisions that come with upholding tradition and opening oneself up to change at the same time.

I found this book to be both insightful and challenging. I am plain bread white Texan (with maybe a little bit of Native American heritage that’s been mostly lost in the annals of time). I have no cultural heritage except for the culture of white Southern/West Texas country folks. My family never expected me to square dance or two-step or enjoy certain books or music or dress is a certain way. And yet. I understand the pull of family expectations, both the ones I felt from my parents and the ones I have for my own children. I get the difficulties of combining very different families and learning to accept each other’s differences while appreciating the commonalities. Families are a great joy and a great challenge, and this book speaks that truth in a Bengali/American context.

It’s also a great book about growing up, about appreciating your family and their strengths and weaknesses while at the same time working to differentiate yourself from them. Sunny and Starry grow up to be just like their parents, except for the many ways that they are not at all like their parents. And the book also takes socioeconomic differences and challenges and decisions into account as yet another set of intricate cultural influencers that make the characters in the book look at themselves and and others in disparate, sometimes conflicting, ways.

Don’t get the idea that Sunny and Starry and their parents and their children are simply flat, stand-in characters representing Every Immigrant or the “immigrant experience” or AnyTeen who has a journey to make to “find herself”. The people in You Bring the Distant Near are memorable, well-rounded people who make choices that are sometimes surprising and sometimes predictable, always thought-provoking and endearing. Not all of the people in the book make the best decisions, but they are all trying, and as a reader I was rooting for them to succeed in building strong families and strong connections, the same things I want for my own family.

The Great Good Thing by Andrew Klavan

The Great Good Thing A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ by Andrew Klavan.

I dearly love a good Christian conversion story or memoir. And Andrew Klavan’s story is a good one, full of insight and self-reflection and understanding that only a man from an intellectual Jewish background, who came to faith in Christ by way of a tumultuous childhood, a writerly and journalistic sensibility and career path, and a nervous breakdown, could express and communicate.

“It reminded me of the sense I’d had then that our mortal lives were just incarnate metaphors, that we are stories being told about the living love that created us and sustains us. Maybe all of history’s beauty and bloodshed was a story not about pleasure and pain and power but about humanity’s relationship with an unseen spirit of love. We yearned for the spirit but we feared and hated it, too, because when it shone its terrible light on us, we saw ourselves as we were, broken and shameful, far from what the spirit of love had made us. Maybe all our wars and rapes and oppressions were just our attempts to extinguish that light and silence that story.”

“We are stories being told about the living love that created us.” I really like that formulation. I pray that my story is somehow glorifying the God who made me, and I trust that He will make it so.

I’m feeling a bit inadequate to actually review Mr. Klavan’s version of “Confessions”, so I’ll just link to some other reviewers who say good things about The Great Good Thing. I do recommend the book and its author.

John Wilson at Books and Culture:The Great Good Thing tells the story of his conversion with candor, wit, and humility (no preening, no cant). It is a memoir, he emphasizes, focused on that story, not a full-fledged autobiography, but it encompasses the whole arc of his life, and especially his childhood and growing-up years before he left home at the age of seventeen.”

An Orthodox Jew Reviews Andrew Klavan’s ‘The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ’ by Avner Zarmi.

What Would the Founders Think?: “Klavan’s conversion was not that of Saul on the rode to Damascus. Klavan’s journey was more like that of an archeologist who senses that there is something to unearth beneath a tell but does not know what it is. As each artifact is excavated, he begins to formulate one hypothesis after another, discarding each until the final piece is revealed. When all the parts are assembled, he has no choice but to accept the result as truth.”

Read it. Then, come back and tell me what you think.

Rules for Thieves by Alexandra Ott

Thieves have been rather popular in middle grade fantasy fiction for the past few years. The “thieves” are usually Oliver Twist or Artful Dodger types, lovable scapegraces who come out of poverty and sometimes end up as princes or kings or long lost sons of rich families. And mostly the thieves are boys. (Megan Whalen Turner’s Thief series, Jonathan Auxier’s Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, The Dungeoneers by John David Anderson, The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen, Jupiter Pirates series by Jason Fry, Chronicles of Egg by Geoff Rodkey, and many more that I’m not thinking of, I’m sure.)

Twelve year old Alli Rosco fits the prototype in some ways. She’s an orphan who never really suited any of the many families looking to adopt, but she didn’t like any of them either. Her mother abandoned her on the orphanage doorstep at the age of three, and Alli has been trying ever since to forget her mother and the brother who didn’t get sent to the orphanage. And she’s also been trying to escape from the orphanage, from any adoptive parents foolish enough to take her home for a trial run, from all of the rules and fences that orphanage life is all about.

But when Alli does escape, she finds that life on the streets is not so easy. And she learns that she can’t trust anyone, but also she can’t live without trusting someone. In fact, Alli must trust a thief, maybe even become a thief, if she is going to survive. She may have to commit herself to follow the rules of the Thieves’ Guild if she wants to remain free of the orphanage, but is that a trade-off she’s willing to make?

Alli is spunky, independent, resourceful, and outspoken, but she also has her own code of conduct that gets tested and crowded by the necessities of survival on the streets. At first, she’s not sure she should steal at all, but she soon realizes that in order to eat she will have to take food from market stalls. The trash cans are not an adequate source of nourishment. Then, Alli get caught in a situation in which she must choose to join the Thieves Guild and become a professional thief or choose to die a slow and painful death. She chooses the Guild, but not without some qualms. What is all of this thieving doing to her soul?

This debut novel by an Oklahoma author has a lot of action and character development, but it also tries to deal with the deeper questions inherent in a story where thieves are the protagonists, the “good guys” to some extent. Is it really fine to steal from the rich, just not the poor? How do you decide who’s rich and who’s poor? Is violence or at least the threat of violence an inexorable part of being a thief? If so, where does one draw the line? Do haughty, selfish rich people deserve to die protecting their valuables? If they do, is it the thief’s fault or the owner’s? Is there “always a price” for everything you get in life? What if someone else ends up paying the price for your survival?

Perhaps the sequel to Rules for Thieves, Shadow Thieves, will answer some of those questions as Alli “must risk everything to save her new family from a rogue organization that is threatening the Thieves Guild’s existence—and the lives of all its members.” I’m looking forward to reading it when it comes out in June, 2018.

12 Children’s Books from Around the World to Read in 2018

My Children’s Books Around the World project has been languishing somewhat. It’s not always easy to get one’s hand on the books, sometimes necessarily in translation, in order to actually read them.

Here are 12 books I’d like to go ahead and read this year:

Blinky Bill by Dorothy Wall. (Australia)

The Boundary Riders by Joan Phipson. (Australia)

Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat. (Canada)

The Horse Without a Head/ A Hundred Million Francs by Paul Berna. (France)

A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer. (Mozambique)

Simple National Slovak Tales by Pavol Dobsinsky (Slovakia)

Jungle Doctor by Paul White. (Tanzania)

Children of the River by Linda Crew. (Cambodia)

It’s a Jungle Out There! by Ron Snell. (Peru)

The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis. (Afghanistan)

The Storyteller’s Beads by Jane Kurtz. (Ethiopia)

The Princess and the Lion by Elizabeth Coatsworth. (Abyssinia/Ethiopia)

All of these, except for the Slovak tales, I have in my library, ready to be read.

I also have a separate list of British children’s books that I’d like to read this year and also a list of books about India (mostly adult), a country I’d like to focus on in 2018. Stay tuned for reviews and comments on all of these as the year progresses.

Wanted: Immigrants from ********

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

This is America.

We invite and welcome refugees who are fleeing from impoverished circumstances or from oppressive governments or from cruel persecution.

We want the tired and poor and wretched and homeless to come to America where they can rest and breathe and work and live and worship and add their skills and imagination and industry to further themselves and their families and to build up this country and make it truly great. We want all of those who with good intentions and noble dreams want to come and work with us to further the American experiment—a government and a country that is led and built by the people, for the people, and of the people.

Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that America doesn’t want this kind of person or that kind of immigrant. Don’t listen to the worst voices who call you inferior or unwanted because you come from an impoverished background or from a disrespected group of people or from a place of war and chaos. You are wanted. You are needed. America is great only because Americans have welcomed those who came to help realize her vision of a free people, united in the quest to create liberty and opportunity for all.

America has not always lived up to her ideals. Sometimes, instead of being a shining city on a hill, we have been a purveyor of slavery and racism within our own borders and an exporter of American imperialism without. However, those tragic mistakes—the enslavement of black people and Asians, the annihilation of native American peoples, the imposition of foreign rule in other countries—are and have been just that, tragedies and a betrayal of the true meaning of the United States of America. We are better than our historic crimes and abuses, and we are and will be better than the current clamorous agents of dissension, discord, and disharmony.

I believe that those who are now using stupid and derogatory language to discourage and ridicule and disparage the homeless and the tempest-tost and yes, people of color, will eventually be out-shouted and out-numbered by the millions of Americans who join with Lady Liberty to say, “Send these! I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I pray that those true, good, and grateful American voices will be heard clearly and soon.

Reading Through India: a 2018 Focus

I thought I might try to focus on one country or part of the world each year, reading books and watching movies from that part of the world in order to develop a “feel” and store of knowledge about a particular country or region. 2018 is going to be the year of India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. So, the following are some books for me to choose from. I don’t plan to read all of these, but I do hope to read several.

Kim by Rudyard Kipling. I tried this classic novel of India from a British colonial perspective a couple of years ago, but I couldn’t get into it. IthinkI’ll try again.

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. I think I read this children’s classic when I was a child, but I’d like to re-read.

Two Under the Indian Sun by Jon and Rumer Godden. Famed author Rumer Godden and her sister Jon collaborated on this memoir of their childhood in colonial India, 1915-1920.

The Peacock Spring by Rumer Godden. Two British (white) half-sisters, Una and Hal, come to India to live with their divorced U.N.-diplomat father. Both girls become romantically involved with Indian men.

Kingfishers Catch Fire by Rumer Godden. Fiction about a young widow, Sophie, who goes with her two daughters to live in rural India, written in the wake of Rumer Godden’s own experience of living with her children in an isolated house in Kashmir. The title of the novel comes from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre. “A famous, major work on Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru, Admiral Lord Mountbatten, and the partition of India.” (Goodreads)

City of Joy by Dominique LaPierre. Fiction inspired by the true story of a doctor who moved to Calcutta in the 1960’s and experienced a spiritual awakening.

The Indian Bride by Karin Fossum. Norwegian mystery about a bride from India.

On the Far side of Liglig Mountain: Adventures of an American Family in Nepal by Thomas Hale. Medical missionary memoir.

The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. The Jewel in the Crown, The Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence, and The Division of Spoils. The origins of Paul Scott’s vast masterpiece.

My Seventh Monsoon: A Himalayan Journey of Faith and Mission by Naomi Reed. “From the view point of her seventh monsoon, Naomi Reed takes time to look back on the seasons of her life. As she does so, she shares with us her journey of faith and mission and reveals poignant truths about God and the way He works His purposes in our lives through seasons.” (Goodreads)

The Faith of Ashish by Kay Marshall Strom. Christian fiction from the Blessings in India series. Sequels are Hope of Shridula and Love of Divena.

Teatime for the Firefly by Shona Patel. India, 1943 and following.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I’ve heard of this book and seen it on numerous lists of recommended reading. I fear that it will be too “spiritual” and ecumenical for my tastes, but maybe not.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Not sure about this one either. “Born at the stroke of midnight, at the precise moment of India’s independence, Saleem Sinai is destined from birth to be special. For he is one of 1,001 children born in the midnight hour, children who all have special gifts, children with whom Saleem is telepathically linked.” It sounds very posh and literary, which may or may not be what I want to read.

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster. This novel is another one that I remember trying to read once upon a time, but I didn’t get very far with it. Maybe a second try is in order.

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. In the early 1950’s, Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find — through love or through exacting maternal appraisal — a suitable boy for Lata to marry.

Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II by Madhusree Mukerjee. I love Churchill, but he definitely had his faults and his blind spots. India was one of them, I think.

Mandala by Pearl S. Buck. “News reaches Maharana Prince Jagat and his wife, Moti, that their only son, Jai, has been killed by the Chinese in a border skirmish. An inconsolable Moti sends Jagat out to bring the boy’s spirit home. On the journey, the prince becomes involved with a beautiful and mysterious young American woman.” (Goodreads)

Dancing Princess by Jean Bothwell. Set in 16th century India during the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar. Or I may settle for some other novel by this author; many of her novels are set in India, and I’d like to try out her work.

Sold by Patricia McCormick. Verse novel about child sex slavery and prostitution.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. My friend Bethany says she “would recommend it as being worth reading, but warn that the fine balance seems strongly tipped to the despairing side of life.” I may or may not be in the right mood for this 500+ page tome sometime this year.

City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple. “William Dalrymple explores the seven “dead” cities of Delhi as well as the eighth city-today’s Delhi.” (Goodreads)

Outcast by Dianne Noble. Someone recommended this novel of modern-day Calcutta to me. A Hundred Hands by the same author sounds good, too.

Again, these are all books that I have yet to read, so I’m certainly not recommending all of them. Do you have any books about or set in India, Nepal or Sri Lanka to recommend?

Saturday Review of Books: January 13, 2018

“What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.” ~Alan Bennett

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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.