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Exploring the World in Books

I am taking a blog break for Lent, but I thought I’d share some of my old posts from years gone by. I’ve been blogging at Semicolon since October, 2003, more than eleven years. This post is copied and edited from February 28, 2005:

Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And hope without an object cannot live.
–Coleridge

I read Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya and thought it gave a beautiful, but very sad, picture of life in India for many people. It’s the story of a poor family, a fourth daughter who, because she has no dowry, cannot marry well but must settle for marriage to a landless tenant farmer who brings her home to a mud hut he built himself. Fortunately for the girl, Rukmani, her husband Nathan is “poor in everything but in love and care for me, his wife, whom he took at the age of twelve.”
Rukmani narrates the story in first person, telling of the birth of her daughter, the long wait during which the couple think they will have no more children, and then the birth of her five sons. The village where the family lives is on the edge of poverty and starvation; a bad year with too much rain or too little rain will push Rukmani’s family over the edge. Change and new economic oportunities come to the village; however, these new ideas and possibilities are full of danger too, for peasants who have nothing in reserve and are unable or unwilling to move with the times.
I wrote about a month ago about some of my favorite fantasy worlds. These fantasy worlds were first encountered on the pages of books. Then, there are historical and sociological worlds that I visit mostly in books, too. Finally, there is the actual world. I’ve never been to India or China or South America, but I have a picture of what life in those lands is (or was) like–again, from books. I think that Nectar in a Sieve, first published in 1954, will become a large part of my picture of India, along with missionary stories, the young man I met a few years ago at Baptist World Alliance Youth Conference, and other sources, such as the women I see at the grocery store here in Clear Lake dressed in saris.
Warning: The book has a bittersweet ending, but it’s realistic without being hopeless and depressing. Excellent.
These are some of my favorite books that have given me vivid pictures of the world. Most of them are fiction.
Around the world in books:
South Africa: Cry, the Beloved Country and Too Late the Phalarope both by Alan Paton
India: Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan, The Christ of the Indian Road by E. Stanley Jones, Boys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth.
China: Imperial Woman by Pearl S.Buck, The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang, Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin, other books by Pearl Buck
Antarctica: Troubling a Star by Madeleine L’Engle,
The Netherlands: The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
England (Yorkshire): All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot and all the many, many books I’ve read that take place in England.
Russia: The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig (And, of course, Tolstoy and Dostoyevski, although they’re more historical)
Israel: Exodus by Leon Uris
Hawaii: Hawaii by James Michener

Can you suggest any books that capture the culture and living conditions of a country in either fiction or biography? I do prefer and learn more from stories.

Happy Birthday, Monsieur Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne, b. 1533.

Advice for bloggers from Montaigne:
Don’t discuss yourself, for you are bound to lose; if you belittle yourself, you are believed; if you praise yourself, you are disbelieved.

When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and banish the clouds from my mind.

It is more of a job to interpret the interpretations than to interpret the things, and there are more books about books than about any other subject: we do nothing but write glosses about each other.

It is good to rub and polish our brain against that of others.

There were never in the world two opinions alike, any more than two hairs or two grains. Their most universal quality is diversity.

He who has not a good memory should never take upon himself the trade of lying.

I speak the truth, not my fill of it, but as much as I dare speak; and I dare to do so a little more as I grow old.

Master Cornhill by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Eloise Jarvis McGraw is the author of three other books that we have either read, or read aloud, in out homeschool in connection with out history studies. Her historical fiction for middle grade readers is challenging, with complex characters and vivi depictions of time and place. The Golden Goblet and Mara, Daughter of the Nile are set in ancient Egypt, and Moccasin Trail is a story of the American West and the trappers and adventurers who opened up the frontier in the early nineteenth century.

Master Cornhill is set in a very specific time and place: London in 1665-1666. The Great Plague in the summer of 1665 drives eleven year old Michael Cornhill from his home with loving foster parents in London to live in the countryside with not-so-loving Puritan friends. When the danger of the plague dies down, Michael takes the opportunity to return to london, alone, even though he knows that his foster parents are probably dead. What he doesn’t realize is that the friends and neighbors that he relies on to take him in and get him started on a path toward a trade or an education are also all gone, victims of the plague. Michael finds himself alone, an orphan with no skills to sell and no money to keep himself fed and clothed.

The story is about how Michael finds friends who help him, how he manages to weather difficult circumstances such as impressment for the Dutch War and the Great Fire of London, and most of all, how he finds direction and a purpose for his life. The atmosphere and buildings and culture of seventeenth century London come alive in this beautifully written story, from the gangs of soldiers impressing all available men into the King’s navy to fight the Dutch to St. Paul’s Cathedral where the business of London is conducted in the nooks and crannies of the great church courtyard to London Bridge lined with houses and shops to the Great Fire itself in September 1666. Ms. McGraw makes history relevant and interesting to readers of the twenty-first century by following an eleven year old boy from 400 years ago as he finds friends and allies in the streets of London. I could imagine my children in Michael’s place, and although it was a dangerous life, Michael survives, by the grace of God and by the innocence and persistence with which he faces his new circumstances.

Ms. McGraw’s books are probably better read aloud to middle grade to junior high students, since she doesn’t pander to the controlled vocabulary or the push for perpetual motion and action in contemporary fiction for children. Motivated readers who enjoy history can read it on their own, there is a lot of period detail and slang that will trip some readers up and enthrall others. Count me in the enthralled group.

I looked on Amazon for a good nonfiction “living book” about the Great Fire of London, but I didn’t really find anything that looked very readable. G.A. Henty has a book about the Great Fire, When London Burned: a Story of Restoration Times and the Great Fire, but I find his books rather hit or miss. Some are good enough, and others are too long, too preachy, and/or too slow, even for me. I recommend Master Cornhill for a good introduction to the time period and to the event.

Then, you could read an excerpt from Pepys’ Diary, where he tells about his experience during the Great Fire.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.

Five Things That Made Me Smile on February 11-12, 2015:
1. I got a compliment on one of my grown children, something I knew but was glad to hear that others recognize.

2. I was asked to speak at a local homeschool “expo” in May and give a forty-five minute workshop on “living books” (like Master Cornhill) and reading aloud as the backbone of homeschooling. I’m really excited to have this opportunity to share my love of excellent books with an audience of new and sometimes struggling homeschoolers. My themes so far: “Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!” and “Build your family culture around books.”

3. I am learning the value and discipline of silence. Enough said.

4. Betsy-Bee will be sixteen years old tomorrow. What a blessing she is!

5. This blog post by Bible study leader Beth Moore: It’s Prayer. That’s the thing.

“It’s time we quit falling asleep in prayer. It’s time we quit practicing a prayer routine that bores us to tears. It’s time our quiet times ceased to be quiet. There are battles to be won. Works to be done. The kinds which only come through prayer, prayer, and more prayer.”

Fierce Convictions by Karen Swallow Prior


Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior.

I was captivated by “extraordinary life” of this woman of God, “best-selling poet, novelist, and playwright, friend of the famous, practical philanthropist, and moral conscience of a nation.” Hannah More may be a forgotten woman nowadays, but she was far from unknown in late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England and even throughout Europe and America. She was a protege of the eminent Dr. Samuel Johnson, close friends with the famous actor David Garrick and his wife, a co-laborer with the abolitionist William Wilberforce, and acquainted with almost all of the eminent writers and evangelical gentle women and men of her day. She wrote multiple volumes of letters, essays, tracts, stories, plays, and one best-selling novel. She influenced the abolitionist movement to end the British slave trade, the animal welfare movement, the Sunday School movement, and the efforts of anti-poverty reformers and literacy activists.

In fact, she would be something of a patron saint, if Protestants had such saints, for those interested in the promotion of literacy and reading. She opened Sunday Schools in many poverty-stricken communities and villages where no school of any kind was to be found. These Sunday Schools were not just pretty little Bible story times, but rather full-fledged schools for the poor and illiterate which met on Sundays because that was the only day when poor children and adults did not have to work all day long. She also wrote books and tracts and story papers for the poor and for the burgeoning middle class. Her stories and poems were generally pleas for morality with a neat a little lesson or message embedded therein, a style of writing that’s somewhat out of fashion now but was very much in vogue in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Hannah More was a witty woman with a ready tongue, but tamed somewhat by her allegiance to the Lord Jesus. Here are a few Hannah More quotations that I found delightful:

On the poet Alexander Pope, who is buried, according to his wishes, at St. Mary’s Church in Twickenham instead of at Westminster Abbey: “You will easily believe, madam, that I could not leave Twickenham without paying a visit to the hallowed tomb of my beloved bard. For this purpose I went to the church, and easily found the monument of one who would not be buried in Westminster Abbey. . . . Pope,I suppose, would rather be the first ghost at Twickenham than an inferior one at Westminster Abbey.”

On Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “. . . he is an entertaining and philosophic historian, yet, as Ganganelli said to Count Algarotti, ‘I wish these shining wits, in spite of all their philosophy, would manage matters so that one might hope to meet them in heaven; for one is very sorry to be deprived of such agreeable company to all eternity.’ It requires an infinite degree of credulity to be an infidel.”

On Dr. Samuel Johnson: “In Dr. Johnson some contrarieties very harmoniously meet; if he has too little charity for the opinions of others, and too little patience with their faults, he has the greatest tenderness for their persons. He told me the other day he hated to hear people whine about metaphysical distresses, when there was so much want and hunger in the world.”

On reading and writing: “I read four or five hours every day, and wrote ten hours yesterday.”

On Sir Joshua Reynolds’ painting of Samuel from the Old Testament: “I love this great genius for not being ashamed to take his subjects from the most unfashionable of all books.”

Hannah More is most associated with the literary, artistic, and political community that established itself at a place called Clapham and became known as the Clapham Sect, although they were not a sect and not all of the members actually lived at Clapham. They were a group of evangelical Christians with in the Church of England who worked together to bring about the abolition of the slave trade and the reform of what they called “manners”, what we now would call culture or worldview in action.

The greatest value of this little book, aside from reviving the memory of a forgotten saint, is to give a sort of generalized pattern for Christian community that can begin to change the world, as the often trite phrase is. These people—Wilberforce, his cousin Henry Thornton, preacher John Newton, Hannah More, publisher Zachary Macaulay, abolitionist James Stephen, poet William Cowper, and other perhaps less famous—worked together as a community, each using his or her own special gifts, to promote various causes and reforms that they saw as advancing benevolence and the cause of Christ. They fought against the slave trade by preaching, writing poetry and essays, publishing tracts and pamphlets, promoting the boycott of East Indian slave-produced sugar, producing art and decoration that illustrated the plight of the slaves, making speeches, and introducing legislation to abolish slavery and the slave trade into Parliament again and again and yet again. They took up other causes at the same time, and they endeavored to live out their Christian commitment in relation to one another and to the world at large. They truly “spurred one another on to good works.”

It seems to me that such a group could be an inspiration to those of us today who want to work together to do our own small part in advancing the kingdom of God. The Clapham sect were not a commune. They did not live monastically. They were not exclusive. They worked with others, such as Horace Walpole and Sir William Pitt, who did not share all of their beliefs. And yet they were a force to be reckoned with in merry old Georgian England. If the Inklings are a model of Christian literary community, Hannah More and the Clapham sect are another example to which we can look and from which we can learn. I would love to hear from others who have read the book and who see ways that we in our day and time could use what they did to revitalize our culture and nation.

Ideas anyone?

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North Korea in Books


North Korea is notoriously the most closed society and country in the world. I couldn’t take a trip there even if I wanted to or had the money to go.However, reading these books about North Korea and North Korean defectors made me want to know more —and inspired me to pray for those who are trapped in Kim Jong Eun’s “socialist paradise.”

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden. The man is Shin Dong-hyuk. His story is just about as intense and harrowing as that of Louis Zamperini of Unbroken fame, but Shin’s story of torture, tyranny, and brainwashing begins from the time of his earliest memories. Shin was born in North Korea’s infamous Camp 14 to parents who were matched and allowed by the authorities to reproduce in a very limited way, to parents whom he never learned to love and from whom he received very little love or encouragement himself. He is the only known prisoner to have successfully escaped from a “total-control zone” prison camp in North Korea alive. Here you can hear a taste of Shin’s story in his own words:

Shin Dong-Hyuk’s story is not over, or even near over, and it remains to be seen what God will do in his life.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick follows the lives of six north Koreans (and their families to some extent) over the course of about fifteen years, from the early 1990’s until 2009. All are former residents of the city of Chongjin, located in the northern part of North Korea near the border with China. All six escaped North Korea to go first to China, then to South Korea. Ms. Demick, a journalist who spent some time living in Seoul and covering both Koreas, interviewed these defectors and worked to understand and enter into their lives to write this book about the famine in North Korea that extended through the last decade of the twenty-first century as it was experienced by average people in that country. The title comes from the children’s theme song of the 1970 North Korean film We Have Nothing to Envy in the World. The irony is inescapable as one reads of children eating grass and tree bark to fill their stomachs and old people dying quietly of starvation. The people of North Korea, for the most part, actually do have nothing to envy because information is so tightly controlled and limited that they don’t even know that the rest of the world does not share the harsh conditions that their succession of dictators, Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and now Kim Jong Eun, have inflicted upon them.

I plan to read more about North Korea soon, including the following books:

Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad by Melanie Kirkpatrick.
Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim.
The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and The Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom by Blaine Harden (the same author who wrote Escape from Camp 14).

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Christmas in Holland, 1943

A Dutch family celebrates Christmas/St. Nicholas Day during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands:

St. Nicholas told Pieterbaas to look in the bag and see what was in it. To everyone’s amusement, Pieterbaas pulled out six chocolate bars! They were small bars, but they might have been of gold. Chocolate had been unknown in Holland for the past three years. Now Betsy believed more than ever in St. Nicholas’ magic!

St. Nicholas sat at the table and had supper with the family. Mother had added to the meal a sauce of the mushrooms Joris had picked, so that there would be enough food for everyone.

Betsy exclaimed that she had never before eaten with St. Nicholas. “Are you going to see my Daddy,” she asked.

St. Nicholas was struggling with the soup; he seemed to have difficulty finding his mouth through the beard. “Yes, yes,” he said. “Of course, I don’t forget people.”

“And what will you bring him?” asked Betsy. “Bread pudding?” Bread pudding seemed to be a family joke at the stationmaster’s house.

“No, I’m going to bring him good news of his girls. He’ll like that best,” said St. Nicholas. Koba and Betsy nodded. That seemed reasonable. ~The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum

Christmas in Northeast China, 1940

David Michell was born in China, the son of Australian Christian missionaries working with the China Inland Mission. He was at Chefoo School, away from his parents, when the Japanese took the students and staff there captive. He spent part of the war in an internment camp, the same camp where Olympic runner Eric Liddell was held. This Christmas, described in a letter to the students’ parents, was just before the Japanese took over the area in 1941.

From A Boy’s War by David Michell:

“Just before Christmas the well-known story of Scrooge once again delighted youthful eyes and ears and prepared the way for the Spirit of Christmas 1940. On Christmas Eve little messengers went round the compound or to the houses of other friends carrying bulging bags, waste paper [baskets], or even laundry baskets full of gifts, while others with dolls’ prams filled them with gay packages and wheeled them off. Meanwhile a bevy of artists from the Girls’ House transformed our dining room into a Christmas bower, where red and green and silver glowed in the soft lights from the tree.

Just as supper was over a Chinese school visited us and filled the hall with their hearty singing while our children looked on in solemn amazement. . . . That night a package found its way on to the foot of each bed, not quite burning a hole through the covers in the few short hours till Christmas Day in the morning. That morning began at 6:30, and instead of the clanging of a gong, church bells relayed by a gramophone echoed down the passages. Breakfast was followed by family prayers round the table, and again the soft lights on the tree shed their radiance over a scene which you would love to have looked upon. Our hearts bowed in worship as we sang of the One who came, ‘A little Child to earth, long ago’ from the knowledge of whom comes all peace and joy and love.”

Christmas in Southern England, c. 1350

The Door in the Wall by Marguerite deAngeli, winner of the 1950 Newbery Medal:

“There never was such merrymaking as took place in the Hall that Christmas Eve. Such ballads sung! Such tales told!

Branches of holly and spruce decked the Hall and filled the air with fragrance. The yule log burned on the hearth and flaming torches filled the sconces.

The King and Queen sat enthroned in the great chairs on the dais. A tapestry was draped on the screen behind them and rich Eastern carpets beneath.

**********

‘Sire,’ Robin began, ‘I do thank you for this great honor, and I beg you to accept my song of Christmas.’ He brought forward the little harp he had grown to love and sang this carol:

Come to Bethelehem and see
Him whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the new-born King.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.”

If You’re Reading This by Trent Reedy

Mike gets a letter a few weeks before his sixteenth birthday: “If you’re reading this, I’m very sorry, but I was killed in the war in Afghanistan.” Thus begins a series of letters to Mike from the dad he didn’t really know who died in Afghanistan when Mike was eight years old. Can Mike get to know his dad and maybe get some wisdom and advice, even though his dad is gone?

This YA contemporary fiction book has several things going for it:

It has a male protagonist, written by a male author. Mike really feels like a typical sixteen year old guy, kind of a straight arrow geek, but those really do exist. Mike reminds of some sixteen year olds I know.

The plot hinges on and features football, a very popular sport that hasn’t received its due in YA fiction. At least not in a good way. The stereotypical football player inmost YA fiction is a popular brain-dead jock who’s dating or dumping the also popular, brainless cheerleader. Mike finds friendship and community and the enjoyment of being part of a team in playing football, even if he does have to deceive his mother in order to make the team.

Mike’s dad is an everyman soldier who died in Afghanistan, and we get to know him as Mike does through his letters. Mike’s mom is over-protective and also distracted by trying to provide for Mike and his sister. These are real parents, not cardboard, and they both play an important part in Mike’s life and in the story. Not many YA novels really delve into the parent/teen relationship of imperfect parents who nevertheless love and try to relate to their also imperfect sons or daughters. Usually the parents are absent, stupid, or evil. Mike’s parents are none of the above.

I wouldn’t hesitate to give this book to any teen who’s trying to make sense of the war in Afghanistan or Iraq or any of the future wars we manage to get ourselves into. It’s not the final word on war or the meaning of life or heroism or honor, but it is a perspective. It’s an honorable and real perspective. I am quite impressed with Mr. Reedy as an author and as a commentator on the effects of war on families and especially young men. I like his other book that I read, Words in the Dust, and I liked this one, too.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Nonfiction November: Week 2 Lists!

Lu/Leslie at Regular Rumination asks us to Be/Become/Ask the Expert:

Share a list of titles that you have read on a particular topic, create a wish list of titles that you’d like to read about a particular topic, or ask your fellow Nonfiction November participants for suggestions on a particular topic.

Well, I have two three ongoing projects, and I’d love to have suggestions for either.

My U.S. Presidents Project is stalled at the moment, but I’d like to take it back up in January. I have a copy of David McCullough’s Truman waiting for me to get around to it. And here I have a list of presidential biographies I’d like to read. What books should I add to my list? Leave me a comment about any biographies of U.S. presidents that you’ve read and enjoyed, and please leave a link to your review, if you wrote one.

My Africa reading project is also ongoing. I was trying to focus on one are of Africa each year, but that idea fell by the wayside when I would find a book set in another part of Africa that I wanted to read. So any nonfiction about Africa or African countries?

I almost forgot about this list of 50 Nonfiction Books for 50 States. Do you have any suggestions to add to this list?

I am going to enjoy exploring other bloggers’ nonfiction reading lists and projects. I may have to restrain myself from taking on another reading project as a result of reading others’ lists.