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)

Walking Home by Eric Walters

This middle grade novel, published in Canada and set in Kenya, has wonderful themes about forgiveness and responsibility and family loyalty and trust and the power of imagination. I don’t know how popular stories set in foreign countries are among the target audience, but this one is a great read.

Thirteen year old Muchoki and his younger sister, Jata, can hardly believe what has become of their lives. Only weeks ago, they lived in a bustling Kenyan village, going to school, playing soccer with friends, and helping at their parents’ store. But sudden political violence has killed their father and destroyed their home. Now Muchoki, Jata and their malaria-stricken mother live in a refugee camp. Will Muchoki be able to care for Jata when tragedy strikes the little family yet again?

The book tells a “journey story”. Muchoki and Jata walk across Kenya, through the great city of Nairobi, and to their grandparents’ home in Kambaland. But the book is about much more than cross-country hiking. As they travel, Muchoki in particular, who has seen and experienced terrible things when the family was forced out of their village, learns to trust people again, even people from the tribes that were his enemies and who killed his father and burned the family’s village. This trust, and even the beginning embers of forgiveness, do not come easily. Muchoki is often torn between his responsibility to protect his sister Jata, and his desire, even need, to ask for help and depend on adults around him to assist him in reaching his grandfather’s home. Muchoki is right to be careful and right to trust, and the book does an excellent job of showing how this young man, wise beyond his years, manages to balance the two. The book even hints at Muchoki’s loss of faith in the God who allowed such terrible things to happen to him and to others and his steps toward forgiveness and reconciliation.

In light of the terrible events in Kenya this past week and the other atrocities that keep filling our news feeds, this story is a good one to help children and adults begin their own journey of processing, trusting, caring, and forgiving.

Middle Grade Middling

All Four Stars by Tara Daiman is cute middle grade fiction about a budding restaurant critic and gourmet cook whose parents only know fast food and microwave cooking. The protagonist, eleven year old Gladys Gatsby, is rather deceitful and dangerously inventive, but she has parents who are unbelievably misguided. Not only will they not allow her to cook in their kitchen at all after an unfortunate accident with a blowtorch (understandable), they won’t allow her to read cookbooks, watch cooking shows, or eat anything other than the fast food and poorly cooked meals that they put together.
story is funny, a bit Wodehousian, and filled with great appreciation for excellent food. However, Gladys is something of a snob, and her parents are myopic in their adherence to poorly prepared junk food. Gladys doesn’t set a good example for middle grade readers when she disobeys her parents to sneak in a few cooking sessions and some reading of recipes, much less when she ditches a Broadway play to go by herself to the gourmet dessert restaurant down the street. But it’s all in good fun, and who’s looking for a role model in a humorous entertainment novel?

The Question of Miracles by Elana Arnold is an interesting story about the death of a friend and the possibility of miracles and an afterlife. Iris has lost her best friend in a car accident, and her parents have moved her to a new town to get her away from the trauma of the tragedy. But Iris hates Oregon where it rains all the time, and she still thinks about and misses her friend Sarah a lot. In fact, Iris is convinced that Sarah could be still there somehow, as a ghost or something, wanting to communicate with Iris if Iris could just figure out how to get a miracle.
All answers to the question of whether miracles are possible and whether Iris’s friend who died could possibly communicate with her after death are left open —except the Christian answers to those question which are never entertained seriously and (when a Catholic priest tries to explain that God answers different prayers in different ways) given short shrift. Also a few casual misuses of God’s name are disconcerting and unnecessary.

Listen, Slowly by Thanha Lai is a middle grade novel set in Vietnam, and I generally like seeing how children in other cultures are both like and unlike American children. However, Mai, the young lady who is the main character in the story, is a California girl through and through, even though she’s forced by her (Vietnamese immigrant) parents to go to Vietnam for the summer to help her grandmother navigate the search for what really happened to Mai’s grandfather during the Vietnam War.
Twelve year old Mai is spoiled, precocious, worldly, and obnoxious. Although she predictably improves by the end of the story, some of the shenanigans she pulls are too much for my “delicate” sensibilities. Example: she tells all the girls in the Vietnamese village where she is visiting that all American girls wear thong underwear and then helps them to turn their underwear into uncomfortable thongs. I just didn’t like Mai, and I had trouble sympathizing with her predicament of being stuck in Vietnam for the summer when she really wanted to be chasing boys on the beach.

A Train in Winter by Carolyn Moorehead

A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France by Carolyn Moorehead.

This book tells the harrowing story of 230 French resistance fighters, women, who were sent first to Auschwitz in 1943 and then to to Ravensbruck in 1944. By April 1945 after twenty-nine months of torture, imprisonment, and starvation, when Ravensbruck was liberated, only 49 of the 230 French women who had left Paris for Auschwitz survived.

Unfortunately, I had trouble keeping up with the various women’s names and backgrounds and feel it would have been better for the author to have concentrated her narrative on just a few of the women, those she was able to interview and get more information about. Nevertheless, the story of what these women endured at the hands of their Nazi captors was painful and appalling even to read about, and I was reminded again of just how cruel and sadistic we humans can be.

At the same time I was reading this book about these mostly Communist and atheist female resistance workers in France (only a few of the women professed to be practicing Catholics), I was also reading aloud The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom to my two youngest daughters. Corrie and her sister Betsie lived in the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands, and there their family ran an underground resistance network that mostly hid Jewish people and smuggled them to safe houses in the country or out of the country. In February 1944 Corrie and Betsie were arrested and sent to Ravensbruck, the same camp where the French women had already been transferred.

In The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom describes much the same horrific conditions that the author of A Train in Winter tells about as she relates the experiences of the French prisoners. They all experienced the same fleas, lice, nakedness, cold, hunger, violence, and brutality. Betsie Ten Boom died after spending about six months in Ravensbruck. Corrie Ten Boom was freed about a week after her sister’s death and sent home to Holland, her release due to a “clerical error.”

The contrast between the Ten Boom sisters and the French resistors was not so much in their circumstances, except that the French women spent much longer in prison, but rather in how they responded to and saw those circumstances. Nor were the French women any more or less courageous or perseverant than Corrie and her sister Betsie. Upon their return, however, the surviving French women “shared the same sense of alienation, loss, and loneliness. . . . There was no innocence left in any of them, and they would not find it again.” These women with their faith in country and in the Communist ideal “returned to families that had been broken up, houses that had been bombed or ransacked, children who no longer knew them. Many had husbands and lovers who had been shot by the Germans. Few, very few, found the life of happiness they had dreamt about.”

Corrie Ten Boom also returned from Ravensbruck traumatized and bereft. She had lost not only Betsie, but also her elderly father, Casper Ten Boom, who died in prison not long after the family was arrested. Other members of her family had been arrested and were believed dead. Her country, Holland, was in ruins. And yet, God turned Corrie Ten Boom’s life into a life of joy and forgiveness and ministry. Corrie wrote that it was those who were able, by God’s grace and mercy, to forgive, who were able to heal from the trauma and the suffering of the war. She went to live for another almost 40 years after her release from Ravensbruck, traveling all over the world and preaching the mercy and forgiveness of God for sinners.

The contrast between The Hiding Place and A Train in Winter shows the inadequacy of a philosophy based on the communist brotherhood of men. What happens when that philosophy is shown to be a farce in the face of true evil? Where does a survivor of such atrocious evil get the power and the trust to forgive, move past bitterness, and go on to live in community with other human beings?

Resurrection Sunday 2015

I’ve been trying to think of how I can share with anyone who reads this blog about the most important thing in the world to me. I love books. I think stories are very important; in fact, I believe we are made to think in story and feel others’ stories and live our lives as stories. When I read a really good book or hear a really good lecture or talk that reflects truth and beauty, I am not just entertained—-I am fed, mentally and spiritually. C.S. Lewis wrote, “[L]iterary people are always looking for leisure and silence in which to read and do so with their whole attention. When they are denied such attentive and undisturbed reading even for a few days they feel impoverished.” I guess I’m one of those “literary people,” and I tend to think we’d be better off if all of us were at least a bit “literary”. Nevertheless, as important as stories and books are to me, they are not the most vital center of my life.

I also love my husband and my eight children. I think of them and pray for them and text them and write letters to them and send them emails and talk with them and just live life with them almost all day long every day. My family is the thing that gives me energy and the thing that uses a great deal of my energy every day. I scheme and plan ways to bless them, and sometimes I get frustrated with them and try to change them or make them do what I want them to do, for their own good, of course. But underneath it all, I love them desperately. I would give my right arm for them. However, those nine people in my immediate family are not the center and support of my life.

My church and my homeschooling community are another very significant part of what makes me tick. I depend on the people in my church body and in my community of friends to pray for me and commiserate with me and comfort me in sorrow and rejoice with me in times of celebration. I discuss ideas with them, and they give me feedback that refines and sharpens those ideas to better conform to the truth and to reality. We all know that we are fallible people, and we try to give each other grace and mercy and forgiveness and a second (third, fourth, fifth . . . ) chance. I depend upon these people.

And yet, if you take away all of my church friends and my homeschooling friends and my neighbors and my Facebook friends, if you take away my fantastic Engineer Husband and every one of my eight wonderful children, if you take away all of my books and even my eyesight and my hearing so that I can never read or listen to another story, one thing would remain. Only one hope endures past stories, beyond family, transcending the communication and encouragement of friendship. Someday all of these other things will most likely be taken away from me. I may get so old that I forget all of the stories that I can’t read or hear anymore anyway. My family and friends can’t go with me through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and in fact, some may precede me in going there. Then, when everything else is stripped away, it will be just me and Jesus. Just me and the God of the Universe who became flesh and dwelt among us and suffered and died for my sin and who gloriously LIVES so that I can live with Him for all eternity.

I hope you know Jesus, too. I hope you have turned your back on your sin and your idols and trusted Him for salvation and for forgiveness and for life. I hope that whatever wonderful, important, significant, good blessings you have in your life, you know that in the end it will be just you and Jesus. Or not. He calls you to repent (turn around), leave your fallible and flimsy God-substitutes behind, obey His unshakeable Word (The Bible) and look to Him for all that you need. It’s a good deal. You should jump on it because whatever you’re holding on to in the place of God, whatever is keeping you from trusting Him alone, whether it’s pleasure or stuff or family or friends or religious rules or intellectual pride or fame or fill-in-the-blank, only God satisfies. Only God forgives sin completely and forever through Christ. Only Jesus will be there for you when everything else is gone with the wind.

Happy Resurrection Day!
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)
And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. (II Corinthians 9:8)
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)

Saturday Review of Books: April 4, 2015

“Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it. Many will read the book before one thinks of quoting a passage. As soon as he has done this, that line will be quoted east and west.” ~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.