The Collapse by Mary Elise Sarotte

The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall by Mary Elise Sarotte.

World Magazine just published its annual issue on books, and one of the books chosen as a runner-up for book of the year in the history/biography category was The Collapse. Coincidentally, I had already heard of the book and requested it from the library and had it in my stack of TBR books in the cradle next to my bed. (Since I have passed the years of child-bearing and baby-rocking, my handmade wooden cradle now serves as a books-to-be-read repository as it awaits the advent of grandchildren.)

I can see why The Collapse made World‘s shortlist of best books. It is a stunning account of a moment in history, a moment that changed history. And, as the author points out over and over, it could easily have not happened or have happened very differently. Inexorable violence, intimidation, and renewed repression could have been the operative words to describe the events of October and early November 1989 in Berlin and in greater Germany; instead, Ms. Sarotte uses the adjectives “coincidental” and “unexpected” and “improbable” and even, blessedly, “peaceful”.

In her book, Ms. Sarotte tries to explain how these many, many serendipitous events combined to allow or even produce the opening of the Berlin Wall and eventually the reunification of East and West Germany. The “why” is beyond the scope of the narrative and perhaps beyond the understanding of mere authors and readers. Sarotte does reiterate many times that the collapse of the Wall was not inevitable.

“The Wall’s opening was not a gift from political elites, East German or otherwise, and was in no way predetermined. It resulted from a remarkable constellation of actors and contingent events—and not a little courage on the part of some of the individuals directly involved—that came together in a precise but entirely unplanned sequence. And the larger, successful peaceful revolution surrounding the opening was a truly rare event, one to be considered carefully, not discounted. The history of 1989 shows just how many things have to go right for such a revolution to succeed.”

I am left with some questions of my own, questions that will never be answered this side of eternity, but that are nevertheless interesting to me from a Christian perspective:

The dissident movement in East Germany was birthed and nurtured in the churches of Leipzig and Berlin. Many of the dissidents were not believers, but were nevertheless willing and thankful to use the churches and their “peace prayer” meetings as a shelter and a staging area for demonstrations and peaceful protests against the East German government. Could the peaceful success of the revolution and the reordering of Germany’s culture and government be credited in part (or even in whole) to its genesis as a prayer movement? Perhaps God answered those repeated prayers for peace and justice?

What do historians and politicians mean when they talk about being “on the right side of history”? In the book Soviet leader Chernyaev says of Gorbachev: “He sensed the path of history and helped it to follow its natural path.” Impersonal History nevertheless has a will and a flow? How can this be? (It’s the same way that evolutionists talk about Nature doing this or that. How did Nature become a Force with a will and purpose? And do we humans discern that purpose?)

In a bigger way, could all of those fortuitous events of people being in the right place at the right time or absent from the right place at the right time or able to communicate or unable to communicate, all of those things that had to go right, could they have been orchestrated, not by politicians or revolutionaries, but rather by God himself? Maybe the lesson here is that the “remarkable constellation” was not “entirely unplanned”—just unplanned by man? Man proposes; God disposes.

The Collapse is not a book about God, just as the book of Esther in the Bible hardly mentions God—unless you have eyes to see the hand of God in all of history. I think it much more likely and believable that God is working His purposes out in the course of history than that History itself has an undefined will and an inscrutable purpose.

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Saturday Review of Books: June 13, 2015


“For the imaginative reader there can be discoveries, connections between books, that explode the day and one’s heart and the long years that have led to the moment.” ~Mary Ruefle

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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.

Nickel Bay Nick by Dean Pitchford

Eleven year old Sam Brattle, the protagonist of this Cybil award winning middle grade novel, reminds me of a young man I know. He’s managed to start himself on a downward path to juvenile delinquency, and he’s not sure how it happened nor how to turn things around. Sam’s dad can’t handle him. His mom doesn’t want him to come for their annual Christmas visit because she has some changes going on in her life. And now he’s managed to vandalize his neighbor’s house and Christmas display to the tune of hundreds of dollars worth of damage—and get caught red-handed.

Nickel Bay Nick was a good variation on an old plot: child in need of mentorship and discipline gets inadvertently hooked up with an older mentor. Usually, the young delinquent owes the older person something or is forced to help the older person as payment or penance for past crimes and misdemeanors. Sam Brattle ends up involved in a Christmas caper that stretches his talents and his self-control. Sam gets to be a spy and a secret agent, but he’s an agent for good and his secretive spy skills turn out to be a blessing for the entire town of Nickel Bay.

This book would make a good secular read aloud for Christmas time. The values are good, and Sam turns out to be (become?) not such a bad guy.

A study guide, an audio sample, and a sample chapter are available at Mr. Pitchford’s website.
The Commonsense Media review of this title gives some caveats and some questions to discuss while reading Nickel Bay Nick.

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The Whisperer by Fiona McIntosh

This Australian middle grade novel reminded me of The False Prince by Jennifer Neilsen, but not as funny or witty. I saw comparisons by other reviewers to The Prince and the Pauper.

From Amazon: “Lute is a prince, next in line to the throne. Griff is a poor carnival worker who does the heavy lifting while the malevolent ringmaster orders him about. But there’s something special about Griff: he can hear the thoughts of everyone around him. And one day, he begins to connect with Lute’s mind, even though they’ve never met and are miles apart.”

So, mental telepathy in mythical kingdom. I enjoyed The Whisperer. It took two attempts for me to get into the story, but the second time around, I was engaged and curious to see what would happen to Lute and Griff and the other characters in the story. The pace was a little slow, with an over-abundance of explanations instead of active descriptions and insight into the characters and their plight.

For the lover of princely adventure and rags-to-riches orphan stories, I would recommend this one—after Meg Whalen Turner’s The Thief and Nielsen’s The False Prince and Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. For younger children, Sid Fleischman’s Newbery award book, The Whipping Boy, is similar, too, but sans magic. Actually, The Whisperer may be the only one of these commoner-to-prince, prince-disguised-as-commoner, vice-versa, books that I’ve named that does include magical events. So, if you want magic with your royal and plebeian characters, The Whisperer would be the book.

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Saturday Review of Books: June 7, 2015


“Books give not wisdom where none was before.
But where some is, there reading makes it more.” ~John Harington

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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.

Poetry Friday: Goblin Feet by JRR Tolkien

I am off down the road
Where the fairy lanterns glowed
And the little pretty flitter-mice are flying
A slender band of gray
It runs creepily away
And the hedges and the grasses are a-sighing.
The air is full of wings,
And of blundery beetle-things
That warn you with their whirring and their humming.
O! I hear the tiny horns
Of enchanted leprechauns
And the padded feet of many gnomes a-coming!
O! the lights! O! the gleams! O! the little twinkly sounds!
O! the rustle of their noiseless little robes!
O! the echo of their feet – of their happy little feet!
O! the swinging lamps in the starlit globes.

I must follow in their train
Down the crooked fairy lane
Where the coney-rabbits long ago have gone.
And where silvery they sing
In a moving moonlit ring
All a twinkle with the jewels they have on.
They are fading round the turn
Where the glow worms palely burn
And the echo of their padding feet is dying!
O! it’s knocking at my heart-

Let me go! let me start!
For the little magic hours are all a-flying.

O! the warmth! O! the hum! O! the colors in the dark!
O! the gauzy wings of golden honey-flies!
O! the music of their feet – of their dancing goblin feet!
O! the magic! O! the sorrow when it dies.

Tolkien himself said of this poem: “I wish the unhappy little thing, representing all that I came (so soon after) to fervently dislike, could be buried for ever.” However, I beg to differ, and I rather like the sweet, then melancholy, feel to this verse. I suppose Tolkien came to see and wanted to portray elves and goblins and faery-creatures differently, more seriously and nobly, after he wrote this poem and before he wrote The Hobbit and LOTR. But I think there’s room in the world for both visions. And I like the bittersweetness of “magic hours all a-flying” and “the sorrow when it dies.”

Julia and the Art of Practical Travel by Lesley M.M. Blume

Ms. Blume writes “odd and quirky”, and this one definitely fits that description. It’s funny at times, but the underlying situation, the 1960’s and a child deserted by her hippie druggie mother, is way too serious for a humorous novel. Throw in a voodoo queen in New Orleans, bullies in a fancy elite school for girls, naked people in Greenwich Village in NYC and in Haight-Asbury in San Francisco, an odd ranch with all-Chinese cowboys in Texas, an ever-present Brownie camera, and a bewildered aunt/guardian, and it’s a fun road trip sort of story, but fairly unbelievable and sort of sad in places.

I also kept thinking the story was ending, and then there would be one more episode, and yet another, and another. It felt as if the author didn’t know where to stop. Or maybe I just didn’t want to know as much as I did. The novel is all about finding home and making a family, but it took Julia and her aunt an awfully long time to get to that end, even though the book itself is not that long, only 180 pages.

Anyway, if you’ve enjoyed any of Lesley M.M. Bloom’s other novels for children, such as Tennyson or The Rising Star of Rusty Nail, you might also enjoy this odd and quirky entry. I thought it was OK, but nothing to write home about.

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Saturday Review of Books: May 30, 2015


“All true histories contain instruction; though in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity, that the dry, shrivelled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.” ~Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

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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.

Absolutely Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick

Absolutely Truly: A Pumpkin Falls Mystery by Heather Vogel Frederick.

Twelve year old Truly Lovejoy’s army captain dad has come back from Afghanistan minus one arm and transformed into Silent Man. He used to be fun, and Truly’s family used to be referred as the Magnificent Seven–Truly, her brothers, Danny and Hatcher, her sisters, Lauren and Pippa and mom and dad. Now everything has changed, and the family has to move from wonderful Austin, Texas to tiny Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, the back side of nowhere if there ever was such a place.

The mystery part of this family story was rather lame and stretched my credulity: it involved some twenty year old love letters that were hidden and stayed put for the entire time and a treasure hunt that seemed to have very little purpose. However, the mystery is really just a vehicle for the characters and their interactions, and this aspect is where the story shines. Truly and her family members and her new classmates are a joy to get to know, and I award points to any story with a family of five or more children.

I’m assuming from the subtitle that this one is the first in a possible series of “Pumpkin Falls mysteries”. I’d recommend to middle school mystery lovers and to those who would enjoy a story featuring a largish family and a veteran dad. The story provides an upbeat and encouraging look at military families and the adjustments that veterans and their families have to make after their service, but it doesn’t gloss over the difficulties and changes that sometimes occur.

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Running Out of Night by Sharon Lovejoy

A nameless, motherless, abused white girl and a runaway slave girl named Zenobia are thrown together in a journey toward freedom. Even though the Zenobia gives Nameless Girl the name of Lark, the two find it difficult to trust each other or to trust the people who are willing to help them along their way on the Underground Railroad.

The salient feature of this debut novel by Sharon Lovejoy is the Virginia backwoods dialect that threads through the pages to bring the characters to life:

Zenobia: “Auntie goin to tell you later tonight where you be goin soon. And she give you a fine new name for the travelin. She call you Miss Abigail Harlan, but I likes Lark best.”

Lark: “Zenobia? Trouble girl, answer me. Sorry, so sorry. You was so scairt, I should’ve helped you more.”

I think it’s just enough to make the characters real and interesting without turning them into caricatures and without making the language too dense and hard to understand. If you don’t like the dialect in the examples above, there’s a lot more where that came from, so you probably wouldn’t like the story much.

Otherwise, the book is one chase scene after another. Lark’s pa and her brothers are chasing after her because she’s their “slave”, the one who cooks and cleans and gardens for them. The slave catchers are after Zenobia for the reward. lark and Zenobia get separated and have to chase after one another. Lark has to look for her friends, Zenobia and other runaways and a Quaker woman who helps them, because she knows that the slave catchers are about to catch up with them. Some of the scenes are fairly violent, and the cruelty of slavery and of slave owners and slave catchers is not minimized or played down; rather the opposite, Lark learns that the abuse that her father and her family have subjected her to is still less than the brutality that Zenobia and the other former slaves have seen and experienced.

This novel has a little bit different take on the horrors of slavery, and it ends with peace and thanksgiving. So I recommend it.

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.