Friday Afternoon Blues

Friday Afternoon Blues


“Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?”
“All like ours?”
“I don’t know, but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound – a few blighted.”
“Which do we live on – a splendid one or a blighted one?”
“A blighted one.”
Thomas Hardy

Am I just in a bad mood, or has it been kind of an awful year so far?

Working loosely backwards, there’s Ebola, which while it hasn’t killed anywhere near as many people as more prosaic diseases like malaria and the flu, is wreaking serious havoc in West Africa, and is nowhere near containment or control.

There are the two Malaysian Airlines disasters. One plane just disappears, leaving loved ones in limbo for months as hope slowly disintegrates. The second, in an event that would seem simply bizarre if it were not so horrific, is accidentally shot down over the Ukrainian conflict zone. It’s the epitome of “senseless” violence.

And Crimea and the Ukraine conflict in the first place–déjà vu anyone? I thought we didn’t do this stuff anymore, especially on that continent.

Not that there isn’t plenty happening on other continents to go around. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has once again devolved into full-scale war, leaving hundreds dead and thousands injured, and what can only be described as the opposite of progress on any type of diplomatic or negotiating front.

And just when I thought the situation in Syria could not possibly get worse, ISIS declared an Islamic state over large swathes of Syria and Iraq, where it currently presides over a chaotic melee of sectarian strife, in the absence of any sort of functional government.

Even on the U.S. border, we are grappling somewhat less than gracefully with a flood of unaccompanied children fleeing drug violence in Central America. Some of these kids are not much older than mine. How bad do do things have to be for you to let your children leave you for a deadly dangerous 1000 mile journey with an uncertain ending?

All in all, it’s enough to send me off to read some Thomas Hardy. Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and the world will seem splendid again.

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“It was the most beautiful, the most civilized city in the world . . . “

I spent a restless night last night, and every time I fell asleep I dreamed of Syria. I suppose it was because every time I turned on the radio yesterday, they were talking about Syria, much in the vein of this Onion article. And over and over in my head, I keep hearing the opening line of a sci fi story set in the Balkans that I read when I was a teenager:  “It was the most beautiful, the most civilized city in the world . . . ”

Damascus is neither, really. Except at certain times, and in certain lights. But maybe I wouldn’t even know it anymore now, as it slowly grinds itself into rubble and blood. As gut-wrenching as it is to watch Syria tearing itself apart from the inside, imagining missile strikes and escalation, regime change and a sectarian bloodbath is hardly more palatable.

This seems to be a story with no happy endings.

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The God Who Weeps, River of Stars, Mirrors of the Unseen, and Project Conversion

You know your life is boring when every other blog post is a book review. Fortunately, my literary life is wildly interesting, and I’m happy to share it with you. I usually reserve five-star ratings for practically perfect books, but sometimes I give them out to books I love, in spite of their flaws. Your mileage may vary, but if you feel the same, we might be long-lost kindred spirits.

The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of LifeThe God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life by Terryl L. Givens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The God Who Weeps tops the list of my favorite books about my faith. I found this both a thought-provoking and a faith-provoking book. Terryl and Fiona Givens have distilled some of the most powerful core doctrines of the Mormon faith into a slim volume brimming with hope, philosophy, and divine compassion.

Basing their premise on Enoch’s moving description of his encounter with a weeping God, they describe the ultimate power in the universe in startlingly personal terms, as a being who not only loves us, but knows us intimately and weeps for us and with us.

One of the things I loved best was the broad range of sources from literature, poetry, philosophy, and Christian history that the Givens invoked as powerful and moving illustrations. I would have liked to hear more discussion of the male/female duality of God, although they at least brought it up in their chapter on the Hymn of the Pearl.

This is the first book I would recommend for non-Mormons curious about the Mormon conception of God and the meaning of life. I would also recommend it for those like me, who grew up Mormon and are working to re-engage their childhood faith in a way that feels authentic.

River of StarsRiver of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading and loving Under Heaven, I was a little afraid to read this one, for fear that it would not be as good. And it’s true, it took me a little longer to get into it, if for no other reason than that the fifteen-year-old bandit was not as likeable of a protagonist to me as the cultured and courageous (if eccentric) Shen Tai of the earlier novel.

However, after a few chapters I was pulled into the story and soon utterly enamored. It is rare for a book to move me to tears, and yet both of these novels have done so. I love the broad historical sweep, the sense of the interplay between fate and chance and individual decisions. Kay writes as a bemused historian, a philosopher, and an intimate biographer. His version of fantasy is simply to plunge us into a world where the invisible forces of the spirit world in which his historically inspired characters believe are as real to us as they are to them. The effect is subtle, but powerful. One of his great strengths is the ability to paint even a minor character in a few vivid strokes that bring him or her completely to life.

There were a few moments in which Kay seemed overly self-conscious as author and omniscient commentator, momentarily pulling the reader out of the story in disorientation. Still, this is a wonderful, memorable book, and a worthy successor to Under Heaven.

Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in IranMirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran by Jason Elliot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Travel writing is an interesting genre, which apart from acquainting the reader with a place, gives him or her a rather intimate introduction to the author in a variety of unusual and highly challenging settings. Jason Elliot is a well-read, cultured traveler with an adventurous spirit and an affinity for meaningful cultural exchange. In short, I think he would make an absolutely delightful traveling companion. Not to mention the fact that his prose is so flawlessly elegant that I think I’m developing a serious literary crush.

Mirrors of the Unseen chronicles many months of Eliot’s solo travels through Iran. He is well-versed in Persian art, and his effusive descriptions of architectural wonders can be a bit bewildering without a picture in front of you. He has included some photos, but it’s a little confusing to navigate through all the different places and match them up. However, I enjoyed his liberal quoting of other travelers to the region, especially the colorful observations of Byron.

What I really loved were the accounts of his many encounters with Iranians, from the devious haggling taxi drivers to the many warm-hearted strangers who took him into their homes and made him welcome. Reading this book made Iran and its people real for me, and I’d love to visit Iran myself now. Especially with Jason Eliot (or at least with his book in hand).

If you would like to learn more about Iran than you hear on the nightly news, I highly recommend this fascinating book.

Project Conversion: One Man, 12 Faiths, One YearProject Conversion: One Man, 12 Faiths, One Year by Andrew Bowen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First of all, I hate to rain on the feel-good parade, but this guy is in serious need of a copy editor. As in, besides the obvious typos, he’s never even heard of the past perfect tense. Also, I wonder when the year-long personal quest/book deal fad will finally run its course.

That said, this book did have some redeeming qualities. So even though it’s really only a two or 2.5 star book, I’m going to go ahead and cut Andrew Bowen some slack and give him three stars, just for the significant personal achievement of going from closed-minded bigot to advocate for everyone he used to hate in one short year.

This book chronicles how Bowen, a self-described bitter atheist (and former intolerant Christian), lived a different faith every month for a year. In many ways, it’s similar to Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor, except that Bowen goes well beyond Christianity, devoting months to faiths as diverse as Buddhism, Wicca, and Zoroastrianism. He even spends a memorable month meeting with the Mormon missionaries.

I enjoyed reading about his plunge into each faith and don’t doubt his sincerity, but I remain skeptical that a month inside a faith with no plans for long-term commitment is long enough to really understand it. There’s always some hubris involved in these sorts of projects, and Bowen is no exception. He even considers going off and starting his own religion.

Still, if the goal was getting to know some members of each faith and trying to listen and learn respect for other religions, then Bowen has ably accomplished it. There are better introductions to each particular faith than this book, but for an interesting and sincerely-written testimonial of the virtues and unexpected joys of religious toleration, it does quite well.

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Safe in the United States

I’ll start out this post with a story from when we were living in Ireland a couple of years ago. We had taken the children to the park down the street, and while we were watching them play, we struck up a conversation with a fellow parent. We never did get down the Irish accent, so as always, it came up pretty quickly that we were American. He remarked that he had considered visiting the United States. We smiled and nodded, since most people responded to our nationality with either an account of their visit to America, or an expressed desire for such a visit. But our new acquaintance went on to say that he’d decided against a trip to the United States, because he was worried about how dangerous it was.

We tried not to gape. Our country, dangerous? What could he mean? After all, it’s not like we were talking about Colombia, or Somalia, or Afghanistan. This was the United States of America.  He went on to say something vague about violent crime, and then the conversation drifted to other topics.

Since that day, I’ve mulled that conversation over in my mind quite a few times. For some reason, it made a disproportionate impression on me. It was the very first time in my life that someone had described my home country as dangerous, and it gave me a weird feeling to think about it.

I’d heard plenty on the other side of the question. When I was preparing to go on a study abroad to Syria during college, the news was met with nearly universal shock and concern. Let alone when we moved to Tunisia last year with our two small children. Such places are so far outside most Americans’ experience, and get such awful coverage in the media, that going there struck many of my well-meaning compatriots as some kind of eccentric death-wish.

But America dangerous? No way. Before my Irish friend suggested it, the thought would never have occurred to me. I think we all view home as a safe place. It’s a natural and healthy human tendency. Living in a place that you believe is unsafe plays with your mind. My friend Annie, who recently moved to Kenya with an NGO to work in the largest slum in Africa, just wrote a great account of what it feels like to live in that kind of constant fear. We function much better when we can convince ourselves that even though bad things can happen anywhere, home is an intrinsically safe place.

My Irish conversation was brought back to me yesterday when I read the following passage in Jason Elliot’s travel memoir about Iran, of all places. The author is talking to an Iranian man who spent five years living with his family in the United States and working as an engineer. They have just moved back to Iran. Elliot recounts:

I wondered why he had given up the obvious benefits of life there and come back.

‘For the children,’ he said.

‘You wanted an Iranian education for them.’

‘It wasn’t that,’ he said. ‘Every week, someone would go crazy and start shooting kids in a playground. In LA people shoot each other for fun. At least here you know the worst that will happen in an argument is that someone will punch you in the face.’ He shook his head. ‘We couldn’t live like that.’

Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran, page 90

In the wake of the recent Aurora shooting, I confess that I’ve had some similar thoughts. It was a shocking tragedy. Shocking like the tragedy last year in Norway, where Anders Breivik went on a shooting rampage that killed dozens of teenagers. However, there’s one thing that really sticks out as distinguishing the two. No event even remotely similar has happened in Norway within living memory. In the United States, on the other hand, a similar tragedy happened just last year. And the year before. And the year before that. And so on, back to 1984, according to this report.

When I perused the “International comparison” section of Wikipedia’s article on Crime in the United States, I could see what my Irish friend was talking about. Our homicide rate is among the highest in the developed world, at 4.8 per 100,000. Norway, by comparison, is 0.5. Even more heartbreaking, we also have the developed world’s very highest rate for deaths from child abuse and neglect: 2.4 per 100,000 in the country at large, and 4.05 in the state of Texas. And is it a little frightening that we have the highest incarceration rate in the entire world?

Putting aside all the statistics and the question of why they are so high (except I will include the lovely and eloquent photo above, also courtesy of the state of Texas), I’m interested to know how you, my readers feel. If you live in the United States, do you feel safe? If you’re an international reader, do you think of the United States as a safe or dangerous place?

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Yemen, The Kite Runner, Toni Morrison, and Can You Forgive Her?

The Woman Who Fell from the SkyThe Woman Who Fell from the Sky by Jennifer Steil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I haven’t read a book that made me laugh so much in a long time. Jennifer Steil left behind her New York life to spend a year in Yemen, editing a Yemeni newspaper. I’ve never been to Yemen (and what we hear about it in the American press is generally not good), so I was interested to hear a firsthand account. Steil had her share of trials and tribulations in Yemen, as well as a lot of fascinating and wonderful experiences, and writes about it all hilariously.

For example:

Faris has promised me an Arabic tutor, who has yet to materialize. I’ve taught myself enough to get around on my own, but here are a few phrases I’m desperate to know:
“None of the power outlets in my office is working. Can someone fix them?”
“Can you tell me when the toilet will be functional?”
“There is no water in the entire building.”
“There will be no newspaper if something isn’t done about the Internet.”
“Am I ever going to get the key to open my desk drawers?”

I also really enjoyed her portrayals of the women of Yemen, especially the ones who worked with her as journalists.

I would have given this book five stars, but for the final chapter, which has very little to do with Yemen and very much to do with Steil’s infatuation with the (married) British ambassador. She apparently considers her conquest something to brag about, since she does, even in her one paragraph author bio at the back of the book. So, it’s not a a very classy ending, but the book itself (possibly sans last chapter) is not to be missed.

The Kite RunnerThe Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For starters, I was a little shocked to find this in the Young Adult section at my library. I don’t consider it to be appropriate reading for a 12-year-old. But then, it was my first time in the YA section, so maybe these types of themes and plot events are par for the course these days for literature aimed at teenagers.

Just as I felt with A Thousand Splendid Suns, the literary coincidences in the plot stretched credulity. I also had trouble relating the main character, and felt that some of the other characters were drawn with a very broad brush.

That said, it was a reasonably good book, and Hosseini is important just for being a sympathetic and powerful voice out of Afghanistan. I’m glad that he has achieved widespread popularity, because his books humanize something that feels very distant to many Americans.

The Bluest EyeThe Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wow. Toni Morrison is amazing, and this is an incredible debut novel. I’ve been wanting to catch up on the African-American experience for a while, and especially now that I moved to Florida just as the Trayvon Martin case erupted.

This is the first of Morrison’s books that I’ve read, and I’ll definitely be reading more. At least once I’ve recovered sufficiently from this one. This is a book full of human suffering, and definitely not for the faint of heart.

The structure of The Bluest Eye is strange, but perfect. I think much of the genius of it is in how Morrison humanizes even the characters that seem most despicable. The elegant simplicity of her metaphors and prose is exquisite, and the cadence of the dialogue unerring. This is a compelling, devastating novel.

Can You Forgive Her?Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is not the first time I have reviewed this book. For months, I was stuck in the middle of the interminable hunting scene, unsure of whether it was worth continuing. In the end, Trollope’s lengthy novel prevailed simply by virtue of the fact that it is on my Kindle, and my Kindle goes nearly everywhere with me, including to places that are more boring to me than a painstakingly portraited 19th century fox hunt. About halfway through, I became addicted, and finished the last half in about a week. Trollope paints his characters beautifully and sympathetically, allowing us to empathize with and understand each one. His portrayal of George Vavasor was particularly good; almost Dostoevskian.

In the end, though, I am unable to suspend my disbelief enough to even temporarily accept his profoundly chauvinist viewpoint, historically typical though it might be. The women in the story (and the reader) essentially learn that when they are fortunate enough to attract a worthy man, they are far better off trusting his (and society’s) judgement than their own. Alice’s desire for independence and confidence in her own decisions are ultimately shown to be foolish and unbecoming. It’s true that Mrs. Greenow of the comic subplot does manipulate her situation and that of the people around her exactly to her satisfaction. But the only characters considered to be of true nobility and competence are men.

When speaking in the narrative voice rather than through a character, Trollope is particularly insufferable. This is not a mediocre three-star book. I vacillated between giving it one star and giving it five. If these damaging beliefs about marriage and the necessity of men to “preside” didn’t persist today, I might feel differently. As things stand, however, Trollope’s wit and brilliance are undeniable, but his worldview regarding the proper relationship of husband to wife and men to women is so unacceptable to me that I cannot in good conscience recommend this book. It’s possible that I might continue reading the series though. At any rate, I’ll probably at least download it to my Kindle, and we all know where that leads.

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Strange & Norrell, Wine to Water, The Egyptian Revolution, and The Dream of the Celt

This week’s book reviews (with the exception of #1, which is just an irresistible indulgence) are dedicated to people who want to save the world.

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is an absolute delight: witty, intelligent, exciting, and original.

I am addicted to footnotes (I even like reading annotated critical editions of novels), so I adored the abundant tongue-in-cheek scholarly footnotes in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I also appreciated the length. No matter how quickly you read, you won’t be finishing it in an afternoon. At over 1000 pages, there is just so much of this book to love.

The interweaving of real history, 19th century British culture, and wild magic was seamless and satisfying. The characters are fascinating, quirky, and eminently memorable (the male characters, at least. The female characters are decidedly stereotyped and mostly minor. For that reason I would not compare this to a Jane Austen novel, as some have).

The book is full of quotable lines (“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never would.” ). There are lots of hilarious scenes, and it’s deliciously unpredictable. I’m almost ready to pick it up and read it again right now.

Wine to Water: A Bartender's Quest to Bring Clean Water to the WorldWine to Water: A Bartender’s Quest to Bring Clean Water to the World by Doc Hendley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While wondering what (if anything) to do with his life, bartender Doc Hendley decided to go to Darfur for a year on a mission to bring clean water to villages affected by the ongoing violence between rival Sudanese factions.

Hendley’s prose is a little rough, but his unstudied informality is actually endearing. Behind the gruff biker rebelling against his straitlaced religious past (his father is a “preacher man”) is a genuine person awakening to what he has to contribute to the world.

Although I enjoyed some of the more exciting incidents, like getting shot at by Janjaweed militias, my favorite parts of the book were Hendley’s introspective moments, and his totally unselfconscious meditations on life, his Christian faith, and the paradoxes of international development.

The organization Hendley formed, Wine to Water, currently provides clean water in nine countries, with a focus on sustainability and local cooperation. If you’re interested in hosting a Wine to Water fundraising party, you can check out the website here:

Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power, a MemoirRevolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power, a Memoir by Wael Ghonim

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re looking for an insider’s account of last year’s Egyptian Revolution, you won’t do better than this. Wael Ghonim was not only an eyewitness to the events of the revolution, but also a key figure in it. An executive with Google, he used his marketing experience to effectively spread the message of revolution to the youth of Egypt, break the fear barrier, and bring hundreds of thousands out on the streets.

A good portion of the book is made up of primary source documents, in the form of posts he made on the wall of the Facebook page he created to mobilize the youth of Egypt. His passionate Facebook appeals work synergistically with his personal narrative to create a riveting, very immediate reading experience. I felt like I was living the Egyptian Revolution along with Ghonim.

Although Ghonim’s at times overblown prose might seem excessive to readers unfamiliar with Egypt and Egyptians, just go ahead and suspend your disbelief and take him seriously, and you’ll be rewarded with an inspiring look into the mind and work of a modern-day hero.

The Dream of the Celt: A NovelThe Dream of the Celt: A Novel by Mario Vargas Llosa

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the first 50 pages of this book in the original Spanish, but then switched over to the English translation because #1 I’m too lazy to spend that much time with the dictionary and #2 it was just too weird to picture this Irish guy speaking Spanish.

I really liked the intermittent flashback format, because it gave the book (and the main character’s life) coherence. Whatever the later controversies of his life, Roger Casement has my respect and admiration for his tireless and self-sacrificing quest to rid the world of injustice. Over a couple of decades, he courageously persevered in exposing the Rubber Barons’ horrific abuses of native peoples in the Congo and Peru, despite death threats, severe illness, and extreme emotional strain.

The last third of the book, which deals with the struggle for Irish independence, is not as readable. Casement’s claim that colonialism in Ireland was essentially the same as in the Congo is not really credible. Still, I have a soft spot for Irish revolutionaries, and I am so glad that he can rest in peace now knowing that his country is free.

The work is subtitled “A Novel,” but it reads much more like a biography. I wish that Llosa had included something at the end to assist the reader in separating fact from fiction. I’d like to know how much the Roger Casement I grew to care about is like the real one.

Although the “Black Diaries” are admittedly an important part of the plot (and I think it’s sick and tragic how the British government made use of them), I didn’t really appreciate reading so much out of them. Llosa’s claim that they were authored by Casement but largely fantasies rather than descriptions of real exploits seemed a little weird, but I’m not really qualified to judge its merits.

Advisory: For those who, like me, are prudish to some degree, be aware that there is some sexual content (i.e. the contents of said “black diaries”) in this book.

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Israel, Birds, Math Mysteries, and The British Museum

As usual, I’ve been reading books. Unfortunately, Tintin: The Complete Companion got taken back to the library before I could finish it (horror of horrors!), so that will have to wait for another day. But in the meantime, here’s some history, math, poetry, and political science to brighten up your day.

The Unmaking of IsraelThe Unmaking of Israel by Gershom Gorenberg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a valuable book for anyone seeking deeper insight into what makes Israel tick. The author, an Israeli by choice who immigrated there from the U.S. at the age of thirty, gives us a well-researched and cogent explanation of how Israeli policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians and Occupied Territories has developed. Even more valuable, he helps the reader understand how this crucial and contentious issue overshadows and shapes internal policy, leading to unintended and disastrous consequences in many areas of Israeli civil life.

Gorenberg contends that Israel’s current situation arises from decades of short-sighted solutions to immediate problems, coupled with the inability of the State to convert itself from a struggling movement into a fully-functioning government where rule of law obtains.

Most of the book centers on the problem: how covert funding of illegal settlements, huge government subsidies for extremist religious groups, mass radicalization of the army, and the blatant unwillingness of the parliamentary branch of the government to respect judicial rulings have created and compounded the current crisis.

The author does present his version of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the final chapter. What primarily distinguishes it from the many other solutions that have been proposed is his assertion that the Israeli government as it presently operates is seriously flawed, and must be internally reformed before resolution is possible.

I found the book very illuminating, since I had never really had a glimpse inside of Israeli politics and policy. I certainly agree with another reviewer that The Unmaking of Israel should be required reading for all U.S. presidential candidates. And indeed for anyone else interested in a successful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Conference of the BirdsThe Conference of the Birds by Peter Sís

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As one might expect with Peter Sís, this book is a visual and spiritual feast. The pages even have a luscious textured feel to them. The book is a retelling of a 12th century Persian epic poem, and Sís’s illustrations brim with profound imagery. Gorgeous, lyrical, and wise, this story is one to be read and pondered over and over again.

How High Can a Dinosaur Count?: ...and Other Math MysteriesHow High Can a Dinosaur Count?: …and Other Math Mysteries by Valorie Fisher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As well as our formal math program, I schedule time reading “math literature” into our homeschooling days. And this is one of the more delightful finds off our library shelf. Each page has a whimsical illustration, and then an alliterative word problem that goes along with it. For example:

The heavenly hats at Madame Millie’s Millinery are brimming with blossoms, butterflies, and bows. Heloise wants all of them, but she has only 2 dimes, 2 nickels, and three pennies to spend. Can Heloise buy a hat?

The pictures contain clues to help the reader solve the problem (in this case, each hat has a price tag). The back of the book contains several other word problems based on the same illustration.

This book is a cut above a lot of other math readers for several reasons:

#1 Nice illustrations.
#2 Non-annoying text. I can’t count the number of math books I’ve left at the library because they were composed in doggerel that hurt my ears.
#3 The problems are like real-world problems, but they’re fun and entertaining. They involve multiple steps, and require the reader to think, but they’re not too hard for my 7-year-old to figure out.
#4 My daughter loves it.

A History of the World in 100 ObjectsA History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book somehow migrated into our bathroom (actually, our bathroom is full of books, like most other rooms in our house), and my husband and I are both addicted to it. In fact, now whenever he’s missing, I expect him to emerge full of words of wisdom about the Ain Sakhri Lovers Figurine or Hokusai’s The Great Wave.

Interestingly enough, the book is actually a compilation of a BBC radio series that aired in 2010. The series included short programmes (what amounts to 5-6 printed pages each) on 100 historically significant objects from the British Museum. It’s a novel approach to history, and quite successful, I think. At least I’ve learned a lot. And now I’m dying to go to the British Museum.

Although I loved the book, I couldn’t help thinking with each new marvel what a terrible shame it is that the British are holding on to all these artifacts that rightfully belong elsewhere. It is heartbreaking to visit sites in the Near East and find that all the most dramatic pieces are far away in European museums. To be fair, in the chapter on the Parthenon relief, the book did mention the controversy over whether it ought to be given back to Greece (and yes, I found the British arguments pathetic at best).

Despite the ethical quibble, this is a delightful resource that really brings history to life. You can also find the original radio series, along with great zoomable photos of each object on the BBC website .

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Narnia, Iraq, and the Moors of Al-Andalus

The Narnia Code: C. S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven HeavensThe Narnia Code: C. S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens by Michael Ward

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I went into this book pretty sceptically, because really, in the post-The Da Vinci Code era, who could possibly take seriously a book with a title like this? However, forty pages or so into the book, I found myself wishing that the author had written a real, scholarly book, since his theory was sounding fairly plausible. And then a few pages later he admitted that The Narnia Code is actually the popularized version of his published phD thesis, Planet Narnia The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis. So now I’m dying to get my hands on the “grownup” version.

Ward contends that C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, far from being the “hodgepodge” of J.R.R. Tolkien’s dismissive analysis, is actually far more internally consistent than readers and scholars in the past 50 years have been able to discover. The unifying principle, according to Ward, is that Lewis based each book on one of the seven Medieval “planets” (Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn). The theory sounded bizarre to me at first, but Ward’s appeals to Lewis’ other works (his knowledge of the corpus appears encyclopedic), including the Space Trilogy, essays, and poetry (did you know Lewis wrote poetry? I didn’t.) eventually convinced me.

For anyone who has read and enjoyed the Narnia books (especially if, like me, you’ve been bothered by apparent inconsistencies like the appearance of Father Christmas, or just the apparent randomness of how the books proceed), this book will deepen your enjoyment and expand your appreciation of C.S. Lewis’ genius.

God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 by David Levering Lewis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m constantly on the lookout for books that I want my homeschooled kids to read in high school so that they’ll have a good understanding of Middle Eastern/Islamic history and its relation to Europe and Western history. And this is a great example of a book I will impose upon my now-seven-year-old in about ten years.

Lewis’ prose is elegant and illuminating, although his encyclopedic coverage of so many historical figures during the first half of the book is a little overwhelming. He paints a vivid historical picture of a world long gone–Moorish Spain during the early Middle Ages. My favorite part by far was his extended treatment of Charlemagne and Abd al-Rahman I, founder of the Umayyad Emirate of Cordoba. The two men lived during the same time period in kingdoms that bordered one another, and yet their worlds and outlooks were so different. Charlemagne struggled to learn to read, while Abd al-Rahman was writing pensive lyric poetry, just to name one example.

This is a book that will make you pine for Muslim Spain and mourn the celebrated Battle of Poitiers. You’ll never think of Europe and Western civilization in the same way.

Caveat: Lewis’ treatment of Muhammad may scandalize some Muslims (although he’s equally cynical in his treatment of Christianity).

The Flying Carpet of Small Miracles: A Woman's Fight to Save Two OrphansThe Flying Carpet of Small Miracles: A Woman’s Fight to Save Two Orphans by Hala Jaber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a story of the 2003 Iraq invasion and its aftermath, with a focus on the shatteringly human face of “collateral damage.” As a Lebanese reporter married to a British photographer, Hala Jaber is well positioned to give us a nuanced view of the events in Iraq.

The book weaves together the story of the many Iraqis she interviewed with her own story of infertility. I only gave it four stars because I’m not sure how well the two stories really go together.

Despite having a somewhat happy ending, Jaber’s story is quite a downer. Still, I appreciated her perspective and the vivid and very human picture she paints of Iraq.

This is actually the first book I’ve read about the Iraq War, which happened while I was on a Mormon mission, and therefore virtually isolated from any outside news. I still feel like I have a sort of 20-month historical wrinkle in my memory. I remember coming home and feeling like Rip Van Winkle. 2001-2003 was quite a time period to miss.

Does anyone have any recommendations for something to read to get me up to speed on the invasion of Iraq, the Patriot Act, and whatever else happened between October 10, 2001 and June 9, 2003?

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Graphic Credit

Chanticleer, A Line in the Sand, and The Mormon People

Today I have only awesome books to review for you.

Chanticleer and the FoxChanticleer and the Fox by Barbara Cooney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a treasure of a book! This made it to our house because it is on the Ambleside Online Year 2 free reading list. I can’t think of a better way to introduce my seven-year-old to a bit of Chaucer. Maybe it’s just that I remember my own foray into chicken-keeping so fondly, but I was enchanted by this story of a proud, beautiful rooster who learns a lesson about trusting to flattery. The lovely illustrations really make the book. They are charming, evocative, and reminiscent of the art of the time period. I hope my children like it as much as I did.

A Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East, 1914-1948A Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East, 1914-1948 by James Barr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Consummately researched history meets great storytelling in this fascinating book about one of the main causes for the current conflict in the Middle East. In college I took a class on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and I remembered the various contradictory promises made by the British to Arabs and Jews during the Palestine Mandate period. What I didn’t understand before reading Barr’s book was the motivation behind those British actions (and even T.E. Lawrence’s heroics!). A bitter, long-standing rivalry drove British and French policy in the Middle East, from North Africa to the Mesopotamian oil fields, and this book lays bare the whole ugly story.

It was particularly poignant to me to read about the French’s final reluctant abandonment of Syria, since the descriptions of bloodletting and civil strife in Homs and Damascus sounded all too much like current headlines. Barr’s analysis of the British mismanagement of the Jewish and Arab nationalists in Palestine is also pregnant with 21st century consequences.

This is a riveting book for anyone interested in the modern Middle East and its disastrous origins in French and British colonial ambitions.

The Mormon People: The Making of an American FaithThe Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith by Matthew Bowman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you’re looking for a good, readable synthesis of current scholarship on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this is your book. Bowman covers 180 years of Mormon history, culture, and theology, from its beginnings with Joseph Smith right up to Mitt Romney’s presidential bid and the current “Mormon moment.” I especially enjoyed the way Bowman contextualized Mormon history within the broader framework of religious movements within the United States. Subtitled “The Making of an American Faith,” this book is really the story of how Mormons went from being a small, marginalized, and persecuted group to a well-established and rapidly growing faith that sees itself as the epitome of traditional American moral and patriotic values.

Bowman dedicates The Mormon People to Richard Bushman, the author of the 2005 biography, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. The two books read very similarly, although one is a 300-page, two century overview and the other a 700-page biography. Bowman also includes a useful annotated bibliography for those who’d like to dig deeper.

Whether you’re Mormon and want an introduction to more in-depth history than the Sunday School manual provides, or non-Mormon and curious for a peek at the origins and growth of this extraordinary faith, I highly recommend this book.

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photo credit: Moroni

Looks Like There’s Still Room in Tunisia for One Last Dictator

Can I tell you again how awesome Tunisia is? At the Friends of Syria meeting on Monday, Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s interim president (chosen just recently in December by the Constituent Assembly, the interim parliament) played an active role. He suggested only half ironically that Russia back up its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by offering him asylum should he choose to abdicate. And today Marzouki put his money where his mouth is, and offered President Assad and his family political asylum in Tunisia itself.

Proffering what even Marzouki admitted were undeservedly soft terms for a dictator might seem odd, especially coming from a country so intimately acquainted with the pain of despotism. However, I don’t think anyone could possibly question Mr. Marzouki’s motives. An M.D. by profession, he is also a long-time human rights activist and admirer of Gandhi, and has spent his life studying transitions to democracy. Like most Tunisian political activists, he was arrested multiple times by Ben Ali’s regime, and spent many years in exile.

His offer of political asylum simply acknowledges the reality that President Assad’s safe departure is the best way to secure a democratic transition and future political and social stability for the Syrian people. After all, consider the contrast right now between Tunisia, whose former dictator-president lives on unpunished in peaceful luxury in Saudi Arabia, and still-troubled Libya or (heaven help us!) tortured Iraq, both of whose presidents met vengeful and violent ends on the heels of international intervention.

Mr. Marzouki is in the running for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. If he can get Mr. Assad to accept his invitation, I’d say he definitely deserves it. And who knows? Maybe an offer of hospitality from a fellow physician-president is just what the mad ophthalmologist needs to start his desperately needed early retirement.

Here’s hoping.