Friday, August 1, 2014

Children of the Blitz by Robert Westall

I didn't find the Children of the Blitz; they found me. It began when I wrote The Machine Gunners in 1975; a book about kids in the Second World War who find a crashed German bomber, steal its machine-gun and set out to fight their own war against the Germans.

Thus Westall introduces his book of war-time memories. After the publication of Machine Gunners, hundreds of letters poured in from men and women who had been children during the War and had their own hair-raising adventures to share.

Stories range from how families built their own bomb shelters, to how they stretched their food budget (many through black market purchases), to how kids spent their free time looking for spies or searching through downed planes for war souvenirs. The prevailing emotion of the anecdotes is not fear, but a great sense of adventure. For many of these children the war was a time of much freedom, (Many schools were closed and parents were too worried or too busy surviving to police them.).

Westall knows that memory can be selective and that events can take on larger-than-life proportions with time. So he refers to these stories as "war myths." For every one story that is a hundred percent true, there are probably five that have been wildly exaggerated. But who can verify the facts now? Nevertheless many of the memories match up with events recorded in other books I've read such as London 1945 and The Children's War.
I especially enjoyed the stories of POWs since I recently read Morpurgo's Little Manfred, a story of a British family befriending a German prisoner after the War.  In Westall's book, a fourteen year old boy recalls: I remember practicing the piano one afternoon and seeing a German POW, who was engaged in hedge-cutting for the local farmer, spending a long time on the [bush]immediately in front of our house. When we got into a conversation with him, it turned out he had been a cathedral organist in Germany and he was delighted to listen to anyone playing Bach, even a beginner like me..."

This is just one of many astounding stories that will delight lovers of war history, especially as it pertains to life on the homefront.

Monday, July 28, 2014

E-Books vs Physical Books - Part Three

Tim Challies once again linked to a great post from The New Yorker about how our brains process printed words and the big difference between e-books and regular books. I continue to be fascinated by this discussion.

One slice of the article:

Professor Ann Mangen had her students read a short story in two formats: a pocket paperback or a Kindle e-book. When Mangen tested the readers' comprehension, she found that the medium mattered a lot. When readers were asked to place a series of events from the story in chronological order - a simple plot-reconstruction task, not requiring deep analysis or critical thinking -  those who had read the story in print fared significantly better, making fewer mistakes and recreating an over-all more accurate version of the story. The words looked identical, but their physical materiality mattered for basic comprehension.

MaryanneWolf's (author of a book on the history of reading called Proust and the Squid) concerns go far beyond simple comprehension. She fears that as we turn to digital formats, we may see a negative effect on the process that she calls deep reading..."Reading is a bridge to thought," she says. "And it's that process that I think is the real endangered aspect of reading."

Two previous posts on this topic are here and here.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman

After I read a number of reviewers saying Mrs. Mike was their favorite book ever, I whipped over to PaperBackSwap and snagged a copy. A few months later (as we headed out the door for a few days of vacation) I stuffed it into my bookbag expecting a fun, fluffy read. The first few chapters have a little romance and a lot of humor, so I settled in for a cozy time of it. I did not get what I bargained for.

It's 1906 and sixteen year old Kathy O'Fallon is sent to Alberta, Canada to live with a bachelor uncle because the climate is supposed to be good for her lungs. She falls in love with Mike Flannigan, a Canadian Mountie, marries and moves even farther north. Kathy discovers that her husband not only represents the law, he's doctor, dentist, counselor and jack-of-all-trades. Not only that. Life. Is. Hard. Forest fires, vicious bears, diptheria epidemics, and sub-zero temperatures are just a few of the perils they face.

So it wasn't the light read I was expecting, but it was deeply satisfying nevertheless. Kathy and Mike start with happiness, get sidetracked by tragedies, but fight their way back to joy. I kept thinking their story would make a great movie, and sure enough a 1949 version was filmed. I didn't know till I linked this review to Amazon that there are two sequels: The Search for Joyful and Kathy Little Bird.

As much as I hate swearing, none of the cursing in this book seemed gratuitous. In fact, the funniest scene in the entire book involved a drunk man being made sober by putting his head under a water pump where "profanity and water ran down into the drain." Also, there is one reference to the Indians as "savages," but for the most part Kathy and Mike love and reach out to the Indians.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

$5 Sale at

I've been giving Christian fiction a bad rap here lately, but I thought you might like to know that for one more week is having a big sale on some of their Christian audiobooks.

Among the fluff are some classics such as Paradise Lost and Pilgrim's Progress. There are also three Wendell Berry titles. I'm getting Nathan Coulter because it's narrated by Paul Michael who did such a wonderful job on Jayber Crow. Take a look if you like inexpensive, clean audiobooks.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Michael O'Brien Quote on Stories

Because I appreciate a good discussion about children's literature and the value of fairy tales, I enjoyed Michael O'Brien's A Landscape With Dragons. He argues against most modern fiction for young people because it makes the macabre appealing. (This was written well before the vampire craze.) Fairy tales, says O'Brien, have bad dragons and good knights and children are very aware of the line between good and evil. Modern stories, on the other hand blur the lines between the two.

Our truest stories tell us who we are and where we should be going. They inform us about the nature of the enemy. They strengthen us for the journey. A badly flawed tale, on the other hand, can weaken and confuse it. It may even direct us into some very dangerous territory. (p. 102)

My favorite quote along this line will always be G.K. Chesterton's on dragons: Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell the children that dragons can be killed. (This is a paraphrase of the quote from Tremendous Trifles: "What fairy tales give the child is  his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon." 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Faith in Literature

After my rant about substandard writing in Christian romances, I thought I'd create a list of classics that skillfully portray the intense Christian beliefs of their central characters without nauseating the reader.

The Warden  by Trollope (my review here)
The Dean's Watch by Goudge (my review here)
Gilead by Robinson (my review here)
Cry, the Beloved Country by Paton (my review here)
Middlemarch by Eliot (my review here)
Jane Eyre  by Brontë (my review here)
Silence by Endo (my review here)

Marvin Olasky (in the June 28 issue of World Magazine) listed his ten favorite Christian fiction authors: Randy Alcorn, Don Brown, Tim Downs, Brian Godawa, Steven James, Ray Keating, John K. Reed, Randy Singer, Dave Swavely and Bret Lott. (I have not read ANY of these guys, but wonder if they lean toward more guy-friendly stories.)

Do you have any recommendations for novels (new or old) that show faith in God in a positive, convincing way?

(For more suggestions on faith in literature, the list of "100 Authors of Faith" at has always intrigued me. I've only read about a dozen of them so far.)

Monday, July 14, 2014

Kindle Deal on Unbroken has a reminder that Amazon has marked down Unbroken from $27 to $4.99. He also linked to the trailer of the upcoming movie. If, by any chance, you haven't read the book and would like to before seeing the movie, this is your chance.

Sherry at Semicolon has a nice link to a recent obituary video on Zamperini, the hero of Unbroken.