Friday, December 28, 2018

Reading Year in Review - 2018

Although I read over 100 books this year, only about a dozen had the "wow" factor.

Books that took the most careful reading, but that paid off the most in the end were: Problem of Pain, Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity and Abolition of Man. (A big thank you to Carol B. for hosting the C.S. Lewis Read-Along.)

Most effortless fun: The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, Katherine Wentworth By D.E. Stevenson, five of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the entire Thrush Green series by Miss Read.

Best audio: News of the World

Best WWII: Miracle on the River Kwai by Ernest Gordon (renamed To End All Wars to match the unpleasant 2013 movie version)

Best new-to-me author: Mervyn Peake (I read his poetry, but he is better known as a novelist and painter.)

I read 10 Christian fiction titles and was not surprised that I did not love any of them. Kathryn Springer's The Hearts We Mend and Melanie Dobson's Chateau of Secrets were the best of the lot. I completed 8 (of 12) titles from my Back to the Classics challenge and 23 (of 26) from my Christian Book Challenge - although 5 were DNFs.

With the exception of News of the World, all my favorites were books that have stood the test of time. I sometimes wonder why I waste my time on the other stuff.


Friday, December 21, 2018

The One Year Chronological Bible

If your yearly reading of the Bible has become too predictable, I would highly recommend the One Year Chronological Bible to shake things up a bit. Instead of the traditional sequence of the 66 books, the Chronological Bible places them in the order they were written. The book of Job appears right in the middle of the book of Genesis.

Seeing the familiar books "out of order" definitely kept me on my toes. And it was very helpful to read passages close together that explained each other. (For example: Amaziah's foolish behavior is not spelled out in the II Kings passage, but the corresponding passage in II Chronicles makes it very clear.)

Interspersed in the stories of the wicked kings of Israel and Judah are the prophetic warnings of God's judgment from Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc. I loved having I and II Samuel, I and II Chronicles, and the Davidic psalms together. (It was unsettling to have the book of Psalms all chopped up, though.) Some psalms come after the Exile.

The Song of Solomon and Proverbs are inserted during the Bible passages on Solomon's reign. Later the Epistles are woven into the book of Acts. So you can see how this Bible can be disconcerting and wonderful at the same time. It made me sit up and pay attention.

I'm very much looking forward to returning to a slower, more careful reading of the Scriptures in 2019, but I appreciated this bird's-eye view of the Bible in chronological form.


Friday, December 14, 2018

By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder

If literary figures can help to shape character, the Ingalls family is high on my list of exceptional candidates. In By the Shores of Silver Lake Wilder tells a simple tale of perseverance, faith, and sacrificial love as she recounts another slice of her childhood in the 1870s. In this fifth book in the series, readers are taken from the banks of Plum Creek out to the sprawling Dakota Territory.

If you are familiar at all with the series, this is the book in which Mary becomes blind due to scarlet fever, which makes this one of the best books I've ever read for teaching empathy. Although everyone is sorry for Mary, no one ever treats her like a victim. Nor does she act like one. She is expected to participate in family chores as much as she is able. Although blind, she is still able to sew more careful stitches than Laura. She often holds the baby and tells it stories so that Ma can do her own chores. It is assumed that other family members will help Mary when needed, especially Laura who was instructed by Pa to "see out loud" for her by describing scenes around them.

As in previous books, Laura is no Elsie Dinsmore. She likes exploring the wild prairie more than learning lessons on lady-like behavior. She struggles with the family expectation that she will grow up to be a teacher. But she (like everyone else in the family) always submits her desires to what is best for all of them. She learns a hard life lesson early in the book when her beloved pet dies and Pa goes west ahead of them. Laura knew then that she was not a little girl anymore. Now she was alone; she must take care of herself. When you must do that, then you do it and you are grown up. Laura was not very big, but she was almost thirteen years old, and no one was there to depend on. Pa and Jack had gone, and Ma needed help to take care of Mary and the little girls, and somehow to get them all safely to the west on a train. (14)

Without a hint of preachiness, Wilder succeeds in writing a story in which people are cheerfully overcoming difficulties and loving each other unselfishly. (How refreshing to read a story with none of the self-absorbed angst of modern Christian fiction!) In each book Ma and Pa express their differences of opinion about life out West, but they make compromises out of love for each other. In this novel Pa would like to keep going out West, but does not because he knows Ma wants to settle down so the girls can go to school. Ma would rather spend the winter back East, but gives into Pa's wish to stay at Silver Lake. Though Pa is the head of the house, he doesn't do anything without thinking of Caroline's wishes and needs.

In addition to their love story, there is plenty of adventure with wolves, blizzards and claim jumpers. And the simple eloquence of Wilder's prose is lovely: The Sun sank. A ball of pulsing, liquid light, it sank in clouds of crimson and silver. Cold purple shadows rose in the east, crept slowly across the prairie, then rose in heights on heights of darkness from which the stars swung low and bright. (67)

This edifying series is not just for kids!


Friday, December 7, 2018

C.S. Lewis Quotes on Romantic Love

The idea that "being in love" is the only reason for remaining married really leaves no room for marriage as a contract or promise at all. If love is the whole thing, then the promise can add nothing. . . and, of course, the promise, made when I am in love and because I am in love, to be true to the beloved as long as I live, commits one to being true even if I cease to be in love. A promise must be about things that I can do, about actions: no one can promise to go on feeling in a certain way. He might as well promise never to have a headache or always to feel hungry. . . .

Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing. You cannot make it the basis of a whole life. It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling. Now no feeling can be relied on to last in its full intensity, or even to last at all. And in fact, whatever people say, the state called "being in love" usually does not last. If the old fairy-tale ending "They lived happily ever after" is taken to mean "They felt for the next fifty years exactly as they felt the day before they were married," then it says what probably never was nor ever could be true, and would be highly undesirable if it were. But of course, ceasing to be "in love" need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit. Being in love first moved them to promise fidelity; this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. (from Mere Christianity)


Friday, November 30, 2018

What I Read and Watched in November

I made a dent in my Christian Book Challenge this month by finishing The Everlasting Man by Chesterton, but it wasn't easy to get through. Another tough book was Dickens' Oliver Twist. I didn't love it as much as some of his other titles.

Other books I read: By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder, A Year at Thrush Green by Miss Read, The Boomer Burden (non-fiction book on decluttering), half of Cardigan Bay by John Kerr (not worth finishing), and  A Christmas Journey by Anne Perry, which tried to deal with important themes like sin and redemption, but failed miserably. I also finished a book that my Bible study group has been reading, Queres Ser Curado? by Marcelo Aguiar.

Two nights a week we watch something from our regular rotation of DVDs (Madame Secretary, Perry Mason and Larkrise to Candleford), but we broke out of our routine to watch Henry V  - which wasn't really breaking out of our routine since we watch it once a year!


Friday, November 23, 2018

The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton

I've read over a dozen books by Chesterton, but The Everlasting Man was one of the toughest to get through. Written as a rebuttal to H.G. Wells An Outline of History, Chesterton wrote the book to refute the idea that man is merely a part of the animal kingdom and that Jesus Christ was just an influential teacher.

Unfortunately the first half on the development of man and religion is quite a slog. If you can hang on until the chapter on the incarnation, "God in the Cave," you will be richly rewarded with G.K.'s insights into the first Christmas. Some of it is simply astonishing. He talks of Christ's birth as a cataclysmic event of good against evil.

Unless we understand the presence of that Enemy, we shall not only miss the point of Christianity, but even miss the point of Christmas. Its unique note is the simultaneous striking of many notes: of humility, of gaiety, of gratitude, of mystical fear, but also of vigilance and drama. There is something defiant in it also; something that makes the abrupt bells at midnight sound like the great guns of a battle that has just been won.

I had heard that this book was instrumental to C.S. Lewis' conversion so I read it looking for clues as to influential passages. Certainly "The Riddle of the Gospel" contained ideas that Lewis would later make famous in his Mere Christianity.

In the chapter on "The Witness of Heretics," Chesterton defends unchangeable biblical truth. What the denouncer of dogma really means is not that dogma is bad, but rather that dogma is too good to be true. Dogma gives man too much freedom when it permits him to fall. Dogma gives even God too much freedom when it permits Him to die. To them it is like believing in fairyland to believe in such freedom as we enjoy. It is like believing in men with wings to entertain the fancy of men with wills.

I can't recommend this unequivocally because it is a lot of plain, hard work, but if you like Chesterton, this would be a worthwhile effort. (In the future I will probably re-read just the second half!)


Friday, November 16, 2018

New Releases of D.E. Stevenson on Kindle

I was happy to see that some new D.E. Stevenson titles will make their appearance this January. I've been wanting to read the Mrs. Tim books and see that three of the four are only $3.99 each. Sadly, the first one, Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, is still almost ten dollars.

Available Jan 7, 2019:
Mrs. Tim Carries On (Book #2)
Mrs. Tim Gets a Job (Book #3)
Mrs. Tim Flies Home (Book #4)
Spring Magic
Smouldering Fire

Older Titles:
Amberwell is still 99 cents. (free for Kindle Unlimited)
Anna and her Daughters is $3.99 (free for Kindle Unlimited)
Katherine Wentworth and Katherine's Marriage are also $3.99 each (free for Kindle Unlimited)
Sarah Morris Remembers was quite pricey when I first checked, but 99 cents a week later. It is free for Kindle Unlimited users.

The four Miss Buncle books (my favorites) are $10 each, but I read them for free via library

Any opinions on the Mrs. Tim books? I know some people really love them. I couldn't really tell from the downloaded sample if I would like them or not.

Happy light reading!

Friday, November 9, 2018

Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson

Sometimes a book comes along at just the right time and is pure pleasure. That's how I felt when I started reading Katherine Wentworth. The calm dignity of the protagonist, the stark beauty of the Scottish countryside, the stalwart friendship of Alec, and the gentle kindnesses of the minor characters all joined together to make a refreshing tonic for my tired heart. Underneath it all is a current of quiet happiness that I found irresistible.

Katherine is a widow raising three children. She's come through the heartache of losing her husband and has learned to be independent and self-sufficient. She is strong, yet insecure enough to be believable. When a new man comes into her life, however, she isn't the least bit interested in matrimony.

As I read, I was reminded of C.S. Lewis' assertion that we are most truly ourselves when we forget ourselves. The most likable characters in the novel are those who lack self-consciousness: the twins, Mrs. RacRam (the cook/housekeeper), the vicar and his wife, Katherine and Alec.The unpleasant people are those who are tied up in knots over their own happiness (or lack thereof).

It was rewarding to see how the sensible characters interacted with the difficult ones. One of the themes is the folly of riches as a means of happiness. Several Wentworth family members are suffering under the burden of wealth because they have nothing meaningful to do with their lives. Katherine, on the other hand, is struggling to raise the children on a limited budget, but finds joy in it.

In addition to the fine writing and good storytelling, I enjoyed the literary references from the Bible, King Lear, Robert Burn's, and Pilgrim's Progress. I enjoyed this book so much that I read the sequel,  Katherine's Marriage, in one gulp.


Friday, November 2, 2018

What I Read and Watched in October

I broke some kind of record this month (11 books) because I had an unusually large amount of time for reading (I got paid to sit in a classroom while students worked independently!) and because some of the books were ones I'd been reading slowly for many weeks and just happened to finish up at the same time.

Mere Christianity was by far the best title of the month, followed by Katherine Wentworth (review forthcoming) and On the Banks of Plum Creek.

Other titles: The Scarlet Pimpernel, True to You (CF), 100 Bible Verses Everyone Should Learn by Heart, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Poems Every Catholic Should Know, Complete Works of Richard Crashaw (Vol. 1), and Where the Red Fern Grows.

I read just 2 1/2 Victorian novels for Victober: The Doctor's Family by Oliphant, The Bird's Christmas Carol by Kate Douglas Wiggins, and I'm half way through Oliver Twist.

My husband and I don't watch television so on free evenings we are enjoying our second time through the Larkrise to Candleford DVDs. We intersperse these with Season 2 of the old Perry Mason courtroom dramas. I watched an interesting movie on YouTube called "Summer Snow," about a family dealing with the death of their mother. It was less syrupy than most Christian films.


Friday, October 26, 2018

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

Frankly, one does not review a classic like Mere Christianity. I can only give my impressions and an overview of its themes. The book is based on a series of broadcasts that Lewis gave on BBC radio between 1941 and 1944 to explain the basic tenets of Christianity. It continues to have great impact because Lewis avoided theological jargon and explained each concept as simply as possible.But even though he had a gift for cutting through rhetoric to get to the heart of an issue, there are still difficult bits.

I always enjoy Christian authors who dare to go against the modern myth that if you come to Christ, all your problems will go away. The idea that God is an indulgent father who makes our wishes come true and demands little in return is understandably popular. But Lewis is having none of that!

Regarding the belief the God is an impersonal life-force: This is a tame sort of God. You can switch it on when you want but it will not bother you. [It has] all the thrills of religion and none of the cost. (p. 35)

The Moral Law does not give us any grounds for thinking that God is good in the sense of being indulgent, or soft, or sympathetic. There is nothing indulgent about the moral law. it is as hard as nails. It tells you to do the straight thing and it does not seem to care how painful, or dangerous, or difficult it is to do. (p.37)

Atheism is too simple. And I will tell you of another view that it too simple. It is the view I call Christianity-and-water, the view which simply says there is a God in heaven and everything is all right - leaving out of all the difficult and terrible doctrines about sin and hell and the devil... (p.46)

Book 4, Chapter 9 emphasizes the painful changes that must take place in us as we are being formed into Christ's image. I will restrain myself from sharing the dozens of other passages I highlighted, but must mention that the most important section in the book may be Book 3, Chapter 1 on "The Three Parts of Morality" because it answers the vital question, "If what I'm doing doesn't hurt anyone else, then how can it be wrong?"

He starts the book making a case for doctrine and moral law, but finishes by making a plea for us to fully surrender our lives to Christ. Lewis contends that the more we lose ourselves in Christ the more human (and fully ourselves) we become. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in. (p.190)

This is a book to read carefully and prayerfully. Well worth the effort!

There is an audio version on YouTube.


Friday, October 19, 2018

100 Bible Verses Everyone Should Learn by Heart by Robert J. Morgan

I have seen 100 Bible Verses Everyone Should Learn offered on Amazon and have wondered if it was worth getting. I was glad to finally find a copy to help me decide.

I would highly recommend this book to those who are new to Scripture memory. Morgan has preached his way through each passage and does a wonderful job of explaining the importance of each carefully selected verse. The intro includes inspirational stories of many whose lives had been transformed by hiding God's Word in their hearts. I especially enjoyed the story of Vietnam P.O.W. Howard Rutledge as shared in his bio, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: Bible verses literally kept him from losing his mind. The memorized snippets of Scripture in his brain were potent. They faced down death, rallied his spirits, steeled his nerves, and tapped into the deepest strength known in the universe. They beat back the torture, stifled the despair, and subdued the terrors he felt. Those verses were the reason he came home alive. (p. 20)

After forty-seven pages of introduction, Morgan devotes 200 pages to the verses themselves. The book is more than just a list of important verses. In the main section Morgan carefully shows how each suggested verse builds on the previous, giving a thorough explanation of the implications of each passage This is essential to Morgan's emphasis that memorization is not just about words remembered, but about truths absorbed. If "Wisdom is seeing life from God’s point of view,” then Scripture memory is a good way to saturate our thinking with God’s way of thinking.

First you have the verse and then the verse has you. (p. 44)

Although Morgan includes a few tips on memorization techniques, the best book I've found on the subject has been An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture by Andrew M. Davis. I have used his simple method (slightly modified) for the last two years with great success.


Friday, October 12, 2018

On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder

In spite of the recent hoopla on Wilder's legacy, I still think her books should be required reading for American children. Not only are they living history books, they are rich stories of sacrifical love and perseverance in hardship.

On the Banks of the Plum Creek is 4th in the series and chronicles the family's move from Kansas to Minnesota. Upon arrival, Charles Ingalls trades his wagon and mustang horses with a man who wants to head out West. In exchange he receives a plot of land, two oxen and a dugout house. Charles has big plans to harvest wheat and build a fine house for his wife Caroline, not knowing the many discouraging challenges that will delay these dreams. From the very beginning of the book, when little Laura expresses disappointment at the loss of their horses, Pa responds with the sentiment that runs throughout the narrative: We must do the best we can, Laura, and not grumble. What must be done is best done cheerfully.

I appreciated the simple, non-preachy lessons about the Christian life. When the family is able to go to church for the first time the girls knew from Ma's voice that going to church must be better than going to a party. We find out about the cost of disobedience when we read, Laura had been bad and she knew it. She had broken her promise to Pa. But no one had seen her. No one knew that she had started to go to the swimming-hole. If she did not tell, no one would ever know. But she felt worse and worse inside. The fact that Laura repents of some sins and nourishes others shows the struggles of real human being, (as opposed to an Elsie Dinsmore-type.) There are many instances in the book where family members give up their wants for the good of another. These lessons on unselfishness are one of the main reasons parents need to keep reading these books to their children.

Sometimes the very simple language left my heart longing for more eloquence, but there were enough pretty phrases to keep me going: Grey-green lichens with ruffled edges grew flat on the rock. Wandering ants crossed it. Often a butterfly stopped to rest there. Then Laura watched the velvety wings slowly opening and closing, as if the butterfly breathed with them.

Here's A U.S.A. Today article on why we should not ban Wilder's "racist" books.


Friday, October 5, 2018

The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne

If there is any children's classic that teaches (true) tolerance better than The House at Pooh Corner, I don't know what it could be. All the animals in The Hundred Acre Wood have their idiosyncrasies, but each one is accepted and loved. There is the overprotective, but kind, Kanga, timid yet noble piglet, pompous Rabbit, pessimistic Eeyore, and obnoxious Tigger. Most important of all is Pooh, that "bear of very little brain" who has a big heart, which may make him the wisest of all.

As I listened to the audio version, I could easily imagine A.A. Milne telling these stories to his little son. Perhaps each animal personality-type was a copy of a child or grown-up they both knew. In any case, the stories of Christopher Robin's toy menagerie are told quite simply. Christopher isn't central to all of them, but when he appears, he radiates a joy and affection that I found quite contagious. Sprinkled throughout each story are acts of kindness, math jokes (which made me laugh out loud), and little bits of wisdom that are never preachy.

Chapter 9 had this little insight into poetry: Poetry and hums aren't things you get. They are things which get you. And all you can do is go where they can find you. Chapter 10 has this delightful description of leisure: Christopher Robin says, What I like doing best is nothing. How do you do nothing? asked Pooh. Well it's when people call out to you just as you are going off to do it, "What are you going to do Christopher Robin?" And you say, "Oh, nothing," And then you go and do it. . . It means just going along and listening to all the things you can't hear and not bothering.

In the last chapter the animals hear that Christopher Robin is going away. Maybe it was referring to boarding school. Or maybe it was a reference to growing up. But it's a lovely, poignant moment as Christopher Robin and Pooh bid each other goodbye.

Peter Dennis does a wonderful job narrating this book (although it took me a while to get used to the snorting sound he uses for Piglet.) He handles the voices well and his British accent makes the understated jokes all the funnier. During the same week that I listened to this audio book I was reading Miss Read's Celebrations at Thrush Green. I was amazed at similarities in the two stories. Mrs. Gibbons IS Rabbit and Albert Piggot IS Eeyore. ha!

This children's classic offers as much for adults as it does for children. Maybe more!


Friday, September 28, 2018

What I Read and Watched in September

Life wasn't quite as crazy this month so I was able to read quite a bit and watch several better-than-average movies. After reading Barbed-Wire University, I watched the 1953 movie Albert R.N., which accurately portrays life in a European POW camp.

Christian movies are often sappy and theologically thin, so I was pleasantly surprised by Paul, The Apostle of Christ. The writing and acting were good and the ending was magnificent. (Quite a nice change from modern drivel that teaches if you come to Christ all your problems will go away.) One more movie I watched was The Trip to Bountiful. I'm a sucker for any movie based on a play because it usually has good dialogue. This 1985 film is about an elderly woman who dreams of returning to the town where she grew up. It is slow-moving, heartbreaking, and garnered the Oscar for best actress for Geraldine Page.

As far as reading goes, I slowly worked my way through C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity (3 to 4 pages a day) and loved every bit of it. I listened to The Scarlet Pimpernel (for the umpteenth time) whenever I was working in the kitchen. But that was only after I'd listened to House at Pooh Corner TWICE. Lovely!

Three books that were okay, but that didn't wow me, were Miss Read's Celebrations at Thrush Green, Anthony Trollope's Dr. Wortle's School, and 101 Great American Poems.

Anyone else familiar with Kate Howe's Victober Book Challenge? Every year in October she encourages her listeners to read more Victorian literature. I'm already a big fan, but I appreciate the nudge to add more of it to my literary diet. I hope to read one Charles Dickens title and one Thomas Hardy. Here's her video introducing the challenge.


Friday, September 21, 2018

The Four Feathers by A.E.W. Mason

A good name is more desirable than great riches; 
to be esteemed is better than silver or gold. 
Proverbs 22:1

What is honor? Once lost, can it be regained? At what cost? Is Pacifism equal to
cowardice? A.E.W. Mason's 1902 novel The Four Feathers seeks to answer these questions.

It took me a while to become invested in this novel, but I'm glad I stuck with it. The story
begins in 1870 with veterans of the Crimean war seated around a table together. As they discuss their past battles, a young, sensitive boy listens to their stories and wonders if he can successfully join in the tradition of his military ancestors.

Although Harry Feversham follows in their footsteps, he has no taste for military life. When he leaves the army, he is branded as a coward and must regain his honor in the eyes of those he loves. Since it takes him six years to do that, you won't find a lot of fast-moving action in this book. But if you enjoy better-than-average writing and some good ideas to chew on, you'll appreciate this book, which has been the source of at least four movie adaptations. 

My one quibble with the book is that in order to exonerate Harry Feversham, Mason depicts career military men as less than human. Early in the book a group of them is described as men of one stamp; no distinction of uniform could obscure their relationship—lean-faced men, hard as iron, rugged in feature, thin-lipped, with firm chins and straight, level mouths, narrow foreheads, and the steel-blue inexpressive eyes; men of courage and resolution, no doubt, but without subtleties, or nerves, or that burdensome gift of imagination;

Still, I enjoyed the book a great deal, especially because of the excellent narration done by Ralph Cosham. 


Saturday, September 15, 2018

Is There Anybody Out There?

Hi, blogging friends! I haven't had any comments for a couple of months and wondered if something somehow changed in my settings. Can someone please try to leave a comment to show me that it is working? If there's a problem, can you let me know at worthwhilebooks-at-gmail-com? Thanks!

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gillie - Part Two

In last week's post I described G.I. ingenuity in prisoner of war camps. This week I want to focus on just one aspect of The Barbed-Wire University, the importance of the printed word.

Whereas European POWs could order books from home, it was not until March 1945 (after the war in Europe had ended!) that the British Red Cross even began planning to send books to the Far East. Book lovers had had to fend for themselves throughout the war. In some camps libraries were formed. The only requirement for membership was to contribute a book toward the stash. But prisoners were often forced to hand over their books to the censor shortly after capture.

The assortment of available books was eclectic to say the least. Fiction by A.J. Cronin, Daphne du Maurier and Richard Llewellyn were in demand, but bored men would read whatever they could get their hands on. Stephen Alexander remembers reading Gone with the Wind, War and Peace, The Musical Companion, Life of Samuel Johnson, some Dante, and The Oxford Book of English Verse. Childhood favorites such as Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, and Winnie the Pooh were in high demand as read-alouds: As they lay exhausted and starving in their makeshift huts, Alice's transportation to a world of shrinking bodies, summary executions and exotic creatures from which there appeared to be no escape, must have seemed less of a flight of fancy than their own transformation from guardians of one empire to slaves of another. (544)

Artist Ronald Searle held onto his precious books as long as possible, but when forced to march in temperatures of 105 degrees, he lightened his load by discarding his least favorites and by removing the covers of his most treasured volumes. In some Thai camps books were in such short supply that they were cut into pieces so that 12 men could be reading the book at the same time.

Those who loved books had to protect them from smokers who used every piece of available paper to make home-made cigarettes. Paper was so scarce that the chaplain had to give permission for them to use pages of the Bible for this purpose, "after they read it, of course." I found it fascinating that pages of the Bible went up in smoke before any pages containing recipes since food fantasies were everyone's favorite mental escape.

Also of interest is this article on How WWII Turned Soldiers into Bookworms.


Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gillies - Part One

Many books about WII prisoner of war camps emphasize the tortures, deprivations, and hair-raising escape attempts; Midge Gillies offers a different aspect of POW life by highlighting the daily activities of the captured allies. What did they do when they weren't obsessed with surviving? Well, it turns out, quite a lot.

One Far East POW described their work as "soul-destroying, heart-breaking labor" for which they were paid ten cents a day. Survival was as much about finding mental release as physical endurance. In many detention camps the men turned towards books and classes to relieve their minds of their suffering. By learning new skills and uncovering talents, they stole back some of the months and years that the war had robbed them of. Study kept boredom and depression at bay and it offered a hope that the years in captivity would not be entirely wasted.

Author James Cavell wrote of his POW experience in WWII: "Changi became my university instead of my prison. Among the inmates there were experts in all walks of life -- the high and the low roads. I studied and absorbed everything I could from physics to counterfeiting." Amid the hundreds of skills that soldiers imparted to one another were sewing, Roman history, Arabic (and a dozen other languages), pig-farming, accounting, painting, chess, shorthand, and acting. (Denholm Elliot and Clive Dunn pursued acting careers after the war.)  POWs from many different backgrounds enriched each others' lives with their treasure troves of knowledge. 

Painting done in captivity by Terry Frost
Terry Frost had enjoyed art as a hobby before becoming a European POW. In camp he was invited to join a group of artists. Frost later described the camp as a 'university' where he found a pleasure in reading and listening to music and poetry. Painting portraits introduced him to men he might not otherwise have spent time with and who assumed that, because he could paint, he would enjoy other art forms. One man invited him to listen to Beethoven on a Red Cross gramophone. He went to poetry readings and all kinds of plays, and listened to different kinds of musical instruments. He heard (read out loud) books sent by the Red Cross, anything from the classics to an autobiography of Henry Ford. Frost absorbed geography through a map on the wall. All around him men were studying and it was impossible not to be sucked into the process. As he lay on his bunk he listened to someone reading Paradise Lost, while he tested a man in the bed behind him on his German verbs. In the background there was a constant sound of men gambling. (pp. 244-245)

It is important to remember the huge difference between the prisoners held by the Germans and those held by the Japanese. European POWs had access to books, letters from home and Red Cross parcels - and a one percent death rate. Some of them studied law, took exams in the mail and became lawyers after the war. Most POWs in the Far East had few books, letters and packages and twenty-five percent died from malnutrition and tropical diseases. It was a good thing that Gillies wrote of the European prisoners in the first section of the book because once she described the deprivations of the FEPOWs, the others' hardships appeared trivial in comparison.

A fascinating book!


Thursday, August 23, 2018

Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang by Ian Fleming

I have a soft spot in my heart for British children's books that include a mix of silliness and wisdom (Think Toad in Wind in the Willows and Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh books.) Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a personal favorite and I recently read it to a group of rambunctious second graders. It was the only quiet half hour our class enjoyed each day.

Although I'm a big fan of the movie, it bears no resemblance to the book. So I love the movie for its songs and its joy (not for the Child Catcher or Baron Bomburst), and I love the book for it's sly humor (which the film captures wonderfully via Dick Van Dyke as Commander Potts).

In the book Caractacus Potts not only transforms a junkyard car into a gleaming driving machine, he also discovers the hideout of a famous gangster, Joe the Monster, and has various run-ins with him and his gang of ruffians.  I especially like Fleming's attitude toward his young readers. For the skeptics he offers semi-believable solutions to Chitty's antics, but to the ready-to-believe-anything crowd, he offers up fantastic possibilities.

One example: Fortunately Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang had smelt trouble. Heaven knows how, but there it is. There was much about this magical car that even Commander Pott couldn't understand. All I can say is that , as the gangster's low black roadster stole away down the moonlit streets, perhaps its movement jolted something or made some electrical connection in the mysterious insides of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, but anyway there was the tiny soft whirr of machinery, hardly louder than the buzz of a mosquito, and behind the ornament on the hood, a small antenna, like a wireless aerial, rose softly, and began to swivel after the gangster's car, which was now hurtling up the great main road towards Paris.

A lovely read-aloud!


Friday, August 17, 2018

What I've been Reading and Watching in August

I live in a country where most churches have been influenced by prosperity theology (the idea that God wants you to be rich and happy) so I was pleased to read the excellent Health, Wealth, and Happiness by David Jones. It carefully teaches the Bible's view  of suffering, wealth, poverty, and giving. The discussion on economics in the Old Testament was brilliant.

Favorite quotes: The Prosperity Gospel promises much and requires little. It stresses the benefits of the cross while ignoring its claims. 

Christians view success in terms of status, wealth and position rather than holiness, faithfulness, and obedience to God.

Next I read a vintage mystery called At One Thirty that came in a Kindle book bundle of 350 British Mysteries (99 cents!) I enjoyed it until the end when the detective makes a very bad decision. It was intriguing to have a blind detective who could "see" more clues than others. This was also a main idea in a book I read last month called The Four Feathers. BTW, a fun vintage movie about a blind detective is Eyes in the Night. (The main actors are good, but, unfortunately, it has the stereotypical view of African Americans from that time period.)

Finally, I read The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. This was my third time through and it was probably the most enjoyable book I've read this year. Afterwards my husband and I watched the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie version, which is very different from the book, but loads of fun.

Since I began subbing at the American school last week, I've had no more time for personal reading. But I am reading classic stories to the class including The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop and Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang by Ian Fleming. I'm listening to House at Pooh Corner as I prepare evening meals.

So, although I'm not reading as much as I'd like to, I'm enjoying my literary snacking.