Wednesday 29 June 2016

Some Light, Literary Reading

Winter is definitely here and we've even had some snow falls about an hour and a half away from us. Between the cold snap and a persistent cough that has worn me out by keeping me awake at night, it's been an ideal time to indulge in some light but literary reading.
Enter P. D. James.
I say 'light reading' but P. D. James didn't write cozy mysteries like Agatha Christie. In some ways she is similar to Flannery O'Connor in her use of external situations to reflect what is going on within a character. She wrote in a literary style but the content of her books is often uncomfortable as she explores the unpredictability of the human heart . Disordered love is a recurring theme in her writing. Violent, horrific and dreadful, are words that could be used to describe situations in her stories, but murder is all these things...

Murder is the unique crime; it's the only one for which we can never make reparation to the victim. We feel that the murderer steps over an invisible line which divides him or her forever from the rest of us. It is an astonishing act and we regard it with horrified fascination. I think most of us are capable of quite atrocious sins, but I do believe that comparatively few of us are capable of deliberately planning the death of another human being.

The Black Tower by P.D.James

P. D. James concerned herself more with why rather than who, and I enjoy the ability she had to thresh out her characters. In The Black Tower (1975) James' fifth mystery novel, this character development is mostly focussed on her detective, Adam Dalgliesh.

It was, he had thought, uncommonly inconsiderate of his doctors to reconcile him so thoroughly to death and then change their minds. It was embarrassing now to recall with what little regret he had let slip his pleasures and preoccupations, the imminence of loss revealing them for what they were, at best only a solace, at worst a trivial squandering of time and energy. Now he had to lay hold of them again and believe that they were important, at least to himself.

Commander Adam Dagliesh, having resigned himself to the fact that he had acute leukaemia and wasn't long for this world, felt a sense of outrage when this diagnosis was proved to be incorrect. Instead, his doctor happily bestowed on him an atypical mononucleosis complicated by a bout of pneumonia.
Sleepless nights during his illness allowed him to take a dispirited inventory of his life. He had lived an emotionally detached and self-sufficient life after the death of his wife and child, and had used his grief, his job and his poetry to justify his actions. Now feeling ill-equipped to return to his previous occupation at Scotland Yard, he was left with the conviction that it was time for him to get away from the world of crime and courts, manhunting and corpses.

He wasn't sure whether this disenchantment with his job was caused solely by his illness, the salutary reminder of inevitable death, or whether it was the symptom of a more fundamental malaise, that latitude in middle-life of alternate doldrums and uncertain winds when one realizes that hopes deferred are no longer realizable, that ports not visited will now never be seen, that this journey and others before it may have been a mistake, that one has no longer even confidence in charts and compass.

There was a personal commitment he needed to fulfil now that death could not excuse him. An invitation had come from the elderly priest, Father Baddeley, an old family friend and his father's curate, asking him to visit.
Eleven days later, Dalgleish drove out of London and headed to Dorset where his old friend now served as chaplain to Toynton Grange, a private home for the young chronic sick and disabled.

He smelt for the first time the clean half-illusory salt tang of the sea. The air moved warm and gentle against his skin. He was suddenly suffused with happiness and, as always in these rare transitory moments, intrigued by the purely physical nature of his joy. It moved along his veins, a gentle effervescence. Even to analyse its nature was to lose hold of it. But he recognized it for what it was, the first clear intimation since his illness that life could be good.

Dalgleish arrived at Toynton Grange to find that his old friend had died suddenly eleven days previously and his body cremated six days after that. There was no reason to suspect foul play; the man was in his eighties, but Dalgliesh had a sense of foreboding that all was not as it seemed. When other deaths occur he finds himself in dangerous territory and once again fighting for his life.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

 This is the first of two books that introduces P. D. James' female sleuth, the vulnerable and courageous Cordelia Gray. Adam Dalgliesh is referred to throughout the book but it isn't until the final chapter that he actually makes an appearance.
Cordelia Gray is a twenty-two year old woman who inherits a run-down detective agency after the death of its principal, Bernie Pryde, an ex-detective who previously worked under Inspector Dalgliesh.
Cordelia is frequently told that her work is 'an unsuitable job for a woman,' but she is determined to keep the agency going for the sake of her old partner.
Just after she returns to the office after Bernie's funeral, she has a visit from a woman who is representing Sir Roger Callender, a well known scientist. Callender's son, Mark, committed suicide eighteen days beforehand and his father wants to know why his son hanged himself.
Cordelia starts to investigate what led the young man to this point and discovers a trail of insidious family secrets. When an attempt is made on her own life she is convinced that Mark's death was the result of murder and not by his own hand.
There is nothing cozy about this novel with its 1970's Cambridge University setting and a family full of disordered loves and secret sins. Cordelia Gray is a very likeable sleuth and the last chapter where she is interviewed by Dalgliesh is one of my favourite parts of the book.

Bernie wouldn't have been any help here. To him the moral dilemma at the heart of the crime would have held no interest, no validity, would have seemed a wilful confusion of straightforward facts...
But the Superintendent might have understood...She recalled Ronald Callender's words that love was as destructive as hate. Would Dalgliesh assent to that bleak philosophy? She wished that she could ask him. This, she recognized, was her real danger - not the temptation to confess but the longing to confide.

Further reading:

'How the detective fiction of P.D. James provokes theological thought.'

Wednesday 22 June 2016

Confessions of a Shakespeare Illiterate

When I was 13 years old, I heard a girl in the year above me at school reciting what I thought was a poem. It appealed to me so much that I remembered some fragments over all the intervening years up until a few years ago when we read them in Shakespeare's play, The Tempest, and I discovered their origin.

  Full fathom five thy father lies;
              Of his bones are coral made;
    Those are pearls that were his eyes:
              Nothing of him that doth fade, 

Those verses were my first introduction to Shakespeare. I just didn't know it.
A copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare was given to me before I had children by a friend who had a spare copy. It sat on the shelf for years after I'd decided that I'd never make any sense out of it. My eldest daughter started reading this book when she was about 9 years of age and most of her siblings connected with Shakespeare at a similar age, starting off with Charles & Mary Lamb's Tales From Shakespeare, but it wasn't something we'd done as part of our homeschooling because I felt completely inept.
I was a Shakespeare illiterate.
My journey into appreciating Shakepeare was slow and my children were there long before I was. Four years ago even my 7 year old knew more about Shakespeare's plays than I did.
When we started using Ambleside Online about five years ago, I added Plutarch and Shakespeare to our weekly schedules. I still had no clue about Shakespeare, let alone Plutarch, but jumped in anyhow. Since then we've read and listened to two to three plays per year. Some of it still goes over my head, but I don't feel like an illiterate anymore.

Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and over the five years since I added them as part of our regular studies, we've so far read through/watched/listened to 14 of them: eight comedies, four tragedies, and two histories.
 I've read often enough that Shakespeare's plays were meant to be seen, and it did help me to watch some of the movie versions of his plays (and a few stage productions) but my older daughter had to give me a running commentary to help me know who was who. I found this really distracting (she knows the plays inside out so it didn't bother her) and because of the barriers I encountered, I've tried  to use a mixed approach when we study Shakespeare.
I've written quite a few posts on Shakespeare but I wanted to gather together on one page the resources that helped me to spread the feast that is Shakespeare in a way that both my children and I could partake.

I've found it wise to preview all the movies. Even the G-rated versions have unsuitable scenes although often it's easy enough to fast forward without missing much of the story. Live productions can be variable, especially when the plays are given a modern setting. The last Bell Shakespeare production turned me off going to another one, while an amateur production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was a lot of fun and suitable for the whole family.
Here are some of the things we've used to make Shakespeare come alive for us.


Aside from Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare, these are some re-tellings we've used:

The Enchanted Island by Ian Serraillier (the author of the WW2 book, The Silver Sword) is a book of stories from the plays, not of them. He often chooses secondary plot lines to follow which makes for an interesting read that isn't just a repeat of every other book of Shakespeare summaries.  Easy to read with engaging language, the eleven stories include Henry V, King Lear, Macbeth and The Tempest. Published in 1966 so available secondhand.

Romeo & Juliet by Margaret Early - lovely illustrations and a good introduction; all ages.

Shakespeare for Children, narrated by Jim Weiss is a fun re-telling of two of Shakespeare's plays. Moozle listened to these over & over for probably a year. They are a great introduction for younger children.

The Animated Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew is a good follow up after Shakespeare for Children  or just as an introduction to the play for up to age 12 years if there is no familiarity with Shakespeare. There are other plays that have been animated but I've only watched snippets of them. Some are better than others but this one was enjoyable to watch.

I came across these books by Marcia Williams in the library and they were helpful for a general overview of the plays. They are done well and quite appealing for kids who might struggle with the rich language Shakespeare uses. The language is still used but the plays are (obviously) condensed and done in a comic style. A couple of my boys enjoyed them when they were around 8 to 10 years of age but older children who've had no previous exposure to Shakespeare would probably enjoy them.

 'Take your place in the Globe Theatre of Shakespeare's day to see seven of his best-loved plays in performance. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest are all brought vividly to life in Marcia Williams' gloriously accessible comic-strip versions, which include the bard's own dialogue and the rowdy remarks of the audience.'

 Movie Versions of Shakespeare

Romeo & Juliet

One of the best productions I've seen is the 1968 movie by Franco Zeffirelli. It is rich and sumptuous and gives an authentic feel for the times. Romeo & Juliet are played by young actors whereas other productions tend to cast older people in the roles and it doesn't work nearly as well. It's more suited to a high school audience but because the settings are so good, I used portions of the movie to give my younger children a feel for the play and the boys loved it. It is sensuous and hormonal in parts; the death scene is very moving and at one point Romeo's bare backside flashes across the screen.

Henry V

Our first introduction to Henry V was with the Laurence Olivier movie, followed by reading the re-telling found in Ian Serraillier's The Enchanted Island. We then listened to the BBC Arkangel fully dramatized version on CD. (We did this over a couple of months covering about 15 minutes at each listening.) After this we watched the very well done 1990 Kenneth Branagh movie which I edited at a few places (battlefield scenes, a hanging). It was interesting to compare the two movie versions of  Henry V.
The Branagh version was certainly more appealing to my boys but the Olivier film commences and finishes as a play at The Globe Theatre and so gives a good feel for the Elizabethan era.
Bell Shakespeare performed this play in a WW2 setting which was quite interesting, but they emphasised the crude bits that neither of these films included.

Much Ado About Nothing

This is an excellent movie directed by Kenneth Branagh. It has a couple of scenes you'd definitely want to skip so preview first, but overall the movie is very good with some very humourous parts.


The Mel Gibson movie is one I watched with my teenaged daughter a few years ago. I thought it was quite good although there is one scene where Hamlet gives his mother a rather passionate kiss, which was a bit weird. It was over very quickly and apart from that brief moment (which probably would go over the heads of some) the movie was well done.

I was looking forward to watching this version starring David Tennant but stopped just before everyone started getting killed off. There was nothing objectionable, but after a while Hamlet just drove me nuts! I thought Mel Gibson played the part more authentically. Or maybe it was the frame of mind I was in when I watched this version. I did enjoy reading the play - it's full of so many quotes I'd heard but hadn't attributed to Shakespeare.

The Taming of the Shrew

This is another Franco Zeffirelli Shakespeare 1967 production and it has a G rating in Australia. I'm glad I previewed it first! Overall it's fine for general viewing but the first few minutes are in your face bosoms, well endowed wenches with toothless grins hanging out of upstairs windows. This is a fiesty and fun version of the play aside from its bawdy beginnings and like Romeo & Juliet, Zeffirelli knows how to capture the feel of the times.

Julius Caesar

I think this was the very first Shakespeare movie we watched and from memory it was suitable for general viewing. Caesar's death was done fairly discreetly without much bloodshed, the movie is from 1953 and is in black and white. John Gielgud (a revered Shakespearean actor) and Marlon Brando play the parts of Cassius and Mark Antony respectively. It may be viewed online here.

The Merchant of Venice

A BBC production from 1980. Antonio was a little wooden but overall this is a reasonable production and suitable for about age 15 and up.


This version is like a movie of a play. It has very sparse setting but is well acted - not surprising when you have Sir Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in the lead roles! Probably best for mid highschool and up (sombre & intense and not much action) - plus there's a scene where a person has their throat cut, but otherwise no objectionable material.

Audio Versions

We've used both the Arkangel Shakspeare and the Naxos audio versions and out of all of them the two best versions are those below. The Naxos versions we've used have actually been better (and usually cheaper to purchase) than some of the Arkangel versions. Just saying that because Arkangel is usually touted as THE audio version for Shakespeare. The two below are our favourites so far:

One of my daughters enjoyed Macbeth and Son, by Jackie French when she was about 13 years old. The story has two parallel settings - that of a 21st Century boy in Australia (who happens to be studying Macbeth at school) and that of a boy in Ancient Scotland. French gives us a different view of Macbeth to that which Shakespeare portrays. Zana said she enjoyed this alternative view of Macbeth which is similar to the way Josephine Tey presents her version of Richard the Third in the book The Daughter of Time.

Update: we've been using the audio below for about six weeks and watching the YouTube videos of the movie version which has Lawrence Olivier and Diana Rigg acting the parts of King Lear & Regan. So far it has been very good:

Tuesday 14 June 2016

Parents as Inspirers: the Educational Functions of Parents

There are four chapters or essays in Charlotte Mason's second volume, Parents and Children, that have the title 'Parents as Inspirers.' Each of these four chapters (chapters III to VI) looks at different aspects.

Chapter III starts with the idea that parents owe a Second Birth to their children i.e. a birth into the spiritual life of the intelligence and moral sense and looks at the educational functions of parents. CM observed that some parents may neglect to do this for their children and in so doing unleash a Pandora's box of misfortune by their carelessness. However, there is also a cup of blessing that is available for them to dip into that will bring good to their children.
God uses men and women, parents above all others, as vehicles for the transmission of his gifts and although there are exceptions to the rule:

'Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it,' (Proverbs 22:6) nevertheless, it is a rule, and God honours those who keep His law.

•    Heredity isn't taken into account in the Second Birth. The fact that a child is brave or timid, generous or selfish, careful or reckless, boastful or modest, quick-tempered or placid has more to do with inheritance than education. Inherited nature is present at birth and is the base foundation upon which everything else is built.

•    The child brings with him into the world, not character but disposition (temperament, nature, inherent qualities)

•    He has tendencies which may need to be strengthened, channelled, or nipped in the bud

•    'A good habit can overcome ten bad natures'

•    A person's character is the disposition they inherited, worked upon by education, circumstances, self-control and

•    The Spirit of God

There were certain dispositions that our children came into the world with. Some were of the type that we were keen to strengthen. Some needed to be channeled in the right way. Others definitely needed to be repressed. When you see your child has inherited tendencies that you've wrestled with yourself, you realise how important it is that you don't treat them in a fatalistic fashion: 'They are who they are and they're stuck with it.' I wish I'd had some of my inherited 'qualities' channeled or nipped in the bud when I was younger.
Tendencies to shyness, timidity and fear are not traits I want to strengthen.
If my child is by nature an introvert, I don't want them to use that as an excuse to stop them being initiators.
I don't necessarily want to squash a quickness of temper but to channel it in a creative way. I want to strengthen an obvious talent and make opportunities for it to be developed even more.
We are not limited to what we possessed at our 'first birth.' Thankfully!

Charlotte Mason called the Holy Spirit 'the supreme agency,' that is sometimes 'little suspected and as little solicited.' I've been guilty of forgetting that the Holy Spirit has the capacity of exerting His power in my children's lives. I can think of so many times I've fretted over things I had no control over when I could have saved myself the trouble by acknowledging His agency in their lives.

CM touches on something that even now is considered to be new ground: the idea that mental activity isn't just a product of the brain, but it is also a shaper of the brain. She didn't use the term back then but today we'd call this neuroplasticity. She uses quotes from Physiology of Mind by a Dr. Maudsley, but a more recent book that looks at learning and the 'switching on of genes' that change neural structure is 'How the Brain Changes Itself' by Norman Doidge, and it is fascinating.

I thought of the place of copy work and memory work (learning by heart) in a Charlotte Mason education when I read these words by Doidge:

...for hundreds of years educators did seem to sense that children's brains had to be built up through exercises of increasing difficulty that strengthened brain functions. Up through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a classical education often included rote memorisation of long poems in foreign languages, which strengthened the auditory memory (hence thinking in language) and an almost fanatical attention to handwriting, which probably helped strengthen motor capacities and thus not only helps handwriting but added speed and fluency to reading and speaking...the loss of these drills have been costly; they may have been the only opportunity that many students had to systematically exercise the brain function that gives us fluency and grace with symbols.

And her emphasis on developing habits i.e. 'habit is to life what rails are to transport cars:'

Most of us think of the brain as a container and learning as putting something into it. When we try to break a bad habit, we think the solution is to put something new into the container. But when we learn a bad habit, it takes over a brain map, and each time we repeat it, it claims more control of that map and prevents the use of that space for "good" habits. That is why "unlearning" is often a lot harder than learning...

CM called the brain, 'the organ and instrument of the mind' and she believed that when we think a thought there is a distinct motion set up in some tract of the brain that operates in a similar way to what happens with the arm muscles in order for the hand to write. Recognising this helps us to understand that the behaviour of the brain tissue may provide a key to an effective approach in our educational efforts regarding character formation.

About a hundred years after she penned her thoughts, the science researcher and author of 'How the Brain Changes Itself' writes:

This book is about the revolutionary discovery that the human brain can change itself...

Since the brain could not change, human nature, which emerges from it, seemed necessarily fixed and unalterable as well.

The not an inanimate vessel that we fill; rather it us more like a living creature with an appetite, one that can grow and change itself with proper nourishment and exercise.

Wednesday 8 June 2016

Reading Europe: The Netherlands - Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Girl With a Pearl Earring is set during the 17th Century in the Dutch city of Delft. It is a work of historical fiction involving the artist Johannes Vermeer and this painting:

 Girl With a Pearl Earring, 1665

This is a quick and quite enjoyable book to read and is told from the viewpoint of Griet, a 16 year old girl sent to work as a maid in the Vermeer household.
When Griet's father is blinded in an accident at work, she must work to help to support her parents and her younger sister. Griet's brother, Frans, has already been apprenticed out and lives elsewhere.
Griet goes to live with the Vermeer family and becomes a little besotted by the artist. There is friction between Griet and other members of the household, including Vermeer's wife, Catharina, and this escalates when Vermeer asks Griet to grind expensive pigments for him and later uses her as a model for his 'Dutch Mona Lisa.'

It was strange to meet so many new people and see so many new things in one morning, and to do so apart from all the familiar things that made up my life. Before, if I met someone new I was always surrounded by family and neighbors. If I went to a new place I was with Frans or my mother or father and felt no threat. The new was woven in with the old like the darning in a sock.

Chevalier's writing is quite descriptive and overall she captures a sense of the times but Griet's character sometimes spoiled the story for me. The novel would have had more appeal for me if its intended audience was clearer. There were a couple of places where I thought it went beyond the place I'd feel comfortable giving it to someone in their mid-teens. On the other hand, it lacked the depth I'd expect from an adult novel - characters were a little flat and undeveloped, and the ending felt rushed.
Not much is known of Vermeer's life but Chevalier obviously did quite a bit of research into the artist's life and coupled it with her imagination to paint a picture for her readers.

I liked this part of the conversation between Vermeer and Griet when she had asked him if his paintings were Catholic (Griet was a Protestant):

"It's not the painting that is Catholic or Protestant," he said, "but the people who look at it, and what they expect to see. A painting in a church is like a candle in a dark room - we use it to see better. It us the bridge between ourselves and God. But it is not a Protestant candle or a Catholic candle. It is simply a candle."

"There is a difference between Catholic and Protestant attitudes to painting," he explained as he worked, "but it us not necessarily as great as you may think. Paintings may serve a spiritual purpose for Catholics, but remember too that Protestants see God everywhere, in everything. By painting everyday things - tables and chairs, bowls and puckers, soldiers and maids- are they not celebrating God's creation as well?"

The maid Griet is fictitious, but many of the other characters in the book were real people in Vermeer's life - Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the 'father of microbiology;' Pieter van Ruijven (Vermeer's patron), Vermeer's wife, Catharina, and her mother, Maria Thins, for example. These links to actual historical people were interesting as were Chevalier's attempts to fill in the background of this celebrated and mysterious portrait. If you would enjoy a mix of some art history and a light read, this would be a good book to while away an evening or two on.

Linking this to Reading Europe Challenge 2016: The Netherlands 

Friday 3 June 2016

Weekly Review

Music Appreciation

If you haven't ever listened to the dulcet tones of Peter Ustinov, you're in for a treat. We bought a CD 'Peter Ustinov Reads the Orchestra' a long time ago and I haven't ever come across it anywhere else.  When I discovered that someone had put it on YouTube, I thought I'd share it here. It's about 30 minutes long and is a wonderful narration on the instruments of the orchestra. I prefer just to listen to the audio but the video is quite nicely done and it's ideal for young children.

Art Appreciation/Picture Study

Earlier this year we visited the art gallery and I found some art books published by Phaidon that I thought would be ideal to use for Picture Study - a good variety of paintings from the artist with  lovely, good-sized colour reproductions. They didn't have any books on artists I wanted to study but I took a photo of the book and searched when I got home and found Book Depository has a good selection of them for the same price.

Reading/Audio Books

I didn't realise Moozle hadn't read The Phantom Tollbooth before, so she started reading it today. Quirky and fun, written in 1961, it's recommended for ages 8 to 12 years, but it's one of those books that appeals to all ages, adults included.

Moozle's been reading Kim by Rudyard Kipling (Ambleside Online Year 5) so I put together some background information/history/general interest related to India during British rule to help with understanding and appreciating Kipling's book.

We enjoyed listening to The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard while we were out and about in the car. It's a good choice for car listening as the chapters are almost a short story in themselves, so if one child isn't there, we can just continue and the missing person doesn't lose the plot and and can join in with the next chapter. I wrote about it here.


After Macbeth and Hamlet everyone was ready for a comedy. I chose The Comedy of Errors because I found the Arkangel audio recording at our library. It's Shakespeare's shortest play and the full text is here.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas is a book I bought a couple of years ago and its 624 pages have sat on the bookshelf unread - until this week. I was pushed to start it after both reading Ruth's inspiring review at A Great Book Study, and hearing how much a friend at church enjoyed it also.

The Martian by Andy Weir, was recommended to my husband and me by our son, Mr T (he's in his mid-twenties) but before we could get a hold of the book we watched the DVD. There aren't many movies my husband and I both like - our tastes are so different - but we did enjoy this one. Basically, a group of astronauts get caught in a violent storm on Mars and in the chaos, one of them is believed to have been killed. The others make the difficult decision to leave the planet, believing there was no hope of the missing man's survival. Well, he does survive, and has to work out a way to contact NASA and use his wits to keep alive until he can be rescued. Some language but considering his situation, it's not inappropriate! The first couple of sentences in the book contain expletives, but that's not the overall tone of the book. It's a great story, the movie (M rating in Australia) was excellent, and I loved the music! (e.g. Starman by David Bowie).


Benj, Moozle and I went to our homeschool park day this afternoon and on the way home we dropped in to see Zana who is house sitting for a few weeks. Somehow we got into a conversation (probably related to food and what we were going to have for dinner) that recalled a poem all the kids learnt when they were young. There's something very gratifying about these shared memories:

There Once Was a Puffin

Oh, there once was a Puffin
Just the shape of a muffin,
And he lived on an island
In the bright blue sea!

He ate little fishes,
That were most delicious,
And he had them for supper
And he had them for tea.

But this poor little Puffin,
He couldn’t play nothin’,
For he hadn’t anybody
To play with at all.

So he sat on his island,
And he cried for awhile, and
He felt very lonely,
And he felt very small.

Then along came the fishes,
And they said, “If you wishes,
You can have us for playmates,
Instead of for tea!”

So they now play together,
In all sorts of weather,
And the Puffin eats pancakes,
Like you and like me.

by Florence Page Jaques

Linking up at Weekly Wrap-up


Wednesday 1 June 2016

Ambleside Online Year 5 - Reading Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Kim is scheduled for Literature in Term 3 of Ambleside Online Year 5. I started listing vocabulary that I thought may need some explanation and research but then I came across this very helpful chapter by chapter resource at the Kipling Society website. I think it covers just about everything that could possibly be problematic, plus some!
To get some background on India culturally and historically, I got together the following maps, websites, books and images that I thought were (or could be) helpful:

For a general background on India, these books by Bobbie Kalman are well done:

'The major world religions and their beliefs about God. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and New Age...'
Fairly simple explanation of various religious beliefs with a little graphic to describe each one. I read through some of this with Moozle prior to her starting Kim.
The notes on the Kipling Society web pages I linked to above define the various religious beliefs/cultures as they come up in the story, but I liked the graphics at this website which helped explain things more clearly.

Kim was published in 1901 and the setting was India under British rule. In 1947, Colonial India was divided into two separate states: India and Pakistan (the Partition of India). The map below shows India prior to Partition.

There is some history here and maps to show the changes which occurred as a result of Partition.

 India after Partition - Lahore, where Kim begins, is now in Pakistan:

 Zam-Zammah, Kim's gun.

He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib–Gher — the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. 
(Kim: Ch 1)

The Grand Trunk Road - map and photos 

‘Look! Brahmins and chumars, bankers and tinkers, barbers and bunnias, pilgrims and potters — all the world going and coming. It is to me as a river from which I am withdrawn like a log after a flood.’
And truly the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle. It runs straight, bearing without crowding India’s traffic for fifteen hundred miles — such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world.
(Kim, Chapter 3)

'The Great Game' - the struggle between the British and Russian Empires for supremacy in Central Asia. In Chapter 3 of Susan Wise Bauer's Story of the World, Volume 4, she writes about Russia and Britain's attempts to try to gain control of Afghanistan. This chapter is scheduled in Week 26 of Ambleside Online Year 5.
More on The Great Game here (for children) and here.

Benares, now known as Varanasi (Kashi); Ganges River. Some great photos here
Indian Himalayas

Simla (Shimla) c.1900 the capital city of Himachal Pradesh, and the summer capital of the British-Indian Empire.

The Spiti Valley is a desert mountain valley located high in the Himalayan Mountains in the north-eastern part of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. The name "Spiti" means "The Middle Land", i.e. the land between Tibet and India.

Sepoys - Indian soldiers under the command of the British