Friday 26 March 2021

Breathe: A Child's Guide to Ascension, Pentecost, and the Growing Time by Laura Alary

Breathe: A Child's Guide to Ascension, Pentecost, and the Growing Time, a new book for children written by Laura Alary and illustrated by Cathrin Peterslund is due out in April of this year.
Breathe retells the biblical account of the Ascension of Jesus and the Day of Pentecost in a lyrical and practical way for children. 

'The season after Pentecost lasts for a long time...
In church we call it Ordinary Time...
There are no big holidays during Ordinary Time,
But life in the Spirit is not ordinary.
Amazing things are happening.'

Breathe looks at the natural growing time of the Northern Hemisphere’s spring and summer that coincides with Ordinary Time in the church calendar and connects it with the movement of the Holy Spirit. Seeds that had been buried in the earth have come to life and flowers are blooming. Everything is growing and changing in the natural world which makes it a good time to reflect on what the Spirit is doing in our lives. 

'Am I growing the fruit of kindness?'
'I wonder what kind of fruit I will bring to the world?'

I like the practical aspects of this book. The author puts them alongside the retelling of the biblical account to show us how we may apply them to our lives. 
Breathe is a lovely book to be shared with a child and I think an adult who does this will be refreshed too. It’s always good to examine ourselves to see if we are growing the fruit of kindness and children help to give us a fresh perspective as they see things we often don’t.

If you are, like me, in the Southern Hemisphere, the book is still applicable but like the Christmas books we read that depict snow, we have to use our imaginations a little more.

Laura Alary also wrote two other children's books I've previously highlighted - Make Room: A Child's Guide to Lent and Easter and Look! A Child's Guide to Advent and Christmas. They have a similar format to Breathe but a different illustrator. I think Breathe is pitched a little more to a wider age range with more textual depth but they are all well done.
All three books are published by Paraclete Press.

Thursday 18 March 2021

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall (2015) Non-Fiction

Tim Marshall is a British journalist and author who has been on the front line in the Balkans, Syria and Afghanistan. He witnessed close hand how international conflicts and civil wars have arisen out of past decisions. He has seen how history has shaped the future events of a country and the role geography has had in that shaping.

In Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics, Marshall gives some very interesting insights into the major factors that determine world history. He examines the international affairs of ten regions of the world to show that geographical factors - the physical landscape, climate, demographics, culture and the availability of natural resources -  have an important impact on civilisations. He considers that these geopolitical factors are often overlooked.

‘Seeing geography as a decisive factor in the course of human history can be construed as a bleak view of the world, which is why it is disliked in some intellectual circles. It suggests that nature is more powerful than man, and that we can only go so far in determining our own fate.’

Marshall discusses the following areas in this book:

Russia, China, USA, Western Europe, Africa, The Middle East, India & Pakistan, Korea and Japan, Latin America, and The Arctic.

I borrowed this book from my eldest son who recommended it. He reads mostly nonfiction, especially politics and current affairs. I don’t read much of this genre and expected it would be a little dry and heavy going. It definitely isn’t like that at all. I found it hard to put it aside at times - unlike a lot of nonfiction titles that I have had to read in small doses. 

If you enjoy history, I expect that you would enjoy this book. 

I liked it enough to include it in our  Australian version of Ambleside Online Year 11 which  covers the 20th Century. It would fit well into not only geography and history but also current affairs especially for those implementing a Charlotte Mason High School. Most of the issues the author discusses are still being worked out.  

Here are some extracts from the book that I found interesting and helpful:

Russia - the Arctic and the fact that Russia has never had a warm-water port, limits Russia’s ability to be a truly global power. Its most powerful weapon is gas and oil, where it is only second to the USA. Russia has a hold on Europe’s energy needs and the better a country’s relationship with Russia , the cheaper its energy costs. The closer a country is to Moscow, the more dependent it is on Russia. This plays into foreign policy - for example, Russia supplies about half of Germany’s gas needs so German politicians are slower to criticise the Kremlin for aggressive behaviour. 

China - although it has always been a land power, in wasn't until the 1980’s that China began to be major trading power. Until recently the country has been limited due to its lack of a global navy. With its huge population, lack of arable land and the affects of pollution, it is looking to expand. The author believes that the Chinese are not looking for conflict or seeking to spread Communism (not sure I agree with this??) but are concerned with keeping ocean access open as they depend upon imported resources. Recent maps published in China show almost the whole of the South China Sea as theirs and they have been building deep sea ports around the world as they seek to establish a ‘blue water’ (ocean going) navy.

USA - due to the shrewd decisions it made in the past to expand its territory in key regions, the USA became a two ocean superpower and is now close to being self sufficient in energy. This will change its policies in the Middle East as it will no longer need to rely on their oil.

Europe -  flat land and rivers that can be navigated have been key factors for Europe’s place on the global scene. The UK has been advantaged by its location with access to the North Sea and the North Atlantic. Its relative isolation has provided protection from European wars and unrest. 65 years of relative peace due to Europe’s unity may be threatened due to the financial crises they have been going through.

Africa - this continent is an example of the effects of isolation. Maps are deceptive and don’t allow for the hugeness of Africa. It is three times bigger than the USA!

‘Africa’s coastline? Great beaches, really, really lovely beaches, but terrible natural harbours. Rivers? Amazing rivers, but most of them are rubbish for actually transporting anything, given that every few miles you go over a waterfall. These are just two in a long list of problems which help explain why Africa isn’t technologically or politically as successful as Western Europe or North America.’

In the 15th and 16th centuries, at the height of the Ottoman Empire, thousands of Africans, mostly from Sudan were taken cross the Arab world as slaves. The Europeans did the same to a greater degree later on. 

In European cities artificial borders were drawn with new countries created on maps. The same was done for the Middle East, and India/Pakistan (Partition!) - artificial borders on paper, drawing lines on maps & disregarding cultural distinctions & topography. This led inevitably to ethnic conflicts.

Japan and Korea - although they don’t have the ethnic problems of some other countries there are other problems. Japan is an island with basically no natural resources. Korea's division into North and South was a decision made in the USA by two clueless junior officers in the White House. It left Seoul, South Korea's capital, very vulnerable and only 35 miles south of their unstable Communist neighbours. 

Latin America begins at the Mexican border and stretches all the way down to Cape Horn. None of its coastal area has many deep harbours so trading is limited. South America is cut off geographically from just about everywhere else with mountains and the Amazon jungle. Bitter relations between countries such as Bolivia and Chile and border disputes add to their problems.

Arctic - as the ice in this region melts, new energy deposits have been found, but it’s a dark and dangerous place: ‘It’s not a good place to be without friends. They know that for anyone to succeed in the region they may need to cooperate...’

Modern technology and air power is helping to break down geographical barriers; ‘bending the iron rules of geography,' as the author puts it, but it is still a major factor for many countries.

Marshall has written a follow up book that looks at other countries, such as Australia, that I’d be interested in reading. I appreciated the author’s very readable, conversational style, and his knowledge of history and international affairs, and highly recommend this book.

Saturday 6 March 2021

A Gentleman in Moscow (2016)

It was 1922 in Moscow and Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov stood before the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. After a self-imposed exile from his homeland, Rostov had returned to Russia. He was in his early thirties and was accused of returning to the Motherland in order to take up arms against the Revolution. 

Due to his reputation as a hero in pre-revolutionary days, he escaped the death penalty and was sentenced instead to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel where he had been living for four years.

If he ever stepped out of the Metropol he would be shot.

The Metropol was built in 1905

He was assigned to an attic instead of his elegant suite and denied his usual luxuries. His world had shrunk considerably.

But the Metropol was the world in miniature and in this world Rostov began to establish relationships and close bonds with a swathe of people. He learned that small things were important. As his physical life contracted into a tiny sphere, he had time and opportunity to make his soul. The relationships he cultivated grew him as a person and the lives he touched had far reaching implications in later years.

His has been a life of privilege and convenience but his reduced circumstances enlarged his life in ways that his prosperity and freedom never had. 

"I’ll tell you what is convenient," he said after a moment. "To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute. To keep a carriage waiting at the door of one party, so that on a moment’s notice it can whisk you away to another. To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka - and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most."

I’ve always had an interest in reading about Russia during the heyday of Communist rule, but A Gentleman in Moscow takes a different route from my usual sorties into this time period. During his confinement within the Metropol, Rostov was shielded from much of the chaos and change that was happening on the outside, learning of it secondhand and intermittently, but the changes in Russia were reflected in the interior life of the hotel. It’s a unique way to view history to show the ripple effect that change and upheaval have on a society. 

"By the smallest of one's actions one can restore some sense of order to the world."

The kindness and friendship he had shown to people such as waiters, bellboys, the hotel barber, a  seamstress, and a precocious young girl, would be returned in ways he would not have imagined.

"Who would have imagined, when you were sentenced to life in the Metropol all those years ago, that you had just become the luckiest man in all of Russia."

The author sprinkles the story with many literary comments and references, which I enjoy in a book, but sometimes it felt like a display of knowledge for its own sake, which might be a harsh observation...

An interesting and engaging story with a nice bit of adventure later on. I wasn’t sure about the very end, though. If you have read it, did you wonder what his plans were and if he was going to get away with them??

2021 Challenge - Reading Europe: Russia 

Wednesday 3 March 2021

Narrative Non-Fiction Books for Young Readers: Australian Animals

I'm always on the look out for good narrative non-fiction books for children. I really like some of the Australian Natural History picture books that are available now that combine factual content within a story. I've previously written about one of these books, 'Emu' written by Claire Saxby and illustrated by Graham Byrne, that is very good. The same author and illustrator have collaborated in Big Red Kangaroo.

The illustrations in this book are large and were created with charcoal and digital media, capturing the dry, hostile beauty of inland Australia. The narrative storyline is accompanied by a section in italics on the opposite page that gives more information in factual form. The book was published in 2013 and has 29 fully illustrated pages. Recommended for Primary School aged children but an interested younger child would enjoy it, too.

Another book about Australian native animals by author Claire Saxby is Dingo. This book is illustrated by Tannya Harricks and though at first I wasn't that enamoured with her style, it grew on me as I looked at it more closely. The illustrations were created with oil paint in loose, broad brush strokes. This gives Dingo a very different feel to the Big Red Kangaroo. It has a lighter, softer background and the storyline is simpler with less narrative and larger writing.   
Dingo has the same format and page numbers as Emu and the Big Red Kangaroo and was published in 2018.
3 or 4 year olds and up would like this.

Bilby's Secrets by Edel Wignell; illustrated by Mark Jackson (2011) has a very similar format to the books above with lovely bright illustrations that evoke the Pilbara region of Western Australia - deep, rusty reds and brilliant sky blues. I've included some links below about this endangered Australian mammal.
This is a lovely book for younger children to pour over and observe closely as the illustrator includes many other creatures in the background.
The narrative is excellent and has a literary quality with a broader vocabulary than the books above.

Bilby - WWF-Australia - WWF-Australia

The Greater Bilby - Bush Heritage Australia

About Bilbies – Save the Bilby Fund

If you're looking for some Australian Natural History books for the younger years I would recommend any of these publications. Some children aren't ready for chapter books (such as those written by C.K. Thompson). These pictorial but realistic non-fiction books are a great way to start introducing them to Australian animals.