Archive for August, 2011
In My Opinion…
A Book Review of The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory
This historical novel, the second in the Cousin’s War series, is the first-person tale of Margaret Beaufort, mother of England’s Henry VII. Gregory attempts to relate the story of an unusual woman, a religious fanatic with an iron will who managed to conspire and strong-arm her son to the throne of England. In spite of its fascinating cast of characters and the rich tapestry of history which it recounts, I am sorry to say that the story falls flat. It isn’t possible to enjoy a book with such a one-dimensional, thoroughly dislikable protagonist.
From the first pages, Beaufort is characterized as a girl obsessed with religion and Joan of Arc. One of the only details given of her personal appearance is her proud description of her “saint’s knees,” an homage to her hours of daily prayer. Throughout the book, Gregory finds it necessary to remind the reader time and time again about Beaufort’s grand religious views, as she believes herself to be personally selected by God to bring about His will for England. After the birth of her son, Henry, this segues into her belief that her son, although some distance down the line of royal inheritance, is destined for the throne. As a genuinely religious person, I find Beaufort fairly repulsive in her unrepentant self-centered religious fanaticism. As another character points out, Beaufort’s exclusive personal knowledge of God’s will miraculously mirrors her own desires, every time. She is even warped enough to pray for the death of her enemies and decides that the slaughter of two boy princes, standing in the way of her son’s ascension, is sanctioned by God. Beaufort, as characterized by Gregory, is not genuinely Christian. She is genuinely insane.
I tried so hard to like this book, but in the end, it was not possible. I love the subject matter, but this could have been written better. Making Margaret Beaufort into a realistic person, a woman of passion, fear, and some degree of occasional inner conflict would have transformed this book. Additionally, the descriptiveness of Gregory’s writing leaves much to be desired. I like a historical book with some details, some realism, and this book provides absolutely no fodder for the imagination.
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In My Opinion…
A Book Review of While You are Away by Eileen Spinelli
Eileen Spinelli’s book While You Are Away eloquently expresses the feelings of different children while their parents are deployed in military service. The story follows a boy whose father is in the navy, a girl whose mother is an army pilot, and a boy with soldier dad. The children talk about the things they miss about their parents: “I miss baking brownies, hunting for salamanders, collecting river rocks.” They talk about methods of coping with difficult feelings: “I wrap myself in your old green sweater.” They communicate a precocious sense of responsibility in the absence of their parents, taking on additional chores and expressing lots of physical affection for the parent who remains at home: “I remember what you told me… Give Mama extra hugs.”
While the book certainly conveys a realistic feeling of wistfulness, it maintains a stronger feeling of lightness and hope. A little boy confesses, “While you are on that big ship, Daddy, far, far away, I tell you things. I pretend the wind can carry my words clear across the ocean right to your heart.” The little girl in the illustration dances across the page while the text reads, “I look up into the big blue sky and think my happiest thoughts so you can fly through them as if they are clouds and smile and think of me, too.”
The book’s beautifully soft illustrations by Renee Graef contribute to the perfect blend of emotions; they convey the families’ longing, loneliness, and feelings of great anticipation for the day when they will be reunited. This is the best book I have seen for children of servicemen and women. Here, they will find companions who understand what it’s like to share a parent. While You Are Away concludes with each family greeting their loved one at the airport, a heartwarming scene that will inspire military children to keep dreaming of that special day.
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Frogs are an ideal symbol for the green movement for several reasons. Obviously, some species of frogs are green. Frogs are wild animals, a perfect example of the untamed, natural beauty of our planet which the green movement is trying to preserve. Here’s the best part: due to their sensitivity to environmental changes, frogs actually serve as a barometer for water pollution, air pollution, global warming, and other environmental concerns.
Frogs can only survive in a proper ecosystem, a habitat that is suitable both in land and water. The skin of frogs is permeable and easily absorbs toxic chemicals. The health of the frogs in a biosphere is a good indicator of the health of the entire biosphere. In other words, when the frogs in an area start dying, we know there is a problem that will eventually travel through all levels of the food chain. There are currently over 4,000 species of frogs in existence, but amphibians are disappearing at a faster rate than any other type of animal. One-third of all amphibian species are now close to extinction. Amphibians on the whole are a hardy group of animals that have thrived for many centuries; their natural rate of extinction is only one species per 250 years. At least 200 species of amphibians have become extinct since 1979. That should tell us that something has gone terribly wrong with the balance of many ecosystems.
So, frogs do matter. Watch the frogs, people. Whatever we can do to encourage the well-being of frogs can also benefit all other types of life on earth, including our own.
Picture courtesy: http://www.freenaturepictures.com/frog-pictures.php
Do books change people? I have been thinking about this lately, and in my opinion, the question should be answered with a resounding yes. That is, the answer is yes for people who actually read books. I suppose that many people today are more influenced by beer commercials and magazine ads than by books. Yet some true readers remain.
Books change our language. Language is never static; though it can be hard to grasp within a single generation, words shift in spelling, meaning and implication. Where once the word “hot” was a term simply used to describe fire, the sun, July weather and a bowl of steaming soup, it now carries significant sexual connotations, at least in American usage. Nothing influences the spoken word as much as the written word. New words are created and old words are buried by the books we read and don’t read. Perhaps no one has influenced the English language as much as Shakespeare, who coined new phrases that were cherished for their simultaneous ingenuity and transparency. For example, a phrase that has become part of the common verbiage (even a cliché) is “to eat (someone) out of house and home.” It first appeared in Henry IV, Part 2. Part of the enduring literary dominance of Shakespeare’s plays stems from his ability to spin such descriptive, memorable phrases.
Books change our culture. The publication of the sensationally popular Twilight series created a merchandising frenzy that is only now beginning to ebb; the influence of these books has extended to the clothing and accessories of young people. Previously, the Harry Potter books sold like hot cakes and inspired a multitude of literary copycats. Dare I suggest that large numbers of kids who otherwise would never have cracked a book outside of school suddenly became bookworms because of this craze? Are they reading high quality literature that will shape their minds and characters in positive ways? Well, maybe or maybe not, but at least they’re reading something. Meanwhile, these newly converted book lovers are definitely being shaped in some fashion by these powerful books.
Books change our hearts. There are so many examples of this throughout history. Many Americans were blind to the plight of slaves in the American South in the middle of the 1800’s, then Harriet Beecher Stowe published a little book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Sentimental? Yes. Extremely powerful? Oh, you bet. It became the best-selling book of the entire 19th century, and its considerable contribution to the abolitionist movement probably helped to fuel the Civil War.
I don’t think it is possible to read a book and come away unchanged. In the words of Helen Exley, “Books can be dangerous. The best ones should be labeled ‘This could change your life.’”
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In My Opinion:
A Review of 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper
Since I previously reviewed the book 23 Minutes in Hell by Bill Wiese, it seemed appropriate to also review 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper. This New York Times bestselling book is the true account as told by Piper of his 1989 car accident, during which he was pronounced dead and remained without a pulse for 90 minutes before his heart inexplicably began to beat again without CPR. Piper tells an amazing story of the accident, his visit to heaven, and the return to his earthly body and beginning a long journey to physical, emotional and spiritual healing.
Piper, a Baptist preacher, was driving down a two lane bridge when a semi-truck hit his car head-on and rolled over top of it, smashing the car with an impact of 110 miles per hour. No one expected Piper to survive, and in fact, EMTs pronounced him dead and covered his body with a tarp. For ninety minutes, his body was undisturbed while the paramedics checked the injuries of other people. Another Baptist preacher who happened to be driving nearby came to the accident scene and asked if he might be allowed to pray over the dead man. Climbing into the wrecked vehicle, the preacher prayed for the dead man, not knowing his identity but feeling a strong compulsion to pray for him in specific and surprising ways. He sang the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and that’s when Piper showed a shocking sign of life: he began to sing along.
With nearly all of his limbs severely crushed, Piper faced a lengthy and recovery riddled with surgeries, a bone lengthening device, and most notably, constant agonizing pain. After more than two years, Piper gradually healed to a livable degree and regained the ability to walk. Piper’s story following the accident comprises the bulk of the book, detailing his time in the hospital, the long road to physical healing, battle with depression, gradual return to ministry and his eventual decision to share his heavenly experience with other people.
Most significant to the story are the two chapters relating his experience in heaven. Chapters two and three are the real meat of the story, the reason most people would want to pick up this book. Piper’s account of heaven is not very detailed, as his experience seemed to revolve mostly around his interactions with deceased loved ones waiting to greet and embrace him before the gates of heaven. He also repeatedly disavows his descriptions, saying that no words can adequately describe the beauty, joy, and wonder of the things he saw and felt. Although Piper’s primary difficulty in recovering from the accident was his anger at being pulled out of heaven and put back into an earthly body that was completely shattered, once he came to terms with God’s decision, he found that his brief account of heaven could be an amazing tool to comfort the bereaved and to witness to unbelievers. Indeed, those two chapters certainly held me riveted. Do I believe Piper? Yes, I believe him. But whether or not the reader believes him, this book achieves something rare: a heartfelt rendering of the afterlife. There is a universal, consuming desire to glimpse the afterlife, and 90 Minutes in Heaven affords us such a glimpse. Piper’s story of suffering and the struggle to accept a “new normal” is inspiring, and the picture he provides of heaven is beautiful, comforting, and thought-provoking.
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In My Opinion:
A Review of Polar Dream: The Heroic Saga of the First Solo Journey by a Woman and Her Dog to the Pole by Helen Thayer
Helen Thayer simply has to be one of the strongest people on the planet. Never mind that she is 5’3” tall. Never mind that she was 50 years old at the time of the Arctic adventure recorded in her autobiographical account, Polar Dream. Thayer is fearless and tough, sometimes shockingly so.
Here’s the bottom line: Thayer, an accomplished athlete and winner of the 1975 United States National Championship in luge racing, decided to make a solo journey to the magnetic North Pole, on foot and skis. She wanted to travel without a dog team or snowmobile, with only the supplies she could pull on a sled, with no airplane resupplies. In 1988, at age 50, Thayer achieved her goal, becoming the first woman to ever make such a journey. Thayer’s story is told in Polar Dream, a detailed, personal account of her expedition. Let me tell you, it is one amazing read. Had I encountered only one of the numerous obstacles faced by Thayer during her 27 day, 345 mile odyssey, I would have promptly radioed for a helicopter to come and rescue me. Instead of backing out, Thayer went to great lengths to hide her difficulties from her team at base camp so that they would allow her to keep going. A few of the obstacles Thayer faced included horrendously frostbitten hands, multiple encounters with hungry polar bears (including a few that hunted and charged her), facial and eye injuries caused by windswept chunks of ice that reduced her vision to near blindness, and travelling for seven days on starvation rations (100 calories and one pint of water a day) after her food supply was lost. All of this occurred on top of the already torturous conditions that characterize Arctic expeditions: daily temperatures as cold as forty-five degrees below zero, wind chill at around 100 degrees below zero, traversing a barren wasteland of ice with no human contact whatsoever. Thayer handled all of these conditions with no complaining and no self-pity. She must be made of steel.
But Thayer definitely doesn’t have a heart of steel, because she found a place for Charlie, her husky dog. Over and over as I read the book, I said to myself, “Thank goodness for Charlie!” Thayer intended to do her journey in complete solitude, but at the last minute, a friend persuaded her to bring one dog with her, as a companion and safeguard against polar bears. Just days before her departure, Thayer met Charlie, a large black husky who had never formed a bond with any person before. It was love at first sight. Charlie proved invaluable to Thayer over and over throughout their adventure.
I’ve never had any desire to visit the Arctic. Having read Polar Dream, I feel even less inclined to make a visit anywhere extreme north. It’s far more comfortable to sit in a recliner under a warm blanket and read about somebody else’s survival battle. And Helen Thayer is my new hero.