Sunday, November 13, 2016

Review: The Wheel on the School

Book: The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong
Challenge Prompt: Read a book set somewhere you've always wanted to visit 
Setting: Shora (analog for Wierum), province of Friesland, the Netherlands
Pages: 298

You may or may not know this, but in 1897, my great-grandfather was born in Sint Annaparochie, a little town of about 4,000 people, in the Dutch province of Friesland and near the coast of the North Sea.  Due to this fact, and the fact that the vast majority of my mom's family comes from the Netherlands, "the low countries" has long been tops on my list of places to visit.

Some 30 kilometers away from Sint Annaparochie is Wierum, Meindert DeJong's birthplace and the basis for the town of Shora in his Newbery Medal-winning book The Wheel on the School.  Shora is more than just a setting in this book; the town and its environment are characters in the story, forcing plot action and development.  This particularly comes into play late in the book, but is present throughout the story.

The Wheel on the School tells the story of the six schoolchildren of Shora and their search for a wheel.  If this sounds like a random, odd search, it has a purpose.  Lina, the only girl in Shora's school, begins one day to wonder why storks never come to Shora when they come to other villages in the area.  The schoolchildren determine that they need to put a wheel on the roof of the school to give the storks a place to nest since there are no trees around.

The problem is, there are no spare wheels just lying around in Shora.  The kids have to look all over the place - even where a wheel couldn't possibly be - and get help from villagers eager to bring storks back to Shora.  At times, the story almost feels like one of those Nancy Drew adventure games, where you have to complete this task to get something you need for another task, which you need to complete to meet your main objective, and so on and so forth.  That's not a knock on the story; quite on the contrary, I enjoyed the intertwining storylines.  The kids have many intriguing adventures and meet many new people on their quest for a wheel.

As I mentioned before, Shora and its environment act as characters in the book in the same way that Wonderland acts as a character in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  Whether Lina and the others are climbing the dike, jumping ditches, getting stuck on a stranded boat as the tide comes in, or digging things out of the mud, nature plays a large role in this story.  As I chose this book because it is set in a place where I want to visit, I very much enjoyed reading about Shora - DeJong's writing was so descriptive that I felt like I was there.

Final Recommendation: Read it!  It is charming, descriptive, dramatic, and wonderful.  If you're looking for something super intellectually deep, this probably isn't it - it is, after all, a kids book.  But that isn't to say it's shallow.  It has valuable lessons for kids and adults and is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Review: The Great Divorce

Book: The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
Challenge Prompt: Read a book by an author you love
Pages: 146

Image result for the great divorce

If you know me at all, you know that I love C.S. Lewis.  Ole' Clive Staples has been one of my favorites since I read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in elementary school.  Having read the entire Chronicles of Narnia series, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and many more, he is far and away one of my favorite thinkers.  Part of the ending of The Last Battle is perhaps my favorite piece of prose ever.  And no matter how many times I read his work, I always find something new to marvel at.

Lewis takes his turn at allegory in The Great Divorce, where he tells the story of a man who finds himself on a bus going from hell to heaven.  One by one, he sees the "visitors" from hell confronted with whatever particular hang-up is preventing them from meeting Jesus, reinforcing Lewis' idea that the gates of hell are locked from the inside.  In many cases, it is heartbreaking to read.

Admittedly, this was not my favorite Lewis book.  Maybe it's because I've never enjoyed reading about hell that much, but I found it less compelling than many of Lewis' other works.  That said, it is still compelling reading, and it made me think about what hurts and hang-ups I am holding on to.

 In The Great Divorce, Lewis says, "If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell."  We cling to things that, in the end, don't matter.  Tonight, as I watch election coverage and see how many people are basing their happiness or sadness on the results, I am reminded that in the long run, it doesn't matter.

I think as humans, we have an inherent fear of appearing weak or needy - especially as Americans.  But a crucial part of following Jesus is acknowledging our own weaknesses and acknowledging that we really can't save ourselves.  It calls to mind another quote of Lewis', this one from Mere Christianity:

Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. 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.

Final Recommendation: Read it!  It will make you think and evaluate some of your choices.  Lewis is always a keeper, and this one is definitely one to add to your bookshelf - or digital library, whichever you prefer.  Just read it!

Review: The Jungle Book

Book: The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
Challenge Prompt: Read a book that was made into a movie
Pages: 216

The Jungle Book has been made into a number of movies, most recently the Jon Favreau-directed film from earlier this year, and most famously the 1967 Disney animated film.  Though I have not seen this year's film and I haven't seen the Disney version for some time, from what I know, there are significant differences between those versions and the original book.

First off, about half the book is not really about Mowgli.  Which is not necessarily a problem.  I particularly enjoyed "Rikki-Tiki-Tavi," about a mongoose who protects his human family from a pair of cobras.  (Side note: if you've never seen a video of a mongoose fighting a cobra, check it out.  It's crazy.)  "Rikki-Tiki-Tavi" is a popular story in its own right, having been published on its own many times.  "The White Seal," about the eponymous Kotick, was also an enjoyable story.  

Then, of course, there are the stories about Mowgli.  The "man-cub" adopted by wolves has many rip-roaring adventures of his own, not the least of which is when he is kidnapped by the Bandar-log (the monkey-people) and has to be rescued by unlikely allies Bagheera, Baloo, and Kaa.  Though Mowgli plays a minor part in the back half of the book, he is still undoubtedly the hero.

But after all, the book is entitled The Jungle Book, not The Mowgli Book.  It certainly is a story of the jungle, and as someone who grew up adoring movies and books about animals (I wanted to dress up as Nala from The Lion King for like a year when that movie came out), I very much enjoyed reading about Kipling's anthropomorphic animals.

Final recommendation: Read it!  It goes pretty quickly and the stories are interspersed with cute "songs" relating to the previous stories.  It is charming in its simplicity and its wildness (I'm not sure that's the right word, but hopefully you know what I mean).  I think you'll enjoy it - I know I did!