Monday, February 23, 2015

The Hawk and the Dove

The Hawk And The Dove

By Penelope Wilcock

Published by Lion, February 20th, 2015

When we first meet Melissa, she is a lively teenager, desperately wanting to find her place in the wider world as well as already knowing her place in her beloved family. She loves all her family, but has a very special relationship with her mother, who holds the household together, surrounds them all with love and security and cares for her children 's bodies, minds and souls in equal measure.

Her mother is also an accomplished teller of family stories which go back hundreds of years to when their distant ancestor, Brother Edward, was a Benedictine monk at St Alcuin's Abbey in Yorkshire in the 1300s.  When the abbot dies, we find that the monks are all agog with curiosity to see who will be brought to them to be their new abbot; it turns out to be a monk named Columba, who is actually a relative of Edward's, a young man whose name in the world was Peregrine - hence the title as a play on words. The unlikely young monk has turned out to be a competent, fair and accomplished abbot, but it is only when he is badly injured does the true nobility and depth of his character really emerge as he struggles in his day to day life in the monastery.

Each of the delightful stories is a closely-woven tale which binds the world of these long-ago monks  with the modern world of Melissa and her family, encompassing family life, school, problems with friends and church life with the joys and difficulties of living in community in a monastery, learning to deal kindly and lovingly with each other no matter what vicissitudes may face them all. Each episode provides lessons both for the monks and for Melissa in a very Christian, non-preaching, gentle and loving manner; I found myself caring immensely about what happened to these monks and to Melissa and her family.

I can say with my hand on my heart that "The Hawk And The Dove" is engrossing, absorbing and utterly delightful.  I was truly saddened and sorry to reach the end of the book and am delighted to find that this is only the first in a whole series. Clearly written and utilising compellingly vivid language, these would be ideal stories for older children, "tweens" and teens to enjoy and ponder, as well as for adults; the stories challenge our conceptions about mediaeval monastics as well as modern concerns about simple living, priorities, relationships and beliefs.

 Well done indeed to Lion for deciding to re-publish this truly superb book for a whole new generation of readers to enjoy and to treasure. I know I will be cherishing it.

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New Habits

New Habits
From Sisterhood to Motherhood
By Eleanor Stewart,
Published by Lion, 20th February 2015

When Eleanor Stewart left her Catholic convent in order to pursue her desire to be a wife and mother, she was re-entering society as a young woman in 1969 - a society which was dramatically different from that which she had known when she entered the convent almost a decade earlier. 

Her first few months were a steep learning curve as she had to adapt to different clothes, different customs and different ways of behaviour, not to mention the aftermath of her parent's separation and her mother's mental health problems.  From going to the cinema, ordering alcoholic drinks, buying clothes and being horrified at the cost of living, she documents everything about her new life, and does not shy away from describing the trials and tribulations of dating boyfriends after having been a nun.

Eleanor continued her career as a midwife, this time in Chichester instead of Liverpool where she had worked as a nun-midwife, and quickly made new friends and forged a new life for herself. She and a friend moved and found jobs in Dorset for a period, enduring a bitter cold winter and an equally chilly working environment in the local hospital before she finally moved and settled in Portsmouth, where she met and married John, a self-avowed atheist. Having the children she so earnestly hoped for  was not as easy as she had envisaged, but eventually she and John were to have their adoptive family after medical problems made it impossible for her to conceive again.

I did enjoy finding out what happened to Eleanor after she left the convent, but many of the mistakes she made in her relationships with men were obvious to those around her (and to the reader) and were to have ramifications later in her life. When the book ends, she has finished work to look after her young family, but I am sure that certainly is not going to be the end of Eleanor's story.

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

An Amish Cradle

An Amish Cradle

By Beth Wiseman, Amy Clipston,
Kathleen Fuller  and Vannetta Chapman

Published by Thomas Nelson, Feb 10th, 2015

There is nothing more natural and joyous in an Amish family than the arrival of a new baby, but even for the Amish, a new baby can prove to be a challenge and change family dynamics. This interesting collection of stories looks at how  new arrivals change the lives of four extended Amish families.

In His Father's Arms by Beth Wiseman

When Ruth Anne and Levi's eagerly awaited baby, Joshua, is born with Down's syndrome, it is a total shock as they are only nineteen.   The young couple struggle to talk to each other and retreat further into isolation and misunderstanding each other.  When Joshua is subsequently diagnosed with a heart defect and other problems, he needs regular reviews and tests, causing added anxiety.

Ruth Anne struggles hard to be a good Mamm to Joshua and deal with what she fears is the disintegration of her marriage. Levi appears to have withdrawn both from his wife and his son, and it is only when he visits the bishop to ask advice that we find his cousin had Down's and died at a very young age; Levi is afraid to love baby Joshua  in case he dies too and is finding it hard to open up about his feelings, anxieties and fears about what lies ahead of their family. Levi's relationship with God is losing strength and although he begins to help care for Joshua, all is not well at home.

Can this loving young couple get their marriage back on track and unite in their love and concern for their wonderful little boy?

A Son For Always by Amy Clipston

Joshua and Carolyn are rejoicing in the birth of their baby girl, Sadie Liz, but Carolyn still worries that she needs to provide for the future for her son Benjamin, born when she was a young unmarried mother. Joshua loves Benjamin dearly and treats him as his own son, and struggles to convince Carolyn that he loves both children equally and for ever, and will always provide for both of them, no matter what. Carolyn feels torn between her desire to stay home and nurture her family and feeling she should go back to her job at the hotel to continue earning money; this causes tension between her and Joshua, and an interfering mother-in-law makes everything ten times worse.....

A Heart Full Of Love by Kathleen Fuller

Ellie and Christopher are overjoyed  about Ellie's pregnancy, but Ellie's mother has expressed concerns about how they will manage with a baby due to Ellie's blindness. When it turns out that Ellie is expecting twins, her mother's concerns threaten to spiral out of control, no matter how well Ellie is coping with being a wife and homemaker.

Even after Irene and Julia are safely born, Ellie's Mamm Edna allows her concerns to overrule what is best for the new family and makes Ellie feel threatened and inadequate. Poor Christopher is caught in the crossfire and wants to wholeheartedly support his Fraa while worrying about what is best for the twins. Edna's constant presence allows the young family no chance to settle down together. When he takes his courage in both hands, he inadvertently makes the situation worse before it gets better.

An Unexpected Blessing by Vannetta Chapman

Etta and Mose thought her days of childbearing were over at the age of 42, but God blessed them with an unexpected pregnancy, a joy after the sadnesses of the  stillbirth of their daughter Sarah and the moving away of their son David.  When Etta goes into labour in the midst of a blizzard, they struggle to reach the birthing centre in time, and when they do, Etta's labour proves not to be straightforward.

 The whole family's rejoicing over baby Hannah's arrival is muted when it looks like financial problems means they will need to sell their family home, even though they still have treasures such as the family cradle handcrafted by Mose and used by their own children and grandchildren too. Can David's unexpected return home alter their future?

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah
By Paula Freedman
Published by Amulet Books, 2013

  Tara Feinstein's mother converted to Judaism when she married and Tara has grown up in a mixed Indian Hindu/Jewish American extended family, filled with love and laughter.

 For her parents, it is a no-brainer that Tara will be having a Bat Mitzvah to mark her passage into Jewish adulthood, but as the occasion draws nearer, Tara is beginning to have doubts.  Does she really believe in God? Is she really Jewish when her mother is a convert, not Jewish-born herself?  Will she be betraying her Indian/Hindu heritage by going ahead with her Bat Mitzvah?

Added to all of this is her life at school, her Robotics project, her best friends Rebecca and Ben-O, her arch-nemesis, Sheila Rosenberg, and attending Hebrew school to prepare for the ceremony, as well as trying to stop her mother going totally overboard with the reception afterwards. It is an enormous amount to deal with, especially in the teenage years.

Friendships wax and wane, disasters happen and life becomes incredibly complicated, especially when secrets come out into the open, but with the help of her beloved Gran and Rabbi Aron, she starts to make sense of who she is, what she believes, where she "fits in" in her school, social circle, family and her religious beliefs, growing up in every sense of the word.

This book, aimed at tweens and early teens, was an absolute delight to read :-)
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Monday, February 02, 2015

The Last Jews In Berlin

The Last Jews In Berlin
By Leonard Gross
Published by Open Road Media
January 2015

Before the Second World War, Berlin had a large Jewish community of 160,000  which took part in most aspects of Berlin's commercial and cultural life. The rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party meant that by 1943, fewer than 5,000 Jews remained there, a truly staggering diminution of numbers. Some lucky ones had fled Germany in the early days of the war, others were sent to the dreaded concentration camps, still others were killed in Allied bombing raids or starved to death in abject poverty or even committed suicide as a last resort.

At the end of the war, there were only a thousand Jews left in Berlin, and this is the quite amazing story of how some of them managed to survive epidemic disease, starvation, predatory Nazi officials, unfriendly neighbours and the infamous "Catchers", who managed to survive themselves in exchange for finding and denouncing others to the official regime.

Based extensively on interviews with the survivors, Gross outlines the stories of twelve Jewish men and women, from all backgrounds (from a teenage orphan to an intellectual) who relied on their own skill and wits, compassionate people and serendipity to survive the last hideous few years of the War and emerge to rebuild their lives once more.

This is a book which will certainly appeal to anyone interested in German history, the Second World War, the Holocaust or Jewish history, but I would advise that if you are thinking of buying this book as a gift, do check with the intended recipient that they do not already have a previous version of this book which was released in 1985 and again in 1999.

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Sunday, February 01, 2015

More than Happy: The Wisdom of Amish Parenting

More than Happy:
The Wisdom of Amish Parenting
By Serena Miller & Paul Stutzman
To be published by Howard Books
Feb 3rd 2015

Serena Miller writes Amish fiction and this foray into non-fiction makes for interesting reading. When researching the Amish way of life, especially in Holmes County, Ohio, she noticed that Amish children seemed to be the happiest, most well-behaved children she had ever seen, despite their lack of modern material goods.

Intrigued, she used her contacts to meet a variety of Amish people who were willing to discuss what makes Amish children so happy. Gradually she came to realise that it the key to it all is family. Her co-author, Paul Stutzman, was born into an Amish family who subsequently became Mennonite;  he himself married a Mennonite girl and remains in that faith community, and adds a great deal by his own accounts of growing up "Plain". The Amish believe in putting the needs of others before their own and they have a steadfast adherence to avoiding hochmut (pride) at all costs, while still believing any job of work needs to be done honestly and to the very best of their ability. 

Each chapter deals with a different topic, covering just about everything you could wish to know, starting with family, marriage, divorce (exceptionally rare), the extended family, the importance of family meals and gender roles, cherishing heritage and  the value of being bi-lingual, discipline, the importance of life-long learning, punishments and shunning, chores, allowances and the work ethic, technology and quality time, as well as faith related issues such as patience, forgiveness, generosity etc.

Having family members who enjoy your company, treat you as a blessing and a gift from God, who cherish you, love you, admonish you and are not afraid to correct you when necessary, means the world to children, who feel confident, secure and safe in their extended community as a result.
They are regarded as valuable and useful members of the family and community, quite able - and encouraged - to learn skills and work along with the adults at a very young age, to take responsibility for their actions and to share fully in the joys and sorrows of their community; to bring up a child to become a kind and decent godly adult is the priority for Amish parents, and happiness follows on naturally from their parenting process, rather than being seen as a goal in itself.

This is a fascinating book which will appeal to anyone interested in alternative styles of parenting or  the Amish way of life.

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