Friday, January 24, 2020

A Dying Empire: Burmese Days

by George Orwell

This novel explores the tensions in the British people of Burma as the Empire begins to waver. George Orwell writes beautifully of the people and environment of Burma. If he did not love it himself, he certainly understood how it could be loved. (He served with the Imperial Police in Burma.)
There was a stirring noise high up in the peepul tree, and a bubbling noise like pots boiling. A flock of green pigeons were up there, eating the berries. Flory gazed up into the great green dome of the tree, trying to distinguish the birds; they were invisible, they matched the leaves so perfectly, and yet the whole tree was alive with them, shimmering, as though the ghosts of birds were shaking it.
The main character, Flory, exquisitely portrays the struggle to discern and act on what is right in the midst of a ruling class established and supported by a questionable system. His education and experiences as an Englishman in Burma have prepared him only for indolence and dissipation and yet his soul yearns for more, for the love of a woman who will share his appreciation for the beauty of the Burma.
It is not the less bitter because it is perhaps one's own fault, to see oneself drifting, rotting, in dishonour and horrible futility, and all the while knowing that somewhere within one there is the possibility of a decent human being.
Flawed characters abound and, in the end, few are truly happy, and yet this is easily my favorite George Orwell novel.

I had, of course, considered including this book on our literature list for high school geography for Asia. I would hesitate, though, to give this to a younger high school student. (We usually cover Asia in 9th grade.) There's just too much depravity and despair.

I have received nothing in exchange for this honest post. I received this book from another member of Links to Amazon and PaperBackSwap are affiliate links.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Life in a Mumbai Slum: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

by Katherine Boo

Katherine Boo spent years visiting and immersing herself in one corner of a slum city, Annawadi, in Mumbai, talking with and interviewing residents through an interpreter. As a journalist, she scoured records and interviewed government officials and public employees to trace the all the facts, even though unknown or misunderstood by the people of Annawadi. The book is a haunting and moving portrayal of real people experiencing hardship and hope in the midst of corruption and garbage. Boo doesn't offer solutions, though some overarching themes are implied by the text.

At first, I thought this book might be a good option for our high school geography course on Asia. While it certainly shows at least one small neighborhood of Mumbia, India, it is a little too focused on the current political and cultural climate for our survey course. To be honest, it might also be a little depressing for ninth grade students. There's violence, death, conflict, and unresolved court cases. Though many of the residents remain hopeful of improving their lives, those of us reading may find it hard to imagine anything better for them. While it might be appropriate for older students particularly interested in India, I'm not going to include it on our lists.

I have received nothing in exchange for this honest review. I checked this book out from our library. Links to Amazon are affiliate links.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

History, Geography, Culture...Life: Food: A Cultural Culinary History

by Ken Albala

Professor Albala attempts to cover all of human history through food. His focus is Western culture and Europe, but there are survey lectures for areas in Asia and Africa as well. In the later lectures, there is a definite bias toward local food and the kind of farm and table philosophy espoused by Wendell Berry and others, a bias that happens to coincide with my own. The last lecture, where Professor Albala predicts future movements in food, was my least favorite. Perhaps that's just because I don't want all his predictions to come to fruition.

In the video version of this series, he makes a few recipes. These are less interesting on audio, though they tended to be small parts of the lectures. I think all of the recipes are included in the PDF of the course guidebook. (These seem to be available on only some phones or apps, but they should always show up in your library on the actual Audible website.)

As I was listening, I found many connections and relationships with the high school coursework we are using, including that from Mater Amabilis™. I think a high school student (there are some references to mature themes, though none I remember being central to the ideas) could listen to this course from beginning to end as part of a high school course. It's a little short by itself to be an elective, not quite enough hours even for a quarter-credit.

Many of the lectures, however, would be a fun addition or supplement to other courses. Here are some ideas I had while listening.

European History - Many of these would be enjoyable and give a welcome respite from the heavy reading of Europe: A History.

  • LECTURE 2: What Early Agriculturalists Ate
  • LECTURE 3: Egypt and the Gift of the Nile
  • LECTURE 5: Classical Greece—Wine, Olive Oil, and Trade
  • LECTURE 6: The Alexandrian Exchange and the Four Humors
  • LECTURE 9: Dining in Republican and Imperial Rome
  • LECTURE 11: Europe’s Dark Ages and Charlemagne
  • LECTURE 13: Carnival in the High Middle Ages
  • LECTURE 15: A Renaissance in the Kitchen
  • LECTURE 17: 1492—Globalization and Fusion Cuisines
  • LECTURE 18: 16th-Century Manners and Reformation Diets
  • LECTURE 19: Papal Rome and the Spanish Golden Age
  • LECTURE 20: The Birth of French Haute Cuisine
  • LECTURE 21: Elizabethan England, Puritans, Country Food
  • LECTURE 22: Dutch Treat—Coffee, Tea, Sugar, Tobacco
  • LECTURE 26: Eating in the Early Industrial Revolution

British History

  • LECTURE 21: Elizabethan England, Puritans, Country Food
  • LECTURE 25: Colonial Cookery in North America (or American History)
  • LECTURE 26: Eating in the Early Industrial Revolution
  • LECTURE 30: Food Imperialism around the World

Geography of Africa

  • LECTURE 3: Egypt and the Gift of the Nile
  • LECTURE 23: African and Aboriginal Cuisines

Geography of Asia

  • LECTURE 4: Ancient Judea—From Eden to Kosher Laws
  • LECTURE 7: Ancient India—Sacred Cows and Ayurveda
  • LECTURE 8: Yin and Yang of Classical Chinese Cuisine
  • LECTURE 12: Islam—A Thousand and One Nights of Cooking
  • LECTURE 24: Edo, Japan—Samurai Dining and Zen Aesthetics

Geography of the Americas

  • LECTURE 16: Aztecs and the Roots of Mexican Cooking
  • LECTURE 25: Colonial Cookery in North America

Geography of Australasia

  • LECTURE 23: African and Aboriginal Cuisines


  • LECTURE 27: Romantics, Vegetarians, Utopians
  • LECTURE 29: Big Business and the Homogenization of Food
  • LECTURE 32: War, Nutritionism, and the Great Depression
  • LECTURE 33: World War II and the Advent of Fast Food


  • LECTURE 29: Big Business and the Homogenization of Food
  • LECTURE 32: War, Nutritionism, and the Great Depression

I have received nothing in exchange for this post of my honest opinions. Links to Amazon are affiliate links. I purchased this audiobook from Audible.

Friday, January 3, 2020

December 2019 Book Reports

The Confessions by Saint Augustine, translated by Maria Boulding, O.S.B. - link to my review (Kansas Dad's copy)

Wild Coast: Travels on South American's Untamed Edge by John Gilmette - link to my review (library copy)

Children of Summer: Henri Fabre's Insects by Margaret J. Anderson - link to my review (library copy)

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah - link to my review (library copy)

The History of Science: 1700-1900 (The Great Courses) by Frederick Gregory - This series of lectures was not as good as The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, but I'm a biologist by training who has always enjoyed the history of science. I appreciated the even-handedness of the professor when discussing the relationship between faith and science. He included frequent reminders that most of the scientists in this time were devout (or lukewarm) Christians and that the apparent separation of faith and reason as understood in modern times really didn't develop at all until later. In fact, he specifically refers to the Scopes trial in the American South. (purchased copy in an Audible sale)

A Man of the Beatitudes: Pier Giorgio Frassati by Luciana Frassati - link to my review (parish library copy)

The Man Who Knew the Way to the Moon by Todd Zwillich - This short audiobook is like an extended NPR segment. It follows the story of one man who championed the use of a lunar module for the Apollo moon landing, in the course of which it explores the history of science, the sometimes contentious relationships of scientists, and the most interesting question of whether we'd be farther along in space travel if President Kennedy had not made a moon landing a political deadline. (one of the free Audible offerings for members in an earlier month)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows - This book is presented as a series of letters, which I found a bit annoying at first. I find it difficult to keep track of who is writing when the narrator bounces around so much. After a while, though, I was able to enjoy it. The people of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands between France and England, remain hopeful amid the harsh conditions of the German occupation during World War II. (library copy)

The Sea-Hawk by Rafael Sabatini - link to my post (purchased used)

Antarctica's Lost Aviator: The Epic Adventure to Explore the Last Frontier on Earth by Jeff Maynard - This book focuses on Lincoln Ellsworth who was one of a two-man team to first fly across Antarctica and who must surely rank among the most incompetent successful explorers. It seems to be exceptionally well-researched. In addition, the description of the flight was exciting. Overall, though, I just didn't find Ellsworth inspiring and will look for another option for our high school geography course on Antarctica. (library copy)

Alone Across the Arctic: One Woman's Epic Journey by Dog Team by Pam Flowers with Ann Dixon - link to my post (library copy)

I have received nothing for this post. All opinions are honest and my own. Links to Amazon or PaperBackSwap are affiliate links.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Another Arctic Option: Alone Across the Arctic

by Pam Flowers with Ann Dixon

Pam quit her job and invested her savings in following her dream - dogsledding in the Arctic. This book for young readers tells about her training, preparation, and journey. It's overflowing with information on dogsledding and surviving in the Arctic, a perfect companion to Mater Amabilis™Level 1A Year 2 (third grade) which includes reading on the Arctic for Earth Studies.

If you have trouble finding a copy of By Truck to the North, this would also be an acceptable substitute. While the writing is not as literary as I prefer and the message of following your dream is a little overdone, it's still a good option. Students who love dogs, like my daughter, would be especially pleased with this book.

I have received nothing in exchange for this post of my honest opinions. Links to Amazon are affiliate links. I read a library copy.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Pirates and Treachery: The Sea-Hawk

by Rafael Sabatini

Sir Oliver Tressilian is a nobleman of Elizabethan England who makes his fortune as a pirate for the Queen. In proper swash-buckling romance fashion, he is accused of murdering his fiance's brother who was actually killed in a duel by Sir Oliver's brother. The brother, weak-minded and fearing his brother is as weak-willed as himself, arranges for him to be kidnapped. Years later, we find him a converted Muslim and high in the ranks of the Barbary pirates.

Not high literature, but tremendously fun. I told my twelve year old daughter she could read it but probably would have waited another year or two if I had read it first. There are allusions to harems and rapes, though these are mostly away from the action. The Christians, Jews, and Muslims all are portrayed committing actions inconsistent with their faith, but not necessarily inconsistent with history.

I've added it to our optional historical fiction list for high school (Mater Amabilis™ Level 5 Year 2, 11th grade, to coincide with British history readings of Churchill).

I have an edition reprinted by The American Reprint Company, an old library copy. Many of the available copies on Amazon look like poor quality reprints, so be wary. It is also available free for the Kindle.

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. I purchased the book used from a seller on Facebook. Links to Amazon above are affiliate links.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

An Ordinary Heroic Faith: A Man of the Beatitudes

by Luciana Frassati

Luciana Frassati wrote this book about her dearly loved brother, Blessed Pier Giorgia Frassati. It is not a formal biography, more a pouring out of her remembrances of his great love for others with many quotes from friends and family members.

Not only is Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati a man of humility and generosity, but the book provides some background on the state of Italy during the World War I and the years following. It shows how some Catholics struggled against the regime and that good people did indeed live in countries like Italy and Germany when their governments were spreading fear and war.

During a Fascist attack on his home, Bl. Pier did not hesitate to leap to the defense of his mother and household. A young man of humility and faith does not mean a young man who cannot physically stand strong between the people he loves and one who wishes them harm. There is a tendency in American culture to view saints as weak, but our young men and women need to understand that there are many ways to be an example of heroic faith.

In addition, Bl. Pier struggled mightily as a student. He was often unsuccessful when taking his exams, requiring multiple attempts to pass. Yet he continued to study for the degree he felt was his vocation, engineering.

Bl. Pier was the heart of an informal society, united by faith in the spirit of joyfulness and friendship.
The members, however, followed no rules and attended no set meetings. Everything was improvised. The important thing was to be together as much as possible under the great ensign of the faith.
Pier Giorgio realized that the group's steadfastness could also nourish a common enthusiasm for the Christian apostolate. For this he used his favorite instrument, high spirits, which, in its various forms, flourished in the society, creating a collective spirit and uniting all under the magic sign of laughter.
He is also a marvelous example of a young man who was not physically active instead of prayerful, but instead was prayerful in his love of skiing and mountain climbing. H wrote to a friend:
These Alpine climbs have a strange magic in them so that no matter how many times they are repeated and however alike they are, they are never boring, in the same way as the experience of spring is never boring but fills our spirit with gladness and delight. 
He encouraged his friends to leave the city for the fresh air of the surrounding country and to strengthen their spirit just as they strengthened their muscles.

Bl. Pier was joyful in the midst of an unhappy family, perseverant in maintaining his studies, generous with his time in friendship with the poor. There may be other books about Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, but this one is worth reading for the frankness of the telling of his life by his dear sister.

This could be a good choice for Mater Amabilis™ Level 4 students as a twentieth-century saint or blessed. Though he dies as a young man, he does not perish through martyrdom or in a concentration camp, so he is a good choice for the sensitive student.

I have received nothing for this post of my own opinions. I found this book on a shelf at our parish (and will return it for those who are local). Links to Amazon are affiliate links.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Raising a Child for Freedom: Born a Crime

by Trevor Noah

This was a recent selection for my book club, one rather different from our usual fare, but I think we all enjoyed it more than I had feared. It's a fascinating glimpse into life in South Africa just before and after the end of apartheid. There are stories of love and abuse, mental illness and joyfulness, church and family, race and poverty.

The descriptions of how Christianity thrives and struggles in South Africa was interesting, and, according to members of my book club who are close to some African Christians (though not from South Africa), an accurate representation of the kind of blending of Christian beliefs with those of other religions.
My mother was--and still is--a deeply religious woman. Very Christian. Like indigenous peoples around the world, black South Africans adopted the religion of our colonizers. By "adopt" I mean it was forced on us. 
Despite his mother's devout faith, Noah is generally dismissive of her religion. That was difficult to read over and over, especially when there were misunderstandings of the Catholic faith from his time as a student at a Catholic school. It's not very different from what the secular culture reports in general about faith, though.

Noah's mother, a woman of courage and determination, forged her own path in the education she provided for herself and the childhood she created for her son.
When I look back I realize she raised me like a white kid--not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.
Most amazingly, his mother raised him for a world that didn't yet exist. She raised him as if they already lived in a world without apartheid when there were not yet any indications that it was going anywhere. I thought that was a beautiful metaphor for how we should all raise our children. As Catholics, we should raise our children for the world that is coming, for the Kingdom of God.

Noah and his mother are flawed people in a flawed world. His book draws connections between the South Africa that formed him and the America we live in today. This wasn't my favorite book, but it was a good book club choice and one I'm glad I read.

This post contains my honest opinions. I have received nothing in exchange for it. Links to Amazon are affiliate links.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Fascination with the Ordinary: Children of Summer

by Margaret J. Anderson

I think this book was recommended by another member of the Mater Amabilis™ Facebook group. I read it aloud to all four kids. It was ideal for the younger two (11 and 9) but the older two (15 and 13) didn't complain. Mater Amabilis™ Level 1A (second and third grade) includes a study of insects, which we've never done, but this book would be a wonderful supplement to that study.

Written from the point of view of one of Henri Fabre's younger children, Paul, when he was ten. Paul and his younger sisters are the assistants, sharing the responsibility for collection and observation for Henri Fabre as he investigates the lives of the insects on his farm in France. It's a marvelous account of how anyone can explore the natural world right outside our doors. Even if we don't discover something unknown to science, we can delight in creation.

Each chapter is only a few pages and most cover a single insect. We don't narrate our family read-alouds, but I think the chapters would make excellent readings for narrations even for relatively young students.

I love reading aloud from a book on the natural world. We don't get out for nature study as often as we have in the past and certainly not as often as I like, but books like these encourage the younger two, who still have ample free time outside nearly every day, to continue to explore even when they aren't toting around their nature notebooks.

This post contains my honest opinions. I have received nothing in exchange for it. Links to Amazon are affiliate links.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A Land Nearly Undiscovered: Wild Coast

by John Gimlette

John Gimlette travelled extensively in Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. He obviously devoted a great amount of time to researching the area and learned at least a minimal amount of languages that allowed him to communicate better with the people he met. While a travel book, it's nearly as much one a journalist might have written.

This could be a fantastic addition to the Mater Amabilis™ Geography course in high school for South America, scheduled for Level 6 year 1 (eleventh grade). I say could be because there's quite a lot of violence and depravity in the book, because there was quite a lot of violence and depravity in the land. There's an entire chapter on Jonestown, nearly all of which is disturbing at one level or another. (This chapter is early in the book and one of the hardest to read; you could just skip it and enjoy the rest of the book.) I think First Son, who would be sixteen or seventeen by the time he read this book, would be fine. But if I had a young ninth grader and wanted to jump into South America rather than Asia, I would pass on this book.

That being said, I enjoyed this book immensely. It really brought this part of the world to life for me, revealing its past and present in a way I can't imagine enjoying without traveling there myself.

Mr. Gilmette didn't just research historical records before his trip. He read all the literature he could find. Interspersed in his own travels are snippets of quotes from other authors and his own reflections on them, often with humor and appreciation despite acknowledged deficiencies. On Evelyn Waugh:
All he seemed to want was to suffer, to find some distant and barbarous place, and to go there and hate it. Eventually he chose Guiana -- not that he cared much about it. This was not supposed to be a voyage of enlightenment but a punishment. Even the book he wrote, 92 Days, sounds like a sentence. He arrived that new year, and after hating Georgetown (too big, too dull, too much sugar), he set out to hate the interior.
There's a lovely interlude at a Benedictine monastery.
At exactly the moment they promised, their euphonious chanting would lift up out of the trees and carry out across the river. Loosing off canticles into this vast expanse of light and silvery water must have felt like addressing heaven itself. 'The only way I can live with celibacy,' Brother Pascal once told me, 'is by having all this beauty.'
Mr. Gilmette describes the forest as he was nearing the end of his journey.
The superlatives necessary to express the density of forest simply don't exist. The roadside was like night-time, packed with spikes and armour. As for the canopy, it looked equally defiant, a thick phalanx of huge brain-like structures, riding at anchor. I'd lost count of the schemes and colonies that had foundered under this magnificent vegetable onslaught.
The author has a few other books which I intend to read, including one on Paraguay which might also be useful in the South American course.

In the end, this is a brilliant book of depth and humor about an area still full of mystery as it struggles from a difficult past through a complicated present. Share it only with mature students and pre-read for anyone sensitive.

This post contains my honest opinions. I have received nothing in exchange for it. I borrowed this book from the library. The link to Amazon is an affiliate link.