New Read: God’s Smuggler

As a practicing Christian, I like to read Christian literature to help with the growth of my faith and I am very lucky that my church has it’s own book club to help me with this. In February, we read The Case for Grace by New York Times bestselling author Lee Strobel. Next up was a classic of Christian literature, God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew (with John and Elizabeth Sherrill).

First published here in the UK back in 1968, God’s Smuggler tells the inspiring tale of a young, poor Dutchman, Andrew van der Bijl, who following the rise of Communism after WWII finds himself called to help the Christians trapped behind the Iron Curtain. As a child he dreamt of being a spy, as a man he worked undercover for God: smuggling first a few, then hundreds, then thousands of Bibles across dangerous borders into needy hands. Relying not on his own ingenuity or luck, but on the miraculous ways of God to provide and protect him. At certain points, this true story reads more like a page-turning thriller! I was left in awe of his exploits and tremendous faith.

In the six decades since Andrew’s solo mission to Communist countries of Eastern Europe and China, covered in this book, his vision grew to become the organisation Open Doors, that is still serving millions of persecuted Christians in over fifty countries to this day. Following the success of this book Andrew found himself blacklisted from Communist countries and so he expanded his mission out to the Middle East, Africa, Asia and India, which is discussed in the epilogue by Al Janssen in my 60th anniversary edition.

When my church’s book club met to discuss this there was a general feeling of awe and inspiration from reading it. Although one member shared that Andrew’s courageous adventures made him feel like an inadequate Christian. However if you feel like this too, I would say that in this story there were also many more Christians who – while not physically going out in the mission – provided money, support, encouragement, resources and prayer without which Andrew’s mission could never have happened. I think God has a specific role, best suited to all of us, and all roles, big or small, done in the name of Lord are important.

Overall, I thought God’s Smuggler was an inspiring and thrilling tale of one man’s truly awesome faith and mission, which also made for a wonderful discussion point at my book club meeting. Our next read is Vanishing Grace by Philip Yancey. Great read.

Have you read this? Or heard of Brother Andrew, his mission or Open Doors?

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New Read: This Side of Paradise

Some years ago now I won a beautiful set of Alma Classics’ reprints of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s four novels. Since then I have slowly worked my way through them. Starting with, undoubtedly the most famous, The Great Gatsby, followed by Tender is the Night and The Beautiful and Damned. Having struggled with the generally unlikeable characters, it was with some trepidation that I picked up the final book in my set: This Side of Paradise.

Fitzgerald’s debut novel, This Side of Paradise, was published in 1920 and was an instant critical and commercial success. It charts the life of Amory Blaine, an ambitious young man loosely based on the author himself, who grows up in a well-heeled Midwest home, boards at St Regis’ and then goes on to study at Princeton, where he starts frequenting the circles of high society as an aspiring writer. However as Amory experiences failure and frustrations in his college work, love life and his career, his youthful enthusiasm gradually descends into disillusionment, cynicism and a life of idle dissolution.

Unfortunately my fears were proved to be correct: Amory Blaine is not a particularly likeable character… From the start he is an odd, lonely and aloof child, due a lot to his unusual relationship with his mother, who he is always refers to as Beatrice. When a kindly professor at St Regis’ tries to advise him on making friends he scornfully refuses his help, because he sees himself as above his peers. Then in Princeton his egotistical traits just flourish! However during this time he does make friends with the outgoing Kerry Holiday; Kerry’s hardworking brother Burne, and the diligent writer Tom D’Invilliers.

Sadly many of his friendships dwindle and disappear, as Amory can’t seem to make decisive decisions and refuses to believe he may need to change or adapt. This is much the same reason for his doomed love affairs too. First with the vacuous Isabelle; then the virtuous Clara; next the spoilt Rosalind and finally, the rebellious, maybe a little unhinged, Eleanor. Although I must admit I found it all quite gripping – particularly by the genuine love that Amory shared with Rosalind and the terrible choice that she had to make for both their sakes.

Of course there is reason for our unlikeable Amory, his heartache and his feckless, high living: Fitzgerald was writing a critical account of the era he was living in. While to us looking back the Jazz Age is a time of glamour, glitz and hedonism, Fitzgerald digs deeper under the thin, superficial veneer to the darker side beneath. Here are the themes of disillusionment, addiction and depression that would go on to feature in all his major works. All of which is brought to life in some beautiful prose, but for me to love it I just needed a little ray of hope. Instead I reached the end to find no real hope or resolution for poor Amory!

In conclusion, I thought This Side of Paradise was a beautifully written, sometimes gripping, satirical portrait of the golden Jazz Age. While I don’t think Fitzgerald’s work is really for me, I am glad I persevered because these are important works of literature and social commentary. Okay read.

Have you read this? Or any of Fitzgerald’s other novels? Fan or not?

This is book 1/50 for my Classics Club II reading challenge.

The Classics Club: Spin #17 Result

This week saw the arrival of The Classic Club’s 17th Spin, which is my first spin since creating my brand-spanking new list. To join in all you simply had to do was list and number any 20 books that remain on your Classics Club list before Friday, 9th March, when the club would announce the winning number. So the results are in and our spin number is…

3

Which means I have The Tenant of Wildfel Hall by Anne Brontë to read by Monday, 30th April. I am really pleased with my result because I have long wanted to read something by Anne, as I have already enjoyed books by both of her sisters, Emily and Charlotte Brontë.

Now my only dilemma is do I wait till I have finished This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald or abandon the former to start this?!

Have you read this? If you also took part, what was your result?

New Read: North and South

As part of The Classics Club, I enjoyed reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Cranford Chronicles, which is made up of the novellas: Cranford, Mr Harrison’s Confession and My Lady Ludlow. After them it seemed high time to read one of Gaskell’s full novels and it just so happened I had Gaskell’s 1854 novel North and South on my to-be-read shelf.

North and South tells the story of Margaret Hale, a young, clever and spirited young woman who is to have her comfortable life turned upside down. Firstly, by the marriage of her close companion and cousin, Edith, then by the shock revelation that her father wishes to retire from the church. This means the family must leave their quiet, rural vicarage, their neighbours and all they know to settle in the smoggy, bustling northern industrial town of Milton. Immediately on arriving Margaret has a ready sympathy for the discontented mill workers and their cause, which will sit uneasily with her growing attraction to the charismatic mill owner, John Thornton.

What immediately struck me about the relationship between Margaret and Mr Thornton is its similarity to Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. Now I own they are very different as characters, however both pairs have in common that they are blinded by pride and led by their own prejudices. Margaret thinks he is cold, coarse and money driven, while Thornton believes she is haughty and misled. I actually liked both Margaret and Thornton, although I often found myself wanting to knock their heads together! So a delicious (if not sometimes infuriating) will they, won’t they narrative runs through out the novel.

But there is much more to North and South than a rocky love story. Within the story Gaskell also poses and explores fundamental questions about the nature of Victorian social authority and obedience: ranging from religious crises of conscience (Mr Hale); to the ethics of Naval Mutiny (Frederick Hale) and industrial action (Thornton and the mill workers). This is also an emotional rollercoaster which Gaskell so vividly and realistically portrays, that it made me feel I was right there alongside Margaret; as she fights her internal conflicts which mirror the turbulence that surrounds her.

For that reason this wasn’t a quick or easy read like Gaskell’s novellas were for me. I still enjoyed Gaskell’s detailed, meticulous and personable style with her eye for the small details, but I found this was less comforting than her previous stories. Instead with its hard-hitting issues, I found I needed to take my time to mull over and absorb it all. It actually took me from July to November to read three-quarters of this book, yet I whipped through the last quarter in a matter of days as the pace and drama really ramped up.

In conclusion, I thought North and South was a touching and important look into Victorian life, love and society, and the huge upheaval that arose from industrialisation. I suspect I will enjoy this even more on re-reading it. Good read.

Have you read this? Or anything else by Elizabeth Gaskell?

What’s in a Name 2017 – 6/6 (a title with a compass direction)

New Read: Sandokan, The Tigers of Mompracem

After enjoying several swashbuckling classics, I was thrilled to be offered the chance to read another, Sandokan, The Tigers of Mompracem by Emilio Salgari, by its translator Nico Lorenzutti. So I put it on my 10 Books of Summer 2017 list to make sure I got to it at last.

Sandokan, the feared “Tiger of Malaysia”, and his loyal band of rebel pirates are the scourge of the colonial powers of the Dutch and British empires in the South China sea. Mercilessly they roam the seas attacking ships and islands seeking vengeance, wealth and the destruction of their Western oppressors. Then return with their bounty to the safety of their fortified island of Mompracem, where they have lived happily and untouched for many years. But the fate and fortune of Sandokan and his “tigers” is to suddenly change when they learn of the lauded “Pearl of Labuan”.

While on the surface our protagonist Sandokan appears to just be a blood thirsty villain, as we read on we come to discover he is actually a prince, who was brought low to piracy after the British and their local allies murdered his family and stole his throne. Since then Sandokan has sailed the seas in righteous anger. With his faithful friend Yanez De Gomera, a Portuguese wanderer and adventurer, by his side. Yanez is a more charming and cool headed character, who is a more instantly likeable character. But the love and devotion Yanez and the “tigers” have for their leader helps to show a more likeable side to Sandokan.

However everything is to change when Sandokan hears of the extraordinary “Pearl of Labuan” and risks a trip with two of his ships to the island of Labuan in hopes of catching sight of her. Yes her, as the “Pearl” is not the type of treasure you may have first imagined, but instead she is a young Western woman; famed for her beauty, golden hair and her kindness to the natives of the island. Pretty much on first sight Sandokan falls in love with the “Pearl” and decides to move heaven and earth to obtain her. In the process selfishly risking the lives of all his men and their home of Mompracem, although if he didn’t we wouldn’t have an exciting story to read.

Apparently since Emilio Salgari wrote this adventure novel in 1900 it has been, for more than a century, Italy’s second most famous love story. As a modern reader though I couldn’t help thinking the love was all a bit quick and while we are assured it is a mutual feeling, we get to know little about how the lady thinks or feels. In fact she sadly proves to play a small, passive role in the adventure, except for crying and fainting quite a bit. This is a reflection of the time period is was written in though. Fortunately I didn’t pick this up for love. Instead I was looking for adventure and boy did Salgari give me that in spade loads. With battles at sea, deadly storms, jungle ambushes, clandestine meetings, disguises, sharks, faked deaths and impossible odds! And it is this that kept me wanting to read more.

Overall, I thought Sandokan, The Tigers of Mompracem was a rip-roaring adventure (and love story) that swept me back in time and across the seas to an exotic dangerous land. Good read.

Thank you to the translator for providing a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or any of Sandokan’s other adventures?

10 Books of Summer 2017 – 4/10

New Read: Angels

For my birthday earlier this year, my brother bought me a copy of Angels by Lee Faber. Not an author I had heard of before, but the topic was one I was definitely interested in. So when my church’s book club decided to take a break, just before Easter, I decided to read this to fill my faith reading gap.

In the first half of this book, the author Lee takes us on journey looking at angels as they are depicted in religion, history, art, music, films, literature and today. As well as discussing specifically the experiences of soldiers in WWI with the ‘Angels of Mons’. I particularly enjoyed this half of the book and sped through it. As I discovered the books, films and beautiful artwork that contain and/or have been inspired by angels. And I learnt more about angels in religion, not just being part of Judaism and Christianity, but also Islam, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Mormonism.

The second half of the book, was then made up in the largest part by a diverse collection of real-life angel encounters. Surprisingly this is the section I enjoyed this least. I think this is because there really is some very diverse and differing beliefs on what angels are and do. I was looking for inspiration while instead I found generally differing beliefs to my own Christian based ones. However I did then enjoy the following, smaller section on angel names and finally Lee shared some of her angel inspired recipes. The recipes really were a surprise but a pleasant one as food is another big interest for me.

Overall, I thought Angels was a well written, eclectic and interesting look into the beliefs and culture that has grown up around the idea of angels. This has definitely wetted my appetite to read more about these elusive beings. Good read.

Have you read this? Any recommendations what I should read next?

The Classics Club: My Lady Ludlow

Last year, after having long wanted to read something by Elizabeth Gaskell, I read first the eponymous Cranford and then Mr Harrison’s Confessions. So it seemed appropriate that I should finish my Classics Club challenge with My Lady Ludlow, the final story in The Cranford Chronicles.

Similar to Cranford, we are introduced to a young woman, Miss Dawson, who after the loss of her father is invited to live at Hanbury Court by her charitable, distant relative Lady Ludlow. Through Dawson’s eyes we come to see how the Hanbury estate and the surrounding rural community are ruled over by this indomitable but beloved Lady, who eccentrically chooses to employ no servant who can read and write. However the winds of change are blowing through the community as the new vicar, Mr Gray, has the preposterous idea to open a school for the poor! Our Lady Ludlow has a rough time ahead but she is perhaps not as rigid as even she thought.

I must admit to be rather disappointed this was (again!) not set in Cranford, as the BBC’s 2007 TV adaptation had built me up by merging these novellas into one setting. However I can see how this has been placed in these chronicles because of the small rural setting and the dominate female presence. In this setting, men are neither feared or coveted but instead tolerated, with the larger-than-life personality of the matriarchal Lady Ludlow overruling their thoughts and beliefs. I fear I am making our Lady sound like a real horror, in fact I found her wonderful to read about – especially the French Revolution back story that explains many of her rigid views – and the power she holds really only comes from the fact she is so well loved.

This tale sees Gaskell returning to her steady, touching and meticulous style, that follows in detail the simple action and drama of a small Victorian community during a time of peaceful revolution. Before this, I had found Gaskell perhaps not as gripping or dramatic as some of her contemporaries, however the French Revolution section of this one really did grip me – I was desperate to find out what happened next!  While it also still retained a wonderfully comforting and personable style, stories and characters. Happily I picked this up and read a chapter or two a night, and just lost myself in this nostalgic world.

Overall, I thought My Lady Ludlow was a charming classic that made for a very comforting read, although Cranford is still definitely my favourite. Now I look forward to reading one of Gaskell’s full-length novels – I have North and South on my TBR read pile. Good read.

Have you read this? Or can you recommend anything else by Gaskell?

The Classics Club – 50/50