The Major and the Missionary: The Letters of Warren Hamilton Lewis and Blanche Biggs, edited by Diana Pavlac Glyer

As an inveterate letter writer (my e-mails all too often turn into epistles), I greeted the prospect of this collection from the Rabbit Room Press with great excitement. Not least because it promised a better acquaintance with the elder brother usually portrayed as living in C.S. Lewis’s long shadow.

And indeed, I did learn a great deal about the Major, who also served in WWI. For one, Warren Lewis was an author in his own rite having written a series of books on 17th-century France. An admittedly narrow niche, but Biggs, confessing she had expected to find the subject dry, wrote that Lewis’s treatment proved “excellent reading.”

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Love and Assassins: The Many Assassinations of Samir, the Seller of Dreams, by Daniel Nayeri

This is a love story. Or so claims Omar, the teller of this tale. Notwithstanding the mention of dreams, one might object to invoking assassination and commerce in the title of a romance. The Many Assassinations of Samir the Seller of Dreams is, nevertheless, a love story of sorts. Not in the way one might expect. But much about Daniel Nayeri’s difficult-to-class novel betrayed my expectations.

Prompted by the title, I anticipated a picaresque tale á la The Music Man; as narrator, an eleventh-century Harold Hill peddling a medieval brand of positive thinking along the Silk Road. Instead, the story opens with the orphan Omar’s description of “the first time [I] was stoned to death.” He goes on to describe how the eponymous Samir buys and thus rescues him from a mob of outraged monks.

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Beneath the Swirling Sky, by Carolyn Leiloglou

WaterBrook, September 2023, 304 pp. ages 8-12

Carolyn Leiloglou’s debut work for middle grade readers incorporates art history and principles of painting into an engaging narrative. Beneath the Swirling Sky isn’t the first book in which characters travel through paintings or engage with art history. Also familiar are tropes of belonging to an endangered ancestral line, questing to save an abducted sibling, and hunting down art thieves.

Such perennial devices nevertheless retain their appeal. What adolescent wouldn’t want to discover inherited gifts that enable them to profoundly change the world? Possibly those chary enough to recognize the probable weight of accompanying responsibility. But who has time to worry about that?

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Books for Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15-Oct. 15

Hispanic Heritage Month came to my attention only recently, but the annual commemoration originated in 1968. Initially a week in duration, it was extended to one month in 1988. The event begins mid-month because it was on September 15, 1821, that Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala declared their independence from Spain.

I spent my first four years of life in California and Texas, where Spanish presence dates to the 1600s. Like most preschoolers, I was alert to little outside my immediate family, which happens to have northern European roots. By middle school my parents and I were firmly planted in Oregon. If a Latino presence existed in our small town, I remained ignorant of it. Nevertheless my parents, firmly convinced of the value of multiculturalism, enrolled us in a Saturday morning Spanish class at the local community college.

After high school I left the area for more than a decade, returning for grad school and remaining to start my own family. When my daughter started first grade—in the building that had previously been my middle school—she attended Spanish literacy classes alongside the children of the large Latino population that had grown up in my absence. The experience introduced us to a number of the books included here.

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Immigrant Architect: Rafael Guastavino and the American Dream

by Berta de Miguel, Kent Diebolt, and Virginia Lorente, ill. Virginia Lorente (Tilbury, 2020, 60 pp., ages 8-12)

I picked up this volume several months ago in a search for architect biographies. It was only today, upon taking a closer look, that I realized its perfect suitability for Hispanic Heritage Month. The two Rafael Guastavinos, father and son, immigrated from Spain in 1881. The elder Guastavino was a successful architect who brought to the U.S. a distinctive building method that would leave a permanent mark on American architecture and engineering.

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Hope in the Ruins: This Very Tree, a Story of 9/11, Resilience, and Regrowth, by Sean Rubin

Yesterday the sight of Rubin’s picture book, leaning against my desk amongst its assorted fellows, occasioned me some chagrin. I had checked it out from the library weeks (months?) ago, intending to compose a collective review of books about distinguished trees.

That article is still waiting to be written, and only yesterday did it occur to me that a solo review of This Very Tree would be well suited to the twenty-second anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Alas, it was rather late in the day to compose a  thoughtful review.

But it comes to me that the day after might be just as appropriate. After all, author-illustrator Rubin offers a chronicle of regrowth and persistence that picks up after the events of 9/11. It’s a story about carrying on in the wake of disaster.

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Middle East refugee stories: The Mountains We Carry, by Zaid Brifkani, and A Map of Salt and Stars, by Zeyn Joukhadar

An unconscionable number of months have passed since I listened to these two audiobooks, back to back. However, the length of time between reading and review is no reflection of the impression they made.

The Map of Salt and Stars follows two journeys: An Arab-American family’s harrowing flight from Syria in 2011, and the travels of a young woman apprenticed to twelfth-century cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi. It is not uncommon, in dual-narrative stories, for one to overshadow the other. In this case, however, both plot lines hold equal appeal. The dangers and threats of the contemporary tale impose greater suspense. But the twelfth-century tale charms with its touch of mysticism, aptly reflected by the novel’s frame-worthy cover.

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The Black Book, by Orhan Pamuk

My husband and I read Orhan Pamuk’s Snow together some twentyyears ago. In my memory we started it during a 2003 visit to Turkey, which coincided with a late February snowfall. Clearly this is the power of suggestion at work, as it recently came to my attention that the English translation was published in 2004.

Whatever our setting or the weather, I found the book’sethereal narrative almost as enigmatic as the facts of publication now reveal my memory of its reading to be. But a brief return to Istanbul last year renewed my interest in Pamuk’s works despite their, to me, elusive quality. An enchanting three-day sojourn in Istanbul left me wanting to read something that would reflect the ethos of our travels. A few days later I stumbled upon The Black Book in a Dushanbe bookstore, one of only a few titles available in English.

It proved to be even more perfect choice than I realized at the time. Billed as a mystery, I naively expected something along the lines of conventional detective fiction. Granted, the protagonist, Galip, is the loving husband of the missing person rather than a dispassionate investigator. But the farther I read the less I could make of Galip’s relentless criss-crossing of Istanbul in his search for his wife.

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Dear Mrs. Bird, by AJ Pearce

I don’t recall where or what I first heard about this book, but as the last in a long line of Mrs. Birds and the author of an epistolary work in progress, I had to investigate. Likewise elusive is the memory of any book that so utterly delighted me with its unadulterated charm, where goodnatured families, kindhearted friends, and generous stangers prevail. Unabashedly optimistic, Dear Mrs. Bird labors under no grim modernist necessity of adhering to stark realism.

Well, yes, there is a war going on in 1940 London, where Emmeline Lake is a volunteer in the Auxiliary Fire Service. Throughout the first half of the book, lulled into near complacency by Pearce’s lilting wordcraft, her mastery (as near as I can tell) of WWII-era British diction, and Emmy’s relentless good cheer, I felt an occasional twinge of guilt. Should I really be enjoying this so much? After all, people are losing lives and livelihoods right and left in the Luftwaffe’s nightly bombing raids. Are Emma, AJ, and I all in a state of denial?

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A History of the Island, by Eugene Vodolazkin

Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus sat on my shelf for a number of years after a friend gave it to me. During that time I loaned it out at least once, my neglect being no testament to my valuation of it. On the contrary, I suspected it of being highly affecting on account of both craftsmanship and realistic representations of its fifteenth-century protagonist. But the travails of even a fictional saint seemed too much to traverse during a stretch of life that encompassed (sequentially, thank goodness, not all at once) a mother-in-law with dementia, a worldwide pandemic, and a husband with cancer, not to mention a daughter in middle school.

At length, however, advance notice of the impending publication of Vodolazkin’s A History of the Island prompted me to pick up Laurus. While the 2023 book is not a sequel to Laurus, I wanted to be familiar with the author’s earlier work before taking on the new one.

I discovered that while Laurus does engage weighty themes, the author’s wit and the protagonist’s (often implausibly) transcendent state of mind prevent the latter’s trials from overburdening those of us who trudge vicariously alongside him. The setting is our world, but it’s a half-mythic world, where signs and wonders are commonplace. Surreal elements extract the action from the realm of the literal into a space where I, at least, could observe and reflect from a certain remove.

I ended up reading A History for our mother-daughter book when we were assigned to select a book with an unusual narrative style. A History qualifies on many levels. It reads like the history book it purports to be, but the narrative is interspersed with commentary by the centuries-old monarchs of said island.

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