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.
List-making is practically a hobby with me, and books are a passion, with children’s literature a high-ranking subcategory. Creating lists of the latter is thus a delight accompanied by the danger of disappearing into long, winding passageways papered over by picture books.
This is especially true of a topic as fascinating and fruitful as women’s history. The last few decades have seen an ever growing wealth of picture book biographies of all sorts, produced by innovative authors and gifted illustrators. Many document the lives of women notable for their gifts, passion, and commitment to a cause. In most cases these individuals didn’t set out to make a name for themselves. They had a passion and they pursued it; they perceived a need, and they addressed it. Some were exceptionally gifted; some simply refused to look the other way when confronted with injustice or hardship.
Most of the women featured below overcame adversity of some sort, whether physical, economic, or social. Generally at least one parent supported their goals, but many lost a mother or father in childhood. These women are significant not because of their gender but because they rose above their circumstances.
It’s unlikely I will make great advances in science—or the arts, for that matter. And it’s possible my own greatest adversary is various iterations of my own psyche. But women like Sarah Hale, writer of letters, books, poetry, and more, remind me that the important thing is to keep going and not lose heart. I hope the perseverance of these visionaries will inspire you and your daughters and sons as it has inspired me.
For millennia the written word has held special significance among those whose faith is centered on holy writ. Some ancient Jewish and Islamic traditions imposed safeguards to prevent the desecration of any piece of writing—sacred or secular—that might bear God’s name.
Christian history is marked by missionaries and others who made literacy and education a priority, on the premise that everyone should have personal access to the written Word of God. Among these, Martin Luther, William Carey, and Jonathan Edwards are familiar names. A less familiar example is the Kyrias family of Albania, active supporters of language development, publishing, and education, particularly among girls.
In contemporary America it can be hard to fathom a culture where the written word is not readily accessible. We read to our children from the day they are born, fill shelves with assorted Bible editions, and ship off excess volumes to thrift stores and little free libraries. The handful of picture books below give elementary-aged children a glimpse of the lengths to which people have gone—and still go—to preserve, procure, and distribute the wealth that is literacy.
I read Kadish’s work in a year that began with a pandemic and ended with wildfires that shrouded our region in smoke for two weeks. It seemed appropriate that The Weight of Ink reaches its climax in a plague and has its denouement in the Great London fire of 1666. Of course, I didn’t know about the fires forthcoming in either book or reality when I started. I read the book because it was everything I love in a novel—meticulously researched historical fiction, nuanced in its perspectives and masterful in its wordcraft.
And it included a plague—a plague long, long ago and far, far away. What could more timely? Kadish’s epic transported me to Israel, Amsterdam, and London. I traveled through time to the seventeenth century, witnessed the trials and triumphs of unacknowledged genius. It was a journey well worth the $18.99 fare.
What a felicitous find! I was searching for Susan Cooper’s young adult novels when this previously unknown-to-me work by Susan Fletcher caught my eye. What a surprise to learn that it concerns ancient Persia (a general interest of mine) and the Magi (Brian and I once brainstormed a novel not unlike Susan’s after a one-week visit to Iran) and that the author lives just an hour and a half away!
All that excitement could have been preparatory to a disappointment, but it most definitely was not. Fletcher writes both engagingly and “elegantly” (in the words of a NY Times reviewer of Shadow Spinner). I am (alas) one of those readers who often skims over descriptive passages, but I sat spellbound while Fletcher’s magical metaphors conjured up mirages before my very eyes. Only they seemed much more substantial than mirages. Continue reading →
I usually am not fond of travel writing, but I found Christopher Kremmer’s work more interesting than some others of that genre that I have encountered. Kremmer’s wry wit accounts for at least part of the entertainment value of The Carpet Wars, even eliciting a few chuckles, a somewhat rare occurrence. (Don’t analyze that last statement–it isn’t meant to indicate anything except my appreciation of Kremmer’s humor.) For example, Kremmer (who does not otherwise give any indication of being particularly religious) relates an incident in which he became exceedingly frustrated with an Afghan taxi driver:
My hand was lifting, drawn up by the power of a psychotic urge to batter him, when suddenly a loud voice rent the sky above the stranded car:
‘Leave him to me!’ cried the voice of the Almighty. ‘For he is a driver and they are a stiff-necked people.’
So I heeded the word of the Lord and let him be (346). Continue reading →
How are prayer, poetry, and food preparation related? Sufism, Arabic literature, and the culinary arts all contribute to the backdrop of Diana Abu-Jaber’s multifaceted second novel. As I was drawn into Abu-Jaber’s masterfully crafted world, I found myself increasingly aware of the art in the everyday circumstances of life. Continue reading →