Friday, May 30, 2008

The Arabian Date Palm by Frances LaBonte

This is another beautifully presented book on the Arabian region by Frances LaBonte. It will be placed in the Childrens' Book section of bookshops but this volume, like all LaBonte’s books, has a universal appeal.

The author takes something as ancient, iconic and ordinary as the Arabian Date Palm—Phoenix dactylifera—and with text and pictures shows how fascinating this tree is. For instance every page has a ‘Fascinating Fact’ like this one: ‘Did you know that there are more than 500 names for the date palm in the Arabic language?’

LaBonte traces the history of date palms in the region, points to their mention in the Holy Qur’an, their cultivation, their susceptibility to pests and diseases and she explains the process of production. What an astonishing number of date varieties there are in the world!

The chapter ‘Dates as Food’ tantalizes readers with photos of cakes made from dates and it shows how various parts of the date have different uses. One can understand why dates were ideal food for desert travelers and why they continue to be significant today for their nutritional and medicinal value.

In addition to the date, the author writes of the many historic and contemporary uses of the tree—the trunk, the fronds and the leaves.

Frances LaBonte writes with clarity and an economy of words. She possesses the gift of being able to synthesize a mass of literature and present it in an interesting and informative manner. Most important is her style which moves along with pace and never suffers from condescension.

Coming with a glossary of important Arabic terms and an index, this book will become the raw material for many projects and it needs to find a place in every school library. But it is a book for every home, ideal for leaving on the coffee table and browsing from time to time, especially when you’re doing something as enjoyable and as Arabic as drinking coffee and eating dates.

Frances LaBonte, The Arabian Date Palm (Dubai: Jerboa, 2006).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 56.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Arabian Date Palm.

The book, Sheikh Zayed, is also written by Frances LaBonte and a review is posted at this link: Reviewing Books and Movies.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sheikh Zayed by Frances LaBonte

This book tells the inspirational story of the man that Emiratis affectionately call, the ‘Father of the Nation’. It is written as a children’s book but like the best of this genre, it will be enjoyed by readers of all ages, especially those for whom English is a second language.

Readers will appreciate the many superb black and white photographs of the subject of this volume and the land with which he is synonymous. Supplemented by a clear text, the pictures depict Sheikh Zayed as a man who loved children and who enjoyed his roles as father, believer, leader, falcon hunter and statesman.

Sheikh Zayed is a useful primer, not only on the life of the man but also concerning the formation of the federation and the way the young nation is maturing as a union of emirates.

Residents and visitors to the Emirates today will be familiar with the iconic photograph of Sheikh Zayed. This attractively presented book provides the major details of his life and plots the significant events in the country’s development.

The author, Francis LaBonte, has lived in Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE. Having served as a librarian she writes with an intimate knowledge of the kinds of information and stories that people want to discover.

Francis LaBonte, Sheikh Zayed (Dubai: Jerboa Books, 2006).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 56.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Sheikh Zayed.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

You’ve Got to Read this Book! by Jack Canfield and Gay Hendricks

This book is an introduction to fifty-five people who are deemed to have had an influence in today’s world and their commentary on the books that have profoundly shaped their lives.

The co-authors, Jack Canfield (co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul) and Gay Hendricks (co-author of Conscious Loving), judge themselves to be part of this select group of fifty-five and some of this coterie have nominated Canfield and Hendricks’ books as being influential.

The fifty-five people are authors and actors, sales people and sports personalities, media stars and musicians. Many of them are motivational speakers, representatives of the Self-Help movement, fitness and diet gurus and members of the ‘How I Got Rich’ group. Most of the contributors are Americans and the majority of the books they select are written by American male authors.

This eclectic smorgasbord ranges from Hitler’s Mein Kampf to Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits to Raymond Moody’s Life after Life and Venice Bloodworth’s Key to Yourself.

Interestingly, there are very few novels that have been literary change agents and only a handful appear in that quirky new list of ‘1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die’.

One valuable reminder is the impact of books on children and young people. Like Wyland, the artist who at the age of thirteen read Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World and afterwards vowed, “I too will be an ocean explorer and diver.” (23-24)

The co-authors state in their preface, that like all personalities and books, some chapters will appeal to certain readers more than others.

You’ve Got to Read this Book! illustrates the different ways that books can influence us. Sometimes the truth of a story will seep into our minds and transform our thinking and acting. At other times a book will ‘go off like a small bomb’ and do its momentous work within us.

Often a book will have a role to play at a time of crisis or in a special season of our lives. Sometimes when we pick it up years later we wonder what we saw in the book and why we raved about it. Teacher Rafe Esquith testifies to the importance of timing in his testimony concerning Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird:

“I finished the book as the sun was coming up. With tears streaming down my face, I closed the book and stared out the window, my mind whirling with insights but my heart calm and peaceful at last. The book was the same book I had read so many times before, but I was not the same person reading it. All the life experiences I’d been through had made me see the world differently.” (35)

Pierce O’Donnell highlights a similar factor in his appreciation:

“When I read Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy, I was already wired to appreciate its message.” (63)

Sometimes the rebel in us reacts to being told, “You’ve got to read this book!” But this selection of short chapters is to be read in a different way—not necessarily in one sitting but in portions or snippets. Like a page of book reviews it may well spark some inspiration and either prompt you to purchase one of the books or knock it off your list (if you have one) of the books you want to read before the lights are turned out.

You’ve Got to Read this Book! By Jack Canfield & Gay Hendricks (New York: Collins, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 63.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of You’ve Got to Read this Book!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

C.S. Lewis: A Biography by Michael White

“Why ever do we need another biography of C. S. (‘Jack’) Lewis,” I said, as I took this book down from the shelf? Just because the author claims in his preface to have ‘an abiding interest in C. S. Lewis’, that he has been captivated by Lewis’s fantasy world and especially relished the Screwtape Letters, are not good enough reasons for a retell.

But popular biographer, Michael White, has stated his angle and his rationale for getting him through the research and writing of this new book:

“Most of those who have written about Lewis have been deeply religious people or academics, so they have concentrated on these aspects of his life…but there are many other human elements that shaped C. S. Lewis.”

“I wanted to consider C. S. Lewis from the position of a fan, certainly, but I did not want to dwell too much on his religious devotion or his academic accomplishments.”

“In many ways, I am the polar opposite of my subject. I am an atheist and I very much enjoy the twenty-first century, whereas Lewis had little time for the era in which he lived. Lewis concentrated on the past—his childhood. My inclination is to focus on the present and the future, something Lewis seemed to do only rarely.”

It is good that Michael White persisted in visiting the Lewis sites and writing the story from his study in Perth, Western Australia, because he writes with freshness, paints colourful word pictures and possesses the skill of a good storyteller.

The most persuasive reasons for delivering a new Lewis biography in the twenty-first century are found in White’s final chapter and end pages. The biographer evaluates the Lewis legacy, drawing many examples from the continuing story since Lewis’s death on the same day as JFK and Aldous Huxley died. In addition to viewing Lewis as a religious commentator and a writer, White notes the popularity and universal appeal of the theatrical productions of ‘The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’ and their adaptation in the Narnia films.

White is respectful but his position outside the faith enables him to pen a ‘warts and all’ account of Lewis that is bound to offend many devotees who have reasons for keeping the Oxford don on a pedestal.

The author visits the C. S. Lewis exhibit at Wheaton College, Illinois and concludes that much of the adulation for Lewis is “based on confusion and misinterpretation.” He believes that this American exhibit “has managed to morph the real Jack Lewis into a version of himself even he would have trouble recognising.” In contrast, White’s more human account of Lewis’s life provides details of his vices and weaknesses that make him more accessible to readers. The highlighting of Lewis’s painful childhood, his unsettled education and his service in WWI goes a long way to explaining why Lewis acted and thought as he did. Specific examples of his relationship with women and his fluctuating friendship with fellow ‘Inkling’, J. R. R. Tolkien, provide insightful illustrations into the personality of Lewis.

As many Lewis biographies have erred on the side of hero worship and preserving a fabricated model of Christian devotion, White’s book is a welcome read. He has not shorn the biography of spiritual reflection and academic features but he has been attentive to many other factors that have shaped the Lewis life and legacy. Michael White skillfully walks the tightrope in continuing to be a fan of Clive Staples Lewis while concluding that “his character was replete with contradictions.”

Of special value to modern readers are the appendices which include ‘A Guide to the Publications of C. S. Lewis’, a ‘Chronology of the Life and Times of C. S. Lewis (including publications up to the year 2000!), an interesting account of ‘Those Who Survived C. S. Lewis’, a Bibliography (what would Lewis the Luddite think of a bibliography that lists websites?) and a detailed Index.

It was F. W. Boreham (a writer in the same era and another populariser of Christianity) who said, “When a man has been fifty years in his grave it ought to be possible to review his work dispassionately. The sentiment that is born of human fondness has by that time evaporated; and the prejudices that arise from personal animosity have died down.” For these reasons and more it is good that Michael White has waited half a century to write this new biography of C. S. Lewis.

Michael White, C. S. Lewis: The Boy Who Chronicled Narnia—a Biography (London: Abacus, 2005).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 63.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of C. S. Lewis: The Boy Who Chronicled Narnia; biographer, Michael White.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

I Am a Little Moslem by Mennah Bakkar

This wonderfully illustrated book will be of interest not only to children but to adults. It raises some fascinating issues for Muslims as well as others outside the Islamic fold.

According to Amr Khaled (is he the popular Egyptian preacher?), who writes the foreword in the style of a note to ‘Dear Parents’, this book “has been written with modern insight conforming to the world around us today. Yet it maintains the required basics and values of Islam that our children can relate to and apply during their everyday lives as Allah the almighty had intended.”

This is a noble vision for a book and it is intriguing to discover how the eternal truths of Islam are made to conform to the contemporary world.

The book is written for twins, Tarek and Jana, who are six years of age, of pale complexion, who live in an extended family in an English-speaking country, where they are called ‘Moslems’ (instead of ‘Muslims) and where Christmas is a time for an extended public holiday.

Tarek is sporty, musical and noisy while Jana is enthusiastic about ballet. They are both doing well at school, they are curious and their questions shape the plot of this book.

The action of their school teacher decorating a Christmas tree in the classroom is the catalyst for a conversation at home with their grandmother. In the story, Nana provides her grandchildren with most of their spiritual understanding.

Jana and Tarek are encouraged by Nana to visit their friends during their Christmas rituals, to respect religions while not to actually celebrate the religions of others. When Jana and Tarek are disappointed that they may not get Christmas presents at home, Nana reminds them that the Moslem celebration of Eid is a time of gift-giving and as there are two Eids each year, in contrast to Christmas, they will have “two times the fun [and] two times the presents.”

The growing visibility of Christmas decorations in the windows of homes in their neighbourhood sparks a deep conversation about Tarek and Jana’s own religious identity.

The book proclaims explicitly and implicitly these doctrines:
* There is only one God who is called ‘Allah’.
* Allah is the creator of all, always present, a protector, invisible, an insomniac and the object of human gratitude.
* The holy book called the ‘Quran’ tells us what to believe and do.
* Mohammed is Allah’s messenger whose messages are found in the Quran.

In a contemporary manner and devoid of religious jargon the Islamic understanding of salvation is explained. Allah is the all-seeing referee who keeps a scorecard on every person. Nana expounds: “The more good things you do, the more good points you get and the more good points you get, you will please Allah very much and you end up in Paradise.”

This explanation naturally leads Tarek and Jana to ask more questions about Paradise and Nana obliges, saying it is a “lovely, fun place that has everything and anything you could ever wish for.”

“Does it have lots of parks, playgrounds to play in? asked Tarek. “Are there houses made of candy? Lollipop flowers? And chocolate trees?”

“Yes,” laughed Nana [taking a liberal and modern interpretation of the Quran], “If that is what you want, that is what you’ll find. You can wish for all the most wonderful toys to play with and you can stay up as late as you want.”

No wonder Jana exclaims, “I’m excited about being a Moslem. I want to go to Paradise right now!”

Nana reiterates that “to go to Paradise, you have to do a lot of good things to score as many good points as you can.” To which Jana asks the important question, “How many good points do I have to get?” Nana, within the context of this belief system replies well, “Lots and lots and lots. Only Allah knows how many points are enough.”

Interestingly, Tarek and Jana don’t seem bothered at this stage of their lives about their lack of certainty as to whether they have been good enough and scored sufficient admission points. Scorecard salvation is a very contemporary idea believed by many children and adults—that one has to work hard to get enough points to please God for acceptance now and beyond the grave.

The book concludes with an unnecessary summary of the doctrinal themes about Allah, Mohammed, the point system and entry into Paradise.

I am a Little Moslem is one in the ‘Little Moslem’ series and the other volumes address specific subjects of prayer, giving and Moslem festivals.

Mennah I Bakkar, I am a Little Moslem (Beirut: Arab Scientific Publishers, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at the amazingly low cost of Dh 20.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of I am a Little Moslem; Tarek and Jana’s scores for a week.