Monday, May 28, 2012

Hunting Eichmann

How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency 
Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi
by Neal Bascomb
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009, 409 pages

It was, perhaps, inevitable that Osama bin Laden would end up dead after he was fingered as the mastermind of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. An evil so great had to be punished by the American government. It didn't matter where bin Laden would hide, for it seemed obvious that the Americans would find him. It was only a matter of time.

Yet bin Laden was responsible for the deaths of only thousands, while Adolph Eichmann was, by his own estimation, responsible "directly or indirectly" for the deaths of some four million Jews in the Holocaust. An evil of that kind needed to be punished and justice had to be seen to be done.

Hunting Eichmann is not only the story of the how the Israeli secret service, the Mossad, tracked down and captured Eichmann, but it also tells how and why Eichmann escaped justice after the Second World War. It is a spy thriller, though not in the style of James Bond. It is about real spies hunting a real war criminal. It is about their successes and failures. Ultimately, it is about the spies themselves.

Simply giving endless details of how Eichmann was captured in Argentina and spirited away to Israel for trial would grow boring. What keeps the story riveting is the glimpses into the lives of the agents themselves. We see what motivates them; how they'd all lost close family members in the Holocaust. We see how they walked a delicate line between the pursuit of justice and the desire for revenge, and where, in a couple of cases, revenge may have been the greater motivator of the two. Ultimately, we see the agents when they encounter Eichmann for the first time. Expecting to see a monster, they see a poor, bedraggled man with "shabby underwear" who they find simply "pathetic."

To their surprise, the face of evil is ordinary. The man once responsible for the deaths of so many had been reduced to poverty and a life lacking in power or direction. Those pursuing Eichmann had so strongly expected something different, that when Eichmann is first discovered to be living in a tiny, rented home, the agent who checked out the clue refused to believe that his quarry really lived there.

That may be where the value of this book lies; in the simple observation that evil is ordinary. Evil is not something we can't identify with because in the right circumstances evil may be us. While the pursuit of evil in the name of justice is still commendable, we may need to examine how we react to those who are "evil." How different are they from us? Do we try to help them overcome the evil as did a missionary who visited Eichmann, or are we the agent who volunteered to help out at Eichmann's hanging?

Hunting Eichmann is an exciting story and all the more fascinating because it is real. Its tale, and its lessons, are something we should all be familiar with.

Monday, May 21, 2012

This Was John Calvin

by Thea B. Van Halsema
Inheritance Publications, 1981, 184 pages

I’ve read four John Calvin biographies and this is by far my favorite. It is tightly written at only 224 pages, and interspersed with dozens of illustration, but what sets it apart are the many minor details the author includes.

One example: other biographies will mention that Martin Luther read and greatly respected what John Calvin wrote about the Lord’s Supper, but in This Was John Calvin we discover how Luther first learned Calvin’s thoughts. He picked up a Latin copy of Calvin’s Little Treatise On The Holy Supper Of Our Lord in a German bookstore. It’s only a small bit of additional detail but it is this sort of extra tidbit that makes history come alive – now I can picture the large Luther ducking through the small front door of a local bookstore, scanning the shelves of the Religion Section and plucking from the titles a slim volume by this young Calvin fellow he had heard so much about. That’s fun to imagine.

Another example: every Calvin biography will note that half of Geneva’s citizenship opposed the Reformer, many of whom were constantly scheming to get him expelled from the city. Van Halsema goes further, spending 3 chapters (out of the book’s 36) to tell the story of Geneva before Calvin’s arrival, and explain the historic reasons for the division in the city.

She also provides a helpful background to Calvin’s encounter with Michael Servetus – a heretic that Calvin is sometimes accused of murdering. Servetus was burnt at the stake by the Genevan authorities for denying the Trinity, and while Calvin agreed with his execution, Van Halsema notes that most everyone at that time did too. In fact the Roman Catholic town of Lyons had previously burnt Servetus in effigy, only substituting a dummy because the man himself had escaped their grasp.

It's is a great, readable biography that will be enjoyed by anyone in their late teens or older who has even the tiniest bit of interest in church history.

And after you finish this one off, you'll want to get the authors' Three Men Came to Heidelberg, about the three principal figures behind it the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism. It is most often packaged with her short biography Glorious Heretic: The Story of Guido de Bres', which is another very quick, very interesting read. Readable, enjoyable church history - you just can beat that!

( may not have the best prices on these - you may be able to get them cheaper at Inheritance Publications.)

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Jungle Book, & The Second Jungle Book

or The Jungle Books
by Rudyard Kipling1894 / 400 pages

Last month, I recommended Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories. Another pair of classics from Rudyard Kipling for somewhat older readers - but still a great read-aloud for those readers or older ones - is The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book, collected by Oxford World's Classics as The Jungle Books.

About half the stories tell how Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves, moves from the jungle to the world of men - and back again, for a time, when the foolish villagers fall prey to superstition about Mowgli.

Kipling's tales are far better than any of the movies based on them. The movies either remove the 'personality' of Mowgli's animal companions, or destroy their created dignity by making them far too human. In the original Mowgli tales, the animals have conflicts and personalities, but even as their interaction with Mowgli firmly nudges him down the path toward maturity, his animal mentors - and enemies - never lose the strangeness that makes them so wondrously different from us humans.

What is so compelling from a Christian point of view about the Jungle Books is that human beings, foolish and dishonorable as they often are, still have dominion over the animal kingdom - just as in Kipling's Just So Stories. The stories always uphold the message of Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 – that man is ruler over creation. As vulnerable as Mowgli the child is in the jungle, the animals cannot look him in the eye.

Parents may want to skip some of the ‘non-Mowgli’ stories, but at least one, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” has several picture-book versions, and reinforces the same themes as the Mowgli stories, in telling of a mongoose who learns to protect "his" (human) family from poisonous snakes.

Finally, for read-aloud, it is almost impossible to find a better set of books than these two for two great reasons. First, the stories are populated by dozens of fully-realized animal (and some compelling human) characters - each with his or her own manner of speech, giving the reader the fun of recreating their unique voices in their wise and witty dialogue. Second, every story begins and ends with its own songs - amazing poems as musical and memorable as Kipling's classic "If" - and the language in the story is just as poetic.

With encouraging lessons about man's place in this world, an emotional look at the challenge of growing up as an outsider with the help of insightful friends, and enthralling language, the two Jungle Books will be as enjoyable for adults to read aloud as they are for children to listen to.

You can pick up a copy at here and here.

Monday, May 7, 2012

3 fantastic Christian children's books

These three picture books are all by the team of Stephanie Carmichael and Jessica Green and are wonderful for how they demonstrate how parents can “easily and naturally talk about God with [our] children throughout the day.” In that way the books are as much for parents as they are for the kids - the mom and dad in these pages serve as examples to us on how we can seize on the many little opportunities that pop up throughout the day, to show our little ones the wonders God has wrought.

You can try these three books out before buying them by visiting where you can read all of them, in their entirety, online (There you will find a fourth book in the series, called The Birthday Party, but it is not recommended because the lesson the book teaches - that God loves everyone - is not true. See Psalm 5:5; Lev. 20:23; Prov. 6:16-19; and Hos. 9:15).

The Rag Doll
24 pages, Hardcover, 2010

Luke, Ben and Emily loved seeing their Auntie Sarah, because “Auntie Sarah loved seeing them.” And it didn’t hurt that she had all sorts of toys at her house. Emily’s favorite is an old rag doll called Polly. A few days after their visit to Auntie Sarah, Emily’s mum surprises her with a rag doll of her own, which, of course, makes little Emily ecstatic. She names her doll Annabelle and thinks her Mum is quite clever for knowing how to make a rag doll. Mum points out that she is “not as clever as God, though. God made you. And he made you so that you can grow and laugh. You can do a lot more things than Annabelle can.” Emily realizes that not only did God make her, he made Mummy too, and her little brother Ben! The story ends with Emily thanking God for making them all.

Grumpy Day
24 pages, Softcover, 2011

On a rainy day the family is stuck inside, and the kids are all a bit grumpy. Emily can’t get her dolls to sit up like she wants them to, and little Ben can’t get the blocks to stack the way he likes. But with a little help from mum, and a hug from her too, these problems are overcome. But nothing mum does can fix Luke’s problem. He wants to go kick his ball, but you can’t do that in the rain. He wonders why God can’t make it rain some other day. Mum explains that God can  make it ran another day, but that He might want it to keep raining today. They can tell God that they are unhappy - grumpy - about the current situation, but that we need to know that “God is God, and He is in charge of the whole world [so] He knows what is best.” So they pray together, and then mum and Luke head to the kitchen for an orange, while the soccer ball sits “next to the back door, ready for when God decides to stop the rain.”

Over the Fence
24 pages, Hardcover, 2010

Luke loves to kick his soccer ball. But he doesn’t have anyone to kick it around the yard with him: his sister Emily likes dolls, not soccer, and his little brother Ben is just too little. So when a new neighbor moves in, with a boy the same age as Luke, he is eager to find out if this boy likes soccer too. He is so eager he races to his dad to find out more. His dad is busy fixing the mower, and promises that they can go visit next door after he is done. But Luke wants to know now! If Dad doesn’t know more about the boy, who does? Dad explains that the boy’s parents do, and his old friends, and, of course, God too, because God made this little boy. Just like he made Luke. A face to face meeting finally occurs, and Luke is happy to discover that yes, the boy likes soccer too!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

All The World

by Liz Garton Scanlon
illustrations by Marla Frazee
Beach Lane Books, 2009, 40 pages

The best of summer time, sun and sand, delicious fresh fruit and vegetables, fields and mountains...

If you have been blessed like I have, your memories of summer holiday trips are ones that you treasure, partly because of the amazing beauty and grandeur of nature, and partly because of the way our family enjoyed exploring new places together.

All The World captures this feeling. This book is a celebration of the world we can enjoy in two senses - the beauty of nature and also the enjoyment of fellowship with friends and family. The author highlights the way everyone responds with pleasure to the beauty and complexity of nature, and that sharing experiences in beautiful surroundings can help us appreciate each other as well.

The story is written in simple but descriptive rhyme, about a family enjoying a summer day. They go to the beach, a farmer's market, and shelter from a storm in a cozy restaurant.

The illustrations are beautiful ink and watercolor depictions of the scenery and of the different moods of summertime moments.

This would be a great book to share before or after a holiday or outing. It's aimed at preschoolers and young children, but their grownups will enjoy it too.