Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Life Is but a Dream: A Memoir of Living with Illness

Posted by nliakos on April 3, 2017

by Garet Spiese (iUniverse 2017)

Garet “Peggy” Spiese grew up in rural Pennsylvania, the daughter of devout Christians. In 1964, her life changed when she was diagnosed with a life-threatening liver disease. Her parents were told that the illness was fatal, and that she had only a few months to live. She was thirteen.

Peggy’s parents drew on their faith in God and surrounded their daughter with love and life. Peggy herself refused to give up hope. As she passed each new deadline pronounced by her doctors, the months turned into years; Peggy graduated from high school, went to college, became a performer, fell in love, and got married. Through it all, she battled ill health and nasty side effects of the medications that were helping keep her alive, but she insisted on living her life as fully as she could under the circumstances. In her late forties, she finally had a liver transplant, which while not a complete cure, enabled her to imagine a future with a normal lifespan, if not a completely normal life. She was 66 when she wrote the book, still battling various challenges to her health, but looking forward to the future with her husband.

I was inspired by Peggy’s fortitude in the face of her many challenges. She describes doctors who were insensitive to the point of being cruel, strange alternative treatments to which she submitted uncomplainingly, and horrific episodes of pain. But she also had a family whose support never wavered, dear friends and a loving husband, care providers who comforted her when she lost hope, and an indomitable will to live.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Birds Fall Down

Posted by nliakos on March 8, 2017

by Rebecca West (Viking 1966)

This was one of my mother’s books, many of which I rescued from her house in Hackensack, NJ before we sold it in 1984. It’s also the first Rebecca West I have read. She wrote not only novels (six up to and including this one), but also history, biography, criticism, and short stories.

Actually, I found The Birds Fall Down rather hard to get through. It tells a story of intrigue and betrayal among Russian expatriates and revolutionaries in the early part of the twentieth century, before the Russian Revolution. Eighteen-year-old Laura Rowan, English on her father’s side and aristocratic Russian on her mother’s, goes with her mother to visit her grandparents, Nikolai Nikolaievich and Sofia Andreievna Diakonov, who are living in Paris after Nikolai was framed and exiled by the Tsar. Leaving her mother and her ailing grandmother behind, Laura and Nikolai begin a journey by train to a place called Mures-sur-Mer. On the way, they are joined in their car by a former friend of Nikolai’s, now a revolutionary, Chubinov. Most of the novel is consumed by an endless “conversation” between Count Diakonov and Chubinov on the train, as Chubinov attempts to convince the Count that he wants to help him. (I put the word conversation in quotes because it is more a succession of interminable monologs than a real conversation. And that was the part that was the most arduous to read. It seemed to go on forever!)

Spoiler Alert! Eventually, Chubinov and Nikolai realize that they have both been betrayed by a double agent in the Count’s retinue, and the shock kills Nikolai. Laura is left to handle the situation on her own until her father arrives from London, which takes several days. Although she has been depending on her father to save her from the double agent, Laura realizes that she cannot trust him to protect. Ultimately, she relies on Chubinov to save her, but until the last moments, neither Laura nor the reader is really sure who the villain is.

Laura is not really important for the story, but she is the thread that holds it together, and we see the other characters and the action (such as it is) from her point of view. But I did not find her to be a very convincing character. She seemed too mature for an eighteen-year-old, and her reactions to some of the events in the novel seemed wooden to me. I couldn’t identify with her, and she didn’t seem like a real person to me.

The Birds Fall Down has some things in common with the great Russian novels: lots of characters who are known by several different names and a twisted plot. I found it rather tiresome to read, but I did finish it and (sort of) followed the plot! Dame Rebecca West notes in the Prologue that she based the story on an actual historical event, but Google was unable to help me find exactly what that could have been.

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The Te of Piglet

Posted by nliakos on February 5, 2017

by Benjamin Hoff (Dutton 1992)

This is the sequel to and companion of The Tao of Pooh, which I re-read and blogged about recently. Pooh’s friend Piglet (“a very small animal”) exemplifies virtue in action: “a quality of special character, spiritual strength, or hidden potential. . . that comes from the Inner Nature of things. . .”

Say what? Hoff points out that Piglet “agonizes” over everything, unlike Pooh, who simply is.  He represents the underdog, the unfortunate, the outcast, the maligned in society, who traditionally have been appreciated and protected by the Taoists, who see “Heavenly Power at work in the world” as primarily feminine: gentle, humble, generous, subtle–kind of like Piglet, if you think about it. Humble Piglet longs to be important, and at the end of The House at Pooh Corner, he achieves this goal. Hoff points out that of all the characters in Winnie the Pooh, Piglet is the only one to develop into something more than he is at the beginning, which he manages to do by “applying” his smallness for the benefit of others.

Eeyore again personifies the pessimist who is never satisfied. Tigger is the overachiever, the seeker of instant gratification (the typical Westerner). Hoff reminds us that these kinds of personalities will never achieve either wisdom or happiness, because they are incapable of being satisfied with what they have.

Hoff also rants about the media, education, feminism, science and technology,  nuclear devices, Chinese inventions vs. Western ones (the same things, but centuries earlier)–which I could have done without. He mourns the destruction of the environment. He prefers the natural (“material”) world to the artificial (man-made) one. That sounds great, and I am all for living a natural life in theory, but I must confess I like living in a house and sleeping in a bed, and running water, and a lot of things that are completely unnatural, but to which I have become accustomed!

Hoff summarizes Taoist teachings thusly: Observe, Deduce, Apply. Look at things with a fresh eye. See the basic parts of things, connections between things, patterns. Use the natural laws that operate in these things. In this way, Hoff advises, “you will learn the morality of modesty, moderation, compassion, and consideration. . . , the wisdom of seeing things as they are (not of merely collecting ‘facts’ about them), and the happiness of being in harmony with the Way.” So we should see things as they are, without judging them. And like Piglet, we should cultivate in ourselves the power of the Sensitive, the Modest, and the Small.

Taoists take a negative and change it into a positive: “You work with whatever comes your way. If others throw bricks at you, build a house. If they throw tomatoes, start a vegetable stand. You can often change a situation simply by changing your attitude toward it.” Hoff gives Charles Dickens as an example of this. Having experienced poverty and brutality, he created stories which entertained people while gently exposing them to the concept of social injustice; in the end, his readers began to see the poor in a different light, and society began to change for the better.

In the end, as you know if you have read The House at Pooh Corner, Piglet summons the courage to save the day when Owl’s tree falls, trapping Owl, Pooh, and Piglet inside. Later, Pooh composes a Hum to commemorate Piglet’s heroism. Piglet has achieved his wish, but he remains modest and self-effacing.

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The Love Letters

Posted by nliakos on January 30, 2017

by Beverly Lewis (Bethany House/a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2015)

I found a copy of this book at my local Little Free Library. Since I had enjoyed The Atonement and The Photograph, I traded Trains and Lovers for it. Like the others, it was an easy read (about a day); it kept me engaged without claiming to be great literature, and it taught me some things I didn’t know about the “Plain People” that we call the Amish.

There are multiple stories woven into the novel. There is Marlena Wenger of Mifflinburg, who is engaged to Nat Zimmerman. Marlena and Nat were brought up in an Old Order Amish community, but Marlena’s parents left that community to join the “Beachy  Amish-Mennonites“, and out of deference to her parents, Marlena has been worshiping in their church. Then Marlena is sent to spend the summer in Brownstown with her grandmother Janice, a “black-bumper Mennonite“, after the death of her grandfather, to provide company and assistance as the older woman gets used to her new reality. This sacrifice will delay Marlena’s marriage to Nat.

Then there are the Old Order Bitners, Janice’s neighbors: Roman and Ellie, and their children Dorcas, Julia, Sally, and Jake (“Small Jay”), who is small for his age (14) and has some disabilities (both mental and physical). Ellie and Marlena are quite close. Small Jay is unloved by his father for his disabilities, and Ellie’s heart breaks to see how much her son wants to help his father, who continually rejects him. Small Jay meets a homeless man, “Boston”, who appears to be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; he has no memory of who he is or where he comes from. But he treats Small Jay with respect and courtesy, earning his trust and affection.

Marlena has an older sister, Luella, who left their family and went “fancy”, marrying an “Englischer.” Tragically, Luella is severely injured in an automobile accident. Since her husband is serving in the military overseas and his parents are on a European vacation and are unreachable, Marlena is tasked to take care of her five-month-old niece, Angela Rose, until her parents can take her back. But Luella dies from her injuries, and then Gordon is missing in action and presumed dead. Marlena, who by now adores the baby, would like to keep her forever, but the presumption is that Gordon’s parents will take her. Nat is less than understanding of Marlena’s deep attachment to the baby; he wishes she would give her up so that he can court her properly when she returns from Brownstown. He is also unhappy that Marlena is attending her grandmother’s church, rather than Old Order prayer services with the Bitners. Marlena, however, is undergoing a spiritual transformation in the (slightly) more liberal faith communities of her grandmother and her friends the Masts. She persists in believing that Nat will come around, but he seems to be losing patience with her refusal to obey him.

The eponymous love letters are carried in a satchel by Boston, the mysterious homeless man. They seem to be from a devoted wife, Abigail, whom he insists is gone from him forever. Small Jay reads him a letter from time to time, becoming more and more curious about the man’s origins. (There are also letters between Marlena and Luke, but the love they express begins to lose ground to their spiritual disagreements.)

What will happen to Angela Rose? Will Nat come around and marry Marlena, while allowing her to worship in her New Order community? Will Roman ever accept his son and give him the love and trust he deserves? Will he relax his authority over his wife and daughters? And will Boston be reunited with his Abigail? These are the questions that kept me turning the pages.

The theme of the various Amish and Mennonite communities, and how they differ from one another, was very interesting. Clothing, colors, use of electricity, whether they drive traditional buggies or cars, style and language of prayer and relationship with the Divine, place of worship, presence or absence of missionary work-all these combine to keep the communities apart. Individuals like Roman Bitner and Nat Zimmerman, both Old Order Amishmen, refuse to socialize with (or even be friendly with) members of other Anabaptist sects (or to permit their womenfolk to do so). It’s the Sh’ia vs. the Sunni, the Protestants vs. the Catholics, the Orthodox vs. the Conservative or Reformed, all over again, but playing out in what is essentially one religion which has splintered over and over into many tiny communities that won’t talk to each other anymore. It’s quite sad, really.

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Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Posted by nliakos on January 16, 2017

by Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau trade paperback 2015; copyright 2014)

Bryan Stevenson started working with prisoners on  death row  while he was still in law school. Later, he went on to found the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization which is “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society” (from the EJI website).

In Just Mercy, Stevenson presents what he views as some of the worst abuses of our criminal justice system: the sentencing of children to life in prison without the possibility of parole,  the witch hunt for “bad mothers”, the execution of innocent prisoners due to technicalities, the corruption that allows incompetent defense or prejudiced prosecution to condemn innocent people to life in prison or capital punishment, the incarceration and abuse of people with disabilities, the awful treatment within the prison system, and more.

Chapters about the case of Walter McMillian, an African-American man on death row for a crime that was committed while he was at home hosting a fish fry for about twenty people, are interspersed with chapters narrating other cases. Thus, Walter McMillian’s story begins on page 21, when Stevenson was not yet thirty and he received a call from the judge in the case, warning him not to proceed with it, and ends with the Epilogue and Walter’s death from dementia. This reflects the reality that a single case can drag on for many years without resolution, as it works its way through the levels of the justice system. (Many of Stevenson’s cases made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, such as Miller v. Alabama, which declared the sentencing of children to life in prison without parole to be unconstitutional.)  Meanwhile, the innocent prisoner’s life is running out. It was so evident that Walter McMillian had been wrongly accused, sentenced, and imprisoned (he was sent to death row even before he was sentenced to die), that the reader can hardly believe that this case actually happened. Forget “innocent until proven guilty”. The people that arrested, prosecuted, and condemned Walter McMillian had to have known that he was innocent, yet all they cared about was “solving” the crime (The true murderer was never found.). At one point, after years of trying to get McMillian out of prison, Stevenson was told by a lawyer from the Alabama Attorney General’s office, “Bryan, it’s all going to work out, but you’ll need to wait a few more months. He’s been on the row for years, so a few more months are not going to make that much of a difference.” Oh, really? Try it yourself, Mr. Hotshot Lawyer. You will find that every single day on death row is an eternity.

One chapter that affected me even more than Walter McMillian’s tragic story was “All God’s Children”, which focuses on three cases handled by EJI:  Trina Garnett, an intellectually disabled, neglected and abused child who when she was fourteen unintentionally set a house on fire, which resulted in the death of two other children; Ian Manuel, convicted of armed robbery and attempted homicide when he was thirteen; and Antonio Nuñez, charged with kidnapping and attempted murder at fourteen. In all three cases, older children involved in the same crimes received lighter sentences because they implicated the younger ones, while Trina, Ian, and Antonio were all found guilty and sentenced to life without parole (in other words, sentenced to die in prison).  Stevenson points out that adults convicted of similar crimes usually receive much lighter sentences and eventually serve only ten or twenty years before being released. Children who are sentenced and incarcerated in the juvenile justice system are usually released after spending some period of time in juvenile custody, perhaps when they turn eighteen or twenty-one. But these three minor children were all prosecuted as adults, and all received life without parole. Ian Manuel actually spent eighteen years in solitary confinement, supposedly for his own protection. Even when the victim in his case (who survived and went on to lead a normal life) requested that his sentence be reduced, the courts refused to budge. By the time the EJI took on their cases, Trina, Ian, and Antonio were “broken by years of hopeless confinement” (although Ian had somehow managed to educate himself while in solitary confinement). Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, the EJI was finally able to get their sentences reduced, but they had to serve more time added onto the long time they had already spent in prison.

Reading this book, I was constantly horrified and ashamed of what passes for “justice for all” in these United States. It’s not justice, and it’s definitely not for all.

See also The New Jim Crow.

Posted in History, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Photograph

Posted by nliakos on January 3, 2017

by Beverly Lewis (BethanyHouse 2015)

My daughter Vicki gave me this novel set in the Amish communities of Pennsylvania and Ohio, knowing that I had enjoyed The Atonement by the same author. It was a very quick read (just one day!), and the ending was obvious from Chapter Two, but I read on, keen to find out how that ending would be achieved.

Twenty-year-old Eva Esch’s younger sister Lily runs away from their Lancaster County community, intending to “go fancy”. Eva and her older sister Frona must deal not only with this crisis but also with their brother’s family’s impending move into their deceased parents’ home and farm, which will necessitate their finding another place to live. In a parallel plot line, Ohio Amishman Jed Stutzman travels to Pennsylvania by train to learn more about his trade; on the train, he finds a copy of Little Women, with many notations in the margins, and a photograph of a pretty Amish girl between the pages. Since the Amish do not permit personal photos which show their faces, it’s a bit of a mystery how the photo came to be, but Jed finds himself smitten by not only the lovely face but also by the sentiments in the notes. When he gets to Pennsylvania and sees Eva, he takes her for the girl in the picture, who is in fact Lily, the runaway sister. It takes a while to sort this misunderstanding out.

Eva finds herself drawn to Jed and he to her, and the rest of the book details how they manage to get together. As in The Atonement, I enjoyed the glimpse into this unique culture. I couldn’t help but wonder why they aren’t all obese, because they are always eating sweets (Eva sells the candy she makes in a little shop attached to her house, and the characters are constantly eating cookies, ice cream, pies, cakes, fudge, peanut butter balls, Butterfinger truffles. . . .)!  I suppose the fact that they are constantly walking or working might have something to do with it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Tao of Pooh

Posted by nliakos on January 2, 2017

by Benjamin Hoff (Dutton 1982)

I read this little gem long before I began learning t’ai chi ch’uan back in 2010, but I remember loving it, so I recently purchased a used copy from ThriftBooks, my latest find on the web (cheap prices, great customer service), and reread it. Using Winnie the Pooh as a kind of model (and Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, Owl, and Rabbit as counter-models), Hoff explains the basic tenets of Taoism:

  • The principle of the Uncarved Block: things in their original simplicity are naturally powerful (Winnie the Pooh being “the very Epitome of the Uncarved Block”)
  • Knowledge and education cannot provide deep understanding or happiness.
  • Things are as they are. Don’t try to change them into something they aren’t. (“A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.”) Accept your limitations.
  • Wu Wei, “without doing, causing, or making”: working with natural laws and our own inner nature without stress or struggle. Acting according to circumstances and your own intuition. (This “can be seen in the practice of the Taoist martial art T’ai Chi Ch’uan, the basic idea of which is to wear the opponent out either by sending his energy back at him or by deflecting it away, in order to weaken his power, balance, and position-for-defense. Never is force opposed by force; instead, it is overcome with yielding.”)
  • People who are constantly busy are missing out on a lot. They are never at peace. (Rabbit is an example of this kind of person.)
  • We should believe in our own power and use it, rather than trying to be like others.
  • Caring/Compassion (Tz’u) give us courage and wisdom.
  • Appreciating ourselves for who and what we are brings us contentment; dissatisfaction brings only misery.
  • An empty mind is receptive to what is truly important. “While the Clear mind listens to a bird singing, the Stuffed-Full-of-Knowledge-and-Cleverness mind wonders what kind of bird is singing.” (This one really made me sit up and pay attention, because that’s me: instead of just appreciating the beauty of the fallen leaves in the park, I try to identify the tree they fell from.) Nothing has value.

Throughout, Hoff quotes lengthy passages from Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, invents dialogues with Pooh and among Pooh and his fellow denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood, and intersperses it all with E. H. Shepard’s original illustrations from the Pooh books. So the reader of this book had better be familiar with those books.

Hoff followed the Tao of Pooh with The Te of Piglet, which I also own and have read, but it might be time to reread that too. I didn’t like it as much as The Tao of Pooh, though, when I read it before.

Posted in Religion, Philosophy, Culture | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

This Is Getting Old: Zen Thoughts on Aging with Humor and Dignity

Posted by nliakos on January 2, 2017

by Susan Moon (Shambhala 2010)

I just loved this book of essays about getting older, written by a Zen Buddhist American woman in her mid-sixties (my age). Susan Moon is direct, honest, and funny. She writes about the challenges of aging (physical deterioration, memory loss, loneliness…) as well as its joys (human relationships, grandchildren…). She writes from a Buddhist perspective, about her changing body and mind, her mother, her friendships, her self-doubts.

I suppose that most people under sixty would not appreciate this book, although reading it might give them the gift of an older person’s perspective on life, which would not be a bad thing.

Some favorite quotes:

My mind, like my bladder, is shrinking with age so that it doesn’t hold as much at once.

In a way, it adds interest to life to have these small problems to work on. Taking care of oneself becomes a more intricate project and sharpens one’s problem-solving skills. My knees talk to me, and I have to respond. The old bones provide a kind of companionship. It’s not really me who needs things like handrails and hiking poles, it’s my knees; I make these arrangements for them, because we’re family.

It’s not my fault when I have a senior moment any more than it was my fault when my hair turned gray. I’m just a human being, after all. I’ve had a lifetime of junior moments, when one word follows another in logical–and boring–succession, when each action leads to the next appropriate action. For countless years, I have remembered to bring the pencil with me when I go downstairs to use the pencil sharpener. I think I’ve earned the right to break free from the imprisonment of sequential thinking. A senior moment is a stop sign on the road of life.

Gradually, without noticing when it happened, I seem to have let go of trying [to find a mate]. It’s a big relief, I can tell you, not to be scanning the horizon for a spiritually minded socially engaged emotionally intelligent senior bachelor every time I leave the house.

The main thing is, I’m not separate, I only think I am. I’m one of the jewel-like nodes in Indra’s Net, that vast spiderweb of the universe. I’m not a thing at all, I’m an intersection where filaments connect. Pluck me out and the whole thing falls apart, like a knitted shawl unraveling from one dropped stitch. The universe holds me and the universe needs me. No way is the universe going to leave me for a younger woman.

I think of time as the landscape I’m traveling through on a train, and the train is my life. I can only see what’s outside the window. Yesterday was Naperville, Illinois; today is Grand Junction, Colorado; tomorrow will be Sparks, Nevada. I just see the piece that’s framed by the train window, but it’s all there at once, all those places, the whole continent.

 

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Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab

Posted by nliakos on December 31, 2016

by Christine Montross (Penguin 2007)

This book has been on my to-read list for years, possibly since it was published, but I could never find it. Finally, I bought a used copy. It was worth the wait. Christine Montross was a resident in psychiatry when the book came out; she based it on the journal that she kept during her first semester in medical school, when medical students study human anatomy by dissecting a human cadaver which has been donated for the purpose.

Montross describes the dissection and the feelings engendered by it; she adds a dose of history when she travels to Padua to visit the theater when the father of modern anatomy, Andreas Vesalius, essentially began the practice of cadaver dissection for medical students; she explains that without donated cadavers, doctors and students used the bodies of executed criminals or bought cadavers which had been dug up at night, in secret–and sometimes actually did the grave-robbing themselves. But she remains convinced that no other method can replace actual dissection, saying that the woman whose body she essentially destroyed during that semester in anatomy lab gave her a precious gift: “. . . She neither knew me nor knew anything about me, and yet she bequeathed to me this offering, unthinkable for centuries, that has formed the foundations of my ability to heal. My hours with her neither cured her nor eased her suffering. Bit by bit, I cut apart and dismantled her, a beautiful old woman who came to me whole. The lessons her body taught me are of critical importance to my knowledge of medicine, but her selfless gesture of donation will be my lasting example of how much it is possible to give to a total stranger in the hopes of healing.”

The last part of the cadaver to be dissected is the head and brain. Despite their progress in with the emotional component of cutting up the body of a stranger, Montross and her classmates find it extraordinarily difficult to dissect their cadavers’ faces and heads. Montross writes, “The brain is the true embodiment of my own conflicted response to anatomy. Somewhere deep within its crenellations, here lies wonder, and here lies the question of whether we have a right to pursue wonder in seemingly inhuman ways. Here is the knowledge gained by dissection, which drives our actions forward, and here lies the toll the process takes on each of us, in stress or dreams or dissonance. Here in the brain is the newly transformed identity of the doctor-to-be, with a beginner’s knowledge of disease and healing, with a stomach more steeled to trauma and to death. But somewhere, too, there must be the echo of the person who existed before cutting a human body, before feeling the cool stiffness of a pulseless heart.” Montross’ prose is exquisite; I was not surprised to learn that she is a published poet as well as a doctor.

I don’t know why it was so hard to find this book, because I think every doctor in training should read it (probably before they take anatomy lab).

Posted in Memoir, Science | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

A Christmas Carol

Posted by nliakos on December 25, 2016

by Charles Dickens (edited by Jane Gordon; published by American Book Company in 1904)

Every year on Christmas Eve, my family and I watch the 1984 movie of A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott–it’s our favorite of many versions. This year, after watching the movie, I decided to reread the original novella, which I have in the collection called Christmas Stories (from “Eclectic School Readings”). The book originally belonged to my great-aunt, who was a teacher. I suppose she may have read some of the stories aloud to her classes. Anyway, I was a bit disappointed to realize that the story was edited. (Here is one of several unedited versions I found on Google Books; I should read that!)

Anyway, I read the edited version, since that is what I have. It omits some scenes  (like Scrooge’s visit to the pawn-broker’s shop with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) which both the film and the original story include. But it’s still a wonderful story, a classic. Everyone should know it, whether by reading the story or watching one of the movies based on it.

Like Miracle on 34th StreetA Christmas Carol manages to be all about Christmas without ever mentioning Jesus, apart from Tiny Tim, who thought “it might be pleasant to [the people in church] to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”

Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »