Wonder Horse – by Emily Arnold McCully (2012)

Wonder Horse

You’ve heard of child prodigies, but have you ever heard of a horse prodigy? Back in the 1800’s there was a freed slave named Bill “Doc” Key, who was a veterinarian. He was greatly bothered by the brutal way that many horse-owners treated their animals. He would implore them to lay down their whips and use kindness instead.

In 1889, one of his horses gave birth to a crippled foal. Many people would have put down the foal. But Doc gave him a name –  Jim Key – and worked gently with him until he learned to walk. A great affection grew between man and animal. As time went on, Doc became convinced that Jim Key was intelligent. He began to show Jim cards with numbers and letters, and eventually Jim learned the alphabet, as well as numbers and simple addition and subtraction!

So amazing was Jim that Doc took him to fairs all over the country. They went to the Tennessee Centennial Exhibition in 1897, and to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Many people have debated over the years how much Jim Key actually understood, but one thing is for certain: patience and kindness will bring out the best in both animals and humans.

This is a Scholastic children’s picture book, but can be enjoyed by all ages. To learn more about Doc and Jim Key, you can read the biography: “Beautiful Jim Key – The Lost History Of The World’s Smartest Horse” by Mim Eichler Rivas.


When Books Went To War – by Molly Guptill Manning (2014)

When Books Went To War

Did you know that during World War II, Europe lost approximately 100,000,000 printed books? It began with Hitler’s followers conducting book-burning events, targeting books by Jewish authors and books that held views different from their own. Then lists were made for the general public, advising them that they might not want to be caught during a home inspection with such books. The lists grew longer. Fear built up, and people began burning any of their own books that were deemed objectionable. As the Nazis bombed country after country, entire libraries were obliterated.

Adolph Hitler was an evil man, but he was not stupid. He realized the power of written words to motivate people, to educate and inform them, to influence the masses, and to lift discouraged spirits. Taking away books was just one of the ways he used to control and intimidate the conquered.

Then the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, and was pulled into the war. As ordinary Americans were drafted and sent for training to become soldiers, librarians across the country came up with a brilliant idea. They wanted to supply all the troops with books to keep their morale up, and to give them a diversion from the horrors of war. Publishers, librarians, Congress and ordinary citizens all worked together to supply soldiers with books, and later to help bring books to Europe.

I absolutely loved this book! It’s rare now to find people that impassioned about books and reading (which is sad).  The letters that the soldiers wrote home, describing the relief that the books brought, were heart-warming. For many, it was a life-line that helped them keep their sanity. Men who had never had an interest in reading were totally hooked on reading by the end of the war. Of all the non-fiction books I have read this past year, this was among my favorite.


Five Patients – by Michael Crichton (1970)

Five Patients

Michael Crichton is best known for his science-fiction and techno-thriller novels, but on occasion he veered off into non-fiction. In 1970 he wrote a book detailing the medical cases of five patients who were hospitalized at Massachusetts General Hospital while he was at Harvard Medical School. In it, he examined different aspects of hospital life: the non-stop atmosphere of the emergency room on any given day, the soaring cost of being hospitalized, deciding whether or not to operate, the introduction of technology into hospitals, and the way doctors interact with patients. About the time he published this book, Michael Crichton abandoned his medical career and devoted himself to being an author.

If you work in the medical field, the terminology in this book will be familiar to you. Unfortunately for me, much of the medical description was akin to a foreign language. There were parts of the book that I found very interesting, however, such as the section on hospital costs. He gave the example of John O’Connor, who was hospitalized for 31 days, yet only had a bill of $6,172.55! Mr Crichton went on to say:

“The single most important problem facing modern hospitals is cost… First, the cost of hospitalization has skyrocketed. The average MGH patient today pays per hour what the average patient paid per day in 1925. Even as recently as 1940, a private patient could have his room for $10.25 per day; by 1964, it cost $50.10 per day; by 1969, $72.00-$110.00 per day. This staggering increase is continuing at the rate of 6 to 8 per cent per year.”
(page 60)

Near the end of the book, the author gives the suggestion that hospitals should organize their patients into areas based on how ill they are:

“As they become healthier, they would be moved to new areas of the hospital, where they would be encouraged to be more self-sufficient, to wear their own clothes, to look after themselves, to go down to the cafeteria and get their own food, and so on. They would, at every point, be surrounded by patients of equal severity of illness.”
(page 221)

What a contrast between this 1970 view of hospitals and present day hospitals! Now you are lucky if you actually get to spend 24 hours in a hospital after having surgery. As soon as you are conscious, they try to get you on your feet. When you are able to stagger to the bathroom with help, they get out the discharge papers!

Sadly, the skyrocketing cost of medical care that Mr. Crichton describes continues its upward thrust. I would have to agree with the author when he says that we will need to transition to a national health care system as health care becomes impossible to afford.

Multiple Bles8ings – by Jon & Kate Gosselin and Beth Carson (2008)

Multiple Bles8ings

You’ve seen the pictures on the covers of tabloid magazines in grocery aisles. The famous couple with the twins and sextuplets. The family that had their own tv show for awhile. Due to the busyness of life, I never watched a single episode of the tv show, nor did I read any of the articles about Jon and Kate in magazines. But when I saw the audio-book in a library book sale for a mere dollar, I bought it.

Despite the way everything ended, this truly is an amazing story. Jon and Kate were a young married couple who were deeply in love and just wanted to have a few kids. When nothing happened they turned to an infertility specialist, as so many other couples have done. They successful conceived, and Kate gave birth to healthy twin girls. Perhaps they should have stopped at that point, but Kate wanted just one more child. Fertility drugs once again helped her get pregnant, but this time she found herself carrying sextuplets – 6 babies!

The book details the agonizing and difficult pregnancy, the emotional strain on both parents, and the tremendous financial situation they found themselves in. As I listened to the story, I was awed at the way God took care of them. Every time there was a need, He faithfully provided for them. Unfortunately, not long after the book was published, Jon and Kate Gosselin filed for divorce. What a sad ending to a blessing-filled story.

Into The Wild – by Jon Krakauer (1996)

Into The Wild

I went to sleep last night thinking about this book, and woke up still thinking about it. It is the excruciatingly sad story about a young man on a quest to be totally alone in the wilderness of Alaska. The book traces his childhood, his family relationships, the growing dissatisfaction with living a “normal” life, and his obsession with Jack London’s books and living in the wild. Out of duty, he finished college, then quietly gave away his remaining money and left town. He told no one he was going, and changed his name from Christopher McCandless to Alexander Supertramp.

Alex drifted around the Southwest for awhile, occasionally staying in one place long enough to pick up some work. Along the way, there were many people that said what a nice, thoughtful young man he was. He was honest and hard-working, but had some strange ideas. Some dismissed Alex’s talk of living in the wild as a dream he would never act on. Others realized he was dead serious, and tried to give him better survival supplies and money. Many urged him to call his family and let them know he was alive and okay, but Alex/Chris refused.

The story of Chris’ life, pieced together from journal notes and interviews with people that spent time with him along the way to Alaska, is puzzling. He seemed to be intelligent, yet he was inadequately dressed and supplied, and barely knew how to hunt. No compass, no map, no cell phone with solar recharger to call for help. What was he thinking?! At first he had a car, but when that got died, he just got out and started hitchhiking.

Chris McCandless got to live his dream for a short time, but at what a cost. He died alone inside an old abandoned, rusting bus of starvation and eating the wrong kind of root. Alone. In his last journal entry, he reverts to his real name, indicating that he was finally thinking of his family back home and wishing for rescue. But it was too late. A moose hunter found his decomposing body and notified the authorities.

The McCandless family was forever changed. I imagine that the father still grieves the missed opportunity to make things right with his son. The sister undoubtedly grieves the future times of being together that will never happen. And his mother will never get to wrap her arms around her precious son again, and tell him how much she loves him, even though she didn’t understand him.

The Cross And The Switchblade (1962)

The Cross And The Switchblade

In the late 1950’s, David Wilkerson was the pastor of a small country church in Pennsylvania. One day he read the story of seven young men – “boys” as he called them – on trial for murder in New York City. Almost immediately, he felt God calling him to go to the city and talk to them. His attempts to meet the seven were thwarted repeatedly, but while David was in New York, he was introduced to gangs and the drug culture.

He went home to his wife and small congregation, but just couldn’t stop thinking about what he had seen. On his days off, he would drive to the city and just walk around. Before long, the Lord told him to move to Brooklyn and minister to those battling drugs, alcohol, and gang life. From that point on, miracle after miracle happened. David told gang members about God’s love and how He could change their lives. It started slowly, but one by one hardened gang members chose to leave their old lives and follow Jesus.

Then David started praying about buying a house where people who were trying to get off drugs could stay while they were detoxing and recovering. God sent just the right people and exactly the right amount of money to buy a run-down house. Former gang members cleaned it up, as a squatter had filled it up with eight garbage trucks’ work of junk.

That was the beginning of the Teen Challenge ministry. At that time, the average person living outside the big city had no idea how bad the gang problem was, or that an epidemic of drug addiction (primarily heroin) had begun. David’s description of being in a room with a few people who were shooting up heroin was especially vivid.  In the book, he says: “I had never felt so close to hell.” He also wrote users’ descriptions of how they were forced into gangs, and how easy it was to get sucked into using drugs and then selling them to support their own habits.

This much love could not be contained to one city. Teen Challenge houses sprang up all over the country. Other people grabbed the torch and ran with it, although David continued to be involved until his death in 2011. One man with almost no money, but endless love for his God and his fellow man, made the world a better place by the way he lived and loved. If ever there was a book to inspire us to help others, this is it!

Mistaken Identity – by Don & Susie Van Ryn and Newell, Colleen & Whitney Cerak with Mark Tabb (2008)

Mistaken Identity

They looked enough alike to be sisters. Same weight, same athletic build, same eye color, same hair color and part. Both were students at Taylor University in Indiana, but were originally from Michigan. Laura and Whitney were among nine people in a university van that was struck by a semi that veered over the divider line and hit them head-on. Five of the nine in the van died. Whitney was pronounced dead at the scene, Laura was rushed off to the hospital, where she lay in a coma. Later she was transferred to Spectrum Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Newell and Colleen Cerak held a funeral for Whitney, and buried the young woman they believed was their daughter. Meanwhile, Don and Susie VanRyn and their daughter Lisa kept vigil at the hospital for Laura. The physical damage to her body disguised the fact that she was not Laura, but was instead Whitney. Five weeks went by before the mistake in identity was revealed.

It is hard to fathom how such a dreadful mistake could be made in the first place, then continued for five weeks. But equally unfathomable was the way in which the two families handled the tragedy. No angry press conferences. No lawsuits. Just two families grieving and loving at the same time, trusting God to heal their hearts. If I am ever in a situation as terrible as this, I pray that I would be able to handle it with as much grace and understanding as the VanRyn and Cerak families.