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Friday, August 11, 2017

Middle East Reading List for Catholic Students

The Middle East is not only an interesting study, it's an important study. We've put together a reading list for you that includes fiction and nonfiction for students of multiple ages.

Who is this list for?
Books are listed in order of difficulty, from upper-grade school to middle school to high school to adult. One idea for preschool and early grade school is to look for picture books at the library with fun facts or books that focus on the geography of the region. At the end of this reading list are some additional ideas for supplemental lessons.

As with any book list, parent discretion is advised. Not all books are appropriate for all ages or all students.

Click on the book title for reviews or purchasing information (May contain affiliate links). Another resource to read book reviews is Goodreads. And to find used books for the best price, try Book Finder ... 

The White Horse 
by Elizabeth Coatsworth (1942) [Bethlehem Books]
Part of the Sally Series, the story takes Sally to the Mediterranean Sea where she encounters Barbary Coast pirates, is taken captive, ends up in the Sultan's palace, and so much more. Sally is exposed to Islam and a way of life unknown to her before this adventure. Charming series that could be read aloud with younger children. 

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia)
Not about the Middle East, however, "it is reminiscent of classic stories set in the Middle East (such as the Arabian Nights)." Terrific read aloud for the family. You can never go wrong with Narnia.

Takes place in 13th-century Baghdad. A well-written novel introducing the reader to complex math puzzles in an interesting and fun way. Presents an opportunity to discuss Islam. Read this disclaimer first. (Can be downloaded free HERE.)

One Thousand and One Arabian Nights 
The mythical back story to this wide collection of stories (from Aladin to Ali Baba) begins with Shahryār, a Sasanian king. He discovers his brother's wife and also his own wife are both unfaithful. In his grief, he concludes all women are the same. Shahryār begins to marry a succession of women only to execute each one the next morning before she has a chance to dishonor her vows. That is until Scheherazade offers herself as a bride. On the night of their marriage, Scheherazade begins to tell the king a tale but does not end it. The king, enthralled in the story, postpones her execution in order to hear the conclusion. The next night, as soon as she finishes the tale, she begins (and only begins) a new one, and the king, eager to hear the conclusion of this tale, postpones her execution again. So it goes on for 1,001 nights. 

Suleiman the Magnificent: Sultan of the East by Harold Lamb (1951) [OOP]
Harold Lamb's fictionalized histories are usually very gripping and enjoyable stories. We are including three of his titles here. Suleiman the Magnificent is the story of the tenth and longest-reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, from 1520 to his death in 1566. 

Tamerlane: Conqueror of the Earth by Harold Lamb (1955) [OOP]
Temur the Lame, who referred to himself as the "Sword of Islam" is a fascinating individual in 14th-century history. He was a blood thirsty world conqueror, perhaps second only to Genghis Kahn.
In addition to an intriguing story, the back of the book contains a wealth of material to help you continue your study into the subject. (Also available as an audio book.)

Swords from the Desert by Harold Lamb
Made up of four novellas originally published in Adventure magazine in the late 1920s, and three short stories published in Collier's magazine in the early 1930's. All immerse you into the culture of the Middle East. 

Angels in Iron
 by Nicholas Prata [Arx Publishing]
A favorite book, this is an engaging historical fiction that deals with numerous figures from the early Ottoman times, including Suleiman the Magnificent, Piali Pasha, and Dragut the Corsair. It's a well-researched story that also demonstrates all the character traits we'd like to see in ourselves and our children: courage, honor, selflessness, and more. (Rumor has it there may be a movie based on this novel in the distant future. I'm at least hoping for an audio book.)

Defenders of Christendom by James Fitzhenry 
A good book from the same perspective as Angels in Iron. It deals with the Christian heroes who resisted the Turks in an attempt to check their advances, including John Hunyadi the White Knight of Wallachia, Skanderbeg of Albania, Jean La Valette of the Knights of St. John, and others. 

The Breadwinner Trilogy by Deborah Ellis 
These three fictional books take place in Afghanistan during the rule of Taliban in the 1990's and told through the eyes of a young girl who disguises herself as a boy to survive the refugee camps. Hits on serious realities: War, starvation, refugee camps, maimed children (from land mines), and despair.

111 Questions on Islam by Samir Khalil Samir S.J. [Ignatius Press]
It is important in today's world for Americans to understand the history and culture of Islam. This book is in an easy-to-read, question and answer format.

All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer
A detailed factual account of the 1953 CIA coup in Iran that ousted the elected prime minister and the aftermath. A study into what brought about Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Americanism in the Middle East.

This is the story of seven Trappist monks in Algeria who were kidnapped, imprisoned for two months, and beheaded by Islamic radicals in the 1990's. The book is a history of the Algerian monks and chronicles the relationship of the monks with their Muslim neighbors. The movie Of Gods and Men is based loosely on this story. Monks of Tibhirine is upper high school or adult level reading.

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson (2014)
A look at the Middle East arena during World War I. A fairly readable popular account of T. E. Lawrence, of his role in shaping the Middle East, and of missed opportunities that we are still paying for today. Parental discretion advised as it contains information about Turkish captors who sexually assaulted Lawrence. 

The Ottoman Centuries by Lord Kinross (1979)
Excellent resource on the history of the Ottoman Empire, especially the circumstances surrounding its decline and disappearance after World War I. For the parent or advanced student who wants to go really deep. The author painstakingly researched this book, looking at all of the big issues: Economic, political, and social. 

British General Edwin Allenby was the first Christian general to capture Jerusalem since the Crusades. This book, written by an eyewitness of Allenby's exploits, gives a detailed account of the British Palestine campaign in World War I. Advanced readers only.

To watch ...

Lawrence of Arabia with Peter O'Toole (1962)
Epic historical drama film based on the life of T. E. Lawrence, a British archaeologist who lived an extraordinary life. He was best known for his legendary war activities in the Middle East during World War I and for his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926).

Other resources:
Middle East: Map & Geography Information

Al Jazeera: Online English language version of the popular Middle Eastern TV station.

Visit a Mediterranean restaurant or create Middle East recipes at home.

Thank you Tony Schiavo of Arx Publishing, Phillip Campbell, Danielle Goodnight, and Susan Donovan for your suggestions for this list. This was not an easy book list to compile. There are so few non-Western works available. Please share any suggestions you have in the comments below.

Friday, August 4, 2017

12 Classics to Read Before College


By Christopher Martin

            A couple of notes about this list: This is an extremely subjective topic. There are literally hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of classics for which a good argument can be made for their inclusion here. If you read through this list and disagree with some of the inclusions or absences, chances are good that I agree, at least partially, with your judgment as well. As a homage to this subjectivity, I have included one or several related books to each spot on this list.

            My recommendations are largely based on the four-year cycle of the "Great Books" courses I have taught (one year each of Ancient Greek, Ancient Roman, Medieval & Renaissance, and Modernity). In these courses (and therefore also in the list below), I chose the books I feel are most likely to help my students understand how the world has developed. Click on the book title for reviews or ordering information.


1. Homer: The Iliad
            Homer gives us, among other things, some idea of the notion of sovereignty for the Ancient Greeks. Part of it is the gods' blessing, part of it is the fealty of subordinates, but mostly it's a tribal type of organization. Students enjoy the analogy of Achilles and Agamemnon acting like enraged gorillas, pounding their chests to compete for the title of King of the Banana Pile. It is easy to dismiss the characters of the Iliad as obnoxiously petty, but Homer's world is far different than the one we experience today, and discovering how that world and its actors operate stands as one of the enduring attractions of the text.  
            One could easily place Homer's Odyssey, or Sophocles' Oedipus Rex in this spot as well.

2. Plato: Republic
            I love pointing back to Anne Carroll's Christ the King Lord of History as providing signposts to a Catholic interpretation of history. To her, the Ancient Greeks made, primarily, two significant contributions to the development of Western Civilization: the expansion of the West via Alexander's conquests, and the invention of philosophy. Plato's Republic provides an excellent introduction to this latter contribution, as it's one of the best articulations of the Greek's philosophical achievements, outlining how best to order citizens and the city-state.
            While a number of texts by Aristotle could easily fit here as well, the dialogue format of the Republic makes it much more approachable than many philosophical texts.


            Virgil's text immerses us into the world of the ancients as only a poet can do. Just in terms of the notion of sovereignty, the Aeneid, in many ways, builds directly off of the themes present in Homer. Whereas in Homer, the gods often interfere with human events as a matter of course, Virgil's text suggests a retreat from this position. The hero vocally expresses his frustration with his goddess mother, and Jupiter/Zeus himself states that human beings should make their own way. Virgil therefore lays the groundwork for the modern man's independence from fate.
            Lucan's "The Crossing of the Rubicon" (in his Pharsalia) suggests very similar themes, and in no less epic tones for its comparative brevity.

            Tacitus serves the twofold purpose of giving us a very approachable history of Rome, while also telling us exactly what one Roman thought of its characters. Tacitus made no effort to hide his biases, and especially his disdain for Nero: "Though his heart never knew remorse for the worst of his crimes, his ear, unaccustomed to the voice of truth, shrunk from the sound of freedom, and startled at reproach."
            Livy, Pliny, Plutarch and Sallust all give us worthy histories as well (Livy, in particular, gives a lovely history of Rome's early era), but Tacitus stands out for his candid and engaging appraisal of Rome's heroes and villains, victims, and tyrants.

            Marcus Aurelius' text shows just how far pagan natural law philosophy could go. It is a remarkable achievement on many levels, indicative of impressive understandings of social ethics, metaphysics, and even political theory. To highlight the philosophical compatibilities with Christianity, one might read the Meditations alongside the Gospel of Mathew, where Marcus Aurelius' stoicism almost seems to pave the way for the notion of an omniscient, intelligent God.
     Seneca's Morals of a Happy Life also includes much of the same natural philosophy, but with more emphasis on proscriptive ethics.


6. Augustine of Hippo: Confessions
            Augustine's Confessions stands as one of the most famous stories of conversion, and arguably the best and most important among Christian literature. Augustine literally bares his soul to the reader, and in doing so expresses the beauty and magnetism of pure Christianity to an intelligent man struggling with self-discipline and self-honesty. His story is one to which everyone can relate, and, as it emerges from the early centuries of Christianity, set a precedent of how we "come to Jesus."
            Selections from Aquinas' Summa Theologica might also have been in this spot as a wonderful example of the development of Christian philosophy and theology, but it isn't nearly as approachable as Augustine.

7. Dante: Divine Comedy: Inferno
            Dante's text evinces just how inherent Christianity had become in Western Civilization, that entertainment, theology, and romance can all be bound up in the same poem. While the entire three-part epic is probably too much for a high-school student, the Inferno by itself paints a compelling and vivid image of the fate of the damned. Students of history will be delighted (and sometimes amused) to identify all of the names who Dante places in hell, as well as the reason(s) why he does so.
            De Villehardouin's Memoirs of the Crusades might also take this spot, though is more medieval than renaissance, and more historical than literary.

8. Shakespeare: Henry V
            Shakespeare has to be on this list, but as I'm not really a fan of Shakespeare, I include the text which I appreciate most. Henry V gives us laughs, action, and (of course) rousing monologues of a martial tone. Beyond its readability, the text's influence (and therefore Shakespeare's) on modernity can clearly be seen when encountering such passages as "we band of brothers" and "once more unto the breach."
            A number of Shakespeare's works might fit into this spot instead, and certainly a close runner-up is Hamlet.


            It's difficult to pass on a lot of texts ranging from Voltaire and Locke to Defoe and de Tocqueville, but Stowe absolutely has to be on this list. Slavery is unequivocally wrong, and yet abolitionists in America struggled mightily for generations to attract more members to their movement. In many ways, it was Stowe's text which finally provided the movement with the momentum necessary to translate into political power, eventually leading to a split of the Union and the start of the American Civil War. Stowe's text methodically destroys every defense of slavery, then in vogue, but does so with an engaging narrative both emotionally and ideologically compelling.
            For a further understanding of the ideas and context to which Stowe was responding, one might also read Calhoun's Disquisition on Government and/or Fitzhugh's Cannibals All!

10. Chesterton: The Ball and the Cross
            Much like Shakespeare, Chesterton has to be on this list. His importance to the Catholic literary revival, and to Catholics in modernity, is far beyond dispute, and this text, in particular, is a masterpiece resulting from Chesterton's attempt to  marry a novel with a criticism of modern social norms of "tolerance." Chesterton's conclusion leaves few without guilt, ranging from the overzealous Christian conservative to the aggressive hyper-liberal atheist, arguing instead that true Christian virtue is a type of moderation and sensibility we ought to have noticed the whole time. 
            For those who prefer a more straightforward, and less narrative presentation of Chesterton's social criticism and theological expositions, Orthodoxy could be read instead.

            In many ways, Harper Lee has updated Uncle Tom's Cabin, but done so in a manner that tells a common story through the uncommon eyes of a child. In so doing, we are forced into a sort of innocence which heightens our awareness of the injustices of the world, the cruelty of adults, and the goodness of which everyone is capable. The importance of this text lies in its ability to communicate in a manner which few other texts have achieved, evoking emotional, as well as ideological responses in its readers.
            No less emotionally evocative, and demonstrative of the importance of loyalty and friendship is Rawls' Where the Red Fern Grows, though this text noticeably lacks much of the social criticism present in Lee's masterpiece.

12. Carnegie: How to Win Friends and Influence People / Sheen: Finding True Happiness
            In the last 400 years, Western Civilization has endured an immense democratic revolution greatly changing the manner in which people interact with the world. Carnegie understood the dynamics of this new form of communication very well, even giving his text a deceptive title. Really, the text is about teaching people to be sensitive to each other's selfishness and high sense of self-importance as the key to being an effective communicator and leader.             
          Sheen's text is very short and serves as a Catholic addendum to Carnegie's treatise. Whereas Carnegie focuses on handling others, Sheen focuses on handling oneself. In the modern world, there can be so much noise and distractions that it's easy to lose sight of the simplicity inherent to our Catholic pursuit of happiness. As the pre-eminent Catholic communicator of modernity, Sheen well understood and reminds us that happiness needs to be actively sought every day, but inwardly, not outwardly.

Let us know in the comments what books you would add or delete.

NOTE on translations and editions:. The quality of translations of some of these texts can vary greatly. We have linked to the best translations known to the author. For used copies, we recommend checking for the best prices. Some of the hyperlinks are affiliate links and provide a small referral fee to the author.

Christopher Martin teaches history and theology for Homeschool Connections. He holds a BA in Theology from Christendom College, 2007; an MA in History from National University, 2012; and is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in History. He has taught History and Ideologies in Literature for House of Gold Academy and Our Lady of Joy Academy in Oceanside, California, since 2013. Mr. Martin's research interests include the Lost Cause, the Federalists & Anti-Federalists, and the Impact of Wars and Depressions Upon the American Social Mind. He presents at conferences and currently lives in Alpine, California, with his wife and three sons.

* Indicates there is a Homeschool Connections course available for the book.
** Indicates there is a Homeschool Connections course that uses a portion of the book in one or more of its courses.