Book bits

This week: a Christmas story for young adults about the three kings, three historical books about cities, and some selections from readers.

Alphabet of Dreams, by Susan Fletcher

I blame my grandmother. The year we spent Christmas at her house, she read me Henry Van Dyke's "The Story of the Other Wise Man" and got me permanently hooked on the Magi. Since then, not only has Van Dyke's story become a classic (warning: if you come over at Christmas I will foist it upon you) but I've also actively sought out other stories of these three kings.

Perhaps it's the message of seeking and finding. Or maybe it's the way one baby in a manger can redefine majesty in an instant. Whatever the reason, any thoughtful book on the subject is almost sure to win me over. And Susan Fletcher's new novel for young adults, Alphabet of Dreams, is certainly no exception.

Like the story of the fourth Wise Man, "Alphabet of Dreams" is less about that celebrated birth and more about one individual's journey – not just to Bethlehem, but metaphorically, to self-knowledge and transformation. And while the kings do end up playing a central role, Fletcher prevents their story from overwhelming the narrative of the teenage protagonist.

When we first meet her, 14-year-old Mitra is anything but preoccupied with biblical prophecies. Her concerns are for food, shelter, and safety – for herself and for her little brother, Babak. Something has happened to Mitra's family – although that's a mystery that remains unsolved for most of the novel. Whatever it is, it's prompted Mitra and Babak to go into hiding. They don't even look at the stars to wish – although dream they both do.

Ultimately, it's Babak's prophetic dreams that catapult them into the world of the Magi when Babak becomes a seer for the kings' trek. And although Mitra must give up her own plans to accompany him, her sacrifice is not in vain. For the first time, she finds herself looking up to the stars that lead the Magi to their destination and Mitra and Babak toward the family they had feared lost.

One of the chief delights of this book is Fletcher's rendering of place and time. The Middle East of biblical renown comes alive with blinding sandstorms and temperamental camels, with kings draped in Oriental finery, and a surprisingly ordinary stable.

In keeping with the humility of the nativity, Fletcher doesn't dwell on the events in the manger. Nor does she overstate the themes of transformation and redemption at the heart of this novel. Nevertheless, the warmth and wonder of the Bethlehem encounter pervade its final chapters, as does this new message from the Magi, just in time for Christmas: The beauty of a quest of the heart is that it's often fulfilled in ways we least expect.

Jenny Sawyer

Three books about cities

This is the story of a city under siege. The firsthand accounts of dozens of ordinary Muscovites (workers, artists, schoolchildren, politicians), create a gripping portrait of Moscow and its people at a crucial moment in history. Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War, by Rodric Braithwaite, British ambassador in Moscow from 1988 to 1992, tells the story of the attack on Moscow by Hitler's army and the fierce counterassault mounted by the Russians. Braithwaite (who also wrote "Across the Moscow River") knows his subject and the personal stories he weaves together allow for a particularly rich re-creation of a pivotal moment in history.

At its height, it surpassed both Rome and Athens as a cultural beacon. Ancient Alexandria, with its magnificent library said to contain 750,000 scrolls, was the marvel of its age. The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid offers an accessible account of the Egyptian city's Hellenic history – including a record of the scientific, philosophical, and cultural developments for which it is famed – from its founding in 331 BCE to its Islamic conquest in 646 CE.

Through the life of her grandmother, British journalist Marina Benjamin offers a fascinating glimpse of old-world Baghdad and the rich life the city's Jewish community once enjoyed there. Last Days in Babylon: The History of a Family, the Story of a Nation tells of a world that no longer exists. Benjamin visited Baghdad in 2004, intent on tracking traces of her grandmother's community, only to find that almost nothing remained. Her account is bittersweet yet highly evocative.

Readers' picks

Try a little poetry. Garrison Keillor of "Prairie Home Companion" has put together Good Poems for Hard Times, a delectable myriad of poems. I find myself savoring long-dead poets and refreshingly new ones. Inspirational, humorous, and thought-provoking. I highly recommend it.
John Mooneyhan

I have been reading former President Jimmy Carter's book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid and find it easy to read as he includes enough history and facts to enable the uninformed to be able to understand the conflict. Several of the maps are very helpful.
Jean Snyder, Greenbelt, Md.

What are you reading? Write and tell us at Marjorie Kehe.

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