Christmas Break Reading List

Well, I have made it through my first semester as a teacher. Though I’m only about halfway done with grading finals and still have post final grades!

I have literally posted nothing since the start of the semester. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. Though it does mean that I haven’t been reading anything of the “reeducation” project. I really would like to jump back into in. However, I think I need to give more attention to developing my abilities as a teacher, and that means reading books about history and classical teaching methods! Which I find interesting. Maybe you do too?

Over Christmas break, I plan on using all the time I have (three weeks) to read as much as I can so that I can be even better next semester. Honestly, my first semester was incredibly successful. I don’t know if I am that great of a teacher, or if my students are just that awesome, but either way, it was so successful (with one notable student exception). Even though it was successful, there is so much I see that I can do better! So here is my Christmas reading list, with a focus on methods and the American Revolution, since that’s where we are starting in January. I hope it doesn’t cause too many of you to snooze 😛

  1. The Seven Laws of Teaching
  2. Teach Like a Champion
  3. The Trivium
  4. Finish American Colonies
  5. The Glorious Cause (a 700 page tome so I’m counting it as two books)
  6. Olive Kitteridge (for my book club)
  7. And I plan to start Falling Upwards (for my OTHER book club)

You can follow my Goodreads to keep up with the specific progress throughout the break. And I will write a short review of each to keep myself accountable once finished.

Happy Holidays, and happy reading!

Currently Reading: American Colonies

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I’ve been reading more and more these days, just not reading my old class assignments. Oh well, I have plenty of time for that 🙂

Currently, I’m reading American Colonies by Alan Taylor. It’s a fascinating and in-depth book on the settling of North America. I’m primarily reading it to help me prep for my history classes this fall, but also because my American history needs some brushing up. I was always more interested in European history, probably to my detriment. Although, I did take US History twice in junior high. I missed out on taking Texas history because I went to 7th grade in Ohio, and 8th grade in Texas. Rather than put me in the 7th grade class, they made me take 8th grade US history again. Both years I got the highest grade in the class (but who cares, that was back in 2003. I do still have my achievement certificate if anyone is interested ;).)

Digression aside, American Colonies is profoundly interesting. Unlike the previous history book I read, this one is decidedly not Anglocentric in its treatment of the early exploration and settlement of the North American continent. I’ve read some reviews saying that Taylor goes too far the other direction and glorifies the native tribes. From what I’ve read, he doesn’t. He keeps a fair-minded balance. He doesn’t gloss over the violence, greed, and brutality of the conquistadores, but he doesn’t gloss over the shortcomings of the natives either. He reminds the reader that the Aztecs, for example, practiced brutal human sacrifice and dominated the lesser tribes of Mexico by exacting monetary and human tributes. It was part of the reason why Cortes was able to destroy Tenochitlan: he had help from the oppressed native tribes.

Taylor also examines all the angles of cause and effect. He reminds us of the devastating environmental effects of introducing the Old World pathogens, animals, even weeds, into the New World continent. Interestingly enough, there was also a huge ripple effect in Europe as new plants and pathogens made their way back across the Atlantic as well. The economic effects of the North American bouillon flooding the Spanish market were also staggering, and led to Spain’s decline as an imperial superpower.

I’m not very far into the book (still in the first section about the Spanish) but it is an easy read of an academic subject. Taylor writes quite well, making this book on American history very accessible to the lay reader. This book isn’t just for historians or history students, but for anyone who has an interest in American history.

Book Review: The Story of the Thirteen Colonies and The Great Republic

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The original texts of The Story of the Thirteen Colonies and The Great Republic were published in 1899. H.A. Guerber was a British historian who is best known for her work on German mythology. This book is, according to the publisher Memoria Press, intended to be “a historical reader, an elementary textbook…or an introduction or supplement…” to U.S. history textbooks.

There are a few problems with this text that have convinced me this book cannot stand alone as a history textbook. It needs to be read as a primer and heavily supplemented with primary sources and more detailed instruction.

1. This book is heavily Anglocentric in regards to Native-White relations. Any mention of the Native Americans completely glosses over the terrible things that happened, from the earliest beginnings of exploration to the Trail of Tears to the Sioux uprising after the Civil War. The conquests by the Spaniards of the Aztecs and Incans are also glossed over. While I understand that this is a children’s book, it is irresponsible to teach children that the Natives did not suffer at the hands of the explorers, colonists, Europeans, and Americans. This book perpetuates the stereotypes of the quiet and peaceful First Thanksgiving, for starters. And even worse, puts up General Custer as a hero and the Sioux as evil and violent murderers.

2. This book ignores a basic of historical writing: don’t attempt to manipulate the emotions of your reader by inserting too many adverbs or adjectives. It is part of writing history to do your best to keep what you have written clear of bias and clear of any assumption into what your subject was or wasn’t feeling or thinking. For example, when Custer’s Last Stand is mentioned, the Sioux yell “fiendishly” and Sitting Bull and Rain-in-the-Face are portrayed as obstinate and unruly; Custer and his men are “brave and gallant.”

It is quoted in the introduction “the writer’s main object has been to make good men and women of the rising generation, as well as loyal Americans.” I suppose this means not speaking ill of any of our nations white, male heroes.

3. My third issue with this text is more general: it is summary history. It’s just the surface facts and most important events sprinkled with plenty of hero-hailing and too-gentle analyses of historical figures. No great white, American male can do any wrong in this book. It’s a soft look at history. A history book with elbow and wrist guards on.

In summation, I am required to teach out of this text for my 7th and 8th graders this coming year. This is fine for introductory history, but I will be consulting more advanced textbooks and primary sources to prepare for my lectures, as well to aid the students in a more complete understanding of American history, especially in regards to the Native Americans

2/5 on the GoodReads scale (it was ok).

Thoughts, comments, or suggestions? Let me know down below!

The Wanderer

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To complete our short survey of Old English/Anglo-Saxon literature, our class read two short elegiac poems. In the interest of keeping my posts to a readable length, I’ll be writing about the second poem in my next post.

The mournful quality of The Wanderer echoes those laments found in Beowulf. Hallmarks of Anglo-Saxon culture were the strong community, the mead-hall, the devotion to a liege-lord. When those things are stripped away, it seems much of life’s meaning is also stripped away. The mood of this poem is somber and melancholic.

Background

  • The only surviving copy of this poem is in the Exeter Book, copied ca. 975 CE. This manuscript contains the largest collection of Old English poetry we have. The manuscript’s history can be traced from the 1000s, when the bishop of Exeter bestowed it to the monastery after his death. It resides in the Exeter Cathedral Library in the southwest of England.
  • The composer of this poem is unknown, and the poem is also untitled within the Exeter Book.

Overview:

The speaker, the Wanderer or “earth-walker” as the poet calls him, has lost his liege lord. Exiled from his homeland, cut off from his family and friends, the Wanderer laments everything that he has lost. It is interesting on how much of the Wanderer’s lament focuses on the loss of his lord. Yes, he’s lost his home, friends, family, but the most important is that he has no lord:

…he who has experienced it knows how cruel a companion sorrow is to the man who has no beloved protectors.

…He who has had long to forgo the counsel of a beloved lord knows indeed how, when sorrow and sleep together bind the poor dweller-alone, it will seem to him in his mind that he is embracing and kissing his liege-lord…then he wakens again, the man with no lord…

Then the wounds are deeper in his heart, sore for want of his dear one…

The Wanderer goes on for a good while in his silent meditation; while we are privy to his sorrow, he has no one with whom he can share them. After he is done, the apparent voice of the poet closes with this”

So the wise man spoke in his heart, sat apart in private meditation. He is good who keeps his word; a man must never utter too quickly his breast’s passion, unless he knows first how to achieve remedy, as a leader with his courage. It will be well with him who seeks favor, comfort from the Father in heaven, where for us all stability resides.

There is some debate on the Pagan and Christian themes of this poem. My reading of it is that there is a strong compare and contrast. If there are indeed two separate voices, that of the speaker and that of the poet, then it would make sense in reading this poem that the poet is encouraging the Wanderer to put all his hope in God. The Wanderer has apparently put all his hope and treasure in things that have passed away, to the point where “The Maker of mankind laid waste” his dwelling-place. According to the poet, there is no stability in life outside of what hope may be placed in God. All the laments of the Wanderer are futile, for he has put all his hope in man. Or, as the parable of Christ colorfully puts it, he has put his treasure in earth, where the moth and rust break in to destroy and thieves to steal and kill (paraphrase of Matthew 6:20).

This is a very beautiful piece of elegiac poetry. The prose translation I read was smooth and easily understood. Unfortunately, I was unable to find an online version of the prose translation by E. T. Donaldson, contained in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol A, 8th edition. I’ve provided several alternatives for reading.

Links for reading:

Poem translation with matching Old English text

Poem translation #2 by Jeffrey Hopkins

Poem translation # 3 by Daniel Moysenko with introduction

A scanned version of the Exeter Book poem with accompanying translation

The Wanderer Project:” a website with many different translations and links.

History and changing your mind

I was linked to this article this morning by NEO, who does a great job with his blog keeping up with current thoughts and events.

My favorite line was “Certainty is the enemy of history.” This comment right here rocked my small world. As a first-time history teacher starting this fall, the reality is setting in that I am responsible for teaching young adolescents our history. It is such an important job. And I am realizing that, while we might have a pretty good idea of what happened in our past, those ideas will be forever colored by our worldview, by our current culture, by our religion or lack thereof, by our social class, by which country we are from, by which language we read or speak… The list goes on.

My goal for the school year to present the information as best as I can, as faithfully as I can, with this caveat: you cannot be certain. Do not be afraid to change your mind when presented with new information. We don’t know everything. Therefore, question everything.

Judith

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The next item on my Brit Lit 1 reading list is the poem Judith.

Background: Like many works of Anglo-Saxon origin, Judith is a translation and literary interpretation of a sacred text. The original story of Judith is found in what is now considered the Deuterocanonical or Apocryphal books of the Old Testament. Protestant Christians (since the 1600s) do not recognize the Apocrypha as part of the Bible, while Catholic and Orthodox Christians continue to recognize the texts of the Apocrypha as an authentic part of the Hebrew Bible. It is important to note that, at the time Judith was composed, the poet was interpreting a sacred, Biblical text. For those who are unfamiliar with the Apocrypha, I’ve provided links for reading the Biblical text of The Book of Judith down below. The exact date for the rendering of the text into a poem is not known, however its thought to be somewhat contemporary to Beowulf. The manuscript we have is the same 10th century manuscript in which the text of Beowulf is found.

The historical context of the story of Judith is the Babylonian conquests of the King Nebuchadnezzar II. Nebuchadnezzar ruled from 605 BCE-562 BCE. He is credited with the creation of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar’s general, Holofernes, has laid siege to the Israelite town of Bethulia, which lies in the path of Jerusalem. While the people of the town are ready to give up, a heroine arises to give hope: Judith.

Summary: Judith enters into the camp of the enemy, uses her femininity and beauty to gain entrance to Holofernes’ bed, and then kills him in the name of the Lord. She violently decapitates him with two hacks of her sword:

She seized the heathen man

securely by his hair, pulled him shamefully towards her

with her hands, and skilfully placed

the wicked and loathsome man

so that she could most easily manage the miserable one

well. Then, the woman with the braided locks struck

the enemy, that hostile one,

with the shining sword, so that she cut through half

of his neck, such that he lay unconscious,

drunk and wounded. He was not dead yet,

not entirely lifeless. The courageous woman

struck the heathen hound energetically

another time so that his head rolled

forwards on the floor. The foul body lay

behind, dead; the spirit departed elsewhere

under the deep earth and was oppressed there

and fettered in torment forever after,

wound round with serpents, bound with punishments,

cruelly imprisoned in hell-fire

after his departure. (Lines 98b-117a)

She quickly puts his head in a sack, hides his body behind the netted curtain of his bed, and heads back to Bethulia. She gives a rousing speech to incite the men of the city to arms. They go out to attack at dawn and fall on the Assyrian force with ferocity. The soldiers, fearful of waking the commander, waste precious time outside Holofernes’s tent, unable to see inside the curtain and therefore unable to see that he is already dead. When they see that he is dead, they run to flee from the attacking Israelites. After destroying the army of the Assyrians, the Israelites plunder their camp for a full month. Judith is given the battle gear of Holofernes as her reward and she wholeheartedly credits the Lord for her victory.

Thoughts: The religious imagery in this poem is fascinating. Judith is portrayed as angelic, “elfin,” even Madonna-like, in her purity and beauty. Holofernes is literally devilish, corrupted, evil. It is interesting as well, though not surprising, that the imagery of God is Christian rather than Jewish in nature. God is the “Saviour” and Judith invokes all three members of the Blessed Trinity asking for blessing and strength as she murders Holofernes.

It also interesting to note that you could read this poem as a call to arms for the residents of England to fight back against the Viking invaders. In the historical context, the British Isles were under constant threat of raids from their enterprising neighbors to the north. The victory of Judith and the oppressed Israelites over their much stronger foes would have been a not-so-subtle encouragement, I think.

There are a few notable differences between the poetic translation of Judith and the scriptural book of the same name:

  • Historical Context: the scriptural book is much more descriptive of  geographical, historical, and political situations. The poem takes much of that away, simplifying the narrative to the bare-bones.
  • Completeness: Judith does not even show up in the scriptural story until chapter 8. There is much more information provided in the Bible book than in the poem. In addition, the beginning of the poem has been lost. Some estimate the the first 100 lines are missing from the poem.
  • Overall Effect: the feeling you get from each of the narratives is different. The poem reads more simply than the Biblical story. Which makes sense, since the complexity of the Biblical story is whittled down in the poem, mainly focused on the confrontation between Judith and Holofernes. There is much more going on in the Book of Judith. It is a story of the deliverance of the Israelites and the providence of God. It is yet another account of the absolute reliance they had upon their God. There is much more depth to the scriptural rendering of the story. You feel the story is more complete. Which is not to say that the Anglo-Saxon poem does not have its merits. It definitely does, and its a fine example of Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Links for reading:

Judith: Apocrypha: I believe this is a KJV translation?

Judith: Apocrypha link 2: NRSVA translation

Judith: Anglo-Saxon poem This translation is different from the one I read.

Judith: Anglo-Saxon poem, link 2: this is from project Gutenberg and also a different translation.

I read the poem in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume A 8th edition, translated by Elaine Treharne. I could not find an online version of her translation, and also no Kindle version to my knowledge. If you have links, please provide them!

[edit to original post ] It is assumed that Aelfric (the ae is combined, unfortunately my processor doesn’t allow that character), the Abbot of Eynsham, was the translator of this poem. He died ca. 1010, which is where we get our dating for the poem.

American Gods

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I read this book in a Modern Novels course that I took my sophomore year of college. We read a book a week, meeting once a week for 3 hours. This class comprised of lots of discussion, both on the MyCampus internet site and in-class. Looking back, I didn’t particularly “like” most of the books we read, but I enjoyed this class immensely. You don’t have to like a book to have an appreciation for it.

I have read this novel probably 5 or 6 times since 2010. I find something new in it everything I read it. To say I love it, that is an understatement. Anyway, without further adieu, here is my in-depth analysis/thoughts on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, specifically looking at the concepts of fate and free will. Be warned, I will ruin the book for you if you haven’t read it yet.

:SPOILER ALERT:

The Christian tradition tells us that human beings have the divine entitlement to free will. While not all agree that there is a divinity at all, having the freedom to make one’s own choices is a right that is jealously guarded by our modern American culture. American Gods, Neil Gaiman’s novel about the war between the old and the new gods and Shadow Moon, the man who is caught in between, calls into question the theme of fate  versus free will. Was Shadow a victim of fate with his choices already made for him, or was he given the free will to make a choice? The answer to both questions is “Yes.”

Shadow is being set up from the beginning of the novel. His cellmate, Low-Key Lyesmith, is none other than Loki, Wednesday’s partner. Loki and Wednesday masterfully play out their two-man con of starting a war between the old and new gods, roping Shadow into it so perfectly that it was almost seamless. At first, it seemed one big game of chance that Shadow even became involved with Wednesday. But he never had a chance, or a choice, at all. He was conceived by Wednesday for the very purpose of being a pliable pawn in Loki and Wednesday’s scheme. Wednesday tells him, “We couldn’t have done it with you… I needed you, my boy” (533).

“It was a dream, and in dreams you have no choices: either there are no decisions made, or they were made for you long before ever the dream began” (American Gods 303). This statement, made by the narrator during Shadow’s dream about the tower of skulls and the thunderbirds, embodies the fact that Shadow was controlled by Wednesday thus far. His entire situation was as a dream: all decisions had been made, the shots had already been called, and he was controlled by Wednesday’s every whim. There seems to be no escape for Shadow.

Laura, Shadow’s dead wife, brings some interesting insight to Shadow’s person. She, quite coldly, tells him that she liked Robbie because he wanted things and he filled the space. With Shadow, however, “it’s like there isn’t anyone there. You’re like this big, solid, man-shaped hole in the world” (371). Because he is just a pawn, and not making his own choices, Shadow is consequently reduced to being a mere “hole in the world.” Without his free will, which he really doesn’t even know he lacks, he is lacking his humanity as well. Laura tells him, “It must be hard not being alive. You’re not dead. But I’m not sure that you’re alive either” (371).

There comes a change in Shadow when Wednesday dies. When his body is picked up at the Center, and his pervasive influence begins to wear off, Shadow then begins to see his circumstances differently. He is no longer Wednesday’s lackey. True, Shadow did indeed keep vigil for Wednesday as was requested of him, but he made the conscious decision to do so. He was told multiple times by Czernobog and Mr. Nancy that he didn’t have to do it, but he did it anyway. Shadow makes the conversion from being a hole in the world to being alive.

As he hangs upon the tree, “A strange joy arose with within him then and. . .he exulted. He was alive. He had never felt like this. Ever” (460). In making his own choice to be tied to a tree in vigil over a god who had orchestrated the events from the beginning, he reaches the point of being truly alive. Hovering near death, Shadow finally senses what it means and feels like to be a living human being. Not just breathing and functioning, but truly living. In death, he finds the answers.

While Shadow’s choices were indeed limited, even made for him, by Wednesday and Loki, fate may have little to do with it. For as seen in any mythology, fate is above the gods themselves: the goddess Juno, in Virgil’s tale The Aeneid, has no choice but to submit to fate’s decree that Carthage will fall to Rome, even though she does everything within her power to stop it from happening. Even a goddess cannot trump the power of destiny. Even the gods could not control the outcome of the war like they had thought. Fate controlled everything, not the gods.

This entrance of fate is seen in Laura’s character. Was it an anomaly that Mad Sweeny gave Shadow the one coin that could have brought her back to an animated state, and that Shadow unknowingly reanimated her by dropping the coin in her grave? It was an accident. Yet the events of Shadow’s life hinge on that coin. Without Laura, Wednesday and Loki would have triumphed.

Laura was the one hiccup in their well-laid plan. Wednesday admits Shadow having a wife to return to was “unfortunate, but not insurmountable” (534). They orchestrated Laura’s death because they could not have foreseen him falling in love and marrying. Laura was fate’s instrument. She killed Wood, Stone, Town, and Loki, allowing Shadow to escape the railcar and end the battle unimpeded.

While the gods are subject to fate, they do have knowledge and influence that is superior to mere humans. Hinzelmann orchestrates events to bring Sam and Audrey to Lakeside to reveal Shadow’s presence because he knows who he is, and why he is there. Shadow tells him it was more than coincidence. He “doesn’t believe in coincidence anymore” (565). Kobold or god, these beings that were brought over by immigrants have an uncommon sort of power over normal human beings. Shadow says that “they get to break all the rules they want. We don’t. Even if I tried to walk out of here, my feet would just bring me back” (579). He knows that he has to keep his deal with Czernobog because when you make a deal with a god, you have to keep it.

“There was no magic forcing him to wait, he knew that. This was him. It was the one last thing that needed to happen, and if it was the last thing that happened, well, he was going there of his own volition” (581). At the end of the novel, Shadow has completed the transition from having his choices made for him to making them himself. He fulfills his obligation to Czernobog, and then goes to Iceland. He decides to keep moving, to continue on to places he has never been. The story leaves him on the fourth of July. Shadow has finally gained his independence.

 

All quotations/page numbers correspond to the 2003 Paperback edition of American Gods. You can find the book on Kindle for $9.99 and in paperback for $14.24 on Amazon.