Monday, November 8, 2010
Friday, November 5, 2010
Saturday, May 22, 2010
Sunday, May 2, 2010
Monday, March 29, 2010
An Open Letter to My Former High School English Teachers Regarding Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Friday, March 5, 2010
This book is nothing short of a masterpiece.
I have been following Susan Wise Bauer and her writing for many years. The Well-Trained Mind is the foundation of the academic pursuits of my four children. The Well-Educated Mind saved my sanity as I coped with leaving my career for motherhood. The four volumes of The Story of the World series have made history one of the most exciting topics in our household.
About seven years ago, I heard Bauer give a lecture and I remember her saying, “History isn’t a subject. It is THE subject.” That sentiment may have led her to embark on the mammoth task of writing the history of the entire world in narrative form. The first volume, The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome, made me a better teacher of ancient history. I recently finished the second volume of the series, The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. I’ve been working on it since November, as I was allowed access to an online copy in exchange for a review on my blog.
Bauer begins her story of medieval times with Constantine’s Christianity and she ends with the Crusades of Christianity. The middle includes the stories of the Romans, the Ostrogoths, and the Vikings, among others. Throughout the 746-page narrative the reader is provided beautifully constructed maps that clearly show the boundaries of the various empires and therefore aid in the understanding of the historical events. The end of each chapter has a vertical timeline that summarizes the major events in the current chapter compared to the events in the previous chapter. This is a gift to the reader, as the timelines show what was occurring in one empire as compared to what was occurring in another empire. Illustrations included also enhance the reading and understanding of the history. The notes at the bottom of many of the pages provide explanatory notes that are delightfully different from the normal history text explanatory notes.
As well done as the technical details are, it is the masterful telling of history as a story that makes the book so remarkable. Bauer explains why the accounts of a certain event may not be as accurate as they should be by listing a historian’s possible bias and how that would affect the accounting of that event. As I read, I felt as if I was sitting in a history class with a most exciting professor. The writing is interesting, informative, and conversational. In the chapter on Japan between 884 and 940 Bauer explains, “Yozei was never imprisoned; his psychopathy took an occasional downward turn (he was reputedly responsible for at least two murders), but he seems to have been allowed to roam through the mountains on horseback, hunting and sleeping out and sometimes appearing without warning at the gates of one or another great landowner, demanding to be let in.” Bauer does not just give textbook-like facts; she provides reasons for why events occurred or men ruled: “This was exactly why he had appointed a pope who was both German and a blood relation.” And whether the medieval times were really funny or Bauer just chose to include all of the humorous events, the book has some downright hilarious parts, in a dark sort of way. Did you know that Maximinus Daia drank poison to kill himself, but it took four agonizingly painful days to die because he ate an enormous last meal right before he swallowed the poison?
I simply cannot fathom how Bauer possibly summarized the events of an entire historical period in a manner that is easy to understand and interesting at the same time. I had a sorry excuse for a history education in public school, and because of my college major, I did not have one single history class during my university studies. This history series has made the facts of my own history less regrettable because I am learning THE subject, and it is THE subject that helps me to understand not just the past, but also the present.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
This week I read The Total Mom Makeover for the second time because the promise of this mom being "made over" is just too tempting to resist since it didn't work the first time around (and no, not that kind of makeover). Hannah Keeley, the author who has now told me how to have The Total Mom Makeover twice, says this: “I have spent many hours lying awake at night wondering how I would get the kids evacuated if a huge meteor ever struck the earth…Irrational? Of course it is. But that does not make the threats feel any less real.” The real possibility of a meteor obliterating mankind is exactly what Ron Currie, Jr. addresses in Everything Matters!. Read this novel and you’ll be contacting The Total Mom Makeover guru to ask if she’ll share her Meteor-Hitting-the-Earth-Evacuation-Plan when she writes her next book.
Everything Matters! is a story about Junior. A name so nondescript hints to the reader that this will be no ordinary book. Junior learns the date that the world is going to be destroyed by a meteor while in his mother’s womb. He lives his life with a “voice” that gives him vital information about his life, the lives of his loved ones, and the impending doom of the earth. This voice also provides inside information that helps him understand that he is not crazy; the world really is going to be blown to pieces when he is 36 years old. The government eventually realizes that the meteor is on its way and they use Junior to help them come up with a solution to the problem, which involves escaping Earth. When the problem of the meteor is announced, many people don’t believe it is going to happen. While dealing with a problem of this magnitude, Junior deals with an alcoholic mother, the cancer of his father, the mental disability of his baseball star brother, and the intense love he has for his one and only girlfriend, Amy.
I know, I know. You are thinking that this plot belongs on the science fiction channel and you want no part of it. Think again.
I liked this book. While the reading is not complicated, the issue it explores is important and profound. Currie contrasts the mundane with the ordinary to make the point of the novel; when death is impending, we still have to deal with everyday life. Everything does matter because our time is limited. The tendency in reading this book is to brush it off as fantasy, science fiction, or just a story that does not apply to us. But it is not really all that far removed from what every human being faces every single day. Each day and hour and minute we are closer to death. The only difference between Junior and us is that we don’t know the date or time. We know we are going to die. But do we believe it? Do we live like death is a sure thing? Do we live as if we are dying? In general, I think most of us live like we are going to live forever. Consider one of Junior's thoughts: “As I’m paying I wonder at how we cling so relentlessly to the little conventions like commerce, as though they can save us. What’s the point of tallying up the total expense of my avocados and twelve-grain bread, with the end just over a year away? The point, please, of this dutiful exchange of goods and currency? People all over the world are still giving their homes a fresh coat of paint and making weekly deposits into retirements accounts. Having babies at a record pace. God help us.” In Everything Matters! the people of the world know that the world is going to end, and yet they don’t act as if they believe it. The knowledge of the day they will die does not change the way they live.
I have similar knowledge. I know I am going to die one day. But do I live as I believe that? The book did not instill a spirit of fear, but it did help me to pause and reflect on just what is important in my life. Just how differently would I act if I knew my life would end in five years, in one year, in one day, or in the next hour? It is a sobering question to ask oneself. The question brought to mind this quote from Jonathan Edwards: “Resolved, never to do anything which I should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life.” May this thought affect change in the way I live my life, and may it affect change in yours as well.
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Monday, January 25, 2010
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
My summary of the massacres at Columbine High School before reading Columbine: Two boys, named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, killed a bunch of kids because they were being picked on at school and they were angry about it. They wore trench coats and dressed kind of Goth, and because of that, they were picked on and decided to take revenge.
My summary of the massacres at Columbine High School after Columbine: The only correct part of the above summary is that the boys’ names were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
If you think you know what happened that Tuesday morning in April, 1999, think again. Columbine is an immensely important book, whether you are a parent, an educator, a citizen, or a human being. Dave Cullen is a journalist who began reporting at Columbine High School on the day of the tragedy, and continued to cover the story for the next ten years. This book is the culmination of his meticulous research. While it is tragic that this book had to be written, I am so glad that it was. I never sensed that Cullen was trying to profit financially from the tragedy. Should you choose to read it, you’ll understand immediately that he had one goal in mind: to get the story straight.
Cullen begins the book by setting the scene of the school’s event in the three days preceding the attacks. After the attacks, he explains what is happening with the killers, the victims, their families, the churches, the media, and the law enforcement. He writes in a steady stream of changing focus. At first, I considered this a choppy way to present the facts. I soon realized that this is the only way to present the story; this event was full of so much chaos within the lives of so many individuals that the structure of the book mimics the state of the community in the hours and days and years following the massacres. It also mimics, I would guess, the number of different aspects that Cullen had to address as he covered the story. That said, the book is easy to read, and yet difficult to process. Cullen comprehensively dispels the myths surrounding the killings. And the myths are stunningly abundant. He explains how those myths occurred and why they are not accurate assessments of the facts surrounding the case.
Cullen investigates the motive of Eric and Dylan incredibly well. He was fortunate to spend extensive time with Dwayne Fuselier, an FBI Agent who tirelessly searched for an answer to why the two young men did what they did. The findings are astonishing. He subtly shows incredible compassion for the victims and their families, and while I did not sense compassion for Eric and Dylan, he seemed to handle the revealing of their motive as objectively as a caring human possibly could.
The other stunning thing to read about in Columbine is the cover up that occurred within local law enforcement. Cullen repeatedly shows that the reason the myths surrounding the event have been perpetuated is because the report on the killings did not come out for a year afterwards. Once the facts were released, the public had lost interest and the assumptions that were initially made stuck, even though the report showed that the majority of those assumptions were inaccurate. Cullen also explains that there are facts the public will never know about the behavior of Harris and Klebold because records were destroyed. In another brilliant show of reporting, Cullen explains that, while the detective work regarding the evidence at the school was well done, there were mistakes made that were simply unconscionable. These mistakes, combined with the reaction of the Evangelical Christian community in the aftermath, are all parts of the tragedy about which I was unaware until I read this book.
In his quest to tell the whole story of Columbine, I think Cullen shows that on many levels, there was a great failure to do one thing: listen. Parents weren’t listening to children. Children weren’t listening to parents. Law enforcement wasn’t listening to facts that perhaps could have caught this crime before it occurred. Members of the media weren’t listening to facts. The public wasn’t listening to the media. Many of the Christians weren’t listening to the Bible. And, as any great book does, this one caused me to ask myself an important question about the way I live my life: Do I listen? I hear, but do I really and truly listen? Am I listening to my children? Do I listen to the media? Am I listening to facts? Or am I simply making conclusions based on the preconceived notions that are centered on what I am halfway hearing? I need to listen.
Thank you, Mr. Cullen. I hope more people take up your book and listen.
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Everything Matters, by Ron Currie, Jr….because I promised I would.
Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel, by Jeannette Walls…because it is one of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2009.
A Short History of Women, by Kate Walbert…because I am immensely interested how women navigate the responsibilities they have faced over time.
Chronic City, by Jonathan Lethem…because I love books that are set in New York City.
A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore…because adoption is a primary theme and I’m curious.
Diary of a Provincial Lady, by E. M. Delafield…because it is fun to read about a character of whom I am the polar opposite.
The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist…because the themes of morality appear to loom large.
Mysteries of Pittsburgh: A Novel (P.S.)...because I love his wife's writing, I figured I'd check him out.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy...because this guy told me to.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz...because it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction a few years ago.
A Happy Marriage: A Novel, by Rafael Yglesias... because I read about this book in July and have not forgotten about it.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy…because I loved Anna and I didn’t read it in High School.
Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert...because it is a short classic and it is on my bookshelf.
The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien...because I should, even though I don't want to.
The History of the Medieval World, by Susan Wise Bauer…because she is my hero and I get to read it before it comes out as long as I promise to read it and write the review by February 22nd.
The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel…because I’m worried that my generation simply doesn’t get war.
Columbine, by Dave Cullen…because it was at the library and because I think I should.
Herbert Hoover: The American Presidents Series: The 31st President, 1929-1933, by William E. Leuchtenburg...because he was an engineer.
The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls…because my mother told me to.
Ayn Rand and World She Made, by Anne C. Heller…because my husband is still working on Atlas Shrugged.
Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, by Brad Gooch…because I finally listened to my sister-in-law regarding O’Connor’s writing.
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin...because everyone loves it.
Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, by Walter Kirn…because I want to read some books on education this year.
Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World, by Rafe Esquith...because this guy is inspiring.
Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, by Carol Sklenicka…because I want to read about writing this year.
Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, by N. T. Wright...because I hear it is an easy read
Celebration of Discipline, by Richard J. Foster...because I've not read it and I should have a long time ago.
That's it, so far. I'll be adding to this as the year progresses, but these are my must reads for the year. I'd love to see YOUR lists and hear YOUR recommendations for 2010. Happy reading...