Well, it’s been almost a month since I last posted. During that time I’ve been to Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, applied for a very part-time library job that I realized I physically can no longer do, and experienced a bit of a crisis of confidence as a result of these experiences. So, I’ve reverted to doing what I always do in these situations…I read!!
I just finished Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, by Karen Armstrong (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014). I received this book in exchange for a review from “Blogging for Books”, and the choice couldn’t have been more fortuitous. I opted for this book because I was interested to see what kind of perspective it could give me on current events, in particular the threat of ISIS (though frankly I’m also concerned about the religious undertones of our political debate in this country). Karen Armstrong is that rare writer who can take a very complicated topic and make it understandable. It is her premise that violence has been an unavoidable part of human experience since we moved away from a hunter/gatherer existence, and that instead of being the cause of violence, religion has more often been a way to mitigate the worst excesses of a competition for resources and a seeming need for the “ecstasy” that warfare provides.. As I read I couldn’t help but think back to Tom Standage’s An Edible History of Humanity (Walker & Company, 2009), since he makes similar points about the inequality and violence that resulted from the rise of agrarian civilizations.
Armstrong’s writing is dense, and this book is not a quick read. But if you want to understand current events more deeply and completely, this would be a very good place to start. While Armstrong doesn’t delve into her own spiritual beliefs, it is clear that she is a religion apologist. She doesn’t gloss over occurrences like the Spanish Inquisition or the Thirty Years War, but she does question many of our assumptions and puts them in their proper historical perspective. Her last chapters on the Middle East and the rise of radical Islam are especially well written, and her analysis of the events of 9/11 and its aftermath is balanced and thoughtful.
Before leaving for D.C., I read The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, by Dana Goldstein (Doubleday, 2014) It should more appropriately be considered in the context of my previous post, but since I read it AFTER that post, I’m putting a quick review here. Goldstein does an excellent job of putting the current hysteria about teaching in a historical context, citing an almost continual “moral panic” in the United States about our schools and their teachers. Even though I spent 30 plus years in the profession (and grew up with two teacher parents and many other family members also in the profession), I learned a great deal about the trajectory of education in this country. I think my biggest “aha” moment was the realization that it was never a given that we would provide a free, quality public education to all. And the analysis of how we have prepared our teachers over the last two hundred years underscored a paradox I saw in my own experience: should teachers be “experts” in what they are teaching, or is knowledge secondary to pedagogy? This book is an important contribution to the current dialog about education, and Goldstein makes some excellent recommendations based on her research.
Part of my current lapse of confidence revolves around feeling a bit “at loose ends” as I try to re-invent myself after three decades of devotion to a profession that Goldstein shows us has always struggled to be respected. The problem with being an avid reader is that I can imagine lots of possibilities. The problem with being a retired public school teacher is that I still tend to think in terms of “inside the box” safety. If only I could write like John Baxter in The Most Beautiful Walk in the World (Harper Perennial, 2011)! His narration of life in Paris is exquisite. He has a special interest in the experience of ex-patriots from the past, like Hemingway, and reading the book feels a lot like taking a walk next to him from the present to the past. I love travel writing, and I really love travel writing done well. This book is one of the best!
I also enjoyed immensely three novels. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (Mariner Books, 2006) is narrated by the nine-year-old son of a man who died in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. I liked his voice very much, and also enjoyed the “tour” of New York City. The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Scribner, 2014) couldn’t be anything but good given that the author, Alice Hoffman, is one of my all time favorites! While I didn’t think this was one of her best, it was very good, and captured a time in New York City that I did not know much about. Another novel set at around the same time, but in Boston, is The House of Velvet and Glass, by Katherine Howe (Hyperion, 2013). She is also an excellent writer, and I find her characters to be fascinating and believable.
I’m pretty excited about the book I’m reading right now, so hopefully my next post will be a bit more inspired…