Reading Roundup

Despite being busy with travel, workshops and the farm, I have managed to get some reading done in the past month.  I’ve been working along the shelf of English history.  Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey by Alison Weir was a good story and demonstrated how the death of a monarch led to power struggles. We tend to think of there being a perfectly orderly succession but a book like this reminds us that many nobles in England could claim at least some amount of royal blood and may have a pretty good claim to the throne.  Jane Grey was caught in one of these webs of intrigue, and letting her live, even if she really didn’t want to be queen, became too dangerous for Mary Tudor.

I moved into nonfiction with The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser.  After a slow start, I found myself really enjoying Fraser’s ironic tone and style.  She brought the unique qualities of each of the women to light, getting beyond the simply stereotypes that we’ve come to know.

Now, I’m about halfway through The Lady in the Tower, nonfiction by Alison Weir, about Anne Boleyn’s last days.  It is well researched and Weir is clearly working to dispel some of the standards beliefs about Boleyn, her various relationships and her influence on the Reformation, and I am imagining the Tudor scholars with whom she takes issue to be shaking their fists.  For the average reader like me, however, it is a bit long…I’ve still got more than 100 pages to go and we are mere days away from Anne’s death. There are interesting bits and I will finish it, but I can’t recommend it unless you want something of a minute-by-minute understanding of Anne Boleyn’s downfall.

The most compelling part of this book for me is the way is shows the bias of primary sources. Often, teachers are encouraged to move students away from the textbook to examine these primary sources as though they somehow have the lock on the “truth” of history. In the case of Anne Boleyn, truth is very much in the eye and the pen of the beholder. So, while Chapuys seems like an eye-witness to history, it is important to remember that he was a supporter of Catherine of Aragon who hated Anne Boleyn. Thus, he is more willing to believe that Boleyn would deceive the king and is only too happy when she is arrested. George Wyatt, on the other hand, was the grandson of Thomas Wyatt, often thought to be one of Boleyn’s lovers who was imprisoned but released as part of Boleyn’s downfall.  His biography can hardly be considered unbiased.

I did take a break from all this English history to read Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo.  I picked it up at Bay Books during my visit to Coronado and bought it simply because at one point, the narrator and his traveling companion stay at the General Sutter Inn in Lititz, Pennsylvania, near my own home town.  I suppose it would be considered “pop” spirituality: by the end, the narrator, something of an average Joe with a good job and happy family, learns how to make spirituality part of his life. It isn’t about being perfect, but about finding the sense of spirituality in the every day.  That and a bit of meditation seem to be the answer.

I am also reading a book for a summer book study I’m leading: Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal.  The author is a gamer and game creator who believes that gaming can save the world.  The book is a bit overwritten and sometimes borders on the fanatical, which provides good fodder for book group discussions.  We’re meeting in Second Life as well as in an online community if you’re interested in joining in.

Book Review: Caleb’s Crossing

Another powerful piece of historical fiction from Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing is the story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in 1665.  The narrator is Bethia Mayfield, resident of Great Harbor on Martha’s Vineyard, who has some basis in the original settlers of the island, the Mayhews. But, as with her novel March, much of the story is imaginative as Brooks describes the friendship of Bethia and Caleb.

While that relationship is fictional, Brooks uses her significant skills to depict Colonial America with its focus on sinners in the hands of an angry God. Bethia’s natural curiosity and desire to live a full life leads her to blame herself for any number of ills that beset her family and friends.  Yet, she revels in the natural wonders of the island and the descriptions of the natural world bring that island to life.

The story has one tragedy after another, most of which are historically accurate.  Caleb dies just after his graduation while the other Native American student is killed in a ship wreck prior to his own graduation.  Death is very much a character in this novel. Yet, despite all, there is an uplifting message.


The Long War Is Over

I think the irony of the Civil War is that there was rarely a time when people either North or South were very happy with their government.  The Confederacy tried to unite states who were seceding from the Union because they did not want to be united, a paradox that haunted them while in the North Lincoln had to walk a tightrope between the radical abolitionists who wanted to crush the South and its tradition of slavery and the Democrats who had no real interest in freeing slaves, but only wanted to bring the South back to the Union.

And in the midst of all the political wrangling on both sides, soldiers–mostly farm workers and shop clerks–slaughtered each other.  Americans all, yet so entrenched in their regional loyalties that they could imagine killing another person to protect those positions.  Did they ever wonder at the futility of killing another man much more like him than any politician or military strategist?

Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson is a one-volume powerhouse that manages to cover major battles, political events and home life in enough detail to bring the mid-19th century alive.  Famous people like John Brown, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee are presented with sincere respect and empathy so we see beyond the stereotypes they have become.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read nearly 900 pages that wasn’t related to a boy wizard and his friends.  I’m sure there are details that have escaped me particularly related to particular battle movements, but I feel like I have a better overall understanding of the Civil War as well as larger political problems related to a failure to compromise.  Indeed, both sides rejected compromise on key issues, leading inexorably to war despite protests otherwise.  And, the final outcome was not predestined, the way hindsight might suggest.  McPherson suggests that all the explanations for why the North prevailed fail to take into account contingency, “the recognition that at numerous critical points during the war things might have gone altogether differently” (p. 858).  Understanding the Civil War, according to McPherson, requires the narrative approach that he adopted, and I agree.  In the midst of all his details and examinations of various arguments, he tells a great story complete with engaging characters and cliffhangers.

This volume is not for everyone…and a long winter might be a better time if you choose to tackle.  I struggled to find time to read in the midst of summer activities.  But now it lays beside me, complete, and I face the age old question: what should I read next?  But that question is for another blog post.




I started drafting an entry on July 30 but only got a first paragraph done that blamed the craziness of July for my summer silence.  Three workshops in three different locations kept me on the road and busy, requiring that I take this past week to get caught up…and very much settled back in.  The solstice when I sat and wrote my last entry is just a fond, if distant, memory.

But now I am off the road and getting prepared for the semester.  And discovering that this is HOME.  And in ways that our house in the burg never was.  I loved that house and the neighbors but this place is just different, room to spread out both inside and outside, and I am busy rebuilding my routines to take advantage of that space despite the horrible heat that tends to keep us holed up in our master suite that has the window air conditioner.

There are multiple paths for our dog walks that vary with the time of day as we explore the property, and with space to really work out, I’ve made the Wii my afternoon habit.  For now, I’m using the paneled den off the kitchen because of the heat, but I may invest in a treadmill for winter and move the workout room upstairs where there are at least two rooms that would be perfect.  We did add a $35 inflatable pool with a floating chair that has been a blessing for both its cooling and relaxation.

We’ve had a break in the heat for the past two days, and I’m on the porch now as evening comes, hanging out with the hummingbirds who buzz around the feeders and warding off the mosquitoes with bug spray.  We’ve heard a bob white calling from various trees for the past two weeks or so. Right now, it is in the island of woods that push into the corn field.  I have yet to see it although I haven’t honestly tried that hard.

ChickensI DID discover which chicken has learned to crow like a rooster: it is Dottie, the silver wyandotte.  I had the dogs out quite early one morning and found her raising her chest, flapping her wings and letting out an honest-to-goodness Cock-A-Doodle-Doo. That’s her in front, the black and white one. She’s pretty old for a chicken, at least 6 or 7.  We have been battling a black snake who gobbles up the eggs faster than we can harvest them.  He seemed to have disappeared after we shared a few hard boiled eggs with him, but now he is back and we really need to deal with building a better hen house.  We want a bigger flock, some of whom will end up in the freezer, unlike our current group of ladies who are more pets with benefits than anything.


One thing I have been doing in all the craziness is reading.  Lots of American history, from Ben Franklin to the Civil War with a little World War I thrown in.  Right now, I’m plodding through James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, part of the Oxford University Press’s history of the United States.  I like his somewhat ironic tone but find the minutiae a bit dull and am still in the early chapters before the election of Lincoln.  I find them depressing: this government was even more dysfunctional than the current one with representatives beating each other and the Supreme Court making outlandish interpretations of the Constitution. Multiple parties sprang up, making the electoral process chaotic.

While it was worse, I can’t help but see parallels with slavery being replaced by taxes as the no-compromise issue with things like gay marriage and other cultural issues also being a factor.  The compromises in the 1850s were all made with the goal of preserving the Union, and I do sometimes wonder how long states like Texas, California, and New York will continue to be step children of the Federal government when they have their own trade deals and large economies.  It’s really a matter of passing a referendum, I would guess.

But that’s all for another day.  My husband just arrived with the mail from the burg and it includes a long handwritten letter from an old friend to whom I wrote earlier this summer and I am going to settle into my wicker rocker and read it. The perfect lovely Friday evening…


Update From Bottle Tree Farm(s)

We’re still deciding on the “s”…some of it may depend on the availability of domain names.

It is a beautiful Sunday morning at the farm and I was checking in on my online classes so, since I’m tethered, I thought I’d do a quick farm update.  This weekend was all about the chickens.  We had four in our pen in Williamsburg.  They had an automatic door so it was easy for them to get in and out, and since they live on the compost pile, food wasn’t a problem.  The SmokehouseUnfortunately, they had also discovered how to escape and when we went home last week, I discovered three of them roosting outside of the pen.  (Chickens are really good at getting out but not so good about getting back in.) It was time to bring them to the farm.

We’re using part of the old smokehouse, which took me several days of work to clean out.  The pen was easier, and now they are happily scratching away and clucking contentedly.  Chickens evidently deal with change pretty easily as I’ve even found three eggs in the past 24 hours.

Bob is making trips back and forth to the convenience center; there was lots of plain old junk and trash in the smokehouse. But there were a few treasures as well: bee smokers, two file cabinets filled with interesting stuff, a metal table, buckets, several tool boxes, and lots of other interesting bits.   We donated the two lawn chairs to the chickens for roosting, along with two crutches.  (The former owner was a doctor.)  The center section is next and it is similarly filled, as is the dairy barn.  The secret is to just hack away a bit at a time without thinking too much about the big picture.

I am especially excited about the library.  I spent some quality time in there on a cold, rainy day last week, getting organized by figuring out where various collections would go: education, history,  and nature are my three big groups along with lots of fiction, of course.  I have the next group of boxes ready to go inside and unpacking should go much more quickly.  After years of having books everywhere, including the linen closet, I find myself just standing in the room looking at the spines and imagining all the hours of reading ahead of me.  The same rule goes there as with the farm: a bit at a time.

I did take a day away from revisionist history to read The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.  It was refreshingly good with its insights into history, religion and politics.  It makes connections between the past and present in ways that would make people like James Loewen (Lies My Teachers Told Me) happy.  I did find the story a bit thin in some places with a reliance on coincidences that were a bit too coincidental.

Now, it’s back into history with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It is a bit depressing really, especially when you consider that the attitudes and ideas he discusses are still very much part of our lives even now as reflected in all the budget conversations and deliberations that are going on.  I’ll leave you with this story from Weekend Edition about the school funding fight in New Jersey.

Real People, Real History, Real World

I finished Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Loewen. I read the first edition, published in 1995.  I was particularly taken with his description of the more recent past and how poorly books address it: that “recent past” in 1995 was my own childhood: Vietnam, the energy crisis, and environmental degradation.  No wonder my generation tends to be a bit more cynical than say my Boomer friends who grew up with Howdy Doody and “I like Ike!” No textbook, no matter how rosy its outlook, can put a positive spin on Nixon or, for that matter, Love Canal.

There’s an update and I took a glance at the comments in Amazon.  Mostly, Loewen gets accused of his own left wing, anti-American, anti-white-male bias, a charge he anticipates and even tries to address in the book.  For instance, after revealing the people behind the caricatures of Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller, he suggests that seeing them as real people means that we provide authentic role models to students who might help them as  they face their own decisions and the potential consequences: “For when textbook authors leave out the warts, the problems, the unfortunate character traits, and the mistaken ideas, they reduce heroes from dramatic men and women to melodramatic stick figures.  Their inner struggles disappear and they become goody-goody, not merely good” (p. 27).  What Loewen argues for throughout the book is simply a more realistic viewpoint.  We don’t need to go from America the perfect to America the horrible; instead, we need to learn a realistic view of our nation that, like many others, struggled in sometimes incredibly hypocritical ways to define and practice its values, a struggle that continues today and in which every citizen can play a role.

I do wish he would reconsider the title: the book is really about textbooks, not teachers, who while they do have some control over how they teach, often have no control over what they teach. But Lies My Textbook Told Me just isn’t a snappy a title, is it?  This is another one of those complex issues that gets simplified by being laid at the door of the teachers.

Of Textbooks and Serendipitous Reading

Tim’s thoughtful Assorted Stuff blog post about textbooks coincided with my reading of Blood: Stories of Life and Death from the Civil War, an anthology of mostly primary source documents. While it didn’t offer specific dates and times like a textbook would, it provided a human view of the time and, as Tim pointed out, could easily be supplemented with material available on the web to create a completely serviceable “textbook.”   I haven’t ever been a fan of textbooks–especially history–because in trying to get it all in, they inevitably have to pick and choose about both what to leave in and what to leave out, what to emphasize and what to gloss over, and, in the end, leave us with the impression that historical truth in the guise of dates and names somehow exists.  Plus, they are really just boring.  As I’ve written before, I think we can use the media to make history generally more engaging, even (horrors!) at the expense of complete accuracy.

Because, as we’re learning in my own state, textbooks themselves have no great claim to correctness.  And here’s where the serendipitous reading comes in: as I’ve been drafting this entry, I picked up a book that has been on my shelf for some time, right next to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me.  A quote from Zinn graces the front cover, recommending this book to every citizen, and I’m not sure what I thought it was about, but it turns out it focuses on high school American history textbooks.

I am not very far along but had to share this quote as it seems to sum up my own sense of the real problem with using textbooks to teach.  This chapter focuses on the myth of Columbus’s discovery of America, and Loewen provides a table that outlines all the possible voyages to America prior to Columbus.  They go back thousands of years and have varying levels of empirical support.  Loewen points out that they are also not mentioned in most textbooks and suggests that we could really teach students something about history if they were:

The evidence for each of these journeys offers fascinating glimpses into the societies and cultures that existed on both sides of the Atlantic and in Asia before 1492. They also reveal controversies among those who study the distant past.  If textbooks allowed for controversy, they could show students which claims rest on strong evidence, which on softer ground. As they challenged students to make their own decisions as to what probably happened, they would also be introducing students to the various methods and forms of evidence–oral history, written records, cultural similarities, linguistic changes, human blood types, pottery, archaeological dating, plant migrations–that researchers use to derive knowledge about the distant past. Unfortunately, textbooks seem locked into a rhetoric of certainty. James West Davidson and Mark H. Lytle, coauthors of the textbook The United States–A History of the Republic, have also written After the Fact, a book for college history majors in which they emphasize that history is not a set of facts but a series of arguments, issues, and controversies. Davidson and Lytle’s high school textbook, however, like its competitors, presents history as answers, not questions.

The “rhetoric of certainty” is just a perfect description of the whole process of standardizing history and presenting it in a textbook.  Wish I had coined it…but Loewen did and I am looking forward to reading the rest of the book.  I love it when a book appears just when I need it.  Now, I suppose there are historians who will question Loewen’s ideas but that’s another post.

Really Going Mobile

Another week of feeling disjointed. I left my laptop power supply in the burg so had to use husband’s windows 7 machine all week. I found it easy to use and I mostly work in the cloud anyway but it wasn’t my air.  Plus I found myself missing the comfort of my desk and office.

Being without my air did have one interesting effect: I found myself relying more on my phone. I finally figured out how to both retrieve my bluehost mail and send using the built in email client. I discovered the librarything scanner and started entering books. And the mobile learning event on Saturday gave me some great tips for reading blogs and being more productive. This afternoon, as we cleaned up walls in preparation for painting, I kept up with the VCU game.

Now, I am reluctant to turn on the laptop so am experimenting with the WordPress plugin on the Droid. I have gotten pretty good with the virtual keyboard. I also installed swype but I wasn’t completely in love with it. I may try it again but for now auto complete has been doing a great job.

I have been reading nonstop despite traveling. I did take advantage of cable in the hotel room to watch Who Do You Think You Are? Steve Buscemi was looking into his past and went first to Pennsylvania and then ended up in Fredericksburg just a few miles away from my Hampton Inn.  I have been to those battlefields and stood at the base of Marye’s Heights wondering at the courage of those farm boys and office clerks. I was also in the middle of a Civil War anthology that I finished today. Blood: Stories of Life and Death From the Civil War was a wonderful if sometimes horrifying collection of both primary documents and classic nonfiction that brought a living, breathing perspective to history and made me wonder why we used textbooks at all to teach history? I was able to quickly and easily download Sam Watkins’ memoir Co. Aytch from Project Gutenberg. There are plenty of timelines and historical websites to provide dates and names. Watkins gives us a reason to care, to want to learn more, to understand that war in a way that no history standard can dictate.

Learning to Like John Adams

A year after I originally planned it, I am reading John Adams, David McCullough’s biography of the great American leader. I have seen the television series so can’t really get Paul Giamatti out of my head, and it appears that he did a good job of portraying Adams: plain spoken, intense, impatient. In talks I give, I compare him unfavorably with Franklin and Jefferson in terms of getting along with people, and that may be an exaggeration, although I haven’t gotten to his years in France.

Perhaps the surprising part of reading the biography for me is that I’ve always been a Jefferson admirer–the complex Renaissance man living on a mountaintop surrounded by books–but I think I’m actually more like Adams. Here’s McCullough’s comparison:

“It was Jefferson’s graciousness that was so appealing. He was never blunt or assertive as Adams could be, but subtle, serene by all appearances, always polite, soft-spoken, and diplomatic, if somewhat remote. With Adams there was seldom a doubt about what he meant by what he said. With Jefferson there was nearly always a slight air of ambiguity. In private conversation Jefferson “sparkled,” But, in Congress, like Franklin, he scarcely said a word, and if he did, it was in a voice so weak as to be almost inaudbile” (p. 112).

Adams kept diaries of his thoughts and feelings while Jefferson kept meticulous account books. Jefferson was interested in mankind but not particularly interested in individual people. Here’s one more line:

“Where Adams was stout, Jefferson was lean and long-limbed, almost bony. Where Adams stood foursquare to the world, shoulders back, Jefferson customarily stood with arms folded tightly across his chest…Jefferson wished to avoid the rough and tumble of life whenever possible. John Adams’s irrepressible desire was to seize hold of it” (pp. 111-113).

There’s another thing I share with Adams, or at least the young Adams, and that is a sense that I never quite meet my resolutions: “Why we he constantly forming yet never executing good resolutions? Why was he so absent-minded, so lazy, so prone to daydreaming his life away? He vowed to read more seriously. He vowed to quick chewing tobacco.” McCullough quotes a diary entry from 1756 in which Adams resolves to “rise with the sun” and study each morning, the Scriptures on the weekend, and then Latin authors on the other days. “But,” writes McCullough, “the next morning he slept until seven and a one-line entry the following week read, ‘A very rainy day. Dreamed away the time.'”

Oh, one more thing…as we get closer to closing on the farm, I’ll be balancing the academic and the domestic life. In this way, I am also like the young Adams. Like Adams in fall of 1758, my formal education is complete, and I am moving into a new phase of my professional and private life:

“For the first time, he was on his own with his studies, and he bent to them with the spirit of independence and intense determination that were to characterize much of his whole approach to life. In his diary, he wrote of chopping wood and translating Justinian, with equal resolve” (p. 43).

I am reading the book slowly…it is very detailed and I want to enjoy the story and the prose. Friends felt it was too detailed perhaps but I like having the human view of this time period as McCullough describes Adams and his colleagues as the human beings they were, human beings forced to be leaders in extraordinary times.

Thinking About Buddha and Boats

I hadn’t been to church for several weeks…busy traveling and working. But, I went yesterday, mostly to hear The Delvers. They are a local group that plays folks, jazz and western swing. One of the band members belongs to my church and I arranged for them to play. As we were getting set up, one of them asked what I was going to do when I finished my degree. I’m not sure, but for several years now, I’ve been talking about building a kayak from a kit.

The sermon was about the use of metaphor in our spiritual journey, and I was pleasantly surprised when the minister told the parable of the Buddha. You can read the whole story here, but the main point is that a man collects materials to build a raft and cross a river. Then, however, he decides to carry the boat with him over his head even though there is no more water to cross. The point: sometimes we carry metaphors with us when they are no longer useful. I couldn’t help but relate this to my own life and that very real kayak I want to build.

Now that I’m getting ready to do my dissertation research, I’ve been asked a lot what I’m going to do when I’m done. Well, first, I’m going to take a break! Read trashy novels, work in the garden, play music, make movies, etc. etc. And, build that kayak…perhaps it’s my own metaphor for moving onto the next phase of my life. I have not ever really built anything and I thought it would be much different from the cerebral work I’ve been doing.

I met with my advisor after church and then went home and submitted my institutional review board request. I may have approval by the end of the week! I’m trying to finish what work I can so my time is free for research. It’s very exciting to be getting started.

Watched the first two parts of John Adams last night on HBO. It was good: I particularly liked Laura Linney as Abigail Adams. In fact, of the two, she’s my favorite in general historically. He was gone so often and for so long that she was running the farm and educating the children herself.