Tag Archives: Nonfiction

Review and Rumination: Shay’s “Odysseus in America”

It’s been a while. I know. The only reason I’m even here now is because my students are between big writing assignments, so I have a very brief respite from reading and grading and grading and reading. Plus, I’m monitoring Saturday School.

My last review was of Circe and I recall being optimistic that I might be able to incorporate it into my Odyssey Unit. Well, time has brought us to this moment, when we have just finished reading The Odyssey and we’re incorporating supplementary texts this coming week. All year, I’ve had grand aspirations that I would delve into the deep questions of whether Odysseus has PTSD or not. For that reason, I got a copy of Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming.

In this ambitious follow-up to Achilles in Vietnam, Dr. Jonathan Shay uses the Odyssey, the story of a soldier’s homecoming, to illuminate the pitfalls that trap many veterans on the road back to civilian life.

Seamlessly combining important psychological work and brilliant literary interpretation with an impassioned plea to renovate American military institutions, Shay deepens our understanding of both the combat veteran’s experience and one of the world’s greatest classics.

My hope was that this book would provide me with some excerpts, especially regarding the chapters in which Odysseus returns to Ithaca, that would shine a light on Odysseus’ behavior as a result of what he endured during his 20-year-expedition (or odyssey). Not only does it do so, but it includes a step-by-step analysis of Odysseus’ behavior for each of the 15 stops on his journey home. Shay compares Odysseus with Vietnam veterans whom he has counseled in the years after their return home. He sheds light on possible motivations and meanings behind Odysseus’ words, actions, and choices, as well as shows how similar words, actions, and choices look under a modern lens. Though this epic is estimated to be almost three thousand years old, Shay helps readers see how trauma and its effects are timeless. Odysseus in America was a tremendous read and it elevated my understanding of The Odyssey, but more importantly, it illuminated the suffering of combat veterans, as well as non-veterans who have navigated horrible circumstances and live life in the wake of those experiences. I am more motivated than ever to incorporate this text into my teaching of The Odyssey.

However, despite this motivation, I will not be doing so this year, or possibly for many years. Despite the fact that there is substantial and meaningful learning to gain from this book, there is not enough time to do it justice. I have less than a week to dedicate to reading supplementary materials and writing something. We already only had a week and a day (5 class periods) to get through reading the epic, which is ridiculous! It’s full of action and monsters and love stories, so it’s just about the most captivating thing I can offer to them, and to blaze through it in just over a week is already robbing the kids of so much fun and meaning. The lack of time is a big issue, one that goes “all the way to the TOP” (sorry, MFM reference – SSDGM, Murderinos) and I obviously can’t resolve the problems with the American public school system here on this blog. I feel strongly that kids would learn from reading Odysseus in America, as well as the many other literary works that highlight the effects of trauma. I’m inspired by this text, but I honestly think that this could be an entire class, a multicultural lit elective, looking at the effects of trauma in and through literature. I’m going to work on building that class so that when I have enough teacher street cred, I can fight with more “ammo” (what an unfortunate metaphor in this instance) by having a concrete idea of the class. In the meantime, I’m convinced that to make a pit-stop on the topic of PTSD would satisfy my desire to talk about it, but would do so in a way that didn’t give the necessary time for evaluation, discussion, and argumentative writing.

The difficult thing for me is that I got into teaching because of the books (a taboo statement in this field of work). I wanted it to be my job to read and geek out about books. At times, that goal comes true; I’ve had so much fun reading The Odyssey with ~140 students stretching across all demographics and backgrounds. Not only is it satisfying to read one of my favorite classics as my JOB, but it’s thrilling to see it through their eyes every year as they make connections (they always yell “that’s just like Spongebob!” when we read about the bag of wind or talk about Neptune) and form opinions about Odysseus as a hero, as a leader, as a male. I know it would be endlessly fun to dive into the topic of PTSD with them, but after only a year and a half of teaching on my own, I’m realizing that although I got into it for the fun of the books, the learning of the kids is more important. If my PTSD pit-stop is just for fun, meaning that more time would be necessary in order to expand on their learning enough to validate doing it, then the kids deserve better. I have to prioritize the kids over the books.

Thusly, I’ll stick to the old-faithful argument of whether or not Odysseus is a hero. The epic ends before we get to see the effects of Odysseus’ return and we’re never afforded the benefit of anyone other than Odysseus’ perspective on his actions. So, luckily for me, I get to incorporate two of my favorite Greek-inspired novels: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood and Circe by Madeline Miller.

One final thing: before school started, I read The Song of Achilles, also by Madeline Miller, and really enjoyed it. She is clearly very knowledgeable about mythology but gracefully incorporates her own spin on the classics. She brings to life, especially, characters who have never had the opportunity to tell their own side of the story, which is why I was such a big fan of Circe. Hannah mentioned that she liked The Song of Achilles better than Circe, but I must admit that I’ve grown rather bored of the male perspective, even the submissive, underdog male. I also never much liked Achilles; he always seemed too self-obsessed and while Miller effortlessly depicts a sympathetic, loving side of Achilles, the overall story doesn’t change and his hubris is still the star of the show. Nonetheless, I’d recommend it to any and all.

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Review of Beah’s “A Long Way Gone” and Gantos’s “Hole in My Life”

Does a book need to be sad in order to be moving? Must the reader suffer alongside the writers/characters in order to learn from them? I’ve been asking myself these questions since finishing two of the texts that have been taught in my school’s 9th grade ELA classes in past years. Both texts were nonfiction (we have our fiction texts locked down) and apparently have been popular in previous years so, despite the depressing blurbs, I was optimistic about reading both.

I’m now sitting with both texts, A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah and Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos, under my belt, but I’m having trouble picturing myself reading either text with a class of students. I’m well aware that they both have value; let me make that perfectly clear. However, nowadays, I’m reading things with a mind to how I would teach that text and what meanings students might be able to extract, and I’m not confident I got anything out of them other than all-consuming sadness. That takes me back to my original questions: does a book need to be sad in order to be moving and must the reader suffer alongside the writers/characters in order to learn from them? Additionally, considering the lesson we expect young readers to extract from this exceedingly sad text, is it possible to learn the same lesson from a more positive and uplifting text?

Spare me the lectures, please. I fully understand that just because something is sad doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t read it. We all know that my patronage of WWII and Holocaust books and documentaries likely has me on a CIA watch list. I continue to seek out these stories in spite of the fact that I know they will have a sad ending because they are still saturated with meaning and lessons on tolerance, injustice, kindness, forgiveness, and so on and so forth. Similarly, I can see that both of these nonfiction texts address juvenile justice in controversial and meaningful ways, ways that might appeal to the readers that will be in my classroom. In these texts, they may find solace, familiarity, wisdom of experience, and guidance, all of which would make these texts more than valid reads for these students. So I’m on board! No, I didn’t enjoy either of them very much, but maybe that’s because I’m not the target audience. No, I couldn’t relate, but that is an incomprehensible blessing that only reflects my privileged life. Now that I’ve ruminated, my original, rhetorical questions seem to have morphed into the more concrete question of why can’t we just read something happy?!? If we read both of these books plus To Kill A Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet, these kids might just wonder whether happy books actually exist! Color me selfish, but I want to read something happy!!

Anyway, let’s talk about the texts:

This is how wars are fought now: by children, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s. Children have become soldiers of choice. In the more than fifty conflicts going on worldwide, it is estimated that there are some 300,000 child soldiers. Ishmael Beah used to be one of them.

What is war like through the eyes of a child soldier? How does one become a killer? How does one stop? Child soldiers have been profiled by journalists, and novelists have struggled to imagine their lives. But until now, there has not been a first-person account from someone who came through this hell and survived.

In A Long Way Gone, Beah, now twenty-five years old, tells a riveting story: how at the age of twelve, he fled attacking rebels and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By thirteen, he’d been picked up by the government army, and Beah, at heart a gentle boy, found that he was capable of truly terrible acts.

 

In the summer of 1971, Jack Gantos was an aspiring writer looking for adventure, cash for college tuition, and a way out of a dead-end job. For ten thousand dollars, he recklessly agreed to help sail a sixty-foot yacht loaded with a ton of hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City, where he and his partners sold the drug until federal agents caught up with them. For his part in the conspiracy, Gantos was sentenced to serve up to six years in prison.
In Hole in My Life, this prizewinning author of over thirty books for young people confronts the period of struggle and confinement that marked the end of his own youth. On the surface, the narrative tumbles from one crazed moment to the next as Gantos pieces together the story of his restless final year of high school, his short-lived career as a criminal, and his time in prison. But running just beneath the action is the story of how Gantos – once he was locked up in a small, yellow-walled cell – moved from wanting to be a writer to writing, and how dedicating himself more fully to the thing he most wanted to do helped him endure and ultimately overcome the worst experience of his life.

This one was difficult for the most obvious reason: the subject of child soldiers and war is horrific. It was extremely thoughtful and well-written, clearly being the result of a short life full of experience.

A Long Way Gone was the better of the two. It was painfully sad and also distant in a way that meant that I, as a white American woman, couldn’t really understand or even imagine the writer’s experiences. Nonetheless, it was extremely thoughtful and well-written, showing that it was the result of a short lifetime of horrid and impactful experiences.

Hole in My Life was unpleasant, not because of the subject matter, but because of the writing. I couldn’t stand the narrator, and I’m not talking about the 19-year-old Gantos. I mean the post-prison, writing-about-my-experiences Gantos, who narrated his choices and actions in ways that seemed to romanticize a lifetime of arrogant and ignorant actions and choices. I was reminded of Christopher McCandless from Krakauer’s Into the Wild, whose ignorance of his privilege and reckless desire for adventure directly led to his death. Gantos kindly admits that it was his own stupidity that landed him in prison, but his honesty didn’t negate his unlikability, for me at least. I have no desire to teach this one, but we’ll see.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Am I the only one feeling overwhelmed by sad books lately?

 

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Review: “Babylon’s Ashes” and “I’m Just A Person” + Summer Reading Update

That’s right, two reviews and an update; I’m jamming all my info into one post because I’m too busy-lazy, or buzy (PRONOUNCED: boo-zee – adj: the state of having so many things to do that elective pastimes fall by the wayside).

The other reason I’m jamming these two reviews together is because I don’t actually have a ton (good or bad) to say about either. The first book was on my summer reading list (I’ll have more to say about that later), so one down, and the other totally counts towards my goal of 10, so two down.

Babylon’s Ashes – James S. A. Corey

Anyone who has spent some time reading this blog (first of all, thank you! Also, wow I have a lot of asides going on in parentheses today!) will know that I’m a big fan of what some call the “space opera.” The hubs and I both got (deeper) into Scifi lit after reading The Martian years ago and that led to a rabbit hole of books about space travel, exploration, colonization, political strife, and so on and so forth. So anyway, I found the Expanse series back in 2015, started it, introduced Hubs to them, and we’ve never looked back. Book 6 of that series, Babylon’s Ashes, was the most recently published and I finally broke down and bought the hard copy [which messes up my series of paperbacks aesthetic (other volume reviews here)]. This one took me almost a month to read for two reasons: 1) it is 600 pages and 2) I’m buzy.

 

Now, concerning the book. As previously implied, I’m obsessed with this series. In fact, I just sent the first and second volumes off with friends this week in the hope of recruiting more geeks. So why, then, did I only give it 3 stars on Goodreads? Generally speaking, it was satisfying and it gave me some time *cough*a month*cough* with characters I consider to be old friends. However, also generally speaking, it felt like this volume was a filler. Have you ever read a volume in a series that felt as thought it was just there to connect the books before and after it? That was this book for me. A lot happened in this volume, don’t get me wrong, but nothing of the caliber of the other volumes. Giving a synopsis would either be a spoiler for those who will read the series or would be pointless for those who will not, so I won’t. The good news, though, is that this volume insinuated that big things are coming in future books (of which there will be 3, I think), so that pleases me. It was meatier than it needed to be, but it was fun to get lost in space again.

I’m Just A Person – Tig Notaro

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned on here that I love the podcast Professor Blastoff. It’s hosted by Tig Notaro, Kyle Dunnigan, and David Huntsburger, all successful comedians who have a direct line to my funny bone. In the midst of hosting that podcast, Tig had an earth-shatteringly, record-breakingly bad year, in which (no spoilers, don’t worry) she found out that she had pneumonia, which led to C-Diff, then she endured a breakup, then her mother died unexpectedly, then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. All of this she related – with great poise and often even humor – on the podcast. She did a stand-up show in which she told the crowd about her cancer but still managed to be funny, and she was later nominated for a Grammy for the recording of that show. She had an HBO special and an Amazon Original show, she’s been on all the late night shows, and she wrote a book.

 

As I wrote in my brief Goodreads review (gosh, I’m just a living plug for Goodreads today), I’d be curious to know for whom this memoir was written. For PB fans like myself, or just general Tig fans, none of what was in this book was news. I not only knew about her many trials and tribs of 2012, but I had already heard podcast episodes in which she related the news to her fans, still finding ways to weave in jokes about how her boobs must’ve gotten tired of her making fun of how small they were for the past 40 years, so they’re rebelling from the inside. I much prefer the podcast format, since it was raw and real; nothing had been thought out over years or filtered by 5 editors before reaching me, someone who cares about her. This memoir was more formatted as her ruminations on her childhood, her relationship with her family, especially her mother, her emotions, her “impostor-syndrome” at being called brave, and so on. I think it is meant to be more personal, in that we get to the root of her thoughts and feelings. Going back to my original question about audience, oddly enough, I think this book is perfect for anyone who is a casual fan, or even a complete stranger to Tig. Anyone dealing with death, tragedy, illness, or just plain old growing up will find value in this memoir. Tig manages to find humor in strife, and I think more people would do well to emulate that. However, being a big Tig fan, I found this book to be a watered-down version of the podcast. I knew it all already and, whereas the book makes you feel like an audience-member to her one-man-show, the podcast makes you feel like a friend in a room with a friend who is dealing with something really big. I prefer the latter. Somehow, this became a plug for Professor Blastoff.

Summer Reading Update:

So, I went to do some pre-planning yesterday with my 9th grade team and we realized we hadn’t read several of the works that were often taught at this school in 9th grade. Thus, my summer reading list has morphed slightly. I warned you all that this might happen. I must say that I’m far from excited about most of the texts, which I’m letting be a gauge for how the students will be even less excited. Off to a bad start.

I’ll show the texts below, in case someone has happy, blessed things to say about any of them, but before I do that, I’ll say that we want to tie in all the works to the theme or topic of “growing up.” We’ll definitely be reading To Kill A Mockingbird (YAY!!) and Romeo and Juliet (ugh, teen “love”), but we also need to tie in some non-fiction, short stories, articles, diversity, juvenile justice, etc. If anyone has any suggestions, they will be most welcome and appreciated! 

 

 

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L: Bartoletti’s “Hitler Youth: Growing up in Hitler’s Shadow”

I’m having a hard time articulating my thoughts about this book into sentences that are half as meaningful as anything included in this 150 page, picture-filled book that is astoundingly categorized as Juvenile Non-faction. I am fascinated by WWII and Holocaust accounts, so my reading on the subject has been relatively widespread, but this was easily one of the most profound texts I have read about WWII Germany and the horrific inflictions upon the Jewish (and other non-Aryan) communities from 1926 to 1945 under Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror.

hitler

Honestly, no review containing my own words and thoughts could serve as a better recommendation for this text than its own images and words. Unfortunately, I had to return the book before I remembered that I wanted to include direct quotes, but at the same time, that would have been a problem since I would’ve want to quote every single line; every sentence and every photo shed more light on the devastating details of Germany’s actions during WWII and the ways in which Hitler managed to recruit ultimately 7 million young Germans into the Hitler Youth, a group of the Neonazi Party that focused on young “Aryan” Germans, ages 13 to 18, and prepared them to assist in Germany’s martial efforts to take control of Europe. My eyes were opened to the countless rights I take for granted today, since those same rights were robbed from anyone and everyone who even seemed not to support Hitler. The harshest punishments were inflicted on those who did not support Hitler’s cause, and everyone, supporters or not, were at the mercy of the Fuhrer’s whims.

hitler3

2I say all of this because I’m afraid for my country. When I read about the power that a fanatical leader can hold over millions of willingly ignorant followers, I can’t help but be frightened by the echoes of a similar level of radical injustice that is unmistakably present in U.S. politics today. There are still people who absurdly believe that the Holocaust never happened, and even that is addressed in Bartoletti’s text, but blind obedience and willing ignorance can make millions of people do terrible things and, unless we educate ourselves on how it happened last time, history may truly be doomed to repeat itself.

1That means only one thing: we must educate ourselves. I thought about doing a “Love This, Try This” segment for this review, but it seemed too cheap, and I had a hard time narrowing it down to one recommendation. Thus, I will give all the recommendations I can think of that will help shed light on the atrocities that occurred, so as to prevent such an occurrence from ever happening again. I know enlightenment on genocide isn’t exactly at the top of anyone’s To-Do List, but PLEASE look into at least one of these things.

***All of the images above were featured in Bartoletti’s text***

Books:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Documentaries/Shows:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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