A Passion for Victory by Benson Bobrick (Brief Thoughts)

A Passion for Victory: The Story of the Olympics in Ancient and Early Modern Times by Benson Bobrick (Knopf Books for Young Readers, June 2012) is a highly readable history for children about the international phenomenon of the Olympics through the ages. Beginning in ancient Greece by looking at archeological as well as historic records, Mr. Bobrick conveys the significance of the athletic events from cultural and political standpoints. From Greece to Rome to the first modern Olympics, I was fascinated to learn about how athletic competitions impacted the international scene through history.

The Olympics are meant to reach beyond political strife, but I was not surprised to learn about the conflicts that have arisen in the early years of the modern Olympics. After all, those years were filled with two different World Wars. Nonetheless, I was impressed by the ways the communities have come together in modern times and the extent with which the Olympics have spread in just 100 years. I learned a lot of previously unknown facts, like that in early modern times the Olympics were meant for those who were not professional athletes. I loved learning about some of the world’s greatest athletes. I was most interested to learn about Jesse Owens and his comments on how those in Germany respected him while the United States still had policies of discrimination.

If anything bothered me, it was the abrupt ending of the book. A Passion for Victory, as the subtitle indicates, only covers the early modern Olympics. As such, it stopped detailing the Olympics after World War II, and I was disappointed to not get more of a history of the Olympics since then. In general, though, I really enjoyed reading the historical overviews. The fact that I wanted more to read indicates that Mr. Bobrick did something right! It was a nice book to get me in the mood for the upcoming Summer Olympics.

Note: I read a digital review copy from the publisher for review consideration via netgalley.com.

Death By Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked by Mary Theobald

I greatly enjoy American history so I was excited to read Mary Theobald’s Death By Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked (Andrews McNeel Publishing, June 2012). I ended up leaving it a bit disappointed because of the lack of depth behind the book. It was an amusing and quick read, and I did learn some trivial facts from American history, but because I had expected a more detailed examination of myths and reality, I was disappointed in the superficiality of Ms Theobald’s offering.

As the subtitle suggests, the book is a collection of clarifications to some common misconceptions and traditions in history, such as that women frequently died when their petticoats caught fire or that early homes did not have closets in order to avoid the “closet tax.”  Ms Theobald writes with a humorous and personable tone and her explanations against the traditions were succinct. Each myth got one or two pages of explanation to “debunk” it; some explanations were as brief as a few sentences. On pages without text were full-color photographs of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation artifacts, as well as staged scenarios with modern-day actors.

If the reader wanted a quick and amusing look at history, Death by Petticoat may be a satisfying option. It seems particularly appropriate as a coffee table book to remember one’s trip to Colonial Wiliamsburg. (I’ve never been there myself). It is a book one can flip through but it’s also short enough to read in a sitting as I did. As it was, I personally was disappointed by the superficiality of the explanations. Further, there was no resource list or endnotes to indicate sources (a pet peeve of mine in nonfiction), and I found it far too brief a read to leave me feeling  I’d learned something memorable about American history other than “don’t be gullible.”

Note: I read a digital review copy from the publisher for review consideration via netgalley.com.

The Art of Changing the Brain by James E. Zull

The Art of Changing the Brain by James E. Zull (2002, Stylus Publishing) is subtitled “Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of the Brain” and I picked it up because of my new role as teacher to my homeschool aged son. As his primary teacher, I want insight and assistance in understanding how to teach. I was intrigued by Zull’s approach to teaching by examining how the brain works. Although The Art of Changing the Brain does get technical in places, in general, it is a fascinating look at how learning is a biological process.

By learning how the brain works, I feel I have a great understanding at why certain teaching methods work and why others may not. The main take-aways I have from Zull’s book at the following. Some of these are rather obvious, but learning about them in the context of our brain was memorable.

  • People can only create new learning by building on past learning. Physically, they must build on existing neuronal networks.
  • People learn when they are emotionally engaged in the subject. Ideally, they will be so emotionally involved that they will dream about the subject.
  • Being physically engaged in a subject engages the emotions. Reading, seeing, and listening are all ways to become physically engaged, so it doesn’t just mean moving.
  • Learning is more effective when the learner ponders and makes the connections his- or herself. Listening to a lecture is not as effective as asking the questions and searching for your own answers. Faster is not better!
  • Acting on new knowledge, either by writing about it (i.e., this blog post) or discussing it helps to solidify the newly created synapses. The learner will have learned more effectively by acting on it; it’s a way of reflecting.
  • When a learner feels he or she owned the learning process, the learning is much more effective. (That is, creating an environment in which the learner can say “I did this myself” is much more effective than being told or helped along the way.)

Professor Zull is a college-level biology teacher. As such, the book is technical in places and it does seem geared toward teachers of older learners. However, as the teacher of an elementary aged child, I still found it helpful and enlightening. In fact, I loved reading it! I hope to be able to internalize the realities he discussed as I seek to help my young son learn.

The Maid and the Queen: A Secret History of Joan of Arc by Nancy Goldstone

I really enjoyed reading Shakespeare’s Henry VI part 1 in January, mostly because it include Joan of Arc and mentioned Margaret of Anjou, who married Henry VI. Joan of Arc has fascinated me since I dressed up as Joan for my sixth grade Medieval feast, and Margaret of Anjou is an ancestor of mine. Shakespeare’s version obviously portrays the War of the Roses from England’s perspective, and it fails to give depth to the internal struggles of France during this era. Obviously, it’s fiction, but I became intrigued by the era as I read Shakespeare.

To my delight, this spring Netgalley provided me with a review copy of a new biography about Joan of Arc and others in her era. The Maid and the Queen by Nancy Goldstone (March 2012, Viking) is subtitled “A Secret History of Joan of Arc,” but this subtitle fails to encompass the scope of the book. Because much is unknown about Joan, her unique story and her impact on French history is only understood by considering the French political situation, the locale in which she lived, and the political leaders who supported her, thereby enabling a poor peasant (albeit one who spoke with angels) to rise to power in the French military.

Interestingly, Ms Goldstone begins by discussing the romantic legends prevalent in the era, particularly the story of Melusine. Ms Goldstone argues that because of these superstitious traditions and folkloric legends, when a peasant woman named Joan claimed to speak with angels and declared she could bring military victory to France, local leaders listened to her, considering her the fulfillment of prophecy.

Yolande of Aragon is the queen of the title, the mother-in-law to the dauphin of France, the man who would become Charles VII after the English were driven out of France. One of her other children, Rene, was also an influential leader of the era; his daughter Margaret of Anjou became queen of England when she married the young Henry VI1. Because Yolande was widowed at a young age, she and not her husband wielded power among the royal leaders of the era. She was directly influential in helping Charles VII regain his throne at the end of the Hundred Years’ war.

I was not at all familiar with the history of the Hundred Years’ War. Occasionally, I felt a little lost as to the unfolding events, especially if I set the book aside for a few days. But in general, Ms Goldstone’s book was written for the general reader who is not a historian. I enjoyed the complicated account of an insane French king (Charles VI) and the drama of the opposing political leaders. Although I can’t say I will certainly remember all the details, because of the breadth of the book, I feel I now better understand France in this era, and I look forward to following up with a more general history of the Middle Ages.

In sum, I found The Maid and the Queen to be a nice follow up to the obviously fictional Henry VI part 1 by Shakespeare. It helps that it also is about my ancestors, Yolande of Aragon, Rene of Bar, and Margaret of Anjou, as well as about the intriguing and unknown Joan of Arc. These are subjects I want to learn more about, and this book certainly piqued my interest further.

Note: I read a digital copy via netgalley.com from the publisher for review consideration

  1. Her influence on that marriage caused the territory conquered in France to be lost to the English and restored to France. She is my ancestor on my father’s side.