Month: February 2014

Review: The Old Man and the Sea

The Old Man and the Sea
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This wonderful, succinct little book is merely the story of an old man who caught a big fish. Beyond the surface, though, lies a wealth of symbolism, a depth of meaning, and a plethora of items for contemplation. Santiago, the “old man” of the title, is viewed as especially unlucky due to his frequent and very long streaks without catching a fish. When he goes out alone one day, however, he able to catch a shockingly large marlin. He spend the next day and more struggling with the fish, coming to grips with himself through his struggle with the fish.

In the story, Hemingway gives clear indications that Santiago is a Christ-figure, a hero who suffers. What makes Hemingway’s telling unique, however, is that there is no resurrection and there is no gospel. Rather than a return from death or unluck, Santiago instead experiences his “crucifixion” only to prepare for yet another. In addition, because he was alone during his struggle, there is no one to accurately tell his story, to sing his epic or spread his gospel. There is only more silent suffering.

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Review: Beowulf translated by Michael Alexander

To be honest, I can hardly say that Beowulf ranks among my favorite books. As far as epics go, there is much better to be found in the Classical epics (IliadOdysseyAeneid) and the Christian epics (Divine ComedyParadise Lost). As far as medieval literature goes, there is much better to be found in, for example, The Canterbury Tales or, again, The Divine Comedy. When compared in either of these categories, Beowulf appears flaccid, superficial, and inarticulate.

With that said, Beowulf is, nonetheless, if taken by itself and freed of its lagging place in the literary categories into which it might be placed, at least a very interesting reading on some levels. While the surface story of a Danish hero defeating monsters reads more like a Steven Seagal film (read: action-packed but unintelligent and with a plot that has more holes than Swiss cheese) than anything else, below the surface there is something fascinating happening.

The author of Beowulf, undoubtedly a Christian and almost certainly a member of the clergy, is, through rather clever anachronisms retroactively baptizing his heathen ancestors. This is, for me, the one aspect of the book that makes it exciting to read. While there is little philosophical discourse or religious reflection here, as one might expect to find if one approaches this having read some of the great Classical and/or Christian epics, the narrator buries the religious themes in the onslaught of activity. In so doing, he attempts to redeem his non-Christian ancestors through demonstrating at various points that in spite of their heathenism God was indeed present in their history and there were even hints of an eventual Christian ethic replacing the brutal old northern European warrior code.

Ultimately, I believe the narrator fails in his goal because the task is too great (it is remarkably difficult to find much worth redeeming in pre-Christian northern European thought and religion) and his attempts are insufficient (merely linking figures from his inherited mythology to biblical figures and sprinkling the occasional symbol of baptism or crucifixion). The result, however, is equally fascinating. Rather than a redeemed heathen hero, we are presented with something of a bridge figure, a man who embodies the greatest ideals of both the pre-Christian and Christian northern European peoples, who is a great warrior seeking after fame and fortune and filled with pride, but is also charitable and compassionate and dies to save his people. If nothing else, what makes Beowulf an interesting read is that Beowulf himself is a sort of proto-knight. In him we see the emergence of the code of chivalry adhered to be the Christian warriors of the High Middle Ages. The idea remains incomplete and underdeveloped in Beowulf but anyone with a modest understanding of medieval history and a keen eye for detail can catch a glimpse here of the emergence of a new and powerful ideal.

Review: The Theban Plays of Sophocles translated by David R. Slavitt

Sophocle’s Theban Cycle, of course, contains three of the greatest plays ever written: Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and Oedipus at Colonus. There is little that can be said, in a short review like this one, that has not already been said about these plays. They are masterpieces of the human imagination which explore some of the perennial themes of human life: justice, death, destiny, truth, power, family, sin, redemption — to name but a few. All of these plays are essential reading for any educated person.

I heartily recommend this particular translation, by David R. Slavitt. It is devoid of notes outside of only three instances in which he informs us of his conjectural emendations to the text as it stands. This, I believe, is wonderful especially for someone approaching the text for the first time as it allows the reader to approach the text without preconceptions and to interpret it freely according to the impression that it makes upon him, rather than being guided by the impressions of another, a supposed expert.

I read this translation alongside of two older translations of the works and found it refreshing by comparison. The language is updated to resemble the speech of any intelligent, well-spoken English speaker today. It does not dumb it down to the level of a comic book as some modernized translations of ancient works tend to do, but instead offers us something very close to, I believe, what Sophocles might have written had he written in English — an educated, approachable vernacular. This allows Slavitt to get, I believe, closer to the meaning of the original (for modern readers) than do some of the more difficult renderings in a more antiquated, difficult English.

Review: The Story-Killers by Terrence O. Moore

I should first offer the disclaimer that I am a teacher at one of the charter schools which Dr. Moore mentions in his book and which he helped to start. Even with this personal connection, I believe my review is a fair and objective appraisal.

In this book, Moore examines the contents of the Common Core standards for literature. As I am sure most readers of this review already know, the Common Core is a new set of standards being pushed by some very big names and which claims “college and career readiness” as its ultimate aim. 

Dr. Moore does an excellent job of exposing the plethora of flaws in the Common Core standards. He demonstrates again and again the far left bias which prevails in the Common Core textbooks and the selections for literature. He also exposes the degraded pseudo-education of the Common Core in its use of so-called “informational texts” in literature classes, its lack of intellectual vigor, and its avoidance of any thorough, meaningful, insightful, and full reads of any of the great classics of Western Civilization. Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Moore offers a clear and compelling argument against the very idea of “college and career readiness.” Human beings are not machines, producers, or money-makers, primarily, they are complex creatures with higher aims: goodness, truth, and beauty. The Common Core seeks to reduce human beings to something less — far less — than this, and Dr. Moore’s book is a cogent rebuttal to such dehumanization.

Also of great value in this book is Dr. Moore’s counter-proposal of what he calls a “true common core.” Throughout the book, Moore not only criticizes what is wrong with the Common Core but presents a description of just how things should be done properly, including what sorts of things should be read and what sorts of questions should be asked about what is read. Near the end of the book, Moore offers a very thorough grade-by-grade list of the types of books students should be reading in the various subjects in high school: in short, the standard texts of Western Civilization, the texts that will give the students the insight they need to succeed (not just in college and career but in thought and life more generally) in the world these classics have created and which will be fuel for contemplation for the rest of their lives if they are to live lives of value, meaning, and dignity.

The greatest drawback of this book is that it is only about the literature standards. I would be interested to see as thorough a treatment of the standards in mathematics as a companion volume to this book. In addition, Dr. Moore might be a bit verbose in this book for some, but I find the verbosity rather charming in that it never allows one to forget the importance of the subject at hand: the minds of America’s youth.

I recommend this book for teachers, for parents, and for anyone interested in the future of this nation. The education our children receive today will determine the future for them and for all of us. Dr. Moore’s book is a call to take action by not allowing the political interests of the far left and the financial interests of exceedingly wealthy business owners to determine this future.