Carly Nations

After the image went viral of a man dressed in a Viking headdress and face paint at the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, there was a deluge of criticism of the contemporary celebration of medieval imagery. White supremacist groups have lately embraced such imagery, including symbols from the Scandanavian marauders and Christian Crusaders. As The Viking Heart opens, Arthur Herman anticipates these critiques.

“The crucial mistake many make is to insist that the defining legacy of the Viking heart is somehow racial,” Herman writes. “In truth, the Norsemen of the Dark Ages never formed a single race or even one national identity. What defined them was a way of life and an outlook that we can delineate as cultural and spiritual, and they still have relevance and meaning today.” 

What follows is a comprehensive history of the different groups that would eventually be known as the Vikings. Herman also includes an outline of Scandinavians’ contemporary contributions to European and American history, from their involvement in the Civil War as Union soldiers to Knute Rockne’s legendary football coaching career. He attributes such contributions not to some set of uniquely Scandinavian genetic traits but to what he calls the “Viking heart”—an unquenchable thirst for improvement married to a strong sense of community-building.

Whether you’re new to Viking scholarship or a well-read medievalist, The Viking Heart has something to offer. While there are some places where Herman could have better amplified the advantages Scandinavians experienced as immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, all in all, The Viking Heart honestly assesses the results of the Vikings’ past actions around the world and makes an evenhanded argument for the importance of Viking culture in U.S. history. 

As we wrestle with how to make our world a better, more equal place, The Viking Heart provides a framework for recognizing the importance of the past in shaping our present and future.

Arthur Herman attributes Scandinavians’ many historical contributions to the “Viking heart,” an unquenchable thirst for improvement and community-building.

When I graduated from high school in 2008, the U.S. was plummeting into a financial collapse that tanked the rest of the world’s economy as well. By the time I graduated from college in 2012, the descriptions of most entry-level positions began, “Must have at least five years of relevant experience.” And no one really had any advice about what to do with the massive, overwhelming problem that was and is student debt.

In 2021, as graduates face not only economic hardship but also the pandemics of poverty, racism and COVID-19, good advice is equally hard to find. The past year has taught them that stability is the illusion, while change and upheaval are the norm. Facing an uncertain future means figuring out how to navigate big changes.

In Letter to a Young Female Physician: Notes From a Medical Life, author Suzanne Koven explores her own personal crises and growth, weaving them within the story of her practice as an internist, or doctor of internal medicine. Koven discusses her struggles with image, identity, sexuality and weight and sees these things as inextricably tied to her desire to be someone important: a doctor. Yet, what Koven discovers is that despite succeeding and becoming a doctor, she failed to overcome the impostor syndrome that plagued her even before she held others’ lives in her hands.

In this way, Koven’s story speaks to the impostor in all of us. Koven writes that “even the most blameless patient, the victim of an accident or a random illness in no way related to anything that person did and in no way preventable by them, feels shame.” We’re all victims of senseless suffering—an economic collapse, a pandemic. These shared traumas reveal our shame; but Koven advises us not to ignore or try to defeat it but rather to allow it to shape us into better, more empathetic people.

By contrast, Your Turn: How to Be an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims falls into the more traditional, practical advice category. With frank, straightforward counsel and to-do list chapter titles, Your Turn gives advice that all of us—adults, young adults and children—need to hear.

Citing the work of bestselling psychology researchers and writers like Lori Gottlieb and Brené Brown, Lythcott-Haims’ book advises young people to take chances and find what makes them happy, rather than following a prescribed path to success. Perhaps the most moving passages are the “don’t just take it from me” stories collected from various friends, acquaintances and pen pals. In a world that feels so isolating, reading these deeply intimate stories reminds us why we long to live in community with one another and how doing so truly helps us survive and thrive.

The greatest takeaway from both of these books isn’t the advice they provide but their acknowledgement that we all need each other. Alone, we’re more susceptible to our own shame and self-doubt. Yet here we are, longing not for some sort of undefinable success but simply to be in each other’s presence again. To be sure, many obstacles still stand in the way of our ideal lives; for example, no one envisions a pandemic as the perfect start to adulthood. But sharing our stories is the first step forward, as these tender, inspiring books make clear.

The greatest takeaway from both of these books for burgeoning adults isn’t the advice but the acknowledgement that we all need each other.

“You see, Arthur is my dog,” I told the vet as she prodded yet another conspicuous lump, this time on my dog’s belly. Arthur has developed benign lipomas since he was 4, each of which is rigorously checked upon discovery. “I got him the day after I graduated from college, and my life was kind of a mess, and well . . . He’s just my dog. Does that make sense?”

The vet peered into Arthur’s eyes with her scope and then fed him another treat for being the excellent boy that he is. “Of course," she said. "Arthur has to live forever.”

“Yes, exactly,” I said. “I’m so glad you understand.”

If you’re a dog person like me, you will understand this exchange. Dogs are and have always been an irreplaceable part of humans' lives. Simon Garfield’s Dog’s Best Friend: The Story of an Unbreakable Bond explores this connection, beginning with the development of the dog-human hunting companion relationship and following the changes that have led us to today's world of designer dogs and designer dog accessories.

Though Garfield often questions the ethics of said changes, he returns throughout the book to his own dog, Ludo, admitting, “We would do almost anything to ensure his continued happiness.” Garfield uses his relationship with Ludo to explore a myriad of delightful doggy topics, from the queen’s corgis and their odd names to dogs who follow their owners' funeral processions. Full of quintessentially British humor, Dog’s Best Friend is a heartwarming read for anyone who wants to know more about why they love their dog.

Similarly, Kelly Conaboy’s The Particulars of Peter: Dance Lessons, DNA Tests, and Other Excuses to Hang Out With My Perfect Dog explores her personal story through her relationship with her dog, Peter. For writerly dog lovers, Conaboy’s book feels familiar. After all, so much of our lives are colored by how we care for our dogs; how could we possibly tell our stories without them?

Hilariously crass, Conaboy speaks aloud the thoughts of us all. Too in love with her dog and defensive of anything that might diminish his reputation in her eyes, she answers questions about Peter’s unknown age and lineage with “ageless, poet,” glorifying his humble beginnings as an abandoned shelter pup.

Both books end with the authors reflecting on their present states, engaged in the process of writing and simply being with their beloved pups. Interestingly (or perhaps not), that is exactly where I am now. Arthur, head on his pillow next to me; me, typing away. Despite knowing our obsession with our dogs is absurd, these moments convince us that no other way of being is possible. “We’re always impossibly happy when we’re together,” ends Garfield. And so we are.

These two books offer heartwarming, hilarious insight for anyone who wants to know more about why they love their dog so much.

As students and teachers prepare for fall, these timely books explore the ways in which education both fails and finds us. As each memoir here shows, we can shape the future of our world simply by rethinking the way we learn.

Learning by Heart

Tony Wagner, senior research fellow at the Learning Policy Institute and a longtime education specialist, examines the ways in which the structures of American education fail to respect the individuality of each student in his memoir, Learning by Heart: An Unconventional Education. After being kicked out of several boarding schools and failing out of college twice, Wagner began to pursue learning not for the sake of earning an “education” but rather for the love of knowledge. This passion sent him on a journey to discover how he could provide that same opportunity to students educated in more classical environments. Traveling far from his New England home to study in Mexico, Wagner eventually returned to America’s most hallowed and traditional halls at Harvard University to challenge widely accepted paradigms of learning.

These books represent the best of what education could offer, if we would only believe in the power of each person’s individual story.

Readers who are frustrated by conventional schooling will recognize Wagner’s fascinating narrative as their own. However, it’s worth noting that Wagner’s journey ends positively thanks in part to his proximity to certain societal privileges. Though he tries to acknowledge this privilege at points throughout the memoir, it’s not difficult for the reader to imagine how this story might differ if it were told from the perspective of someone with access to fewer resources and opportunities.

Why Did I Get a B?

In contrast, Why Did I Get a B? And Other Mysteries We’re Discussing in the Faculty Lounge addresses issues of disparity in education and chronicles author Shannon Reed’s growth from a traditionally successful middle-­class student to an actively passionate teacher with an expansive background in preschool, middle school, high school and college classrooms. Having come from a family of educators, Reed describes her movement toward teaching as an inevitable call. “After nineteen years as a teacher, I can no longer shrug helplessly, pretending I don’t know how I ended up in this career,” she writes. “If you are what you do, then it is what I am.” Her writing honors her struggles while also making fun of her own misconceptions about teaching.

Divided into comical essays and sincere meditations, Why Did I Get a B? provides an accurate depiction of how many teachers feel about their careers. Educators will appreciate the particular brand of nerdy sarcasm that pervades Reed’s book—and they may even recognize it as one of the quirks teachers must develop to survive in the world of education. However, anyone not in that world will enjoy the book, too, as an honest look into how teachers’ brains work to solve problems and do what’s best for their kids, while also just trying to stay alive.

Kid Quixotes

This sentiment also undergirds Kid Quixotes: A Group of Students, Their Teacher, and the One-Room School Where Everything Is Possible, which details author Stephen Haff’s personal experience with bipolar depression alongside his efforts to construct a creative and individualized learning environment for kids in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. Kid Quixotes weaves together the narrative of Haff’s teaching career and the stories of his students, who are largely members of the Latinx immigrant community. These kids, who seek solace in Haff’s Still Waters in a Storm after-school program, translate Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote from its original Spanish into English and then into their own interpretative play over the course of five years. This process of reading, writing and translating allows Haff to uncover the complexities of each child’s life story, and he encourages them to bring those personal experiences to life through the play.

Each of Haff’s students speaks out from the pages of this book and implores readers to hear their voice. In particular, Haff spotlights the voice of a young girl named Sarah, the “Kid Quixote” of Still Waters, who speaks prophetically both to the other children and to the reader. After she tells her first story at Still Waters, Haff remarks that the other children were “stunned, as if they had just met God.” The reader also feels this moment’s transcendence, which continues throughout the book.

One of the final sequences in Kid Quixotes describes the response of a writer who had been invited to work with the students at Still Waters. After her encounter, she said she viewed these students differently, seeing them as “intellectual equals.” Haff’s work at Still Waters, Reed’s reflections and Wagner’s memoir all ask us to do this same work. By respecting students as equals with something to offer, rather than as receptacles for information, we allow their powerful stories to change our broken world. These books represent the best of what education could offer, if we would only believe in the power of each person’s individual story.

As students and teachers prepare for fall, these timely books explore the ways in which education both fails and finds us. As each memoir here shows, we can shape the future of our world simply by rethinking the way we learn. Learning by Heart Tony Wagner, senior research fellow at the Learning Policy Institute and […]

It is essentially a fact that Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all time. Almost everyone in the world knows her name—even people who don’t otherwise watch any sports at all. But another famous female tennis player came before Serena whose name was just as well known but now has all but disappeared from the popular consciousness. Robert Weintraub’s The Divine Miss Marble: A Life of Tennis, Fame, and Mystery details this woman’s story and reawakens her legacy.

Alice Marble was the product of a poor California gold rush family, making her rise to tennis stardom something of a shock to the wealthy elite who most often played the sport. But Marble’s winning game was only part of her worldwide appeal. Weintraub details Marble’s rise to tennis success alongside her rise to stardom as a Hollywood socialite darling. Close friends with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Marble rubbed elbows with some of the world’s most famous and influential people, including Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. These relationships not only led her to become an author, writing her own books and contributing to the Wonder Woman comics, but also to a stint as a WWII spy—or, at least, that’s what Marble claimed.

Weintraub’s fascinating portrayal of one of America’s very first athletic starlets asks as many questions as it answers. Marble’s secretive life was part of her charm, but her glamorous encounters and exciting experiences seem almost too good to be true. In addition to investigating these wild tales, Weintraub solidifies Alice Marble as one of the most important figures in tennis history. Later becoming coach to Billie Jean King and an activist for the desegregation of tennis, Marble’s influence can still be felt, even as her name remains largely unrecognized. The Divine Miss Marble seeks to rectify that disparity, drawing attention to one of tennis’s greatest players and, most importantly, telling a good story.

It is essentially a fact that Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all time. Almost everyone in the world knows her name—even people who don’t otherwise watch any sports at all. But another famous female tennis player came before Serena whose name was just as well known but now has all but […]

Our obsession with productivity is a defining characteristic of modern society. Smart watches streamline and gamify our workouts and sleep cycles. Smartphones make us permanently available. And of course, social media drives us to put our most personal moments online. In some ways, James Nestor’s Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art points out the obvious: This productivity obsession is killing us. Yet, not all hope is lost. Nestor’s work reveals the importance of our breath and promises us a changed life if only we’ll take a moment to stop, slow down and breathe. 

Nestor’s obsession with breathing started with a sort of spiritual experience—a conversion moment during a breath workshop that led to lifelong change. “I wasn’t conscious of any transformation taking place,” he writes, but after a long evening of intentional breathing, “it was as if I’d been taken from one place and deposited somewhere else.” However, skeptical of encounters that might be fake or gimmicky, Nestor decided that the experience alone wasn’t enough. So he dug deeper.

Breath is the result of Nestor’s digging, and it offers more than a simple guide to meditation. He details the history of breathing, from ancient cultures to modern innovations that have changed our facial structures and thus our breathing patterns. Over time, these changes resulted in the loss of much of the breath work practiced by early humans—but it’s being rediscovered now, just in time. 

From yogis to monks, from voice teachers to athletic trainers, from people with scoliosis to those with asthma, Breath details how these rediscovered breath practices are providing the promise of a better, longer, healthier life. If this all sounds too good to be true, Nestor assures us that breath isn’t a golden ticket. It’s not a magic cure for everything that ails us, but it is “a way to retain balance in the body.” And if that still sounds like a bunch of baloney, go ahead and give it a try. Stop. Slow down. Breathe.

Our obsession with productivity is a defining characteristic of modern society. Smart watches streamline and gamify our workouts and sleep cycles. Smartphones make us permanently available. And of course, social media drives us to put our most personal moments online. In some ways, James Nestor’s Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art points out the […]

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