Saturday, February 14, 2015

Book Review: Augustus Caesar's World by Genevieve Foster

I read Augustus Caesar's World in 2014.  This was the first of Genevieve Foster's books that I completed, although I'd read portions of others.  Since then, I've also finished George Washington's World and Abraham Lincoln's World.  I plan to review at least Abraham Lincoln's World eventually, but I'll begin with this one because I'd already written a partial review in draft form.

I discovered Augustus Caesar's World on the Ambleside Online Year 6 Booklist.  I pre-read it for my children.  It took me a while to figure out exactly what to do with it once I finished.  I'll try to explain.

I enjoyed it overall until some past the halfway point.  Even up until then, there are many things to discuss, many similar to the ones I mentioned in my review of The Story of the Romans, though I noted that Foster's style makes some of them more... well, dramatic.  Her writing style is more fictionalized than is my preference.  I understand the whole telling-the-story, immerse-them-in-the-moment appeal, and I realize that there can be room for a little artistic license.  Still, made-up dialog has always irritated me in history books.  So that is an additional thing to be discussed at points throughout.  There was also one page (87) in the story of Antony and Cleopatra where I blacked out some text I felt was just unnecessary to the point that I wasn't comfortable with my children reading it.  Oh, and I also edited drawings throughout that I felt could use more clothing (that's something I do with quite a few books with drawings).

Despite these things, there were still merits to the book.  It gave more background and seemed a nice supplement to portions of The Story of the Romans.  Her storytelling approach was interesting and helped to bring it to life.  I also appreciated how Foster explored what was going on in different places and in different people's lives during the same time period.

Until I got to the part where she began talking more about various religions.

Her religious sections clearly had an agenda.  Foster uses her book to promote the idea that all religions worship the same "god," and other rather vague spiritual ideas she seems to prefer.  Ambleside Online had warned me that, "This book contains sections on the birth of world religions presented from a secular humanist point of view. Parents may wish to cover these sections closely with their children." (see the note for Augustus Caesar's World on the Year 6 book list)  I appreciated the notice.  The more I read, the more irritated I got with the book, though, and the more discussion points I noted, until I started to reconsider whether I wanted to use the book at all.

When it came to talking about the Bible, there were points at which she was clearly incorrect, and not only that, she also seemed to be trying to subtly undermine the Bible and the religions of the Jews and Christians as she wrote.  She seemed to be approach things from a "higher criticism" perspective.  It was slightly reminiscent of the Old Testament class I took in college -- where not-quite-so-subtle undermining was occurring pretty regularly.  That was irritating, too, but at least I was older than the target audience for this book.

Here's just one example of what I'm talking about. "During the centuries, however, [the Jewish] idea of what God was like had greatly changed.  Those who were writing the Bible in Babylon had come to think of Him as God of righteousness and justice.  Before that he had been a vengeful god of war, leading them to battle against their enemies.  And in the earliest days, when the Jews had been but a tribe of half-savage shepherds roaming the Arabian desert, their god had been but one of the many strange spirits which seemed to people the desert world about them.  Then... they made bloody sacrifices... burning on the altar their first-born children, as later they were to offer up each first-born lamb and goat" (page 186-187).  !?!  And it goes on.  See what I mean? 

The Bible topics presented aren't new to my children, but I wasn't sure that I wanted them to read them presented in this way at this age.  Plus, when a writer presents things in this fashion to the point that it becomes apparent that she isn't being evenhanded with the subject, it makes me start to mistrust her and wonder how much else of what she writes is not to be trusted.  If she presents Jesus in a way that makes him seem almost like another Buddha, how is she twisting the other religions with which I'm less familiar?  And are her other historical facts accurate, when I know some to be incorrect?  Of course any writer can make mistakes, and every writer has a bias no matter how objective he/she tries to be.  But sometimes it just gets to the point where I think, ugh, is this worth it?  And that's where I was before I reached the end of this book.  I did go ahead and finish it, just to get a grasp of the whole. 

I vented to my husband about it a bit, and his first response was that we should not use the book at all.  However, I further explained that I did appreciate some things about the book (mentioned above), especially in the earlier portion.  Our daughter Bethany had also been wanting to read it for some time, having read and enjoyed Foster's books on Washington's and Lincoln's worlds, and had been waiting for me to preview it -- so that was another complicating factor.  I thought that at age 14 she was probably old enough that discussion would be just fine concerning of most if not all things presented... and yet I had doubts.  I was also less sure about what our Year 6 student was able to handle at age 12.  After having invested the time to pre-read a book, I emotionally sort of wanted it to work out -- but not all of them do, and that's okay, so I didn't want that to weigh too heavily in the decision.

After further discussion with my husband, we determined it might be best to have them read to a certain point and stop, at least for the time being, just giving them a brief explanation of why.  If they were really interested in reading more, we could evaluate further at that point.  So I allowed my oldest two students to read almost the first 200 pages (through page 194, to be exact), which is approaching 2/3 of the book.  There were still plenty of things I wanted to discuss in this portion, some of which I hesitated about exposing them to (some of her comments about the Bible and the Jewish religion especially).  But it might be good for them to be aware that some of these perspectives exist, although the ideal would perhaps be for them to get their information about it from a source that exposed it for what it is.  Yet, I thought with discussion I would be exposing it, and if they ever take a college class or read certain literature about the Bible in the future, they'll get it even more heavily in probably worse than that style.  So perhaps it's just as well for them to see it that way and get some better perspective on it with the discussion.

So many issues the world presents are like this.  I'd rather that we didn't have to address them at all, but in many cases it seems wiser to talk about them at some point, so our children can be prepared to live in the real world.  Homeschooling presents the very helpful option of being able to choose to a much larger degree the timing and approach used for broaching many topics, which is wonderful, and I wouldn't want it any other way.  Yet, at times it can be overwhelming and difficult to make decisions in this area.   May God give us wisdom.

Before they started reading, I explained to my oldest two children the decision we made about the book, and why.  They could see enough of the author's tone as they read the early part that I think they could see why I chose to omit the rest.  I encouraged them to come to me with any questions as they read, but they didn't.  I planned to discuss with them what they read.  The ideal would have been to do it gradually at intervals as they went along, but I ended up doing this some time after they read it.  It ended up that Bethany wasn't too interested in the book once she started reading it.  I'd probably taken too long to get to it for her, and she'd been able to read The Story of the Romans before it, which she prefers.  But she was also disappointed in the way Foster handled some of the subject matter -- similar to how I felt on that.

So, would I recommend this book?  Hmm, definitely not without at least mentioning my reservations.  There are merits to it, as I mentioned above, and yet there is enough I don't like about it that I have reservations about recommending it.  Will I continue to have my children part of it?  I don't know.  I think I might make it optional to read a portion of it -- always with some discussion, though.  I much prefer The Story of the Romans by H. A. Guerber over this book.

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1 comment:

  1. Hello! I found your blog through the forums on AO. I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated this review! Thank you for sharing it!