About Me

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I am a high school English teacher who loves to read, and I'm passionate about finding quality books for my students to read. The reviews on this blog will reflect what I am currently reading and sometimes what my students are reading. The books that appear on the list are ones that I think would be of interest to high school students, are age appropriate in content and difficulty, and in some way tap into eternal truths. Most are classics, but some are just fun, popular books.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

New Site!

Sorry about the move, but check out greatbooksforteens.com, and remember to save it as a favorite!

Friday, May 28, 2010

So Sorry

Dear visitor, I am so sorry about all the crazy extra spaces in the book list and that it takes forever to move from post to post. Soon I am moving to a new website. I'll tell you what my new address is as soon as I build it. In the mean time, I highly recommend The Road, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but I dare not put up more posts on this site, as everything seems to be falling apart.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Big Fish

In "Meditation 17," John Donne says that "God's hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another" with such poetic beauty that, reading it, I forget what a terrifying idea that actually is. Do I really look forward to being fully known? If I could be assured that I would be fully accepted (something the Bible does assure, but that I have a hard time believing), I would long for it. In Daniel Wallace's Big Fish, Edward Bloom wants acceptance from his son, but can't bring himself to open up to him. He has been fabricating stories about himself all his life, and refuses to turn his back on them.

His son William asks him to just have one completely truthful conversation with him before he dies. At various points it seems like he might be finally opening up, but the seriousness gets shunted off the tracks into some silly joke. William grieves not only for himself but for his father's sake: "Beneath one facade there's nother facade and then another, and beneath that the aching dark place."

The stories that Edward tells all make himself out to be the hero. He subdues a giant, saves a little girl from a mad dog, buys a town to preserve a simple way of life for its people. Edward is safely able to tell these stories because he spends so much time on the road while William is growing up. "The very idea of coming home at the same time every single day made him just a little nauseated," so he travels, and when he comes home, he tells stories. William reflects on the times when his father was away: "I'd say I missed you, if I knew what I was missing." His father is gone most of the time, and when he comes home, he brings a false sense of who he is.

Daniel Wallace has hit on an archetype that must resonate with every father and son who reads the book, the father who feels that he must be judged by his own son. Men have a wild desire to prove themselves, and it is ther sons who can see through them, to see clearly when they are posing. The most sincere thing Edward says to his son is actually a question: "As a father . . . do you think I did a good job?" All of his insecurity is wrapped up in the question. The sad thing is that he wants the affirmation without the honesty, as though the words themselves, "You are a good dad," were "some sort of password" into the afterlife.

Ultimately Big Fish leads the reader to think about his own lies and their effects on his relationships. Don't we really want to be loved for who we are and not for some facade we are throwing up? We're such posers! Beyond that, the book makes us question our idea of reality because so much of it comes through stories others tell. Edward's deathbed scene is told four times. The first three come in chapters entitled "My Father's Death: Take 1," "My Father's Death: Take 2," and "My Father's Death: Take 3." These all seem to be the same very realistic, unsatisfying scene told over again in slightly different ways, as though William is trying to find something good in it, but can't. Then the book ends with what seems like the real deathbed scene, "My Father's Death: Take 4," but it veers off into a wildly mythical, truly wonderful ending, worthy of one of Edward Bloom's stories. It's as though William has decided that his father might as well die the way he lived, and one has the impression that his children's children will hear this version.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Riding the Bus with my Sister

I am a shy stranger. In the locker room at the recreation center, I am amazed at the men who strike up conversations with others they don't know. I speak when I'm spoken to. I feel awkward when others are overly friendly. I'm alarmed when someone draws undue attention to themselves. I took a trip to New York once with one of my students who is the most extraverted person I know. On every bus and subway car, at every bus station and subway station, on every sidewalk, and in every line we stood, he struck up a conversation with someone we didn't know. He had a gift. Rachel Simon's Riding the Bus with my Sister really reminded me of that trip, of both the embarrassment and the wonder.

It's a true story about Rachel and her sister Beth, who has mild mental retardation. Beth is a thirty-some year old woman who spends her days riding buses in Philadelphia. Rachel tries to put aside her judgment of her little sister's lack of a job and promises to ride the bus with her off and on for a year. At first I wondered if this book would be sentimental, depicting Beth as one of "God's true angels" who speaks truisms out of her open-hearted naivety that the rest of us jaded, "normal" people long for. Simon actually scoffs at that depiction of people with mental retardation. Beth is headstrong and often downright rude. Jacob, one of Beth's bus driver friends, tries to model the golden rule for Beth and convince her to follow it herself, but she isn't going to be easily swayed.

Chapters in the book alternate between describing Beth's relationships with people--whether they be bus drivers, her social workers, or her boyfriend--and telling the heart-breaking story of Rachel and Beth's years growing up. As the book progresses, the two sisters come into clear focus as two wounded people who are stuck in ruts they find nearly impossible to climb out of. Rachel realizes that she is just as much "a clock that nobody can reset" as her sister is. What started out as a favor to her sister, just spending whole days riding the bus with her, becomes a transformational experience in her own life.

For the most part, it is the bus drivers who are the heroes of the book. I will never look at a bus driver the same way again. It takes a real gift to be courteous to rude people, understanding of hurried people, sympathetic with hurting people, and compassionate toward people like Beth who don't fit easily into society, all why negotiating traffic and weather. Some of the bus drivers start out with great intentions, but weary of Beth's persistent demand for attention. I could so easily see myself as one of those. True love is shown over the long haul. It has been a long time since I have felt as convicted by my own lack of love as this boook has made me feel.

Even Rachel comes to several points at which she distances herself from her sister. Once, she goes to the back of the bus and acts like she doesn't know her. It sounds terribly hurtful, but having read to that point in the book, I completely understood. Those who love Beth the most seem to set boundaries for their relationship, but continue to care for her even when she bucks against them. Relationships aren't easy. When those boundaries are set though, they really do enjoy her, and just riding the bus all day, Beth really does have a lot to offer society.

Having a sacramental view of sex and marriage, I found that Rachel Simon's acceptance of people living together outside of marriage was a hurdle I had to jump over in order to appreciate the book. Apart from that one difference in values, I felt like the book would really be great for high school students to read on their own or even study in class. Riding the Bus with My Sister belongs on the shelf with other great nonfiction books like Angela's Ashes, Obasan, and The Color of Water. It had me in tears at several points. The ending was particularly a wonderful surprise.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Help

Kathryn Stockett's The Help is about black maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960's gaining the courage to tell the truth about their circumstances, though they risk their jobs and even their lives in doing so. It's a fun, lively, and thought provoking book. Stockett has a great sense of drama and an amazing ear for dialect.

There are several heroes, but the central character is Aibileen, a middle-aged maid who eventually gets the others involved. Aibileen is particularly heroic because she is the first woman willing to tell her story to Skeeter, a young white reporter who wants to write about more important things than how to clean things. Together, and eventually with others they enlist, they set to writing a book about the experiences of black maids in a nameless town in Mississippi. In the process, Aibileen discovers that she herself has a talent for writing as well as persuasion. In order to get her friend Minny to join the effort, she simply acknowledge's that Minny is right:"We don't want a change nothing around here." As a result, Minny starts thinking about the word "Truth." "It feels cool, like water washing over my sticky-hot body. Cooling a heat that's been burning up all my life."

Truth is as important to Skeeter as it is to the maids. Constantine, her own maid when she was growing up, taught her the importance of it. Tall and gangly, Skeeter always felt unattractive, an impression that her mother encouraged, but Constantine taught her to say, "Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?"

"Them fools" includes much of society at that time in the South. Skeeter finds a book of Jim Crow laws, which she realizes defy logic. One involves segregating blind people who can't even see color: "The Board shall maintain a separate building on separate grounds for the instruction of all blind persons of the colored race." The truly blind are those who see color, and one of Skeeter's best friends, Hilly Holbrook, seems to be the worst of them. Though she is horrified by having to use a toilet that a black person might have used, she somehow doesn't think she is a racist. "'It's true. There are some racists in this town,' Miss Leefolt say. Miss Hilly nod her head, 'Oh, they're out there.'" Probably the most obvious indication of Hilly's blindness is her desire to help "poor starving children in Africa," but her total disregard for black people in her own neighborhood.

Though the book is a clear indictment of the racist South, Stockett carefully avoids painting Hilly or any of the others as monsters of evil. Aibeleen, for instance, can't help but admire Hilly's love for her children: "One thing I got to say about Miss Hilly, she love her children. About every five minutes, she kiss little William on the head. Or she ask Heather, is she having fun? Or come here and give Mama a hug. Always telling her she the most beautiful girl in the world. And Heather love her mama too. She look at Miss Hilly like she looking up at the Statue a Liberty. That kind a love always make me want a cry. Even when it going to Miss Hilly. Cause it makes me think about Treelore, how much he love me. I appreciate seeing a child adoring they mama."

The book also shows the passive, cowardly type of Southerner in the form of Stuart, who wonders why Skeeter wants to "stir up trouble." My guess is that there were as many Stuarts in Jackson as there were Hillys, though that may be giving too much credit to human nature. The only character who doesn't "see the lines" between the two races or even between the classes is Celia. She wants to sit down in the kitchen with Minny over coffee, but be one of Hilly's high society friends. You can't help but love Celia, but even she isn't idealized. Her life is a train wreck in itself, and she desperately needs someone like Minny.

Though the book is primarily about racism, it's almost as much about mothers and daughters--about Constantine and her daughter, Elizabeth and Mae Mobley, and Charlotte and Skeeter. All of these mothers at one point or another give in to society's expectations rather than loving their daughters. Of course the book is as much about Constantine and Skeeter and Aibileen and Mae Mobley--relationships where the black maid truly mothers the child.

The Help has some strong language, sometimes that is central enough that you can't pass over it and get the plot. The situation involving "the terrible awful" is one case in point. I won't be a spoiler, but it is aptly named. I never quite recovered from reading this part of the book. I'm trying to decide whether I'm a prude or not. One of my best friends is a seventh grade math teacher who once put up a poster of a guy picking his nose on the door to his room. I feel sure that he would love this part of the book. I'm just saying it isn't for everyone.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Screwtape Letters

This is a review by Richey Riviere, one of my students.

Many people struggle with the daily grind of trying to stay faithful and be a good person, whether they are Christians or not. In one's own life it is hard to imagine the subtle ways in which the devil "comes to steal, kill, and destroy." Temptations from the devil seem like they would be sins that are clearly defined in the Bible and that pastors in local churches regularly comment on. The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, however, expounds on a more thoughtful and descriptive perspective of Satan's techniques.

The Screwtape Letters is an account of the letters from senior demonic tempter Screwtape to his young, inexperienced nephew, Wormwood. In his letters, Screwtape offers advice on how to turn the man Wormwood has been assigned to away from "the enemy" (God) and to assure that the man's final resting place be reserved in the pits of hell. The Screwtape Letters forces one to examine one's own life and brings to light certain weaknesses in the human mind, whether one is a Christian or not. Most of what the book expounds on isn't even what most Christians think of when they think of someone who is on his way to hell. Screwtape makes a big deal out of the fact that big sins like murder are no worse than small sins like gambling, if they will both eventually lead that person away from God: "Indeed the safest road to hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts . . . ." Screwtape tells his nephew that he should focus on exploiting the common human weaknesses and to let the humans do the rest of the dirty work in the world. In this area, C. S. Lewis displays an extraordinary understanding of human nature and what truly drives men and women.

It is interesting to see how Screwtape concedes that God is genuine in His love for humans and that God only wants the best for them (even though Screwtape later denies acknowledging this when confronted about it by higher demonic authorities). Another interesting point in the book is when Screwtape acknowledges that all pleasure comes from God and is beneficial to a human's relationship with God, even when it is achieved through sinful and non-beneficial means, such as sexual sin. He says that while the actual act is the sin and can often drive the person further from God than the pleasure will benefit him, the pleasure is still from God, no matter what the circumstances: "Anything, even a sin, which has the total effect of moving close up to the enemy makes against us in the long run."

Lewis also points out the dangers of pretending to be someone else in order to impress others. Screwtape states, "All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be." This is a warning not to pretend to be someone who does not love God or someone who sins on a regular basis because one just might turn into this imaginary person.

All in all this is a very good book. One criticism of the book is that it might cause many high school students to have to pull out their dictionaries or read certain sections over again to understand them fully. The vocabulary and sentence structure was sometimes difficult. Still, the book is a great classic and well worth the effort it takes to read it.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Jesus took a child in his arms and told his disciples that if they wanted to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, they should become like one of these little ones. I think at least a part of what he meant was to let go of the jaded cynicism that allows adults to talk about evil as though it is something we all must accept and live with. The best way to really see through the pretenses of even the worst things in the world is to see them through the eyes of a child. In John Boyne's The Boy with the Striped Pajamas, Bruno, a nine year old boy, discovers first hand the horrors of the holocaust.

Boyne calls the book a parable and writes with a simple style that matches a child's innocent point of view. Bruno's naivety allows the reader to discover the concentration camp with "the charm of novelty," as though those images from history books and documentary films were never stamped sharply on his mind and he is standing with Bruno at the window of his new bedroom, both of their mouths "in the shape of an O," wondering what this could be. "To begin with, they weren't children at all. Not all of them, at least. There were small boys and big boys, fathers and grandfathers. Perhaps a few uncles too. And some of those people who live on their own on everybody's road but don't seem to have any relatives at all. They were everyone."

In some ways, Bruno seems too naive. I really think that at nine years old, if I had seen a vast array of men in striped pajamas surrounded by a fence, I would have surmised that this was some sort of prison. Still, there had to have been some purposefully self-induced blindness among German people during World War II. The alternative for Bruno was to accept that his father was a monstrously evil man, a conclusion that Bruno does not want to hear from his new friend Shmuel, but cannot always avoid, considering some of the glaringly wrong things he witnesses. One of the best illustrations of Bruno's inability to really take in his experiences is when the story of Shmuel's past does not sink into Bruno's mind until he is telling it to his sister. As Jesus often said of people, he had heard the story, but hadn't really listened to it.

Occasionally, Boyne goes too far and makes the children in the book unrealistically naive. When Gretel sees the concentration camp, she suggests that it is the countryside. After Shmuel's encounter with Lieutenant Kotler, Bruno asks him if he fell off his bicycle. Come on! My willing suspension of disbelief failed at those moments; the story crashed to the ground like the Hindenburg. Still, the story has stayed with me, and I have found myself mulling over it again and again.