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, December 27, 2008

The Reason for God

In the introduction to The Reason for God, Timothy Keller talks about a great gulf that separates liberalism and conservatism. "Each side demands that you not only disagree with but disdain the other as (at best) crazy or (at worst) evil." As a conservative Christian school teacher living in Alabama, I have had to fight the desire to paint liberals as crazy or evil, not because it comes naturally to me, but because it's so easy to get a laugh out of my students with it. It's like pushing a button; say the word "Tree-huggers," and everyone is chuckling. I have consciously tried to beat the words "us" and "them" out of myself as a teacher. I have heard Christian authors and pastors, often in the name of evangelism, make fun of beliefs that some of my friends sincerely hold. It throws up a barrier rather than creating a bridge. In The Reason for God, Keller writes to people with a liberal bent, whether they be atheists or some other kind of believer, treating their objections to Christianity with respect. Considering where I live and the circles I walk around in, I'm probably not a great judge of how he comes across, but I can see he is trying, and I really respect that.

In each of the first seven chapters, Keller describes a common objection to Christianity and then attempts to answer it. One issue Keller brings up is the doctrine of God's judgment. "If you believe in a God who smites evildoers, you may think it perfectly justified to do some of the smiting yourself." Keller concedes that the church has a terrible record on this issue--everything from burning people at the stake to going on crusades. Then he argues that the sense of justice that makes such things wrong comes from a belief in God. He quotes from Foucault and Nietzsche, arguing that in a world without God, power is a more sensible motivator than justice. Keller argues that the belief that God will ultimately judge our enemies motivates true believers to leave judgment to God. He quotes Miroslav Volf, a writer who has been at the center of the Balkan conflict: "It takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human non-violence [results from the belief in] God's refusal to judge. In a sun-scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die." Keller explains that "if you have seen your home burned down and your relatives killed and raped," you have a much stronger sense that there must be a God who judges such things.

Of course, there doesn't have to be. We can conceive of a purely material world set swirling by chance. A great many people obviously have. In the second half of the book, Keller argues that though we don't have irrefutable evidence that God exists, we have many clues that form a strong argument for Christianity, and a number of aspects to Christianity that should be appealing to the liberal mind. One of these aspects is a respect for the world we live in. In Christianity, "we do not see the illusion of the world melt away, nor do we see spiritual souls escaping the physical world into heaven. Rather, we see heaven descending into our world to unite with it and purify it of all brokenness and imperfection." Keller argues that the work of God is not only to restore the human soul, but the world we live in. Part of true Christianity then would be "the restoration of perfect shalom, justice, and wholeness in this material world." I love how God's very real love for this world comes across in the book.

The Reason for God begs for discussion. It would be an ideal book for a twelfth grade class to go through together in one quarter. It provides a good corridor not only into Christian apologetics, but also into postmodern philosophy. Many of my students don't know why anyone would have a problem with Christianity; they just haven't been led to think like people outside their own communities. This book is good medicine for the closed minded on any side of whatever religious fences we have raised.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Bridge Over the River Kwai

This is a review by one of my students, Tim Bartlett.

The Bridge Over the River Kwai, authored by Pierre Boulle, sparks the synapses of the brain into the humid jungle of an uncivilized region of Siam. British prisoners of war suffer to build a bridge over the River Kwai by the compulsion of Japanese military officials. Completing the bridge would aid the Japanese war effort by allowing trains to cross the river to supply Japanese lines with the essentials of war, such as food, ammunition, and more troops. The novel climaxes as Force 316, a demolitions team, pours their mental aptitude, time, and energy into destroying the recently complete bridge. The Bridge Over the River Kwai beautifully concocts a satisfying mixture of entertainment, instruction, function of writing style and plot, and virtual realism.

Swirling around from relaxation to intense contemplation, from laughter to anger and sadness—the reader glides through Boulle’s emotional whirlwind of entertainment. The novel grabs the reader’s interest and covers the emotional spectrum. Never uninterested, the reader excitedly jumps into his chair to experience the entertainment enclosed in The Bridge Over the River Kwai. The flow of ink across the pages of the book enters the eye, fills the brain, sparks the imagination, and BANG! an instant intriguing tale about POW’s in a jungle drops before the reader’s eyes like a projector screen. The novel is a creative code that once inserted into the imagination, creates a virtual motion picture. Reading The Bridge Over the River Kwai rewards the audience with the visual clarity of a movie and the acute understanding of a book. The novel provides something for each reader to enjoy, taste, feel, and see.

In its central theme, the novel teaches that pride in excess will destroy honor. Colonel Nicholson is the incarnation of the theme. He never releases his dignity before the Japanese officials, especially Colonel Saito, a man suffering from a raging inferiority complex. After continually questioning and refusing to obey Saito’s authority, Nicholson eventually breaks Saito down into emotional obscurity and self-pity. Undeniably, the poor Colonel Saito cannot conquer Colonel Nicholson’s pride, high morale, and inspirational leadership. At first, Nicholson’s pride increases the morale of the POW camp, but later it leads to a betrayal of the British war effort. After completing the satisfactory bridge, he arrogantly relishes in the success of his structure and resists the British attempt to destroy it. Although Nicholson builds a wonderful bridge, he becomes dishonorable because of excessive pride.

Boulle uses an aesthetically average but enjoyable writing style and plot arrangement throughout his book. The audience will appreciate his smooth, fluid sentences that make the novel relaxing to read. Also, the timing of the two subplots ticks perfectly. The first subplot deals with Colonel Nicholson and his troops in the POW camp, while the second describes the procedures of Force 316 in their efforts to destroy Nicholson’s bridge. The converging of these two plots can be compared to two people, one on each side of a river. They walk in the same direction while occasionally glancing at each other. After much walking and observation of each other, they eventually cross over and meet. In The Bridge Over the River Kwai, the two subplots literally cross from opposite sides and join at the River Kwai. Even though the plot structure and syntax fulfill their purpose, the novel lacks complexity and the advanced writing style that would make it more aesthetically beautiful.

The Bridge Over the River Kwai entertains, teaches a lesson about pride, and provides decent aesthetic value. Readers seeking to learn through its theme will be enlightened, while those seeking aesthetic value will not be satisfied. However, those thirsting for adventure, diplomacy, military procedures, and stealthy maneuvers will soak in every letter and word dripping from this fountain of entertainment. While reading, one is a stealthy demolitions operative of Force 316, lying in the damp jungle leaves, steadily holding a pair of binoculars to gather information about the enemy, worrying that a Japanese patrol might see a glint of sunlight on the dark blue lenses of the telescopic apparatus. The steaming burn of jungle ants, the painful pricking of splinters from touching bridge supports in murky waters, the fear of the bridge explosives being discovered—the audience can experience these visual sights, physical jitters, and adrenaline-rushing emotions. The imagination of being a jungle commando or a back-broken prisoner became realistic in my mind. I feel as if I actually hiked through the treacherous woods and baited the bridge with explosives. The story caused my imagination to be very playful and artistic. I felt like I played a role in the story. Because of its exciting entertainment value, I would highly recommend The Bridge Over the River Kwai to anyone who desires to delve into a jungle military endeavor. Its audience will experience a virtual world in the jungles of Siam.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Passage to India

This is a review written by my daughter Joanna Carter:
E.M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India is written beautifully, but it failed to lead me into a sense of play because of major problems in the story itself. A Passage to India follows two friends, an Indian doctor and a British school principal through the ordeal between their societies when the Indian, Dr. Aziz, is falsely accused of attempted rape. I disliked the book because none of the characters were likeable, the underlying messages bordered on Satanic, and the plot was weak. Forster’s writing style was wonderful, but reading style without a good story is like eating straight cheese sauce without the macaroni.
The first thing I realized about the novel was that it was slow going. I had a nasty shock when I found myself on page one hundred and twelve and was still waiting for something to happen. I think one of the things that made it so hard to get into is the lack of a character the reader can really relate to. The four main characters are Mr. Fielding, Dr. Aziz, Mrs. Moore, and Adela Quested. Of all of these, Fielding is the most likeable, but only because of his lack of any major faults. He is a flat character, the "good guy," effortlessly making the right decision to stick up for Aziz, even though he has no more reason to than anyone else. If it were me, I would not have been so quick to believe Aziz innocent; the Indian is a sensual and syncophanic liar who suffers from dramatic mood swings. I always emerged from a scene with Aziz and found myself wanting a dose of tea and Andy Griffith to recover. Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested are not such nauseating characters as Aziz, but kind old Mrs. Moore completely loses her religion in the Marabar caves, and Miss Quested is as dull and practical as a grocery cart. There was no one I could be comfortable with during my read, no one I could trust or develop any affection for. As a result, I had a hard time getting into the story.
A second thing I disliked about A Passage to India was the underlying theme of meaninglessness and failure. Forster’s sinister philosophy revealed itself fully in the scene where Mrs. Moore enters the Marabar caves and hears the echoing "Boum" that answers any sound, no matter how profound. "But suddenly, at the edge of her mind, Religion appeared, poor little talkative Christianity, and she knew that all its divine words from ‘Let there be Light’ to ‘It is finished’ only amounted to ‘boum.’" I was so disturbed upon reading this that I almost put the book down. Forster tells the reader that Christianity and religion are meaningless, and that by extension there is no good in the world. According to him, good and evil are the inventions of man. Nature knows nothing of them, for she is eternal and they are only the whispers of a finite creature. This message is so overwhelmingly evil that this book would be repulsive to me even if it had wonderful characters and a great story.
The third thing I disliked about A Passage to India was the plot. Aside from the problems of one hundred and thirty-two pages with only dining room gossip for conflict and pointlessly killing off Mrs. Moore, Forster left the untied thread of Miss Quested’s attacker in the caves. If it wasn’t Aziz, then who was it? Did Miss Quested imagine him? It seems as though Forster needed an attacker, but was too lazy to deal with him once he started on the mess of Aziz’s trial. If it were a less important detail, it would not matter, but the entire book is built around the disaster in the caves. The attacker’s undetermined identity wriggles awkwardly in the story like a stick caught in a bicycle wheel. Forster’s words are beautiful, but his plot doesn’t hold water.
All in all, A Passage to India did not lead me into a sense of play. The beautiful writing style spoke to me directly, but it repelled me. Such a twisting of talent made me feel as if a friend had betrayed me. I wanted to physically and mentally separate myself from the book instead of to explore the ideas it presented. Although Forster describes Mrs. Moore’s despair at the Marabar Caves in an eloquent and natural style, the sinister content of his words kept me from playing with his novel.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Writing Life

Picture a dusty region of Africa. The sun is beating down on the grasslands near the water hole. A rhino stands nearly motionless, soaking in the heat. Birds land on his back and talk to each other, walking around as though he is a carpet. Only the gleam of his beady eye shows the rhino's irritation. Finally he can stand it no longer and flicks them away with his tail. That's it; that's the picture of me as a writer. Make of it what you will. I'm not nearly as good at this as Annie Dillard.

The Writer's Life is filled with poetic metaphors of what it means to be a writer, from a bee catcher to Wile E. Coyote to a Zulu warrior to a lion tamer to a dog chewing on a bone to a stunt pilot. Each metaphor illuminates in some way both the wonder that drives a writer and the impossibility of fulfilling his task. The book is a paradox. The harder Dillard makes it sound, the more she inspires you to write. One of the most inspiring passages describes the impossibility of transferring a poetic vision onto the page: "The page is jealous and tyrannical; the page is made of time and matter; the page always wins. The vision is not so much destroyed, exactly, as it is, by the time you have finished, forgotten. It has been replaced by this changeling, this bastard, this opaque lightless chunky ruinous work." Why does that make me want to write? First of all, she's saying that the writer's vision might truly be something transcendent, something greater than myself that is worth giving myself over to, even if I can't control it. It's like Kubla Khan's pleasure dome that Coleridge can't get onto the page however wildly his eyes flash and his hair flies around. The vision becomes something else, but there's discovery in that too.

It's all so terrible, like Jesus saying, "Are you willing to drink the cup that I drink?" To follow your calling, you move to a desolate, wind-swept island in the Northwest, pace back and forth in a cold cabin with no insulation, chop wood while people laugh at you, plug in a coffee kettle that's rigged with a clothespin, and (probably most important of all) "throw pots." "The materiality of the writer's life cannot be exaggerated." Annie Dillard is Thoreau all over again, but she seems more like the real deal, maybe because she smokes cigarettes and admits that she would rather play chess with librarians than write. At one point she describes fighting through writer's block until she has written a few sentences: "At once I noticed that I was writing--which, as the novelist Frederick Buechner noted, called for a break, if not a full-scale celebration." Having written this post in no fewer than four sittings, I say, "Amen!" I think one of my kids has some Christmas cookies I should try to celebrate finishing this paragraph.

Annie Dillard is more of a poet than a story-teller, and this bias does emerge in spots. She quotes a well-known writer asking a novice, "Do you like sentences?" One imagines the novice hanging his head and walking away like the rich young ruler. I don't think that J. R. R. Tolkien or Tom Wolfe liked sentences at age twenty though. I think the former was drawn in to writing through his fascination with story and the latter through his fascination with the world. There are different portals. When Dillard starts talking about structuring stories, I take it with a grain of salt. I love to hear her ramble, and The Writing Life is one of her best rambles.

Well, I've flicked another bird off. Now I can go back to basking in the sun for a little while without that nagging feeling that there's something I have to do.

Friday, November 28, 2008


The idea that one person is really no better than another is deeply rooted in us. I find my students about as willing to question this belief as they would be to try sushi. Its little brother is that all sins are equal, which seems to me as ludicrous as saying that I'd just as soon pick up a cobra as pick up a fire ant. It's worse to murder someone than to lie. There, I said it. But doesn't that make a murderer worse than a liar? And if a murderer is worse than a liar, how can a liar be humble? You can't beat up the little brother without getting the big brother involved.
In Macbeth, Shakespeare takes a war hero and in a matter of minutes turns him into a scheming murderer simply through the power of suggestion. There isn't even any temptation involved. "Hail, King that shalt be." Five words, and he's hooked like a stupid grouper. His imagination does all the rest. Remember how James told us, "Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires"? That's Macbeth. Everyone is singing Macbeth's praises in the opening scenes. He's Duncan's "worthiest cousin," he's "Bellona's bridegroom." His sword "smokes with bloody execution!" Is the thought of murder in his head? No, he's carving his way through the Norwegians with the patriotic furver of a Patrick Henry. Ask him if he'd like to murder the king he is fighting for, and he'd laugh at you or take off your head for such traitorus thoughts. Here's the great equalizer. I cannot say that I am any better than a murderer if I have not seriously been tempted with murder. Even that abstraction doesn't quite fit gear to gear. I'd have to face the temptation as he faces it, with his whole genetic make up and background, to know whether I would handle it any better than he would.
The situation begs two questions. First, what five words tossed out in the most opportune moment could get me to throw away all my noble aspirations? I don't have to think about that too deeply to see what shaky ground I stand on. I'm a sinner in need of grace. Second, how have I handled the temptations I have seriously faced? Now the ground has crumbled under my feet. I'm a sinner in need of grace.
There's a lot more the play has to offer. How the forces of darkness tell us truths in order to betray us, for instance. Consider the temptations Jesus faced. He really could turn stones to bread, and what was so wrong with that? Or how the mind convinces itself that the eye could really "wink at the hand." I'll just turn off my conscience for a bit, not worry about it, and then the thing will be done. Or how when I offer the poisoned chalice to someone else, I'm really lifting it to my own lips. If the lessons themselves don't compel, consider a floating dagger that leads a murderer to his victim, a ghost disrupting a banquet, and a sleep walker divulging secrets.
Macbeth is a great tragedy; the truths are so woven into the plot that they hardly need commentary. Maybe that's why it's Shakespeare's shortest play. That's a compelling enough reason to read it; what teenager would disagree? Now that kids aren't having to struggle with the King James Bible every Sunday, the 17th century language is a much bigger barrier. This play has a lot fewer dated idioms and literary allusions than most of Shakespeare's plays, making it very readable.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Alchemist

When I was in ninth grade, I wrote an essay on the misery of living in the TEAM Hostel. I had felt like a floundering swimmer with his mouth barely above the water, sucking what gasps of air I could get from moments of peace. The hostel was a place where missionary kids from my parents' mission could live a little ways off campus; it was supposed to be a home away from home, but to me, it was anything but that. The older kids bullied the younger kids, and our hostel (hostile) parents didn't give a rip. Well, actually, I felt like the biggest bully there was the man in charge. I was angry. So I wrote the essay and turned it in to Mr. Jones, my English teacher--an enormous, jolly man who gave us Dr. Peppers to drink whenever we had a test.
A few days later, Mr. Blair, the head of the English department, called me in to Bedlam to have a chat with him. Bedlam was his name for the book room, which was a fantastically messy room full of books and old papers that would have made Dickens smile. It was in that book room that I first encountered "my personal legend." Mr. Blair encouraged me to write. I told him I was just writing honestly what I felt. He looked me in the eye and said, "Honest writing is good writing." At that moment, my two-fold calling landed on me. I wanted to write, and I wanted to become an English teacher, to be like this great man who so inspired me. Now here I am in my nineteenth year of teaching and trying to get an agent to look at my first novel, and I'm amazed at how God has dragged, shoved, and gently led me into such green pastures.
In The Alchemist, Melchichizedek tells Santiago that if he follows his "personal legend," the world will conspire to help him. Even setbacks will slingshot him toward his dream. "When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision." The real conflict in the book is whether Santiago can keep his focus on his true calling. Santiago leaps over riskier and riskier precipices, all along becoming more alive to "the soul of the world." He comes to the point that he realizes, "To die tomorrow was no worse than dying on any other day." Life was pursuing his dream, and if God "wasn't willing to change the future" to see him through to his goal, well, that was God's business. The story is incredibly inspiring!
As a Christian, I felt my heart take a leap every time a piece of the gospel was woven into the carpet of the story. Coelho's faith seems deeply embedded in biblical stories, and he clearly wonders about them in ways that I wish more people from my background would. How could you not be fascinated by Urim and Thummim? At the same time, Coelho's universalism made me squirm. I really think that this book captures the spirit of the age more than any other novel I've read. All roads, if sincerely followed, lead to the same place. This is clearly Coelho's position even as he happily sings some of his own personal, orthodox beliefs: "Our world is only an image and a copy of paradise . . . . God created the world so that, through its visible objects, men could understand his spiritual teachings and the marvels of his wisdom." How could you believe these things, but only as a sort of menu item? My copy of the book has an interview with the author at the back in which Coelho explains what he likes and dislikes about organized religion: "The value is that they give you discipline and they give you collective worship and they give you humbleness toward the mysteries. The danger is that every religion, including the Catholic one, says, 'I have the ultimate truth.' Then you start to rely on the priest, the mullah, the rabbi, or whoever, to be responsible for your acts." There's some truth to the way he perceives the attitudes of people in organized religion. Man has a hard time owning something without taking pride in it, especially truth. In Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis talks about truth being clear and muddy at the same time. That's a good answer, but now you'll have to read that book too, because it's chewing on the story that gives you the real taste for the argument.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher

Does every guy have an inflated view of himself? I remember back in high school and college having these visions of grandeur that were way out of proportion. It was like my head was a balloon that you could just keep blowing air into, and it would never stop inflating. I remember people, especially girls, telling me that I was full of myself. I shrugged them off like annoying gnats. My friend Steve Knoble and I started flaunting our pride as a way of laughing at our fantastically incorrigible selves. Once I scratched, "Be vein," on the Nojiri Boathouse Wall. The spelling error spoke for itself.
The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher captures this thing about guys and bottles it like pure spring water in the character of Ryan Fisher. He visits church once or twice and starts imagining himself as a pastor. He's not even a Christian, but he wants to save people, change their lives, create a mega-church. He develops this passing thought into a full-blown business proposal, and when his wife stumbles on it, he talks her into helping him make it a reality.
Katherine's motivation is fundamentally different from his. She has always wanted to be a part of something bigger than herself. She is attracted to his zeal, to his willingness to swerve off the road into unknown territory. He might actually live up to some of the ideals that embodied the rocker she was in love with back in college.
While rolling his eyes at Ryan's audacity on every page, Rob Stennett manages to make us not only sympathize, but really love him by the end. He's like the inner ego who's rear end you are constantly kicking. Stennett also puts church and Evangelical culture through the ringer. The cheerful tone keeps the book from becoming a bitter satire, and there are places where Stennett's own sincere beliefs emerge brilliantly. For instance, when Ryan enters a casino to rescue one of his flock from a gambling addiction, the description of the unhappy gamblers with glazed over eyes is poignant. Many of the things that attract people to Ryan's church, though certainly not the petting zoo and cotton candy, are things Stennett recognizes as things the church really needs. I came away from the book longing for a church with a true sense of community and Christ-like concern for the real problems of its members.
The references to present popular culture are going to date this book pretty soon, and for the most part, it's just a fun-loving kick in the pants. I do have to admit though that I was moved in the end by Ryan and Katherine's lives, and to my amazement, found myself in tears at the end.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Five People You Meet in Heaven

The Five People You Meet in Heaven is a book that grows on you as you read it. At the beginning, it was hard for me to care about Eddie, the old maintenance man at Ruby Pier. What kept me going for a while was the writing. Mitch Albom has an incredibly fluid style with bold, often surprising imagery. Toward the beginning, Eddie makes an animal out of pipe cleaners for a little girl who is described thus: "She had blonde curls and wore flip-flops and denim cutoff shorts and a lime green T-shirt with a cartoon duck on the front." Specifics like these make the world of the book come alive.
At choice moments, Albom states universal truths with a simple authority. One of Eddie's biggest struggles is with his abusive father. Late in the book, the narrator says, "Through it all, despite it all, Eddie privately adored his old man, because sons adore their fathers through even the worst behavior. It is how they learn devotion." What gives a writer the gall to say such a thing? Is it true? I'm not sure, but I know Mitch Albom thinks it is, and it certainly makes me want to believe it.
Each person that meets Eddie shows him an episode in his life and helps him to see it from a different point of view, one that makes the world make more sense. The message of the novel seems to be an altered Romans 8:28, that everything works out for everybody, that (except for maybe Japanese soldiers) everyone's life makes sense in an interconnected tapestry. God does not appear until the very end, and even then, his voice is the "melded voices" of others. Terrible things happen in this world, but some of the worst things are reconciled in Heaven in really beautiful ways. I came away from the book with a renewed conviction that there are much deeper things going on in the lives of people around me than I realize.
One thing bothered me about the point of view in the book. Ruby seemed more omniscient than the blue man or the captain. While they had stuck to their own stories and the places where they had intersected with Eddie's story, Ruby started telling things about Eddie's father that she couldn't have known in her own life. It seemed too big a shift.
Teen-agers would really like The Five People You Meet in Heaven. I can imagine all sorts of good stuff coming out of reading journals on this book. It would be a great summer reading book because it is short, very readable, and thought-provoking.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The House on Mango Street

The House on Mango Street is a series of vignettes seen from the point of view of a teen-age Latino girl growing up in a poor neighborhood. The reader realizes long before Esperanza does that in spite of her poverty and the house she is so ashamed of, she has had an incredibly rich childhood with so many human stories to treasure and write about.
The descriptions in the book are always surprising. One of Esperanza's new friends on Mango Street, Cathy, refuses to play with her other friends, Rachel and Lucy; she says, "Can't you see, they smell like a broom?" Cathy says she is moving away because the neighborhood is going bad, apparently never thinking about the fact that she is talking to a girl whose family has just moved in to the neighborhood. Esperanza can put two and two together.
I think my favorite description is about Meme Ortiz's dog: "The dog is big, like a man dressed in a dog suit, and runs the same way its owner does, clumsy and wild and with the limbs lopping all over the place like untied shoes."
The experiences in the book just ring true. In one chapter, Esperanza and Rachel and Lucy get in a big argument while Esperanza's sister, Nenny, is naming clouds. Nenny's persistent obliviousness really made me laugh. While the others are calling each other "Cockroach jelly" and "Cold frijoles," Nenny just keeps naming the clouds, "Mimi, Michael, Moe . . . ." One of the chapters that drew me in the most was the one in which Esperanza asks to eat lunch at school. I'm not going to tell you what happens; I'm just going to say that it rings absolutely true.
The book is a coming of age story too. The chapter called "Monkey Garden" would make a great short story all by itself. It captures the hepless frustration Esperanza feels with having her childhood stolen from her by those around her who disregard her innocence. There are a few chapters in which she faces more difficult things, but this one seemed the most poignant to me.
I think the book hits on universal themes regarding community life, especially in poorer neighborhoods. It took me back to my years on Howard Street in Whittier, California, where there were over fifty kids on our block of duplexes. We were a mix of Latino and white kids from blue collar families. I remember so many things from those days. I remember Rick's mother always kissing and hugging her boyfriend for what seemed like hours at the gate to their duplex, but he never asked her to marry him. I remember David Watson's grandfather claiming that he was the best Backgammon player in all of California and Nevada combined; nobody we knew could beat him. I remember everyone admiring Joe's big brothers while they drove up and down the street in their wide low-rider car, their arms resting on their open windows with cigarettes tucked into their sleeves. I remember my brother pounding on the wall when John's mother and her lover were making too much noise in the adjoining duplex late one night and seeing her lover rush out her front door a few minutes later. John and I played with his racecar set in his livingroom the next day as though nothing had happened. There were endless evenings of kick the can, dodge ball, and truth or dare. Man, a lot went on. And all along we wished we lived on Orange Street.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

British Literature: First Half

What would the perfect year of studying British literature in high school incorporate? I've often wished I could create my own textbook for just such a purpose. This is my stab at what I would include. You could actually use my advice here if you used Prentice-Hall's The English Tradition and supplemented it with paperbacks from the library. In this blog I'm just going to write about what I would include in the first semester.
The Anglo-Saxon period: parts of Beowulf in Burton Raffel's translation, which I think is the most readable verse version, the scenes where Grendel attacks Heorot and where Beowulf fights Grendel, maybe also the scene where Beowulf swims down and fights Grendel's water-hag mother. I would not make any high school student suffer through the whole epic poem! Read the gory parts and skip the long speeches. Note what is said about the pervasive influence of fate.
The Medieval period: Listen to "Barbara Alan" in several forms. You can get a bunch of versions on ITunes and compare them. Some of them have a sappy rose and briar ending that makes me want to gag, but I've had students who love it (and would have swooned over it if we lived in the twelfth century, though I think it was added much later). Enjoy Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (especially if you read it aloud together), the marriage group of The Canterbury Tales--which includes The Nun's Priest's Tale, The Wife of Bath's Tale, and The Franklin's Tale--and Everyman. This last piece is very dull, mind you, but you have to act it out using dramatic voices. Death needs to have something like Darth Vader's voice, and Everyman needs to really cower with fear. When you get the gist of it, you can see the awful theology and the need for the Reformation. I would not mess with Thomas Malory directly, but honor him by reading T. H. White's The Once and Future King. This book manages to incorporate the farsical, the romantic, the grand, and the tragic all in one story, and makes it all fit into one narrative, a task Malory did not accomplish to my satisfaction.
The Renaissance period: Macbeth for a Shakespearean tragedy or The Merchant of Venice for a Shakespearean comedy. After reading and understanding each act, watch it on DVD. Get the BBC versions from the late 90's; they feel like stage productions, but are done in a studio with better cinematography. The acting is terrific in both, though there is no way on earth that anyone would travel far to see this Portia's beauty. I would not do more than one Shakespeare in a year, but I think high school kids should have read both a comedy and a tragedy before they graduate. Also read Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 for inspiration and 130 for fun. For some 16th century gender conflict, read Christopher Marlowe's "A Passionate Shepherd to His Love" and then Sir Walter Raleigh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd." Finally, read Sir Philip Sidney's "Apology for Poetry," a defense for enjoying poetry from a classical and Christian perspective.
The 17th Century: John Donne's Meditation 17 and Holy Sonnet 14, George Herbert's "The Pulley," Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," and Robert Herrick's "To The Virgins, To Make Much of Time." Be careful how you read "To His Coy Mistress." I believe that Marvell is taking on the persona of a careless atheist, and that the weaknesses in his argument to the woman are embedded in the poem. Then read the passage in John Milton's Paradise Lost in which Lucifer lands in Hell. This has the famous lines where he says he can make a Heaven out of Hell and that what's in the mind is all that matters. For a richer discussion, you could read Richard Lovelace's "To Althea, from Prison" where the same idea is presented in a more positive way. Finally, read The Pilgrim's Progress.
If you think it through, the best thing would be to have the students read The Once and Future King and The Pilgrim's Progress on their own, and the rest of it together. This would get you to Christmas.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart is great as a personal story of a strong man with overwhelming fears and as a story about a society that is falling apart. The title is ironic because it comes from William Butler Yeats's poem "The Second Coming," which laments the breakdown in society due to the waning of Christianity and the coming of a new dispensation. In Chinua Achebe's book, Christianity is the new dispensation that is crowding out the old religion of the tribal society.
Achebe is very fair in describing the conflicts. Okonkwo, the hero of the book, is forever trying to prove to himself and those around him what a strong man he is, partially to make up for the weaknesses of his lazy father. On the one hand, Okonkwo is a great warrior with deep convictions and a settled commitment to the traditions of his people; he has a strong moral center. When he inadvertantly commits a crime against his people, he accepts his punishment without question. On the other hand, Okonkwo is a harsh husband and father, a hot-tempered brooder, and and so full of the fear of how others perceive him that he is willing to take part in killing someone he loves deeply.
Likewise, Umuofia, Okonkwo's tribe, is not an ideal society of "the noble savage." The local gods terrorize the people of Umuofia and rule them in the bondage of fear, even making them do horrific things like throwing twin babies into the forest to die. At one point, the priestess of one particularly scary god carries away Okonkwo's most loved daughter to do who knows what with her, and Okonkwo and the child's mother can only helplessly let it happen. Still, the society functions with clear laws and traditions that hold things together, and some of these laws seem more just than the laws that the British bring and try to impose on the tribe.
One thing that bothered me about the book was that the Christian missionary argues that these gods are only wood and stone; I think any thinking Christian would recognize that these local gods are demons. Because he doesn't recognize the power of the local gods, the missionary loses credibility in the eyes of the tribal leaders. At the same time, Achebe acknowledges some of the greatest things about Christianity, that it accepts the lowly and the outcast and that its true converts may be people of strong conviction who are willing to suffer for their beliefs. The Christians fearlessly neglect the local gods and build their church in "the evil forest," depending on God to protect them. The main problem with the Christians in this novel is that they open the door for and even collude with an outside power who has no regard for the norms of the traditional society.
Things Fall Apart succeeds largely because the author writes with a great deal of what Keats called negative capability. We see things mostly from Okonkwo's view, but we are given glimpses into the minds of people around him--particularly his son Nwoye and his friend Obierika--that help us sympathize with other points of view. In the end, the story is a human tragedy that moves the heart deeply.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

How To Build a Long-Lasting Fire

Writing poetry is for everyone. Yes, there are gifted people who naturally write more beautiful poetry than the rest of us, but that doesn't mean that poetry is just for an elite set of people. Just because there are professional football players doesn't mean that the rest of us can't enjoy a game in the neighbor's yard. Like football, poetry is a game that takes a certain amount of familiarity. I am amazed at students who tell me, "I can't write poetry," but have only tried seriously to write a poem a few times. What if a baseball player said such a thing about pitching a baseball after trying it only a few times?Why is it an important game though? I believe that every person wants to express what is in his innermost being. Back up. I believe that every person wants to know what is in his innermost being, that he can only get near knowing it if he tries to express what is in it. Self expression leads to self discovery, but true self expression is an art form that takes arduous work before it becomes second nature and a joy.
Carol Morrison's book How to Build a Long-Lasting Fire makes poetry accessible to high school students and helps them enjoy it. Early in the book, the author tells what poetry is not, using funny examples to dispel the myths about poetry that, I think, turn people off to it. Then, step by step, she explains what poetry is, giving simple examples from her own students and offering "firestarters," creative prompts for readers to write their own poems. If a high school student read through this book at a steady pace, say trying to do one firestarter a week, I think he would come to love poetry and wind up with some good poems in the process. He would have to realize that not every firestarter will inspire a good poem in him, but that each one will keep his creative and analytical sparks active so that when the good poem does ignite, he'll be ready for it. Ideally, students would form a poetry group and work through the book together, sharing their attempts at poems and encouraging and refining each other. A parent and a student could go through the book together in the same way. After all, since the whole point of the book is to create "a long-lasting fire," the author is hoping we will continue to write poetry our whole lives.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Laugh Your Way Through Grammar

Chances are that by the time you have reached high school, you have had enough formal grammar. You probably have a good notion of what the parts of speech are, even if you can't name all of them. Your time would be best used at this point finding the holes in your grammatical education and filling them without wasting time on things you already know. Laugh Your Way through Grammar by Joan D. Berbrich is the best book for finding your weaknesses and correcting them.
The first part of this book has practice sessions in which you read sentences and try to determine the errors in them. At the end of each sentence is a parenthetical note that leads you to the grammatical rule in the second part of the book. The sentences in the front and the examples that follow the rules in the back are mostly either odd bits of fact ("A flea can jump twelve inches, twelve inches for a flea is equal to two football fields for a person five feet tall"), witty statements ("Timid people are sheeps in sheep's clothing"), puns ("Sunday is the strongest day of the week because all the rest are 'weak' days"), or funny jokes ("He went to the drive-in bank to show his car to it's real owner"). Grammar becomes fun!
If I were a student using the book, I would do the practice sessions, checking the rules on the sentences I was unsure of. I would also place a mark by the sentences I was unsure of so I could come back to them easily later before taking the PSAT, SAT, and ACT.I don't think this book is in print anymore. What are the schools and the publishers thinking? You can still get a copy for cheap on Amazon though. I highly recommend this book. As one of the practice sentences says, you don't want your "grammer to be as horrendous as your spelling."

Monday, September 29, 2008


I liked Stephanie Meyer's Twilight a lot, and I think teenagers, especially girls, will enjoy this book. Though the book is a vampire story, it is more intensely romantic than it is scary or violent or overly sensual in the way Bram Stoker's Dracula was. The romance is patiently built; in fact the author's restraint in building it is masterful and is to a large degree what makes the book so intense. The only scary thing for me as a parent having my daughters read the story is that it takes a high school girl's romantic feelings for a guy she is still getting to know so seriously. Of course, that is realistic, and the book keeps pointing out the risk involved in such a total abandon (especially if the guy has an intense thirst for blood).
The plot of Twilight is well focused and rises to a great climax. The reader is led to change his point of view several times with some great reversals. The characters are all very round, and some of them are really likable people; there's a real sense that the author is enjoying telling you about them. I'm trying to say all this without revealing too much. The one annoying thing to me was that some of the lunchtime conversations seemed to rehash the same things over and over. A few times I felt like I would throw the book across the room if Edward chuckled sardonically to himself or said, "You should be running away from me. You don't know how dangerous I am," one more time. As a testimony to the book, I didn't throw it across the room when either thing did happen again; I kept reading.
Like the Harry Potter series, this series creates a fantasy in which our world is infused with fantastical elements. Meyer ties the story in nicely with previous vampire stories, accepting some aspects of the old stories and rejecting other aspects as legend, but giving a good reason for why the legendary aspects grew. At a particular point in the book, the characters even discuss how vampires might be a part of creation or the evolutionary process. It's all well thought out.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Plague

Albert Camus's The Plague is appealing mostly because the two central heroes, Rieux and Tarrou, refuse to consider themselves heroes. Not in the name of heroism or love, but in the name of common decency, they work steadily to heal the sick and fight death in the face of "a never ending defeat." Both are stricken with an intense sense of honesty about what little they know and what little they can do. Rieux is baffled by radio announcements that come in from outside the city, "Oran, we are with you!" as though the outsiders can claim that they would live and die with those in Oran. He hates any kind of presumptuousness.
On the other hand, Rambert, who starts out a selfish lover who wants to escape the city illegally, accuses the doctor of living "in a world of abstractions" that are "divorced from reality," that if personal happiness is ignored over public good, a man can't truly be happy. He points out that "public welfare is merely the sum total of the private welfares of each of us." Rieux agrees with Rambert and can't help but encourage him to escape the city to join his wife. Yet somewhere along the way, Rambert loses "love's egoism," and decides to stay and help.
As another contrast, after the horrific scene in which the principle characters witness a child's death, Father Paneloux preaches a sermon, stating that we must either utterly reject God's will or totally embrace it. "The love of God is a hard love. It demands total self-surrender, disdain of our human personality. And yet it alone can reconcile us to suffering and the deaths of children, it alone can justify them, since we cannot understand them, and we can only make God's will ours." Father Paneloux's way of identifying with Christ and the dead child is to acquire a sympathetic illness to the plague and die of it. To him, God is just in his identification with suffering, and I think Camus would be right to criticize Christianity if that is all that it was. Jesus' death on the cross was far more than God's identification with man's suffering; it was God's way of personally destroying death for people he loved deeply and personally.
To Tarrou though, nothing can make up for the death of an individual. As a child, he was horrified that his father, as a matter of business, oversaw capital punishment. As he makes his way in the world, he realizes that "we can't stir a finger in this world without the risk of bringing death to somebody." The ultimate good requires "extreme vigilance" in making sure that we do the least amount of harm to others. If he can keep himself from at least killing people willfully, he can think of himself as "an innocent murderer." What a sad existence!
In the end Rieux acknowledges that in all their hard work with the plague victims, the only thing a person could really "yearn for, and sometimes attain . . . is human love." From the beginning, Tarrou manages to live with an interest in the details of other people's lives. In his journal, rather than reporting the "significant" events of the plague, he reports small events such as a man spitting on cats or a woman suddenly flinging a window open and screaming. He is fascinated with poor Cottard, who because of the preoccupation of the police with the plague, has temporarily escaped a criminal investigation. Cottard is the exact opposite of Tarrou. Rieux realises that Cottard has an "ignorant, that is to say, lonely, heart."
I found myself really drawn in by The Plague. I was most moved by the development of Tarrou and Rieux's friendship. The scene in which they go swimming in the ocean one evening at about the worst point of the plague was truly wonderful.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Mouse that Roared

The Mouse That Roared is one of the funniest books I have read in a long time. The Duchy of Grand Fenwick is a European country three miles wide and five miles long. It has been independent since its founding by Roger Fenwick in 1370, and has never changed its military. Its warriors even now are fourteenth century longbowmen.The conflict of this farcical novel begins when the country faces an economic crisis. The Council of Freedom, the parliament of the country, meets with the Duchess of Grand Fenwick, Gloriana XII, to discuss solutions to the problem. The upshot is that the Duchy of Grand Fenwick declares war on the United States of America and sends an expeditionary force to attack New York City. In the meantime the United States is having its own problems. In the face of creating a new bomb of devastating proportions, the government announces an East Coast-wide twenty-four hour nuclear attack drill because another nation is sure to create the same bomb soon. Of course the expeditionary force from Grand Fenwick arrives in New York on the day of the drill. Think Monty Python meets Dr. Strangelove and you have this book.
As farcical as it is, The Mouse That Roared is a serious political satire, addressing such issues as free trade, arms proliferation, war remunerations, and leagues of nations. The issues that were politically relevant in 1955 when the book first appeared seem just as relevant today. Toward the end, the book slips into a tone that seems a bit too serious for how it started out. The author betrays a romantic tendency that seems a bit too idealistic, especially in his apparent faith in the League of Little Nations and his assertion that people are good at their core. From the vantage point of fifty years later, the inclusion of Israel (now a muscular nuclear power) and the exclusion of any Arab or Asian countries seems really odd. Postmodern critics would probably also smile at the idea that Dr. Kokintz could step outside of his American past and look at things purely from the point of view of a citizen of the world after spending an hour in the woods. I feel bad that I have been vague about the truths the book teaches and specific about its faults, but the truths are all wrapped in jokes that I don't want to give away to the reader. Suffice it to say that I think high school students would thoroughly enjoy this book and gain from discussing both the truths in the book and the blind spots in it.