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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.

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.