About Me

My photo
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.

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.