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.

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.