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.