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.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Darkness at Noon

Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon is a fictional account of Stalin's purges in the late 1930's, in which many of the founding members of the Communist party either just disappeared, or were arrested, tried, and sentenced to death for divergent points of view. The main character, Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov has spent his life sacrificing the lives of individual people for the common good. Now he himself has been arrested for having divergent ideas. In prison, Rubashov realizes that he must either admit that he was wrong in sending others to their death or go to his death willingly himself.

Rubashov calls his personal point of view "the grammatical fiction" and tries to resist listening to its appeals to a sense of personal justice or longing. He has constructed his whole life on the principle that the individual, one person, is merely "a million divided by a million." He reminds himself that during the revolution, empiricism replaced morality: "We had descended into the depths, into the formless, anonymous masses, which at all times constituted the substance of history; and we were the first to discover her laws of motion." Because they were so confident that their course was inevitable, if anyone, even others who called themselves Communists, stood in their way, the person was arrested and executed.

Over time though, the Communist government devolved into a dictatorship. Rubashov mulls over how it happened, and his only explanation is that the masses were not ready for the revolution. He compares history to a ship going through a series of locks. When the ship passes through a lock, it has to wait for the water to rise to a level where it can pass through the next lock. The masses are like the water in that they needed time to adjust. The present dictatorship is a necessary intermediate time in which the government has to sacrifice the happiness of a generation of people in order to move forward in its original revolutionary purposes. In the mean time, no one must call into question the dictator's policies. The unity of the Communist government must be preserved at all costs.

For Rubashov this means his life, and most of the book is about his struggle to come to terms with this sacrifice. He reasons that a person's sincerity means nothing. He thinks about thirty-one men who were killed because they disagreed with the dictator over what form of manure the country should produce. However sincere they might have been, they might have caused the agricultural ruin of their country: "For us the question of subjective good faith is of no interest. He who is in the wrong must pay; he who is in the right will be absolved. That is the law of historical credit." Rubashov scoffs at the Christian point of view that the individual is sacrosanct. He points out that among Christian nations, in "exceptional circumstances," the rights of the individual go out the window. Considering the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II, or more recently, the prisoners interned at Guantanamo without a trial, he has a point.

Behind all of Rubashov's ruminations, one can clearly see Koestler's disenchantment with Communism. He points out that the Communist leader must have "an axiomatic faith in the rightness of one's own reasoning" to suppress others' points of view through persecution. He points out that such a course of action suppresses creativity and the communication of ideas. In fact, the founders of the revolution were doomed from the start to kill each other because they were bound to disagree on some things, and minor divergences meant death. Finally, Communism offers no answers to the ultimate question of what lies beyond death, which must be faced as an individual.

Darkness at Noon is a prophetic book that that criticizes Communism from the inside out. While Animal Farm seems to present Stalin's dictatorship as a hijacking of Communism, Darkness at Noon shows how it was an inevitable result of the original revolutionary policies. I highly recommend this book to high school students who truly want to understand the twentieth century. I have talked about it mainly from a philosophical point of view, but it also offers incredibly intense drama as Rubashov faces multiple interrogations and relates to other political dissidents in prison.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Bad Beginning

There is nothing more horrifying than ordered chaos. The most terrifying people in the world are like the suave, articulate duke in Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" who matter-of-factly "gave commands" for his wife to be killed. I think the appeal to The Bad Beginning, the first book in A Series of Unfortunate Events is that horrific things are presented in such a matter of fact, ordered, and rhetorical way.

Take for instance how the three orphans learn of their parents' demise. A banker walks onto the beach and tells them, "Your parents have perished in a terrible fire." What could be worse than finding out this sort of thing from a banker? What could be worse than finding out this sort of thing from a banker who uses the word "perished"? What could be worse than finding out this sort of thing from a banker who uses the word "perished," and then defines it: "Perished means killed."

All the trials and tribulations of the three orphans are described in a patiently articulated, parallel form that would excite the mortal William Strunk and E. B. White. "Excite the mortal" here means "Bring back from the dead." This is an allusion to Shakespeare's Macbeth, which is another story in which things go from bad to worse. Notice the patience with which Count Olaf's friends are described: "There was a bald man with a very long nose, dressed in a long black robe. There were two women who had bright white powder all over their faces, making them look like ghosts. Behind the women was a man with very long and skinny arms, at the end of which were two hooks instead of hands. There was a person who was extremely fat, and who looked like neither a man nor a woman." In each case, we are introduced to the person, given a description, and then given an extension of the description. Each sinister character fits into place like gears on a clock, giving the impression that their grotesqueness is inexhorably woven into the fabric of things. There is no escape from calamity.

Having finished the book though, I am wondering if we have all been duped by Lemony Snicket. He calls the book The Bad Beginning and warns us that there won't be a happy ending. Come on! I'm not going to say how, but the kids get the best of Count Olaf in the end. You wouldn't have a story if they didn't. If you really want something without a happy ending, watch the movie "Doubt," or go see the play Waiting For Godot. I actually think The Bad Beginning is a good beginning. We'll have to see how things turn out at the end of the whole series. Maybe the kids will all get eye tattoos on their heals and join up with Count Olaf's acting troop. Klaus will learn that the reading of many books brings great grief, Violet will discover how to breed anthrax, and Sonny will try to chew her way over an electric fence.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Princess and Curdie

As a freshman in college, I became sophisticated. I remember my friend Joanne McAllister asking me what happened to my old fun self. I had swapped it for French Existentialism and thought it a good trade. It's not that I actually became a French Existentialist; I just associated myself with it and felt very intellectual. Camus and Sartre seemed to see through everything, and their despair had a compelling allure. When I earned a C in philosophy, I had to rethink the whole thing; my professor saw through me. Like Curdie in George MacDonald's The Princess and Curdie, I'm actually a natural believer, but growing up muddies the mind. MacDonald says of Curdie in his youth, "He grew at this time faster in body than in mind--with the usual consequence, that he was getting rather stupid--one of the chief signs of which was that he believed less and less in things he had never seen. At the same time I do not think he was ever so stupid as to imagine that this was a sign of superior faculty and strength of mind."

MacDonald's description of the people of Gwyntystorm gives a prophetic picture of modern society: "All men said there was no more need for weapons or walls. No man pretended to love his neighbor, but everyone said he knew that peace and quiet behaviour was the best thing for himself, and that, he said, was quite as useful, and a great deal more reasonable." Without any sense of the eternal, people are reduced to believing in "commerce and self-interest." For those who are depressed by the lack of higher ideals, there are "pills for enabling people to think well of themselves."

It's hard to read this book without seeing George MacDonald as the forerunner to C. S. Lewis. The Princess and Curdie is like a rough version of The Chronicles of Narnia. That wonderful blend of Romanticism and Christianity is there, but in a crude form, as though Narnia has been dipped into Grimm's Fairy Tales. Two kinds of people with very different perspectives inhabit this world: "In the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection." Notice that the dying part is inevitable. For the person who believes in enduring things, a day is a death not only to self, but to this world. Curdie is given grace to be "forever freshborn."

The old princess also gives Curdie another gift, something one might want to use on a used car salesman. Curdie can shake hands with a person and tell whether he is continuously dying and becoming more bestial, or continuously being resurrected and becoming more truly human. Curdie's best friend is a grotesquely ugly dog. Though Lena has a short body with long legs "made like an elephant's" and her underteeth are somehow outside her lips, when he holds her paw, it feels like a small child's hand.

Armed with this gift, his ugly dog, and a miner's mattock, Curdie heads off on a mission set before him by the old princess, "Old Mother Wotherwop." You have to love that name. The Princess and Curdie is a wonderful adventure, though somewhat episodic at first because we don't figure out what the mission is until a good way through the book. It's enough like the old fairy tales that you never know what Curdie will swing his mattock at next. My favorite character is the creature with "neither legs nor arms nor head nor tail," who proves useful in ways I will not divulge. The story gathers force and ends with an exciting climax, though it clunks to a finish on the last page. I recommend it to anyone who wishes there was another book in The Chronicles of Narnia. It might not be another course to the meal, but it makes a great hors d' oeuvres.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


I recently read an article in U.S. News and World Report that claimed that roughly one in three women in the world have suffered physical or sexual abuse at some point. I think of the world as a relatively safe place for women, but it just isn't. Even if I could wrap my mind around the scope of men's disregard for women that that statistic implies about our world, it couldn't quantify the suffering of even one individual. It would take a book like Robin McKinley's Deerskin to do that. This book at first seems like a typical escapist fantasy novel, but it takes a savage turn into an intense story of a girl's recovery from horrific abuse.

McKinley relentlessly drags the reader through Lissar's emotional turmoil and physical hardship. Alone in the harsh, but quiet place she escapes to, Lissar sees herself in a bucket of water she has poured to try to clean herself. The sight and touch of her own body brings back a "howling darkness" that she cannot face, and she blacks out and throws up. "There was little in her stomach to lose, but it felt as if her body were turning inside out to get away from itself; as if her flesh, her inner organs, could not bear the neighborhood of the demon that ate at her, that by exposing her body the demon became visible too." How can a woman recover when her own self--her own body, her own memories--cause her to wretch from shame and humiliation?

Lissar manages through a miserable winter with the companionship of her dog, Ash, who has shared in every step of her suffering. Whenever she comes to the end of her rope, she either feels Ash's tongue "licking her wounded, bleeding body," or hears her "loud whuffling breath in her ear." On one level, Deerskin simply celebrates the close relationship that man and dog can have, the deep sympathy and loyalty that can spring up between the two. In Lissar's case, that sympathy is a fundamental part of her healing.

Ultimately, Lissar cannot heal on her own though, even with the love of her dog. At her lowest point, divine intervention brings her the gift of time, and when she is ready, a chance to confront the man who assaulted her. Much of the book dwells on time spent healing. Even a time of denial is a necessary stage to heal some wounds. McKinley is incredibly patient in painstakingly drawing that period out; when Lissar returns to confront her past, even then, she does so tentatively and only because of a desperate crisis. The confrontation scene felt a little over-drawn to me; I had a hard time reconciling the flaming avenger with the innocent victim. But then the scene is saved when Ossin does distinguish between the two and takes the real Lissar's hand. I'm still thinking through why I was uncomfortable with the scene. I recently saw Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Bastards and felt like the total reversal of power in which the Jews avenge themselves in a demonic fury on the Nazis was totally unsatisfying and farcical. Deerskin rightly stops short of that.

The themes in Deerskin are too mature for most high school students, especially for boys. However, I recommend the book to adults. It may have the most likable prince in all of literature, and while he pursues Lissar nobly, he does not sweep her off her feet and resolve all her problems for her. His heroic nature does not crowd out the dignity of her personal struggle to recover. He offers her sympathy and love, but beyond that, he respects her as a woman--a real woman who rolls around with dogs, likes to feel the ground under her feet, and can peg a charging wild beast in the eye with a rock.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Midwife's Apprentice

What do you want? Every teenager needs someone to ask him that question. I remember having no idea what I wanted as a teenager. Graduation from high school came as an utter shock. My world collapsed, and for the first time I seriously asked myself, "Now what? Who am I going to be?" In Karen Cushman's The Midwife's Apprentice, Alyce is confronted with this question. Her answer is "a full belly, a contented heart, and a place in this world."

From the start, Alyce has been steadily pursuing what she wants with an inquisitive and industrious mind. As the story opens, the midwife finds her sleeping in a dung heap and derisively calls her Dung Beetle. As demeaning as the name is, it reflects her ingenuity; she slept in the warm dung to keep herself from freezing. Throughout the book, Beetle keeps her eyes open and learns what she can, whether it is listening in while the midwife delivers babies, or cleaning up the inn close to the old scholar while he teaches his cat to read. She's not afraid to try things either. This is most notably shown when the Devil comes to town and all her enemy's vices are exposed. However, this quality is put to its greatest test when she is asked to help Emma Blunt through a difficult delivery.

So many things contribute to Alyce finding her place in the world. A merchant compliments her hair and gives her a comb. She makes a friend of an enemy. She makes another friend through a compassionate act. She tries something a second time and learns perseverence. She gains in dignity in the reader's eyes long before she does in her own.

Maybe most important of all, she decides that she will have a name. How important a name is! "My name is Alyce." This is a book about a poor girl who simply wants a place in her village, but as she demanded that others call her Alyce, I was reminded of the movie Gladiator: "My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius."

The Midwife's Apprentice was one of the most satisfying coming of age stories I have read. On top of that, the book gives a full picture of life in a Medieval village in England. Cushman gives an author's note at the end, supplying a short history of midwives. By that point, she had me as curious as Alyce was about all the strange practices, and I read it eagerly.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Hero and the Crown

At my daughter Joanna's graduation, I presented her with a sword. I told her that God had put within her an adventurous spirit and that I was proud of her and wanted to see her go out and make the most of it. It probably seemed hokey to some people, but I stand by it. At the time, it felt a little strange because the sword already belonged to her (I had stolen it from her room for the ceremony), but now that I have read Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown, I realize that there is a precedent for presenting a daughter with her own sword and that good things happen when you do.

The first half of this book would be awe inspiring for any girl with a romantic thirst for adventure. Aerin struggles through a debilitating illness, befriends an injured war horse, trains him back to greatness, and with a dogged patience that would rival Thomas Edison's, develops a concoction that will defend her against dragon fire. Thus armed, she heads off to fight dragons. Step aside, St. George! Step aside, Prince Whatever Your Name Is in Sleeping Beauty! The description of Aerin's battle with Maur beats any I've read anywhere in English literature. It makes a mockery of such silliness as Beowulf leaning up on one arm and prying Grendel's claws back with one hand. You don't defeat a monster many times your size without being slung around, charred to a crisp, beaten to a pulp, and left for dead yourself.

The second half of the book is a bit harder to swallow. Who is this Luthe guy? How old is he? Is he really bald? Why fall in love with him when Tor is back home fighting off the northern demons? Aerin's experience with Luthe drags on beyond endurance. Listening to Aerin and Luthe beside the silver lake rivals listening to Bella and Edward talk in the cafeteria. When she falls in love with him, it feels like Luke Skywalker has fallen in love with Yoda (minus the gender problem--okay, maybe that was a bad analogy). All the same, at the end when she has nicely turned back to Tor but somehow keeps Luthe in her heart for the next life--yuck--it reminded me of what a good thing it was for Rowena that she didn't know how often Ivanhoe thought about Rebecca. We're supposed to believe that "it was her love for Luthe that made her recognize her love for Tor," that "her destiny, like her love, like her heritage, was double." It never comes together for me.

All the same, when Aerin gets back to Damar, the book picks up again, and there are some great battle scenes. The book is like a beautiful figure with a gaping wound. What do you do with it? Joanna tells me she just reads the parts she likes. That answer would make Aristotle turn over in his grave, but if you look at it like an Arthurian romance where the whole is clunky and episodic but certain parts pierce your heart, it might work. In that sense, The Hero and the Crown fits right in with other great fantasies in the Medieval tradition.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Peter Pan

When I was a kid, I day dreamed about getting tied to a stake. It wasn't always the same bad guys who captured me. Sometimes it was Medieval bandits, sometimes Arabs, sometimes pirates, sometimes Nazis, sometimes Soviets, but most often it was Indians. The shape of my world sprung from "Rin Tin Tin" episodes. I watched them avidly and idolized the little boy who owned the dog and got to wear a uniform just like the Cavalry officers. My mother sewed a stripe down each side of my blue pants for Christmas one year and proved her worth. They always captured me and tied me to the stake because I was trying to save a girl who was already tied to another stake. So there we stood a few yards apart, our hands tied behind our backs, without a hope in the world. If she was gagged, she stared at me with burning eyes that said, "I love you. Thanks for trying." If we weren't gagged, I said something along the lines of "To die will be an awfully big adventure." I know that J. M. Barrie had these same sort of dreams as a child. The amazing thing is that he seemed to fuel them into his adulthood and wrote Peter Pan.

Neverland is familiar to anyone who had a backyard growing up. Things are not as perpetual in the Neverland of the book as they are in the Disney movie, where the Indians are usually spoofing when they catch the lost boys. Neverland is gloriously dangerous in the book. The pirates are out to kill the lost boys, the Indians are out to kill the pirates, and the animals are out to kill the Indians. Hook may kill a pirate simply to show his method, and when there are too many lost boys, Peter "thins them out." Yikes. Apparently, children on the mainland need to do some more clapping too, because not all fairies survive this tale.

There are plenty of other familiar things too. There is a wife's kiss that a husband can't ever quite catch. There is a boy's arrogance that makes him really believe that someone else's idea was his own, and yet his desperate need for bandages for the slightest of wounds. Above all, the book acknowledges that children are heartless; this is what makes them so attractive, because it shows an absolute faith in a mother's love. "Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive; and we have an entirely selfish time; and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return for it, confident that we shall be embraced instead of smacked."

If you enjoy the sort of word play and rhetorical flourish that you find in Alice in Wonderland, or A Series of Unfortunate Events, you will love Peter Pan. I must offer up an example: "It was the grimmest deed since the days when [Hook] had brought Barbecue to heel; and knowing as we do how vain a tabernacle is man, could we be surprised had he now paced the deck unsteadily, bellied out by the winds of his success?" Read and dream again.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Peace Like a River

One of my favorite songs is Bob Dylan's "Brownsville Girl." In that song, he describes watching a cowboy movie in which Gregory Peck is gunned down while riding across the desert. The townspeople want to string up the kid who shot him, but the dying gunfighter says the kid shot him in a duel fair and square. He says, "I want him to feel every moment what it's like to face his death." What a great line! Bob Dylan says that the scene keeps blowing "right through me like a ball and chain." I get that. I feel the same way about Leif Enger's Peace Like a River, which is a modern Western.

Peace Like a River is really about which of two kinds of heroes Reuben Land is going to become. His older brother Davy is the independent Lone Ranger type who takes matters into his own hands. Early in the book, Davy asks Reuben, "You think God looks out for us?" and when Reuben answers, "Well, yeah," Davy asks, "You want Him too?" For Davy, having someone take care of things for him goes against the grain. When Davy hears the story of how their father was flung four miles away by a tornado and God delivered him unbruised, it really bugs him. The truth is Davy is amazing. Reuben's description of Davy hunting is right out of a Chuck Norris poster:

"His right index finger is just whitening on the trigger, and on his face is nothing at all but the knowledge that the goose is his.
Not confidence--I understand confidence. What Davy had was knowledge."

Reuben and his little sister Swede idolize their older brother. Swede, a romantic eight year old, writes narrative poetry about Sunny Sundown, a lone hero from the Old West. At one point Sunny rides into town and threatens a whole mob of people who are about to hang an innocent man:

"His clothes and hat were black as ink, his dancing mustang pale,
His eyes were blue and hard enough to make the sun turn tail.
He said, 'You want to hang this man, I'll give you each the same.
I don't much like a mob,' said he, 'and Sundown is my name.'"

It's incredibly inspiring, but as the novel progresses and Davy becomes a vigilante, Swede runs into difficulty trying to make things turn out all right for Sunny.

Reuben's other hero is his father, Jeremiah, the quiet and steady janitor at his school. If Davy is like Chuck Norris, then Jeremiah is like Gregory Peck. He is concerned, but unruffled by threats against the life and well-being of his family. He prays, trusts in God, and teaches his children that retalliation only leads to escalation, but when it comes time to act, he wields his broom with a vengence. His faith doesn't come easy to him though. On occasions he has shouting matches with God, and one night seems to wrestle with him like Jacob. God works extraordinary miracles through Jeremiah, often ones he doesn't even notice himself, and some of them remarkably self-sacrificing. When a vindictive principal fires him, Jeremiah touches his face, healing him of a bad skin condition.

Reuben's own physical condition factors in the way he relates to his brother, his father, and ultimately God. He has terrible asthma and says that he couldn't be self-sufficient like Davy even if he wanted to. "The weak must bank on mercy--without which, after all, I wouldn't have lasted fifteen minutes." At the same time, he struggles with reliance on a God who miraculously saved him at birth, but left him with lungs like clogged dryer vents. When his father miraculously walks off of the back of a pick-up truck one night, Reuben wonders why God hasn't healed him. "For the first time the thought ingressed that if this man, my father, beloved by God, could work miracles--if he could walk on air--then fixing my defective lungs ought to be a picnic. Yes, indeed, a day at the old beach."

Reuben eventually meets Jape Waltzer, one of the creepiest villains in all literature. Jape is the epitome of self dependence. He scolds Reuben for thanking God for the food. "You are thanking God for the food when he did not give it to you. I gave it to you and did so freely. Thank me." He sneers at Reuben's timidity and tries to teach him how to breathe: "No, no. Make the attempt. Make up your mind and breathe." I wanted to reach into the book and smack the guy, but I know if I met him face to face, he would freak me out as much as he does Reuben.

Peace Like a River is an American classic that probes a value that Emerson made our most defining characteristic, self dependence. Enger writes with a beatifully poetic and yet boldly masculine style that often jumps off the page. I use this book for summer reading, and on the whole kids love the book and discuss it enthusiastically.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Watership Down

I wish I were a knight. I would have been a miserable one, no doubt; lugging heavy armor around has to be tough on a weak abdomen and a guy who has had four hernia surgeries wouldn't have lasted long, but I still wish I were a knight. A few years ago I read John Eldredge's Wild at Heart, and I think though I have wanted to be a knight all my life, that's when I realized it. A man is meant to face his worst fears, fight for truth and justice, kneel before a king, devote himself heart and soul to a lady, wear shining armor, ride out on impossible quests, make oaths that will eventually cost him his life--all that stuff. This brings me to Richard Adams's Watership Down, a book that unabashedly says that one should live on the edge. By the way, it's about rabbits, but don't be fooled into thinking it's a warm fuzzy story.

In Watership Down, Hazel and his compatriots encounter a warren of rabbits who have forgotten what it means to be rabbits. They are rich--filled full with flayrah (garden vegetables) every morning--huge, healthy, sophisticated, modern, and strangely depressed. In my mind they personify a lot of what's wrong with modern man. The more this society looks like our modern world, the more uncomfortable the visitors get with it. It's as though someone from Medieval England stepped into 20th century America, or I suppose England. Fiver, Hazel's little brother who has prophetic insight, wants to have nothing to do with the unnatural society from the start and is only dragged in against his will.

The downfall of their spirit begins with having security and wealth handed to them. A man walks by every morning and leaves them food. He shoots any predators that come their way. He pretty much leaves them alone to live in perfect bliss. The catch is that every once in a while a rabbit mysteriously disappears.

A whole culture develops out of this unnatural situation. The rabbits make no raids on neighboring farms. They have no leader because they don't need one. As they sit around in their warren with nothing natural to do, they develop into a "high society." For instance they greet each other with a strange dance, they sing their young to sleep, they store food underground, and they laugh in ironic situations. When Hazel tells Cowslip that he is going outside in the rain to eat some grass, Cowslip laughs, presumably because it is so unnecessary to eat in such an uncomfortable situation. Hazel is utterly freaked out by the laughter, which is totally alien to simple rabbits, and runs away from him. Even though the rabbits of the warren are huge, there is a weakness of spirit to them, and Blackberry says they just don't seem like fighters.

The difference between the two groups reaches a head when they tell stories. Dandelion's story is about the wily, adventurous El-ahrairah, the mythical first king of the rabbits who wages bets with Frith, the sun god, and raids his enemies' gardens. The rabbits of the warren call the story old fashioned and say they prefer dignity to trickery. Their "story teller," Silverweed, on the other hand, recites a poem in which he accepts death with an eerie romantic dignity and asks Frith to take his breath away as though it were the natural course of things--something Elizabeth Kubler-Ross might have written. Fiver freaks out when he hears the poem and tries to push his way out of the warren. When his friends question him about his rude behavior, he says, "Something can be true and dangerous folly at the same time."

This is why I tend to vote conservative, save the orange skins for our compost pile, and want to be a knight. I don't want things done for me. I don't want to be safe. I don't want to accept the circle of life and the inevitability of death. I'm with Fiver. "Though wise men at the end know dark is right," I want to "rage, rage against the dying of the light." William Wordsworth warned us two hundred years ago that as society becomes more sophisticated, people live less. He shook his head at aristocrats who had servants pour their tea and put their boots on for them. Why would doing nothing make one superior and happy? He was all for milking one's own cow. For the rabbits, that means foraging in dangerous grounds, stealing does from other warrens, and raiding farms--living with danger, courage, and trickery.

It's a wonderful life to live, and Hazel embraces it with such zest that when I turned the page to the final section of the book and discovered "Hazel-rah" in bold letters, I was ready to ride out with him in battle (or hop out). And pitched battles there are! I have not even mentioned the evil General Woundwort and his regime that "keeps his warren safe" with monomaniacal repression. I cannot recommend Watership Down enough. In my opinion, it belongs on the shelf between The Once and Future King and Lord of the Rings.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is an incredibly fun adventure story. It clips along, always engaging the reader with wonderfully creative things in the magical world such as trading cards with moving characters who leave their pictures because they have better things to do. The characters in the novel are absolutely Dickensian, from Vernon Dursley--the fat, blustering uncle who sells drills--to Hagrid--the gargantuan, but tender-hearted gamekeeper who desperately wants a baby dragon.

I think I personally liked the book best because it captures the spirit of a boarding school, a place where you are forced to sink or swim with teachers and fellow students. When Professor Snape picks on Harry, making fun of his fame from the very first day of school, Harry just has to tolerate it and try to get along as best as he can. Harry loves Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry though. He makes the best friends of his life there, and they spend endless amounts of time together, whether they are studying, hanging out, or sneaking around the castle.

At one point in the book, Professor Dumbledore tells Harry, "The Truth . . . it is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution." Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone does more than provide a great plot, setting, and characters. The themes in the book are universal, placing J. K. Rowling squarely on the side of absolutes, as opposed to say Lemony Snicket, who skates away from truth with brilliant negative capability in his postmodern series, A Series of Unfortunate Events. A study contrasting both series would create great discussions in a high school classroom.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry returns night after night to the Mirror of Erised until Professor Dumbledore warns him that the mirror gives "neither knowledge or truth. . . . It does not do well to dwell on dreams and forget to live." There is at least a nod here to the idea that reality is not what we make it. Contrast this to the sort of blather you hear from mindless movies and TV shows: "You can be anything you want to be." Later, the man with two faces tells Harry that Lord Voldemort taught him that "there is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it," a central idea in the teachings of Nietszche and Foucault, among others, that has so dominated 20th century thinking. In opposition to this, Rowling elevates sacrificial love as the essence of what is good and what paradoxically has the power to transcend and defeat what Voldemort calls power, a lust for personal gain. Ultimately, if self sacrifice to the point of death is to be of lasting value, if life here on earth is not everything and the greatest good is not to live as long and as happily as possible, then there must be a greater reality beyond death. Professor Dumbledore explains that Nicholas Flamel and his wife have discovered just this: "To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure."

Finally, I love this book because I love conspiracy theories. What if there really were magicians all around us doing their best to hide all their fun activities? It's worth a second glance at the kitchen chimney to see if a letter will come flying out of it. Okay, I live in America and have no kitchen chimney. Where is America in all of this anyway? This is a very Anglo-centric book. The world of the series broadens to Europe later, but for all the Americans buying the series, you'd think Rowling would include us a bit more. I think we should demand a sequel of our own from her--I don't know--something like Harry Potter and the Connecticut Conspiracy. I'm seeing Harry, now an Auror, swooping over to New England to face the secret spawn of Voldemort who has infiltrated the CIA through a long lost tie to the Salem Witch Trials. . . naaah, doesn't work. Harry belongs in the world of shepherd's pie and crumpets.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

In Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Cody Tull wonders if you can "classify a person . . . purely by examining his attitude toward food." It's a fascinating idea. In my own immediate family, we have very different attitudes toward food. My daughter Joanna, for instance, eats the same thing for every lunch--a Dagwood sandwich (with turkey, Provolone cheese, tomato, cucumber, and mounds of lettuce), pretzels, and a cut up apple--with a kind of joy that I can only dream of. My other daughter, Emma, goes through stages in which she binges on one thing or another until she gets sick of it--bagels, Oreos, tuna fish on crackers, Michaelina's frozen meals, salads with tomatoes and mushrooms. My wife, Betty, could have the same menu every week and be perfectly happy. I, on the other hand, want at least one experimental meal every week and would be delighted if we rarely ate the same thing twice. As the shopper in the family, I buy the standards for Joanna and Betty, keep up with Emma's new trends, and look around for the one interesting thing that I want to enjoy that week. You thought I was going to start interpreting here, but I know better. If Cody is right, maybe you can figure us out.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is really about claustrophobic family relationships. The sins of the fathers are passed down to the sons. Things that happened ages ago keep getting drudged up. Narrow patterns of behavior from childhood are inescapably carried into adulthood and infect all other relationships. Ways of coping with sorrow and bitterness somehow feel like glossing things over. It's a world in which everyone lets each other down. And yet it is a world in which the family keeps getting together, and love is the scabs on our wounds.

If no one has labeled the idealistic family member an archetype, it's time someone did. Isn't there someone in your family that is bound to burst out, "I just wanted us to have a wonderful Christmas together," utterly surprised that the broil has begun again? In my family it is my father, bless him. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, it is Ezra Tull, who keeps planning the proverbial family dinner, sure that this time everyone will somehow get that Frank Capra feeling. You could actually see the main conflict in this book as the family vs. the dinner. Can they finally make it through a dinner all together, no one having thrown water in someone else's face or run out the door in a flood of tears?

I would never require a student to read this book: it might be so familiar to him that it would feel like being locked in a closet. It's that realistic. However, I would shove it toward any serious reader or writer. Both the writing style and the characterization are excellent, and any aspiring writer could learn from Anne Tyler.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Black Like Me

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus tells Scout that one person can never fully understand another person without stepping into his shoes. I don't think anyone has done that to the extent that John Howard Griffin did when writing Black Like Me. The "knee-knocking courage," as Dick Gregory puts it, of what he did--changing the pigment of his skin through taking pills (sounds like something out of a dermatological horror show), exposing himself to ultra-violet rays, staining his skin, and then walking around in the Deep South to see how it felt--is astounding. Because the book seemed as confessional as it seemed indignant, because he spoke as a black man, but also as a torn white man behind that black man, the narrative drew me in.

Griffin's experience pointed out things I had never considered in practical terms before. For instance, I had always thought that for every drinking fountain or bathroom for white people, there was one for black people nearby, that the problem was merely the insult. Griffin describes one situation in which he is not allowed to use a dilapidated outhouse for whites and has to walk fourteen blocks to the nearest bathroom.

One of the most compelling revelations to Griffin was the anonymity he felt as a black man. He determined from the start never to lie about who he was, but very few people asked. Most white people simply saw him as an old black man whose past they had no interest in. This anonymity of merely being part of the black mass, coupled with the stereotype that black men have an uninhibited sexual virility, revealed itself in an even uglier way. As he hitch-hiked through Mississippi and Alabama, Griffin had to endure conversations with white men who felt that they could tell him anything about their sexual desires and ask him equally indecent questions.

The reader feels the strain of the decent black man who has to smile submissively to the hateful and degraded white man who never the less feels superior. Griffin describes the feeling "a hate stare" from a white man in a bus station gave him: "Nothing can describe the withering horror of this. You feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it (rather than its threat) terrifies you. It was so new I could not take my eyes from the man's face. I felt like saying: 'What in God's name are you doing to yourself?'"

I've imagined the mixed reception this book would receive in my classroom. For the most part the white kids think racism is now a non-issue and become resentful when the black kids still bring it up. There is a prevailing attitude that once laws were changed back in the sixties and seventies, the effects of hundreds of years of oppression were easily wiped out. They love reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and I can't stress how much good that book has done in the Deep South, but it is to a certain extent inocuous because it depicts a white man helping a black man. Toward the end of Black Like Me Griffin points out that the civil rights movement had to move beyond this kind of paternalism. He describes how the paradigm of "fragmented individualism," in which a black man tried to fit into white society, gave way to the paradigm of a nation within a nation, in which black men built a society of social and economic strength of their own alongside white society in hopes that in time the two would merge gradually on an equal footing.

Late in the book, Griffin faults a white crowd for clapping for him while remaining aloof when a black man said essentially the same things. He says that "white men could not tolerate hearing them from a black man's mouth." Ironies like this were understandably difficult to deal with, and for the most part, Griffin presents a fair picture. Occasionally, a critic could see through some of his erasures. For instance, he condemns the white people's stereotype of the sexed up black man as totally unfounded, but later mentions that when he was white again, he had to guard against using the "semiobscene language that negroes use among themselves." He also spoke out against white people's notion that when black people bought homes in Atlanta, property values were bound to go down by saying, "In every instance, they have improved the homes they have bought from the whites and built even better ones." That seems overstated.

For all the talk about us having moved beyond racism in the Deep South, I believe teaching this book in my class would create heated conversations, maybe necessary ones. A few weeks ago I suggested to another teacher at my school that we teach The Red Badge of Courage, and she said, "It's hardly worth it because the kids get bogged down in arguments over the northern point of view." It didn't surprise me. A student walked into my classroom a few months ago and announced that he had carried a sign in a parade the night before that read, "My president is black, and so is my future." I asked him exactly what kind of a racist he considered himself, and he seemed surprised and indignant that I would accuse him of such a thing. I don't believe he is the norm, but the fact that he felt good about carrying that sign and telling all his friends about it shows me that we have a long way to go.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Princess Bride

"Boo!" That's what I say. I've always agreed with the "withered and bent" old woman who tells Buttercup what she thinks of her marrying Humperdink. I've always liked it that Wesley slaps her across the cheek when she says that she has loved "more deeply than a killer like [he] can imagine." Okay, I admit that the slap was a bit shocking, but it certainly convinced me that he has become the Dread Pirate Roberts and that he has come along way from the farm boy who said, "As you wish," to every whim she had. What I have always loved about the Princess Bride is that it takes place in a world where things mean things, where ideals are worth bringing people back from the dead for. This is why I say boo to the book.

It's annoying enough that I had to stop every ten to twenty pages to hear William Goldman, or rather his pseudo-author, go on about the hot poolside woman, or his cold wife, or his fat son, but little by little he starts deconstructing his own book, so that by the time Fezzik and the baby are facing their final crisis, it doesn't really matter anymore. True Love is off grazing in a field, while Reality is selling funnel cakes in the town square. Would you believe that the message of The Princess Bride is "Life isn't fair"? The central conversation in the book doesn't even take place in the narrative of Wesley and Buttercup. The central conversation takes place between a bitter author named Edith and a little boy, the pseudo-author when he was young, who has just lost a badminton game in her back yard. She tells him he may never beat the kid who just beat him, not just in badminton, but in anything. The pseudo-author realizes this is true, and it sets him free. He goes "bonkers" with joy. "The point is, we're not created equal . . . life isn't fair. I got a cold wife; she's brilliant, she's stimulating, she's terrific; there's no love; that's okay too, just so long as we don't keep expecting everything to somehow even out for us before we die."

It's disgusting. Later, the author, or rather the pseudo-author, describes how he felt when his father told him that Wesley dies and Humperdink lives. "I guess the most amazing thing about crying though is that when you're in it, you think it'll go on forever but it never really lasts half what you think. In terms of real time. In terms of real emotions, it's worse than you think, but not by the clock. When my father came back, it couldn't have been even an hour later . . ." he had finished crying and recovered. When I read this, my "willing suspension of disbelief" clattered to the floor. Ain't no way Morgenstern wrote the bilk about Buttercup agreeing to marry Humperdink; that was right out of the mind of the pseudo-author, or maybe this time I should say the author.

Shame. Sorrow and joy go deeper than he would have you believe. Slap him in the face.

Okay, I'm done with slamming the book. I loved reading the narrative part. I loved reading the story for the ways it was similar to the movie and the ways it was different. I loved the Zoo of Death! I loved all the background stuff on Fezzik and Inigo. I can't say I liked the first chapter of "Buttercup's Baby"; I was annoyed by then, and the author's pessimism was interfering way too much with the narrative. If you can bring yourself to do it, quit where the movie ends.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Laura Serota, a Reader's Autobiography

This is an autobiography of a reader written by one of my students, Laura Serota.

Reading is like traveling. A good book transports the reader into another world where there are people and situations. These might be similar to real life or complete fantasy. The tale might involve a serious or lighthearted subject. In my opinion, the greatest stories I have ever read were told as they followed a character through life changes. The maturing of a character through events and circumstances might require several books in the telling. From this preference, I must conclude that I am a series reader. This could include all the books written by the same author or books about the same character. In addition, the story line that appeals to me the most is one that contains a certain historical element. Reading, to me, is not only enjoyable, but also a learning experience. I like to learn details about a particular society of people. My second choice is a fantasy series. This type of book is truly an escape from reality. However, I am very selective. I am not one to pick up a book to read just for something to do.

I have great respect for the quality of writing from a story teller. I make an effort to know something about the book before I choose to read it. A personal recommendation from a friend is always the best. This is helpful, not only in assessing the quality of the writing, but also taking great precaution in what I allow myself to read. I have learned that when I find a story I love, I read it over and over again. I do not like to rush the plot. I like to take time to savor the detail as it unfolds. I make an effort to get full understanding of the depth of the characters as well as the twists and turns of the events. Sometimes, I get so caught up in the plot and the characters that they consume my thoughts, even my subconscious ones. I dream about the story, seeing the events happen through the eyes of the main character. Nightmares have occasionally come from this plot reenactment. Therefore, there must be careful consideration of any novel before I read chapter one. I also enjoy stories that have been treasured through the years by such authors as Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott.

My childhood was filled with as many hand-me-down things from my brothers that a girl could possibly acquire. This included books. My dad took a break from training, coaching, and disciplining my brothers for some “father-daughter time.” He read aloud a book that he had loved as a child, The Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. This is a series of fables explaining the beginning of the animal kingdom. Some of the chapters include “How the Camel Got His Hump,” “How the Leopard Got His Spots,” and “The Elephant’s Child.” My imagination took off, and this became my earliest memory of fairytales. After this, I was intrigued with every fairytale book I could find. I came to love all of the classic fairy tales and insisted that my mom read them to me countless times.

My first love of series literature came from the novel Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The life story of Laura Ingalls growing up in the 1860’s in the untamed pioneer land out west expanded into a ten book series. I heard and read this story many times throughout my elementary school life. My mother read it aloud to me when I was too young to read, and I re-read it several times again by myself. I related to the main character in more than one way. We not only had the same first name, but shared similar responsibilities: our families expected and needed us to work around the house. This story became real to me. I imagined myself living Laura’s life. I felt that I could have done the things she did in the hardships of growing up during that time. I learned about how to churn butter, make a straw bed, milk a cow, season meat, use every available bit of anything edible, survive in below-zero temperatures, depend on myself and my family for entertainment, and reverence the Bible as the word of God. I particularly remember how happy Laura is with a simple corn-husk doll. She is grateful for simple pleasures and does not complain about chores. She is content with a hard-earned meal and a good fire in the fireplace.

My Mark Twain stage followed my elementary school years. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn made me wish my childhood could last forever. I appreciated the outdoors more after I read those books. They presented a challenge in reading ability and a realization of that particular section of society to me. To decipher the African-American dialect of that age and class level was difficult. I came to appreciate the positive changes that have occurred in the southern way of life. These books and Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe helped me to be grateful that I was living in modern times rather than the times when these stories were written.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott made me long to have sisters. They had a special bond that a girl with all brothers cannot connect with. Still, I identified with Jo March. I felt as if I shared her dreams and vision to be different from the ordinary society around her. She loves her family completely and yet feels pulled by some inner force to strive towards an achievement greater than the women of her time were accomplishing.

I realized what an escape from reality novels could be the first time I opened the cover of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. I was captivated by the world of Hogwarts. I have read all seven novels countless times. Each novel brought a different element to the series. My imagination was pushed to a place that I did not know existed.

I am a very selective reader. I do not pick up a book to read just to pass the time. I enjoy the classics, the stories that have been treasured through the years. I love to read a good novel, but, because I take precaution with the books I choose, my book list may be few in number compared to other novel lovers. When I read a good novel, I feel as if I am traveling to that place and time. I might find myself amidst the animal kingdom or among the group on a wagon trail bound for uncharted territory; I might be traveling down the Mississippi River on a raft with a runaway slave or on a mysterious train destined for Hogwarts. I feel that reading quality literature is something I will enjoy throughout my entire life.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Matt Morris, a Reader's Autobiography

This is an autobiography of a reader written by one of my students, Matt Morris.

Before I started writing this paper, I did not consider myself to be much of a reader. As a senior in high school, I would have told you that I did not enjoy reading. However, when I started outlining this paper, I realized how much books are a part of my life. Books have increased my knowledge and perspective in every area of my life. As a young reader, books fascinated me. The stories came to life, and I often vicariously put myself in the place of one of the characters. The best part of my whole day was family reading time. My dad’s voice sparked my imagination every night. Even as I moved into junior high, I often asked my mom to read books to me for school to capture the full effect. I always enjoyed the book more if my mom was reading because I did not get distracted by the length of the pages or by the size of the words. In junior high, I hid the fact that my mom still read to me. If I had revealed the secret of my reading comprehension to my peers, my pride as a young independent athlete would have been crushed. I guess that I am an auditory learner, so when I hear something, I usually remember it. However, I do not always hear unless I am looking at the reader. In kindergarten, I was diagnosed with a mild to moderate hearing loss that has worsened through high school. This year I was told that I should be wearing a hearing aid, which I adamantly refused to do. I actually think that I concentrate better when I listen because I have to look at the reader or speaker to fully understand. I think I remember every book anyone has ever read to me, and while I do not mind reading, I am more easily distracted when I read to myself. Also, I am supposed to wear glasses when I read, and I am not a big glasses fan. Despite my auditory and visual issues, I appreciate all the knowledge and insight I have gained through reading. My life has been influenced by childhood books, school-assigned reading, and pleasure reading.

My childhood was filled with family members reading board books, bedtime stories, fairy tales, and nursery rhymes. Dr. Seuss made me smile. The first book I remember reading on my own was The Foot Book, which was symbolic because, at the time, my dad was training to be a foot doctor. The most memorable books in kindergarten were The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Harry the Dirty Dog , and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? There was a song that accompanied the words to the Brown Bear book, so even though I could not actually read, I felt like I was really reading as I followed along with the words. I often wondered how a caterpillar could eat so much, and I really could identify with the dog Harry who was always accidentally getting in trouble. Most impressionable to me were The Giving Tree and The Little Engine That Could. The giving tree gave all it had to an ungrateful boy who became a man. I wondered if I could be like that tree and give all I had so freely and unconditionally. Or was I more like the ungrateful boy who grew into a man and became old, never giving and only taking? Mimi, my grandmother, read The Little Engine That Could every time we visited her. Mimi grew up during the depression and used the example of the engine to teach us a strong work ethic. My other grandmother’s favorite book was The Velveteen Rabbit, which always made me feel sad because the rabbit was discarded and unloved before it was changed from a stuffed animal into a real rabbit. As far as nursery rhymes, "Little Miss Muffet" was there first. She should have just killed that spider.

Since I was homeschooled through third grade, I feel like real school-assigned reading started for me in fourth grade. Reading for school included the books I chose for a book report and the books assigned to me. My favorite books have been the books that I chose, but sometimes I have been pleasantly surprised when I actually enjoyed the books that were assigned. The Westing Game was one of my favorites because of the mystery at the end, and I wondered how anyone could even make up a story like that. In The Light in the Forest, I found myself wondering how different I would be from the way I am now if I had been taken from my family as a small child and raised by Indians. Most inspirational was the story of the missionary Bruchko who had to overcome so many obstacles, including pulling large worms from his throat, just to share the gospel with those who had not heard. In My Side of the Mountain I was jealous that a boy could live outside alone in the woods. I still get sad when I think of the dogs, Ann and Dan, in Where the Red Fern Grows. Honestly, I would have been so angry if I had been asked to be a whipping boy for a spoiled prince. I cannot imagine being whipped every time someone else disobeyed in The Whipping Boy.

Often the harder books are the school-assigned reading books. Spiritually, the book that opened my eyes the most to the reality of spiritual warfare was The Screwtape Letters. C.S. Lewis had such a great understanding of the deeper things of life, unlike some of the writers of the classics. So many ancient writers, like Homer, wrote great classics like The Iliad and The Odyssey completely devoid of God. While I can see how characters like Odysseus, Achilles, and Poseidon may be godlike or may even become gods, so many of the ancient writings seem empty to me. If I started listing the many obscure books I have read in the last eight years in a classical school, I would be well over my word limit. The main thing I have gleaned from reading the old books is insight into the way people thought thousands of years ago. Old books have given me insight into history, but have not promoted a love for reading. In fact, the worst book I ever read was On the Social Contract by Rousseau about his impressions on French law during the Enlightenment period. A surprisingly good book was The Qur’an, which gives the Muslim perspective on the Bible. While I know the conclusions it draws are different from the Bible and therefore incorrect, I understand better how a culture could be led astray. The book that gives me balance is The Bible with its truths that I will reap what I sow and that I can keep my way pure by keeping it according to God’s Word.

The childhood books and the school-assigned reading encompass the majority of my reading experience, yet I do experience pleasure reading. Some of the pleasure reading has been encouraged by my discipleship leader and includes The Bible, Every Young Man’s Battle, and Don’t Waste Your Life. If I am honest, I would have to admit that most of my pleasure reading comes from reading sports in The Birmingham News and ESPN.com. I love sports and don’t even feel like I am reading when I am trying to find out who won last night’s game and how the win occurred, or which player was swapped, or which coach was hired or fired.

In conclusion, I have discovered that reading is a bigger part of my life than I had previously realized. Reading has probably affected every area of my life, helping me to better understand life, people, history, God, and myself. Despite excuses to avoid reading, my reading life to this point has been rich and full, encouraging me to read more.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Grendel is an amazing deconstruction and reconstruction of a story in the way that "it must have happened." John Gardner paints in the erasures of Grendel's character that the original story of Beowulf leaves out. In the original story, Grendel initially attacks Heorot out of anger that men are praising God for His creation while he himself lives under the curse of Cain. This motivation fades though, into a primal thirst for evil that leaves the reader unsatisfied. Aristotle taught us that a character's downfall must be tied to a deeply rooted flaw within him, one that the reader sympathizes with. The author of Beowulf was not working within an Aristotelian framework, but an Anglo-Saxon one in which characters could be simply evil or good, and quite apart from that, are all brought down by Fate and the hand of God. Gardner honors both traditions by giving Grendel a postmodern perspective, one that longs for truth and beauty, but cannot overcome the futility of a material world and the assurance that all things are doomed to inevitable change.

Grendel starts out as a pathetic monster, crying, "Waa!" for his mother when he is frightened, wondering about his position in the world. With no one to guide him (his mother is a brute monster with a smothering love), he observes the world alone. Because of his hideous form, he is forced to view humans from the shadows, and he is keenly aware of being an outsider. His observations of Hrothgar and the Scyldings culminate in his assessment that hegemony, "the will to power," is at the root of all things human. He looks on them with disgust. Then the poet arrives, spinning the bloodshed Grendel has seen first hand into a revisionist myth of human nobility. Grendel loves the poetry against his will. He tries to explain it away. The poet sings "for pay, for the praise of women--one in particular--and for the arm of a famous king's hand on his arm." Yet something within him cries out that he wants the poet's words to be true, even if it means that he must "be the outcast, cursed by the rules of his hideous fable."

It's interesting to me that Grendel's longing for truth and beauty comes through art and not through religion. He's truly a postmodern monster. Grendel tricks Ork, the old priest, into telling him about the nature of God. What comes out is a convoluted theological ramble, the gist of which is that evil can best be defined in terms of time: "'Things fade' and 'alternatives exclude.'" God "is an infinite patience, a tender care that nothing in the universe be vain." This is not the world Grendel thinks he lives in. He reasons that "theology does not thrive in the world of action and reaction, change: it grows on calm, like the scum on a stagnant pool. Only in a world where everything is patently being lost can a priest stir men's hearts as a poet would by maintaining that nothing is in vain." Grendel would rather eat priests than listen to them: "They sit on the stomach like duck eggs."

Grendel learns to overcome his longings from the dragon, the ultimate materialist. He argues that men build arguments on "facts in isolation," on the givens of his particular time and place, but what seems true in a moment, when seen from thousands of years away, or millions, or a million million, would seem ludicrous. There is no "absolute standard of magnitude." The moment is nothing. The dragon tells Grendel, "If man's the irrelevance that interests you, stick with him," but his final advise is to "seek out gold and sit on it." Grendel comes to see in time that the inverse is also true, that the moment is all there is. "Back there in time" is merely an illusion, something that doesn't exist anymore. There is only the moment, and the moment is always lost. We live in aporia. "Nihil ex nihilo."

Thus Grendel spends most of his time trying to kill his longings. He kills just enough of Hrothgar's men to taint the glory of his Meadhall. He toys with Unferth and his sense of heroism. He turns Wealtheow upside down, makes her squeal like a pig to expose the mystique of her beauty. Through it all, he never quite succeeds, and this is what makes him such a tragic character. I don't know if I've ever loved a villain so much.

I know that many high school teachers teach this book in conjunction with Beowulf, but my recommendation is to save it for college. I want my high school kids to absorb some of the grandeur of Beowulf before we have to deconstruct it. I don't want a modern perspective on the Anglo-Saxons in their heads quite yet. Putting Grendel off would actually honor the book's message that we should try to step outside our limited perspective. There are a lot of teen-age Grendels roaming around these days, kids with sad stories who find it easier to tear things down than believe in them.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Plague Dogs

Imagine that the world is "a great, flat wheel with a myriad spokes of water, trees, and grass, for ever turning," and each spoke is a different animal. At the hub, a man lashes the animals with a whip to make them keep turning the wheel, but it's unnecessary because the wheel turns on its own. What he should be doing is adjusting the animals from one side to another to keep the wheel balanced. This is the vision that Snitter has as he is finally on the verge of death in Richard Adams's The Plague Dogs.

This book is not for the faint hearted. It's a dog's version of Angela's Ashes where things go from bad to worse to even worse to, "Okay, that's enough already," to the point where things are so bad that the author feels the need to have a poetic conversation with the reader about the nature of the world:

"It's a bad world--for well you know
But after all, another slave--
It's easy come and easy go.
We've used them now, like Boycott. They've
Fulfilled their part. The story gave
amusement. Now as best I can
I'll round it off . . . ."

Boycott is the lead scientist at the animal research station from which the two dogs, Snitter and Rowf, escape. Adams is telling the reader that if he just wants a happy ending to a nice story, then we have used the dogs for entertainment, just as Dr. Boycott has for his obscure scientific purposes. You can't read this book and remain indifferent to the plight of animals subjected to scientific tests. Adams's criticism extends also to members of the media who blow stories out of proportion and create conflict in order to increase circulation and members of the government who use media hype to advance their own political careers. In the mean time the true stories are utterly neglected and the innocent suffer.

While all of the political stuff is compelling, The Plague Dogs largely succeeds because of its vivid sense of place, Snitter's wonderfully confused poetic mental meanderings, and the author's romantic love of all things feral. Adams's devotion to the Lake District is inscribed on every page. When I finished the book, I googled pictures of the landscape in the book and compared them with the maps. I was delighted to find that the mental pictures Adams had given me were amazingly accurate. Often, this harshly beautiful landscape is described through Snitter's point of view. A scientist has cut part of Snitter's brain out in order to confuse his sense of the subjective and the objective. Snitter often feels like he is outside himself and part of the landscape, and other times he feels like parts of the landscape are somehow inside him. As awful as the surgery is, it gives him a mystical experience of everything around him. By the end of the book, I loved him as much as Rowf does and really wanted them to survive. Both Snitter and Rowf try to become wild, learning from a wily fox how to survive. Adams praises the dark and wild as part of a nature man wrongly tries to suppress in favor of a Heaven where all is light and tame: "What will then become of your dreams, and of the phantasms that your own heart has summoned out of firelight and the dark?"

This book is not nearly as great a novel as Watership Down. The Plague Dogs feels much more didactic. It may just be that certain issues are so emotionally charged that the only appropriate response to them is an angry tirade. The book contains passages that I wanted to skim over though. The message was not seamlessly woven into the story. Though the descriptive passages are probably too long to keep high school students interested, I recommend the book to adults.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Animal Farm

George Orwell's Animal Farm is a great book for high school students to read in the present political climate. Most Americans have woken up recently to a world in which they have a lot less savings and will have to work a lot harder. We're all feeling like someone has deceived us, but we're too dumb to understand exactly who or how. The easiest thing is to be like the sheep in the book and chant whatever political slogans we've been taught. My gut reaction to the economic stimulus package is to start bleeting, "Big deficit bad! Big deficit bad!" It looks a lot like a magnificent but flimsy windmill. Still, I've had to step back and wonder if I really know what's best. I'm in a situation where, being too dumb to understand, I'm having to trust others who may or may not have my best interests in mind.

The animals on the farm are smart enough to question the deception when "Four legs good, two legs bad" is changed to "Four legs good, two legs better," but they never question the integrity of the original slogan. Four legs are no better than two legs; they've been boondoggled by their own kind. This really resonates with me, a good Republican who trusted my daughter's college money with a "Christian" firm that lied to us about where they were investing our money. Now we're having to decide whether to join a class action suit based on a two-hundred and some page legal document that reads like the instructions on your DVD player. It really does seem like the easiest thing to do would be to throw the document in the trash, trust that these people always meant well, and say, "I will work harder."

Of course, Animal Farm is meant to satirize Soviet communism. Snowball is to Trostky as Napoleon is to Stalin. A glorious revolution devolves into a dreary totalitarian state. The seven original principles by which the new society will function are one by one altered to suit those in power. In the preface to my edition, Russell Baker says that Orwell believed in Socialism and was outraged that the Soviets had twisted it in their country into a murderous hierarchical society. I think nothing irked Orwell more than misinformation. The great tragedy in the book is not that the animals rebelled against their human oppressor and tried to set up an ideal society based on Old Major's speech, but that the pigs derailed the revolution for their personal gain. C. S. Lewis says in The Great Divorce, "It's not out of bad mice or bad fleas you make demons, but out of bad archangels." If Animal Farm has anything to teach, it's this: beware when you are trying to do something truly revolutionary and make changes, and everyone is yelling, "Yes we can." Great good can come out of these times, but so can great evil if people in charge start controlling the press.

The only one in the book who isn't duped is the cranky old donkey, Benjamin, but he is the ultimate political agnostic who thinks it doesn't really matter who's in charge. Life will be miserable. I'm tempted to think he's the hero, but he is totally ineffectual. I wonder if he is a frustrated Orwell incarnate. In the preface, Baker says, "There is an aloneness about Orwell, an insistence on being his own man, on not playing along with the team as the loyal politician is so often expected to do, or else." That's Benjamin. So here's the last lesson. If you're one of those cranky old guys that no one seems to listen to, give it some time, and the world may call you a prophet.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Education of Little Tree

Barry Walker, a fellow teacher and good friend, died suddenly a few weeks ago. He introduced me to Angela's Ashes and Redeeming Love; I introduced him to The Color of Water and Peace Like a River. We were always shoving books at each other. Even though he was an avid reader (or maybe because of it!) he always had a simple air about him like Jed Clampet. I think more than anyone I have known, he wanted to make the Sermon on the Mount a reality in his life. He loved simple grace, simple love, simple discipline, simple physics, simple math. He was always looking for things in their pure form. He hated things that were complicated with human power, pride, or politics. Sometimes he seemed idealistic and naive, but I loved him for that. Little Tree's granpa in The Education of Little Tree is a lot like Barry Walker. Little Tree says that his granpa "thought Indian," and if anyone thought it was "naive" to do so, it didn't matter because it was good.

Early on in the book, granpa teaches Little Tree to "take only what you need," that this is a fundamental principle in nature and ought to be so among humans. The two observe that the panther takes the slowest deer, thereby strengthening the herd for a better future, where as men often shoot the largest deer as a point of pride or more deer than they need, simply for sport, and then wonder why the herd has weakened or moved away. Little Tree's education in the ways of nature teaches him to fit in, to live in communion with the animals and birds and plants around him. The book celebrates the economy of nature. One beautiful passage describes Nature birthing spring in a storm that flings down the weak and old in the forest as though it were "tidying up any afterbirth that might be left over from last year; so her new birthing could be clean and strong." Later, Mr. Wine, a mountain peddler, who being a Jew is another kind of outcast whose nation has been deprived of their land, tells Little Tree about the difference between stinginess and thrift, how the former is as idolatrous as hoarding riches, while the latter is keeping things in their place.

The ways of the Indian are cast into a sharp contrast with the ways of the rest of American society. Politicians, "the Law," and Christians are all lumped together as those who struggle for power for personal gain at the expense of community. Politicians stand on their soap boxes and shout about pointless things, like Catholic priests mating with nuns, in order to rile the ignorant mountain people up and gain their support. "The Law" meddles with granpa's still and Little Tree's education with a ruthless lack of consideration for either one as a real person. Christians are people who cheat Little Tree, condemn him for his supposedly illegitimate birth, and accuse each other of going to hell for baptizing in the wrong way.

Confused by cruel Christians and conflicting accounts of salvation, Little Tree decides to reject not only the idea of hell, but also the idea of evil. He says that the creek and the birds in his hollow "didn't know such word-feelings; and in a little while [he] had forgot them too." The fervor with which he has castigated especially Christians throughout his narrative belies these words. He has a deep sense of good and evil, often punctuated by his endearing statement, "Which is right." In fact, I'm not sure I have read a book with so few good people in it. There isn't a single stranger who is kind to him. The two union soldiers who helped a poor family during his grandfather's childhood are the most altruistic people in the book, and their efforts come to nothing. The world he describes is full of evil. I completely understand the sentiment of Little Tree's statement though. He spent a few wonderful years with two people who loved him deeply in a near ideal piece of nature. The longing for a place where we can live in communion with man and nature is something that the Indian has overtly tried to nurture within himself. It is something which many Christians scoff at, but I believe it is a longing for Eden. Which is right.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


When my wife and I were going through counseling before we got married, our counselor, Chris Mitchell, told me, "Never stop pursuing your wife. Always remember that there is infinitely more to discover about her." That may have been the best piece of advice I have ever received, and I've found it to be true. Betty is the most amazing person, and she never ceases to surprise me. Innocent Smith, the hero of G. K. Chesterton's Manalive, will go to any length to remind himself that the things he loves in this world are worth loving.

It isn't the people we love or the things we love that become dull; it is we ourselves who become dull to them. We are like the people in Wordsworth's "Westminster Bridge" who, dull of soul, pass over the breath-taking bridge every morning, thinking nothing of it. Smith says of himself, "I am always trying to find him--to catch him unawares. I come in through skylights and trap-doors to find him." He tries to surprise himself, not with new and exotic things, but with the most familiar things that he has forgotten he loves. Michael Moon calls him "a ritualist," and when he encounters a Russian, Smith tells him that the Communists have it all wrong: "True revolution is a return."

In this wild pursuit, Innocent Smith is full of boundless energy. He climbs trees, shoots guns, folds origami, collects colorful bottles, all with the seriousness of a little boy at play. In fact, I think he exemplifies Schiller's assertion that we are most human when we play better than any other hero. Paradoxically, this way of finding himself comes through losing himself. Jesus would like that. "He was not asserting himself like a superman in a modern play. He was simply forgetting himself like a boy at a party." In one funny scene, which I won't explain and ruin for you, Chesterton quotes Tennyson:

"Self knowledge, self reverence, self control:
These three alone will make a man a prig."

The quotation pretty much defines the villain of the book, Dr. Warner, if he is even alive enough to be called a villain. Mary Gray, the quiet heroine, advises her friends to look for men who "look outwards and get interested in the world." With the open eyes of an outward look, a man can wake up to his world and find eternity in a puddle. A letter from Innocent Smith and one of his friends veers off on one of many tangents: "What is a puddle? A puddle repeats infinity, and is full of light; nevertheless, if analyzed objectively, a puddle is a piece of dirty water spread very thin on mud."

I've read this book three times now. It's becoming a ritual! It's not the easiest book to read; Chesterton's wit is sometimes overly complex and hard to follow. High school students may feel at some points like they are wading through mud, but I guarantee that if they will give themselves over to it, they will find it full of light.