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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.

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.