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.

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.