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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.

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.