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.

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.