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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.