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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, January 25, 2010

The Screwtape Letters

This is a review by Richey Riviere, one of my students.

Many people struggle with the daily grind of trying to stay faithful and be a good person, whether they are Christians or not. In one's own life it is hard to imagine the subtle ways in which the devil "comes to steal, kill, and destroy." Temptations from the devil seem like they would be sins that are clearly defined in the Bible and that pastors in local churches regularly comment on. The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, however, expounds on a more thoughtful and descriptive perspective of Satan's techniques.

The Screwtape Letters is an account of the letters from senior demonic tempter Screwtape to his young, inexperienced nephew, Wormwood. In his letters, Screwtape offers advice on how to turn the man Wormwood has been assigned to away from "the enemy" (God) and to assure that the man's final resting place be reserved in the pits of hell. The Screwtape Letters forces one to examine one's own life and brings to light certain weaknesses in the human mind, whether one is a Christian or not. Most of what the book expounds on isn't even what most Christians think of when they think of someone who is on his way to hell. Screwtape makes a big deal out of the fact that big sins like murder are no worse than small sins like gambling, if they will both eventually lead that person away from God: "Indeed the safest road to hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts . . . ." Screwtape tells his nephew that he should focus on exploiting the common human weaknesses and to let the humans do the rest of the dirty work in the world. In this area, C. S. Lewis displays an extraordinary understanding of human nature and what truly drives men and women.

It is interesting to see how Screwtape concedes that God is genuine in His love for humans and that God only wants the best for them (even though Screwtape later denies acknowledging this when confronted about it by higher demonic authorities). Another interesting point in the book is when Screwtape acknowledges that all pleasure comes from God and is beneficial to a human's relationship with God, even when it is achieved through sinful and non-beneficial means, such as sexual sin. He says that while the actual act is the sin and can often drive the person further from God than the pleasure will benefit him, the pleasure is still from God, no matter what the circumstances: "Anything, even a sin, which has the total effect of moving close up to the enemy makes against us in the long run."

Lewis also points out the dangers of pretending to be someone else in order to impress others. Screwtape states, "All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be." This is a warning not to pretend to be someone who does not love God or someone who sins on a regular basis because one just might turn into this imaginary person.

All in all this is a very good book. One criticism of the book is that it might cause many high school students to have to pull out their dictionaries or read certain sections over again to understand them fully. The vocabulary and sentence structure was sometimes difficult. Still, the book is a great classic and well worth the effort it takes to read it.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Jesus took a child in his arms and told his disciples that if they wanted to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, they should become like one of these little ones. I think at least a part of what he meant was to let go of the jaded cynicism that allows adults to talk about evil as though it is something we all must accept and live with. The best way to really see through the pretenses of even the worst things in the world is to see them through the eyes of a child. In John Boyne's The Boy with the Striped Pajamas, Bruno, a nine year old boy, discovers first hand the horrors of the holocaust.

Boyne calls the book a parable and writes with a simple style that matches a child's innocent point of view. Bruno's naivety allows the reader to discover the concentration camp with "the charm of novelty," as though those images from history books and documentary films were never stamped sharply on his mind and he is standing with Bruno at the window of his new bedroom, both of their mouths "in the shape of an O," wondering what this could be. "To begin with, they weren't children at all. Not all of them, at least. There were small boys and big boys, fathers and grandfathers. Perhaps a few uncles too. And some of those people who live on their own on everybody's road but don't seem to have any relatives at all. They were everyone."

In some ways, Bruno seems too naive. I really think that at nine years old, if I had seen a vast array of men in striped pajamas surrounded by a fence, I would have surmised that this was some sort of prison. Still, there had to have been some purposefully self-induced blindness among German people during World War II. The alternative for Bruno was to accept that his father was a monstrously evil man, a conclusion that Bruno does not want to hear from his new friend Shmuel, but cannot always avoid, considering some of the glaringly wrong things he witnesses. One of the best illustrations of Bruno's inability to really take in his experiences is when the story of Shmuel's past does not sink into Bruno's mind until he is telling it to his sister. As Jesus often said of people, he had heard the story, but hadn't really listened to it.

Occasionally, Boyne goes too far and makes the children in the book unrealistically naive. When Gretel sees the concentration camp, she suggests that it is the countryside. After Shmuel's encounter with Lieutenant Kotler, Bruno asks him if he fell off his bicycle. Come on! My willing suspension of disbelief failed at those moments; the story crashed to the ground like the Hindenburg. Still, the story has stayed with me, and I have found myself mulling over it again and again.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Dr. Roger Lundin, my professor of American literature at Wheaton College, could have gone the whole semester without teaching us, and his class would still have been one of my favorites. He could have stood at his lectern and read from William Bradford's journal every period, and we would have been mesmerized. He could have read James Fenimore Cooper, the wordiest of writers, and we would have been mesmerized. He had an amazing gift. He could read and make you feel like you were in the book. Twenty five years later I still distinctly hear his voice saying the word "beans," and it brings back the wonder of Walden. Cornelia Funke celebrates this wonderful gift in Inkheart.

The most compelling passages in the book describe Mo reading aloud: "So Mo began filling the silence with words. He lured them out of the pages as if they had only been waiting for his voice, words long and short, words sharp and soft, cooing, purring words. They danced through the room, painting stained-glass pictures, tickling the skin."

Funke takes that figurative idea of making things come to life and makes it literal. Whenever Mo reads aloud, something or someone comes out of the book. What a great plot idea! Mo's daughter Meggie has never heard him read aloud though because there is a catch. Whenever someone comes out of the book, someone goes in. Though Meggie doesn't know it at the start of the book, this is why her mother is gone.

The conundrum of people going in and out of books begs the characters in Inkheart to compare the worlds of fiction to the world we live in. Wondering how she can rescue Mo and Meggie from thugs that have come out of Inkheart, the book within the book, Aunt Elinore ruminates, "The world was a terrible place, cruel, pitiless, dark as a bad dream. Not a good place to live in. Only in books could you find pity, comfort, happiness--and love. . . . Love, truth, beauty, wisdom, and consolation against death." While he considers Elinore naive because he has experienced the terrors within Inkheart, Dustfinger, a firebreather who was pulled out of the book, desperately wants to get back into it even as he guesses that he will come to a bad end there. He finds our world cluttered with noise and only feels comfortable at night.

The plot of Inkheart is incredibly creative and the characters are compelling, but it isn't told that well. Nothing makes me angrier than when an author witholds information from the reader in order to purposefully misguide him. It is not until pg. 395, well after we first heard about a maiden named Resa who is serving the villain Capricorn, that Funke "dramatically" tells us Meggie's mother's name in the blunt, clunky line "Teresa was her mother's name." She could have easily mentioned Teresa's name earlier in the book and let the reader put it together, even if Meggie didn't. Likewise, we are told even later than this that Dustfinger is in love with her. Also, the scenes in the book tend to meander. The writing is not as taut as, say, J. K. Rowling's is in the Harry Potter series. For instance, Capricorn hangs Resa and Dustfinger in nets for a while (which seems like it would be difficult to do in a chapel), but then sends them down to the crypt supposedly because anyone who is executed has to spend time in the crypt. How is that a reason for moving them, and why were they in the nets to begin with? Motivations are often unclear or made clear too late.

You have to read Inkheart for the beauty of the whole story rather than looking at each part too closely, but I still recommend it highly, and my daughter tells me that its sequel, Inkspell, is even better. I'm still wondering about whom I would read out of a book if I could--maybe Innocent Smith from Chesterton's Manalive or Rebecca from Scott's Ivanhoe. Better yet, what book would I like to be read into--maybe somewhere fun like The Importance of Being Ernest or a magical place like Peter Pan.