31 December 2008

28. Hamlet by the lord my god William Shakespeare

Hamlet! I hadn't read this in such a long time that I almost forgot what happened. And what happens is bad.

Hamlet's dad dies, so he comes back from university to attend the funeral. Before the funeral meats are cold, his mother has remarried his uncle, his father's brother. So his uncle is actually his stepdad and his mom is his aunt.

Then one foggy night the ghost of his dad comes and tells Hamlet that he didn't just die, but that he was killed by his own brother, Claudius, the new king (Hamlet's uncle-dad). The ghost wants Hamlet to avenge his death.

Then Hamlet's girlfriend Ophelia suddenly stops talking to him (as her dad (Polonius) and brother (Laertes) request).

Hamlet has trouble completing the ghost's mandate, and this has caused the play to be interpreted solely about a man's inability to act because he thinks and thinks. But there is so much more here: Fathers: Hamlet Sr, Polonius, and even, sort of, the King of Norway gets involved; Sons: Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras; and spying (everyone seems to be spying on everyone else).

Rather than reading it, I recommend the Branagh movie version. He's such a great actor and he faithfully presents the play in all its length (4 hours). Shakespeare is meant to be seen, so see it.

27. Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Isabel Archer is a classic individualist. She is unique and exotic. And everyone wants to marry her.

She grew up in Albany, NY, but we follow her story as she lives and moves about in Europe. She resists the advances of an industrialist New Yorker who follows her to England and the advances of a British nobleman, too.

Finally, after she inherits a great deal of money, she feels free to make choices without the influence of material wealth to come.

And so she marries, and marries badly. Does she flee? Does she stick it out?

I am really giving this novel a short review because I could speak about it for days and days. It's James, so it's dense and about much more than a simple tale of an expat getting married. We also have the observer character in the form of Isabel's consumptive cousin, who arranges the inheritance as an experiment on Isabel, to see what such a unique and rare person will do with such opportunity. And we have the idea of place - why England? And why does Isabel have to be an American? How does this novel fit into the James pantheon? And American literature?

I'm'na have to reread it to even come close to those answers.

26. Beast in the Jungle by Henry James

What an idiot is John Marcher!

All his life he believes that "something wonderful," to borrow a phrase, is going to happen to him. So for all of his life he waits, watching, wondering when this momentous event will occur.

Eventually he meets and remeets May Bartram, who, for reasons of her own, agrees to watch with him.

So they live as life-long friends, each of them watching the events of Marcher's life, until one day May is diagnosed with a fatal blood disorder. By this time she has also figured out what beast is stalking Marcher. But she won't tell him; he has to figure it out himself. And of course, Marcher, selfish to the last, believes that this, May's fatal disease, is the terrible thing that is to happen to him. And then, when she won't reveal what the horrible secret is, what the beast in the jungle actually is, he believes that that is the terrible thing, that May will die without revealing the secret, and so he'll never know.

And then, sadly, May dies; Marcher is left to watch alone.

I won't reveal the ending, but here we have James's observer character taken to the extreme: all Marcher does is watch.

And he's a first class idiot.

This was a great book with a moving ending. Not just for English majors!

25. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Poor Jane Eyre!

Misfit! Everywhere she goes!

Separated into five sections, each set in a different area, this book chronicles Jane's attempts at fitting into her world. Four attempts at figuring out who she is and where she belongs end in failure. Until finally things swing her way. But in classic 19th C. british lit fashion, not until the very last second.

I really quite liked this book. The writing is divine: her descriptions of places small and large are excellent.

And because Jane knows herself so well, or expresses herself to herself so well even if she doesn't know exactly what her conclusions mean, the inner voice of the character is portrayed really well. We are with Jane all the time, and yet we never tire of her. I usually resist first-person narratives, too, but not here, in the hands of an expert like Bronte.

24. Daisy Miller by Henry James

Another book for the Hawthorne-James class.

Young Daisy Miller is an American living in Europe and she is not quite behaving herself abroad. In fact, her behavior is quite scandalous. In one scene she goes for an unchaperoned walk on a busy street with a man who is not her husband!

How does one maintain individuality amid such rules and customs and traditions? Is it possible?

And again we have the Jamesian observer who is content to sit and watch, to experiment without judging. An observer stuck wanting to join the revolution yet held back by rules, customs, and the expectations of the defenders of the status quo. Cowardice? Prudence?

23. Dubliners by James Joyce

Technically, this is a reread.

And another read for my Irish Renaissance class.

And still delicious bites.

Read it.

22. Washington Square by Henry James

Poor Catherine Sloper.

Her dad won't let her date who she wants. And with good reason, Morris Townsend is after Catherine's money (really, mostly, her dad's and hers when he dies). How will she handle it? Will she defy her father? Or will she submit?

But the real question the novel answers is whether or not impressions and feelings can count as experience: do we have to act to have an experience?

21. Some Irish Plays

Not really worth an entry by themselves because some of them are three pages long, I list and comment on them here and count them all together:

The Rising of the Moon by Lady Gregory: A cop with a family to feed has to decide if he turns in a rebel for a reward and promotion or lets the man go. If he lets him go it's good for a free Ireland. If he turns him in the cop is just a bitch for the British, the Man, and the oppression of the Irish.

Cathleen ni Houlihan by Yeats: An old lady comes to a tavern on the eve of a man's wedding and tries to persuade him to fight for a free Ireland. She is not just an old lady, but Ireland herself and the man can never come home and is likely to die. implied is that this is the question all young Irishmen must face.

Riders to the Sea by J. M. Synge: Set on the Aran islands just to the west of Galway in the violent and stormy Irish Sea. With three sons already gone a mother tries to persuade her only remaining son to stay home and not go fishing.

Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge: This play set off riots when it was played in Dublin because the main character says that he is so in love with a girl that if some one set up all the girls in Mayo in front of him, and them wearing only their nightgowns, he would still choose her. Scandalous. A guy comes to a small pub and tells a story of killing his dad. The daughter of the pub owner falls in love with the wild traveler and breaks up with her steady, local boy. The townies celebrate his bravery and honesty. But then the traveler's dad shows up very much alive and the townies try to run the son out. But then the son actually kills the dad! And then the townies try to hang the son (for doing the very deed they were celebrated but an hour ago)!

Juno and the Paycock by Sean O'Casey: Might be my favorite of the lot, though I do like the ethical dilemma posed by The Moon Rising. First, paycock as in peacock pronounced with an Oirish accent. We have a family here on the brink of disintegration. Father: drunk, lazy, selfish. Son: a rebel, haunted by the fact that he turned in his best friend (who was killed) for being a rebel. Daughter: dating a fancy-pants Englishman. Mother: working hard to keep it all together. Then a settlement is promised and the dad goes on a spending spree. Settlement falls through! Daughter gets knocked up! Englishman flees! Son is abducted by his fellow rebels for being an informer! What's a mother to do?

These were all part of an Irish Renaissance class I was taking. I quite enjoyed the curriculum and I'm glad I read these. I had read Riders to the Sea a long time ago, what with it being about boaters and fishermen and men of the sea and all, but I absolutely did not get it. I definitely needed the economic and political context that I got from being in the class. I also benefitted from the Norton editions of these plays. I do not work for Norton. But the Norton anthologies give tons of context and criticism, the bread and butter of literature students and teachers, without overdoing it and killing all the joy of discovery of the lit.

I liked the symbolism of Riders to the Sea and Cathleen ni Houlihan, and the gritty realism of The Moon Rising and Juno.

20. Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne's memoir-ish tale of the Transcendentalist experiment in socialist living at Brook Farm, not far from Concord and Salem.

More than just an observer/participant's commentary and reportage on what happened this fictionalization is about the act of observing, commitment, manipulation and community, and social change.

And you don't necessarily have to know a lot about the Transcendentalist's to understand the events at Brook Farm because this, like many of Hawthorne's stories, can serve as an allegory for the limits of reform and social change. The course of the experiment is not as bad as, say, Orwell's Animal Farm, but it ends in failure anyway (as you already know because you've probably never heard of it unless you majored in English or 19th C. history).

19. Hawthorne by Henry James

Henry James critiques Nathaniel Hawthorne.

I read this book for my class, and hadn't heard of it at all before this. I haven't read any of James's longer works (in fact, I've only read one or two short stories), so it was interesting reading something by him that is non-fiction and about another author.

I think I learned as much about James as I did about Hawthorne. Mixed with some praise is James's scorching criticism of American Literature as it stood in 1879. James had moved to Europe by then in an attempt to reinvent the American novel as something of World Lit and not merely American. James felt that because America was still relatively young, and that the land hadn't been fully civilized, that no American literature could be any good: even Hawthorne, who James thinks basically invented American literature, is a provincial upstart. Because he has nothing to say about America, Hawthorne is forced to write allegorical tales that speak about the human condition more than they speak about a place and time, so Hawthorne's literature fails to even be uniquely American - it isn't essentially American.

This is a good book if you have read just about everything by Hawthorne and have a good understanding of what James was attempting to be/do. Knowing what James's aims were is essential because it gives his criticisms context.

19 December 2008

18. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

I had already read the Dubliners and quite enjoyed it, so this was a book I was looking forward to, and one that, as an English teacher, I should have under my belt (along with about 100 others).

This autobiographical novel was published in 1916, a fact that Joyce insisted on because of the political events in the same year. That was the year of the Easter Rising, the beginning of the end of the British dominance of Ireland.

This was a tough book, and I’m still trying to figure it out. I suspect that I’ll be thinking about it for a long time. And I’ll be teaching it, so I will have the opportunity to talk about it at length later in the year. That definitely helps with understanding a text.

The novel is divided into five sections, each of them covering a time period of young Stephen Dedalus’s life. This is the kind of novel that we English teachers call bildungsroman – just a fancy way of saying that the character is trying to find his way in the world, trying to find where he fits. This book is a great example of that theme (along with, say, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Jude the Obscure by the great Thomas Hardy, two books that I am also teaching this year).

Joyce leaves a lot of the political and social context out which makes the book a bit harder to get into. But I found it to be quite liberating. If I wanted all of the context to be handed to me in the text I’d read Dickens. And I was taking a course on the Irish Renaissance – my reason for reading – and so I had a lot of that knowledge from the others. I strongly recommend a heavily footnoted edition, or better, a Norton copy that has political and background documents in it.

I’ll leave you to discover the subjects and themes of the five sections, but we follow Stephen as he grows up. We begin as he is getting ready to go to boarding school and we leave him as he finished college and decides to leave Ireland for good.

I don’t really even know what to say about the book except that it follows Stephen’s struggle with home, church, and state. Set in the early 1900s as Ireland and England are battling for control of the Irish state, we have to deal with issues involving Stephen’s mom, his feelings about the church (as he contemplates becoming a priest), and his feelings about his Irishness.

It’s complicated.

But the writing is most excellent.

Here’s a section from Book II, where Stephen and his father have traveled to Dublin together on a train:

“At Maryborough he fell asleep. When he awoke the train had passed out of Mallow and his father was stretched asleep on the other seat. The cold light of the dawn lay over the country, over the unpeopled fields and the closed cottages. The terror of sleep fascinated his mind as he watched the silent country or heard from time to time his father’s deep breath or sudden sleepy movement. The neighbourhood of unseen sleepers filled him with strange dread though they could harm him; and he prayed that the day might come quickly. His prayer, addressed neither to God nor saint, began with a shiver, as the chilly morning breeze crept through the chink of the carriage door to his feet, and ended in a trail of foolish words which he made to fit the insistent rhythm of the train: and silently, at intervals of four seconds, the telegraphpoles held the galling notes of the music between punctual bars. This furious music allayed his dread and, leaning against the windowledge, he let his eyelids close again” (II 967-83).

And here is another section, this from Book III. Stephen has spent his time in sinful, sexual pleasures with himself and others. After hearing a hellfire sermon he goes back to his room and feels sick. As soon as he can he heads into town, to a strange church where he won’t meet anyone he knows so he can give a confession. Here, he has just stepped into the confessional and the priest has slid back the bolt:

“His blood began to murmur in his veins, murmuring like a sinful city summoned from its sleep to hear its doom. Little flakes of fire fell and powdery ashes fell softly, alighting on the houses of men. They stirred, waking from sleep, troubled y the heated air” (III. 1422-27).

And another section, this one from Section IV. Stephen is torn about joining the priesthood, and as he thinks he wanders down to the beach. He paces along the beach, looking for some kind of answer, and finally he comes upon a beautiful girl fishing in the shallows. Stephen has his answer! He walks to clean his mind of the image of the girl.

“He climbed to the crest of a sandhill and gazed about him. Evening had fallen. A rim of the young moon cleft the pale waste of sky like the rim of a silver hoop embedded in grey sand: and the tide was flowing in fast to the land with a low whisper of her waves, islanding a few last figures in distant pools” (IV. 916-22).

I’ll leave the last book to you to discover; it’s a very satisfying end.

And now I have to go read Ulysses.

09 December 2008

17. Goin' Down the Road by Blair Jackson

I liked this book so much that after I read a library copy I bought a copy on the amazon. For $2!

Subtitled as "A Grateful Dead Traveling Companion," this is a collection of some articles and interviews from the Golden Road newsletter, a fan newsletter organized for the fans of the Grateful Dead. The book has an interview with each of the band members, a section on the history of all the traditional folk songs songs that the Dead have covered/reinterpreted, and a section that highlights concerts of note for every year the band played shows.

This last section is what drove me to buy the book. I mean, I surf the Archive every day, looking for specific songs, shows, or song combinations, and see what interesting shows were recorded that day. And I'm sure that I could have found some sort of comprehensive review of concerts online instead of buying the book. But having a copy, with the pics of the band, and Jackson's comments on some of the shows, is interesting. What I especially liked was knowing when the first Stella Blue was (1972), or the first show after Pigpen died (3/15/1973, at our very own Nassau Coliseum). Stuff like that.

It's a good reference book, especially if you are a collector of Grateful Dead shows. Like, say, you want to hear Janis Joplin singing with the Dead, or the darkest Dark Star, or the very first live version of Eyes of the World, or a 17 song first set. You could find these things surfing the Archive, and reading the comments, but that takes so freaking long.

03 September 2008

So, here's a former student who is setting up shop in the graphic design universe - check out her stuff!


21 August 2008

Not quite as spectacular as Cosme's adventure, Alli and I went for a bike in the preserve next to the apartment.

Here's a snap of a pond that has a lot of action going on in it. At least one loon lives there, usually sitting in his high castle of weeds and sticks. And there's about a dozen ducks and swans always lurking about. I haven't seen any turtles, but I'm sure there are some. It must be fished out by now, by the birds/people combo, but something must be living there if the birds stick around.

And this is the very same pond that we saw turtles in during our January bike ride. I have no idea what They are doing, but it looks like meddling to me. They have two giant diggers driving around the perimeter of the pond scooping out mud and junk and dumping it into piles on shore. And there's no signage to indicate what is happening. If They were just cleaning up the garbage we saw in January, that would be great, but it looks like They are defining the borders of the pond, making a bluff/shore on the side by the houses. And They have these huge drainage hoses set up, but not being used. I'm pretty sure the terrapins are pissed.

17 August 2008

Cosme & his mother's most unprecedented adventure!

Here is a former student of ours who is riding his bike from NYC to Maine! With his mom! How cool are they?

Cosme & his mother's most unprecedented adventure

And the coolness continues: Cosme built his bike!

Visit this blog early and often!

24 June 2008

01 May 2008

16. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Crumbolst's review here. Along with Sandy's grade. And the review from Print is Dead. And, of course, Mt Benson Report has trod this path as well.

Sandy, I'd give it a B.

dsgran, I feel like I agree with you when you write, "but as a graphic novel, it doesn't have a life of its own" even though I'm not certain I know what you mean (in that as I have read just one graphic novel (this one) I don't feel qualified to comment on this one's qualifications/merits with regard to the genre).

And, Crumbolst, I think you have it right when you say, "Even the most terrible moments are conveyed with an unflinching matter-of-fact tone that seems to simply pass any appropriate angst on to the reader."

26 April 2008

15. Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

Recommended by the good folks at Olman's Fifty and the Mt. Benson Report.

Beginning just days before a nuclear exchange that wipes out most of North America, Europe and the Soviet Union, Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon tracks Randy Bragg as he sets up for, and deals with the aftermath of the attack. Bragg is a man in need of direction and the crisis helps focus him, and, actually, rescues him from destruction from that seductive mistress of alcohol and sheer laziness.

Randy's brother works in Air Force intelligence and realizes that a nuclear war is about to go down between the Russians and the Americans (instigated, of course, by a crisis in the Middle East). So as he heads for SAC in Omaha, he sends his wife and kids to stay with Uncle Randy.

From when they were boys, the two of them have had a code, "Alas, Babylon," which comes from the book of Revelation. Whenever anything bad happened, one brother would say to the other, "Alas, Babylon." When Randy gets a telegram (for readers born after 1985, this is a text message on paper) with the code he springs into action.

His first stop is the grocery store where he buys three carts of groceries, including meat. After the power goes out, the family must eat all of the meat they can in one day and preserve the remainder.

In the midst of his preparation (he hasn't filled prescriptions, gotten candles or other dry goods) the bombs go off. I, too, liked the way this was handled - fishing poles swaying on the rack, a rumble and a shake through the house, and a bright, white light. Just south of Orlando, the town (of Fort Repose) is spared by its distance from cities and military bases.

As soon as the crisis becomes apparent, the town is split into two groups of people: those who can make it (the librarian, the Western Union operator) and those who cannot (the banker and the elderly).

I'll leave the rest of the details to you to discover.

And I could not help but compare this book to George Stewart's Earth Abides. Stewart spends a bit more time on how the environment reacts to the disappearance of so many humans, but maybe Frank does not do so because so much of the earth has become wasteland.

One commonality is the situation that the selfish will impose on the communities of survivors. For Stewart's clan, the threat came in the form of a sexual predator who tried to take/buy/possess one of the community's young women, and who, when warned that this would not be allowed, would not take no for an answer. In Frank's Fort Repose, highwaymen set up shop nearby, robbing people on the road, and then begin raids on outlying farms/houses.

Both situations reinforce that man is his own greatest enemy - both communities were dealing quite well with the lack of social, governmental protection and, for lack of a better word, amenities (like power, water, transportation of goods, etc), but were threatened by the actions of a few individual people. So even after we wipe ourselves out on a large scale, we have to defend against small scale mayhem.

(And I have modified my "shopping" list for when the Troubles come: fish hooks, more band aids, gasoline, and booze (the last two for trade, mostly).)

05 April 2008

14. Holes by L. Sachar

Just like the movie!

The Common Earth, the Soil

from Specimen Days
by Walt Whitman

THE SOIL, too—let others pen-and-ink the sea, the air, (as I sometimes try)—but now I feel to choose the common soil for theme—naught else. The brown soil here, (just between winter-close and opening spring and vegetation)—the rain-shower at night, and the fresh smell next morning—the red worms wriggling out of the ground—the dead leaves, the incipient grass, and the latent life underneath—the effort to start something—already in shelter’d spots some little flowers—the distant emerald show of winter wheat and the rye-fields—the yet naked trees, with clear interstices, giving prospects hidden in summer—the tough fallow and the plow-team, and the stout boy whistling to his horses for encouragement—and there the dark fat earth in long slanting stripes upturn’d.


04 March 2008

13. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

First, a plot overview: Over the summer between 8th and 9th grade Melinda and her friend Rachel get invited to a party hosted by seniors(!). She chugs two beers and shortly thereafter finds herself outside, receiving the attentions of a very hot senior boy named Andy. Soon the flirting stops and he gets rough, raping her. She goes back inside and calls the cops. Too scared and unsure of what to do, she bails as soon as the fuzz rolls up. But when she gets to school everyone hates her for busting up the party. She carries the secret of the rape, and tries to deal with the emotional consequence all by herself for most of the school year.

I think this book owes a lot to Blume's Forever. Melinda's voice had its own quirky style, and the rape was handled well by Anderson - not too graphic, and just scary enough to make it real.

Anderson also does a great job slowly revealing the layers of the character and Melinda's story. She brings us slowly to a simmer and then to a boil and we hardly notice the heat or the pace.

What I most admired was the style of the writing (this goes to voice, too). For example, page 70, "I'm just like them - an ordinary drone dressed in secrets and lies." And again, on page 133, "Underground, pale seeds roll over in their sleep. Starting to get restless. Starting to dream green." And 169-70, when Melinda is demonstrating tennis for her gym class and she is about to fire the ball right at Nicole, "Her pride is at stake, her womynhood." I found that word, slipped in there nice and quiet, tells us a lot about Melinda.

And what was with the token reference to cutting?

My special deluxe "Platinum Edition" has an interview with Anderson where she explains the book is less about rape than it is about depression. I think that that is an important issue to discuss and to relate to the rape - Melinda's friend asks if she got pregnant or got a disease. She didn't, but she did have her personality crushed, and without art class, or Mr. "Free"man, who knows how she would have ended up.

As far as using the book in class...I definitely would like to try, especially with an 8th grade class. I feel like it would be a good time for kids to read this, maybe even at the end of 7th grade, depending on the, uh, maturity level of the student body. And I especially think it's one of a number of important books for young boys to read.

03 March 2008

on the hand-copying of Animal Farm

I haven't read Animal Farm since I taught it two years ago, but the other day I found myself thinking about the book, and recalling two teachers from Belarus who visited my old school. They traveled with half a dozen of their students to NYC as part of an exchange program with our school and stayed for about a week and a half.

While they were here I was teaching Orwell's Animal Farm. The guy teacher, whose names escapes me unfortunately, sat and listened for the entire day, as I covered the same material three times. As a courtesy I gave him a copy of the book so he could follow along with the passages we were reading. He came back for some, or all, of every day we discussed the book. He never joined the conversation but spent the entire time copying the text into his notebook.

When I found out what he was doing I urged him to take the book with him, to take copies enough for his students, even. But he said that he'd never get it out of the airport and that he would probably get in trouble for trying, but having it buried in his notebook meant that he had the book. He couldn't believe such a book existed and I quietly marveled to myself that he didn't already know about it. And then marveled at what I take for granted.

I think of him often, head down in concentration, one hand writing away and the other marking his place. And I wonder where his notebook is, who has read it, and how it's simmering somewhere over there. Waiting.

26 February 2008

12. Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Now, you may think I am going a little soft in the mind, but I loved this book. It's another selection from my prime motivator this year, that YA Lit class. When I taught middle school many of my students were obsessed with this book. I never got around to reading it, and would probably have forgotten about it altogether if not for this class.

This book is narrated by Leo, a HS senior in Arizona who falls in love with Stargirl. She is new to the school after being home-schooled her whole life. And she doesn't exactly fit in: she plays her ukulele in the cafeteria; she has a pet rat; she dresses completely crazy (her mom is a set designer, or wardrobe or something); and she sings happy birthday to kids, drops candy on their desks, and commits all kinds of random acts of super kindness.

And I think I have Post-Terabithia-Stress Disorder. The entire time I was reading I was afraid to turn the page for fear that some natural or unnatural calamity was about to overtake the high school and wipe out our dear Stargirl.

I really think Spinelli captured the voice of the teenage mob: their distance in the beginning wrought by misunderstanding; their embrace of the leadership demonstrated by our little bodhisattva Stargirl listening to her inner voice (her confidence in her rightness, her confidence in her kindness); and then their grudge-holding punishment for her going too far.

I think the ultimate lessons (to not judge so quickly, to not reject outright, and, since Leo is our narrator, to embrace the unexpected gifts) are very important for students to read about and discuss. The regret Leo feels after she leaves is palpable, and I think would hit a teen reader even harder than it hit me.

So much of high school literature is about characters listening to the inner voice, their true Self, that I think this book would be an excellent primer. Cuckoo's Nest, Catch 22, and Walden come to mind most immediately.

And perhaps I am being a little too hopeful, but perhaps if the book is read, say, as the second book of the year, or early enough, that it may be possible for teachers and students to start creating a safe space for kids to be themselves. A little nudge toward being more accepting of others. And resisting conformity. And Sameness.

Now I have to get back to reading everyone's outrage at that damnable Nader! Ahem.

21 February 2008

11. The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

Another classic from the Master. I have to say I am really digging the HGW this year. I'm adding The Time Machine to the list and may get to it sooner than some other candidates that have been on the list for a longer time.

This story is told with a narrative frame of "this is someone else's story that I am relating." In this case, the narrator is Charles Prendick, but the story is framed by his nephew.

Charles was a passenger on a ship that catches fire and goes down in the Pacific. He boards a life raft and is rescued by a passing ship. He slowly recovers from his ordeal and manages to see some of the ship that rescued him. It's a filthy mess because the deck is jammed with animals in cages. Prendick meets Montgomery, the man who saved him, and Moreau, the doctor who has brought the animals on the ship. He also meets M'Ling, the attendant to Montgomery.

After they are dropped on Moreau's island Prendick realizes he is on for a long stay, perhaps even as much as a year, depending on when a ship happens by the island. Soon after that Prendick gets a glimpse of Moreau's twisted experiments.

Afraid that he is to be one of Moreau's specimens, Prendick makes a run for it. He leaves the huts that Moreau and Montgomery live in, and finds himself in the thick, leafy jungle. Almost as soon as he is clear of the huts he realizes he is being followed. What he sees terrifies him even more - a half man half beast creature.

After a long chase Prendick takes refuge with the monster and learns that the island is populated by all sorts of mixed human/beast kinds of animals of varying shapes and intelligences. Soon Montgomery and Moreau catch up with him and rescue him from the beasts.

Back at the huts, Moreau explains that he has created these beasts in the name of science, in the pursuit of the godlike power of creation by metamorphosis. Moreau explains that he works on raw (natural) animals and tries to turn them human by way of surgical and chemical manipulation.

Is it so far from our own genetically modified foods like square tomatoes to better fit our sandwiches, or non-seed bearing corn (thank you Monsanto!), or hormone manipulated cows (more milk!), or cloned and hyper-drugged animals we eat?

Prendick understands even though he thinks it's twisted and everything is calm.

Until one of the animals busts loose and goes on a rampage. The power structure (between beasts and humans) of the island is threatened. Prendick, Montgomery, and Moreau's lives are in danger.

I skipped over a lot of the intricate details, but I'll leave you there.

What I find amazing about Wells is his fantastic imagination. His foresight is impressive, taking the science of his day and drawing conclusions that bear out in our day.

I definitely recommend this book and I'm very much looking forward to The Time Machine.

19 February 2008

10 The Giver by Lois Lowry

Another YA lit book for class.

This one starts in some kind of controlled world, a planned community right down to how many children will be born each year (23), and how many each family can have (2). Jobs are assigned by a committee of Elders, but so are husbands and wives (who apply to have a child, and ask for a boy or a girl). One of the jobs in the community is Birth Mother, and these are the only women authorized to have children. After three births they are sent to be field hands and manual labor. Other jobs are Nurturers, who tend newborns until they are placed with families.

There are rules such as no touching, no anger, and the suppression of all sexual desire (by taking a pill every morning). Lying is forbidden.

We follow the story of Jonas, who is 11 when the story starts. At age 12 each of the kids is assigned their life-long job. In the Ceremony he is skipped over and not given an assignment. The Elder calls him up last, and explains that he has been selected to be the Receiver of Memories. Because the populace is so suppressed, they have virtually no communal memory (old people are removed. Once kids leave their parents' home the parents are reassigned). Jonas will be tasked to meet with the Giver, who is to pass him memories telepathically.

Jonas and the Giver get to talking about why memories are stored in one person. At first Jonas sees the wisdom in it. When every single aspect of life is controlled there is no reason for choice to exist, and if there is no choice, then no memory is required - no need to make decisions based on wisdom. The Giver, and Jonas when he takes over, serves as the community wisdom. If the elders get stumped, they come to the Receiver of Memories and ask for advice.

Jonas eventually comes to see this as a bad plan. So he escapes to make a new life, and help disrupt life in the community he leaves behind.

At just 179 pages, this book left me wanting more. It's a good idea for a story and could have been developed a lot more. I mean, it's a book for middle school kids, but I could see the same idea being worked a bit more thoughtfully in the hands of an Aldous Huxley, etc...

Crumbolst's brief review here.

12 February 2008

9. Forever by Judy Blume

It really felt like it was going to be forever until I finished this book. Because I'm not a 13-14 year old suburban girl each page, each paragraph, each sentence was pure torture.

This book details the senior year of Katherine, who is contemplating losing her virginity to an extremely patient Michael.

There are the two friends who serve to act as Scylla and Charybdis (I've never been able to use this simile! Thanks Judy Blume!) Sybil the slut and Erica the girl who just wants to get it over with before she gets to college (how many high school boys scoop up some booty just this way?). Katherine wants to find the right guy. Sigh.

He patiently waits. They make out a lot. He patiently waits. They undress each other, but nothing happens. He patiently waits. They give each other hand jobs (described from Katherine's point of view it's quite a dull, dare I say, dry (nay!) experience). He patiently waits. FINALLY! she gives it up. Are you still awake, dear reader?

Sybil gets pregnant (has the baby "for the experience" and then gives it up for adoption). Erica is still waiting (she was dating the male lead in the school play and guess what!? He's geh!).

So then (you're still reading this? why?), Michael gets a summer job far away and so does Katherine. And she gets feelings for Theo, the tennis instructor. Buh-bye Michael. Thanks for the memories.

And get that cover! Thank Jeebus I didn't have to read this book on the subway.

10 February 2008

8. War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

More tripods! My first Wells!

This was an excellent book, and if you haven't read it, you should go get yourself a copy right now. The writing is excellent.

This is Wells's classic about Martians coming to Earth to attempt colonizing. Things go really well for the Martians and really badly for the humans. All of England is smashed, except for London. The people are in chaos and disorganized.

I won't spoil the ending, but I will admit that it completely took me by surprise.

I especially like how Wells described the breakdown of order and government. As the Martians are gassing the Englishmen, Wells writes, "Before dawn the black vapour was pouring through the streets of Richmond, and the disintegrating organism of government was, with a last expiring effort, rousing the population of London to the necessity of flight."

Just a little while later our narrator, trying to get back to his wife, tells us, "By ten o'clock the police organisation, and by midday even the railway organisations, were losing coherency, losing shape and efficiency, guttering, softening, running at last in that swift liquefaction of the social body."

As he travels the countryside, dodging the merciless, killing Martians, and crazy, sometimes violent humans the narrator meets with all kinds. He briefly teams up with a curate who loses his mind, meets up with an artilleryman whose dreams are bigger than his ability, and once, a group of would-be socialists who confiscate his pony and cart for the good of the people. (Maybe that was his brother, actually, who shares part of the narrative, but you get my point.)

And sparing me the political, thematic English teacher spiel is the afterword by Isaac Asimov who explains how the book relates to the Europeans' technological advantages and how they used them to colonize and spread uncaring destruction in their path.

And I thought it was a critique of how we don't take care of dangers until they have already passed. The artilleryman makes a long speech about how this invasion has, basically, thinned the herd, leaving behind only the strong, able, and independent.

Strongly recommended, though you have probably already read it.

Doc's review here and Olman's review here.

07 February 2008

7. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Such a sad little book.

Jess is isolated from his family (dad works far away and he's left home with his many sisters and mom), has few friends, and is scorned by his father for his obsession with art and drawing. His only friend, really, is the cow he has to milk twice a day and, sometimes, his young sister.

Then Leslie moves in down the block and the two become fast friends. Leslie is the daughter of hippies and is very much a free spirit. The two misfits spend the better part of a school year hanging around together, and create their own magic kingdom (Terabithia) in the woods near their houses.

They act as king and queen and fight off imaginary invaders and rule Terabithia as benevolent monarchs.

The one day while Jess is on a trip to Washington DC with his hot music teacher, Leslie has an accident and is killed. (Technically, this is not a spoiler, since this information is on the back cover.) Jess's reaction and recovery is the focus of the last chapter of the book. He builds a bridge to cross the creek where Leslie died trying to get to Terabithia. To honor Leslie's life and their friendship, Jess invites his sister to co-rule Terabithia with him.

And then Tripods come, destroy everything in sight, enslave Jess, defile Leslie's shrine, and kidnap Jess's cow.

04 February 2008

6. I am the Cheese by Robert Cormier

How did this book get published?

You know in the movies when you watch a character get tortured and that character twists and struggles and tries to escape the clutches of the villains, and then at the end of the movie the character wakes up and says something to the effect of "wow, that was one hell of a bad dream" and you just want to kill someone, anyone, whether they were responsible or not, for wasting your time?

You know that feeling?

Well, I'm feeling that feeling.

At least have the got-damn decency to explain the friggin' title.

02 February 2008

if sailing isn't possible...

there's only one thing to do:

put your feet by the fire and ignore the fact that you are getting older and your ankles are going bald, enjoy a good book, and fix yourself a black and tan.

31 January 2008

5. The Pool of Fire by John Christopher

The stunning conclusion to the Tripods trilogy, and a satisfying end at that.

Everyone is back, Will, Beanpole, and Henry. And again, I hesitate to mention any element of the plot because it will spoil this book and the second.

This final installment tells the tale of the continuing free-human resistance to the Tripods. And it also begins to outline possible conflicts of a post-occupation world. Ah, the possibilities of a blank slate. Ah, the perils of the lack of tradition and the excesses bound to be a result of a long oppression.

But, really, The Pool of Fire is about the fight between a society with high technology and a scattered, moderately organized society of low technology. And the first 46 pages or so details how this moderate organization works. It's almost Qaeda-like in its simplicity.

There were more than a few pleasant surprises along the way. I recommend all three books.

Sending them out to Mt Benson tomorrow!

29 January 2008

2007: a reflection

Well, I increased my output, and had a good range of books.

4. Love that Dog by Sharon Creech

An outstanding little book.

It's told in a series of responses that young Jack writes to his English teacher, Miss Stretchberry, about the poems they are reading in class. Creech includes the poems discussed in the back of the book, but if you took an intro to lit class in college, you'll be in good shape.

The responses chart the growth of Jack as he goes from "that poem was stupid" to writing poetry and reflecting on poems, writing poems, and the experiences that can be mined (exploited) for poetic purpose.

This is another YA Lit book, and one you can read in a few minutes standing in the kids section of your local bookshop, but I think it's worth buying, especially if you think you'll find yourself teaching poetry to the uninitiated.

3. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

The classic tale of greasers vs preppies.

I don't think I ever read the book. I definitely saw the movie, but so long ago all I can remember is Johnny hurt in the hospital and that the movie had Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, and Ralph Macchio.

It's a pretty good little book. I had to read it for my YA Lit class and I'm glad I did.

Ponyboy lives with his two brothers, Darry and Sodapop. Their parents died in a car accident and now Darry is the parents. They run with a bunch of hoods and have a running battles with the Socs, the preppies in town.

After one of the Socs is killed in a fight, things go from bad to worse. But in that journey Ponyboy learns a lot about life, and his family.

It's definitely worth reading, and gets credit for launching the YA Lit movement.

26 January 2008

2. The City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher

The City of Gold and Lead, the sequel to White Mountains starts with the heroic threesome from the first book training for the Games, an annual Olympic-like competition that pits athletes from nearby villages against one another for the privilege of winning a one-way ticket to the Tripods main city. There the champions will serve the Tripods. Because nobody ever comes back, what exactly this services entails is anyone's guess.

There really isn't much I can say about the plot that isn't a spoiler, so let me talk about the style - this is a much faster paced book than the first. While the first book had some "philosophical" talk weaved into the action, while Will tried to figure out what to do with himself, this one has Will focused on his mission with little side discussion about personal goals or impact on the Self.

It's probably not a surprise that Will wins the Games and heads to the City of Gold and Lead, but what he finds there is surprising. I thought I already had the Tripods figured out, and I am happy to admit I was wrong.

While Will is in the city he learns about the Plan and what will happen to mankind. This makes the book more than a simple science fiction tale and makes it a metaphor for colonization and the fight against imperialism. Or maybe that's my English teacher brain forcing an interpretation onto a text (in itself a form of imperialism?).

And Christopher knows how to tell a story: lots of action, drama, cliffhangers, twists and turns, and foreshadowing. I'm eager to start the third and final book!

23 January 2008

1. The White Mountains by John Christopher

A great recommendation by Mt Benson Report.

His is as good a review as I could write and I don't have much more to add. But I will say this, it took me a little bit longer than I expected to get through the book (though it is a fast read) because I just didn't really care until the last 50 pages or so.

I do feel for Will's struggle though, facing the same question we must all face at one time or another: do I strike out for what I think is right, or do I conform and sacrifice my Self?

I think the differences in our world are less stark, or, rather, the two moral positions aren't as far, or as fatal as I pretend they are, but for Will it's a question of life or death.

I recommend this book, too, and I look forward to reading the remainder of the trilogy. I have book three, but will have to look around a bit more for book two. And then I send them to Vancouver...

01 January 2008

27. The Wreck of the Dumaru by Lowell Thomas (as told by Fritz Harmon)

Thanks to Olman for the recommendation and the present of the actual text! His review is here.

Simply told this is a tale about 32 guys in a 20-man lifeboat adrift in the Western Pacific for 24 days. Fourteen of them survive.

The Dumaru is a wooden supply ship transporting gasoline and munitions from Guam at the close of WW1. After the ship is hit by lightning in a storm it catches fire and explodes. The ship sinks, but not before three life rafts are set adrift. We ride with the First assistant engineer Fred (Fritz) Harmon in an overcrowded life raft. After thirteen days they are out of water and sea biscuits. It doesn't rain, so they rig an evaporator (designed to boil sea water so they can collect the fresh water from the steam that results). As the men begin to die from dehydration, starvation, injuries, and exposure, the survivors make the grim decision to eat the recently deceased by making a broth/stew. Some of the scenes of the cannibalism are quite grizzly - before they decide to actually eat the meat of their shipmate (the former first engineer) they drink his blood mixed with a bit of seawater. To get the blood out of the body the hatchet off the dude's head! One time they do it and leave the head lolling around in the bottom of the boat!

Eventually they land on the island of Samar and are rescued.

I thought this was a great book. It's right up my alley - shipwreck, survival at sea, and the battle between man and the environment and between man and his own endurance. I feel like reading these stories is like research for an eventual test - although I sail in water not much deeper than a good-sized backyard swimming pool and never out of sight of developed civilization.

I'm going to pass this one on to Uncle Jack who is always up for a good sea story.