Thursday, May 12, 2011

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

The novel Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson involves a murder mystery and the difficult decision of good moral judgment over prejudice. The story starts off in a courtroom on San Piedro Island where a Japanese-American fisherman named Kabuo Miyamoto is on trial for the death of an American fisherman and WWI veteran, Carl Heine. This novel takes place right before World War II, and during this time there were many prejudices about the Japanese. The Americans felt the Japanese were lower than them and placed them in internment camps, and the Japanese hated them for treating them this way. Because of this, Kabuo feels it would be very unlikely for him to receive a fair trial.

It goes on to describe that San Piedro is a small island where the people that live there know about everyone's business. Ishmael Chambers, another WWI veteran, is the editor of the newspaper there. He seems very outgoing by what he tells others about his life, but he keeps one thing to himself; he never tells anyone about his relationship with Hatsue who is now Kabuo’s wife. He never understands why one day she decided to leave him for Kabuo for no apparent reason and without ever telling him why, and then she treats him coldly afterwards.

Throughout the trial, Kabuo has many flashbacks about his childhood. He thinks about how Carl’s father had informally promised to sell a plot of his land to Kabuo’s father. However, when he was almost finished with his payments, Kabuo’s father was sent to an internment camp. When Carl’s father had died and Kabuo returned from war, he went to try and get the land back, but Carl’s mother had already sold it to an old white farmer because she didn’t like the thought of someone of Japanese descent owning her husband’s land. When the old farmer was sick and decided to sell the land again, Kabuo rushed to make an offer for it as soon as he heard, but was disappointed to find that Carl Heine had already bought it. The two had been childhood friends so Kabuo hoped that Carl might have the heart to let him own the land his father before him had spent so much time trying to earn, but Carl had developed some prejudices against the Japanese after he had got back from the war.

One foggy night while still trying to decide whether or not to sell the land, Carl goes fishing. He gets into some trouble, but is saved by Kabuo. Because he was so kind to Carl, he decides that it would be best if he sold him the land. Later that night, however, Carl is killed when a large ship creates a large wave that shakes Carl’s boat. Carl is knocked down by this force, hits his head and becomes unconscious, and drowns in the water. When authorities began to investigate, the coroner noted that the wounds on Carl’s head were a lot like marks made by Japanese soldiers that were skilled in martial art. Because these people didn’t know of the agreement that Carl and Kabuo had made and they knew Kabuo was a Japanese soldier in the war, it seemed like he had both the motive and the skill to be the murderer.

There doesn’t seem to be any proof that Kabuo is not guilty until the reporter Ishmael comes across a logbook in the lighthouse. It showed that a large ship had been lost the night Carl had died. There was a record that the ship then passed through the area Carl was in just five minutes before Carl’s waterlogged watch stopped after falling into the water. It is evident at that point to Ishmael that the ship was the cause of Carl’s death. This lucky find leaves Ishmael with a difficult decision. He can either come forward with the truth and do the moral thing in his situation, or he can keep the information to himself and get the revenge on Hatsue that he had been trying to get for a long time. He knew it would hurt her to see her husband locked away and thought of as a murderer. During the trial, he didn't tell anyone about what he had found out and all but one of the jurors insisted on Kabuo's guilt. Later, Ishmael decided to do the right thing and let Hatsue know about the information he had found. Kabuo was able to return to his family and the charges against him were dropped.

1. 1.Prejudice was very common in the early 1900’s. Is prejudice still relevant today? How?

2. 2.When people return from war, their personalities sometimes change. Why is this so common for people to come back almost as a different person?

3. 3.Like in the novel, it can be very difficult to choose between making a good moral decision and getting revenge. Why is it so hard sometimes to just do the right thing in the first place?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front, written by Erich Remarque, takes place during World War I and follows the trials of the young Paul Baumer and his high school friends as they learn of what war really means, fighting for the German army. The story begins with the group of boys, eager after all of the hype of nationalism and patriotism, are sent to boot camp, where they learn exactly what it is they are about to face. After one of their first fights, a classmate of theirs, Kemmerich, is forced to have his leg amputated and is slowly dying before Paul and his friends eyes. But after the cruelty of war, they have been hardened. They still feel sympathy for him, but they know he is going to die and ask for his boots. Newer soldiers don't understand the apathy, but it is just the understanding of what war is that Paul's friend is really showing. The group, after a short reprieve from fighting then discuss politics and what they think would be best for wars. They discuss how meaningless people hold so much power, and that it is the soldiers who do the work. While Paul goes on leave to see his family, he is confused as to why it is so hard to talk to anyone about the bloody battle going on around them. After being re-deployed and meeting the dissapointment of a kaiser, Paul, in mid battle, stabs a French soldier who jumps into his hidey hole during a bombing run. He learns that the man had a wife and kids and is overcome with grief and remorse. But there is no time for his emotions in the tumult of war. As Germany begins to wane under the pressure of the Allied forces, one by one, each and every one of Paul's friends begin to die until Paul is the last one left. Even Paul dies in October 1918, the day the newspapers read, "All quiet on the Western Front".

In the situation with Paul's classmate slowly dying with his leg amputated, do you agree with the new soldiers, that they were being apathetic towards Kemmerich?

What do you think Remarque thought about nationalism and patriotism?

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (Worst Book Ever)

The only complete novel ever written by Edgar Allan Poe, the most world-reknown Dark Romanticist of his time. The story starts with a young man named Arthur Gordon Pym as the title infers. He is living on a whaling ship named the Grampus. He goes through various misadventures, including cannabalism and shipwreck. Arthur and his fellow crew member Dirk Peters continute the journey, in which they come across hostile natives and the novel ends with them heading towards the South Pole. The novel has been criticized up and down, left and right. Most people have listed it as the number one book on their list of Worst Novels of All Time. The story line is confusing and extremely hard to follow. Poe had always had trouble writing full length novels. However, in July 1838, he published the first complete copy of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I guess he should just stick to poetry and small tales.

  1. Why do you think Poe's novel was written so poorly and criticized to the extent it was?
  2. Do you think Poe would have continued with his publication of full length novels if he had lived longer?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee

"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee is a novel about the adventures of several children and how they see, through their naive minds, a trial of a man accused of rape. The story starts off positive, exploring the many adventures of the children of a lawyer, Atticus Finch. Scout Finch, the protagonist, has many adventures with her older brother, Jem. The children find many ways to entertain themselves, from annoying their neighbor Boo Radley to acting out stories with a friend they meet over one summer named Dill. Scout then starts school for the first time only to find that she does not like it very much. Meanwhile, a black man in their community is accused of raping a white woman. Atticus believes that he is innocent, and is the only one who sticks up for him and eventually is his attorney in a trial. The children are unable to understand this racism, and are confused when people disrespect Atticus and themselves. In the trial, Atticus tries his best to show that Tom is innocent, and makes a very strong case. To see how the trial concludes, and find out what happens to the children, (because there is an element of danger in the end for them) you will have to read this novel for yourself. I would highly recommend reading it if you are looking for something to read. It starts off slow, but picks up in the end.


1. If someone you knew was being unjustly accused for a crime, would you try to help them? Even if it meant that the rest of your community would be against you?

2. Lee's use of the children as a way for the reader to see the trial gives the reader a unique perspective. How would you feel if you were in Atticus's children's position? How would you react to all of the hate you were exposed to?

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Born to Run is a nonfictional novel by Christopher McDougall and his story about why runners get injured so much. McDougall is a journalist who constantly suffered from running pains and goes to see a bunch of running doctors. They all tell him that the best way to stop getting hurt is to stop running as much. It seemed kinda of weird to him that something that is supposed to be so good for you could hurt your body so much so he decided to do some research and went to visit the Tarahumara, a seclusive tribe of Native American who live in the Copper canyons of Chihuahua, Mexico and who are some of the best ultra runners in the world. For the Tarahumara running is a way of life. They ran too escape early Spanish settlers, they run from town to town to deliver news, they run to hide from the modern day drug cartels in the area, and they also use it for festivals and celebrations. The Tarahumara are a very peaceful and shy people who also choose to run rather than fight. They live in small caves or huts in their canyons and eat pinole and chia during their runs. Now just because their shy doesn't mean they don't know how to party. During their festivals before race day they get crazy drunk off of homemade tequila which results in spouses cheating on each other, men getting in fist fights, and women naked mud wrestling. They use these parties as a sort of stress reliever from being so nonconfrontational the rest of the time and always forgive each other's actions and just blame it on the tequila. Now what attracted McDougall to the Tarahumara was their ability to run over 100 miles with nothing but sandals made from rubber tires on their feet and not get any injuries. He learned that running related injuries spiked in 1972 due to the introduction of the modern day running shoe by Nike. The problem with the modern running shoe is the amount of cushioning in the heel which has made our feet weak and caused more problems for the rest of our body. He also goes on to talk about how humans are able to hunt using persistence running which is just chasing after something until it dies from exhaustion (animals such as deer can only breathe once per stride where as we can breathe multiple times, we also sweat to cool off where as a deer has to stop and pant). The main plot of the story centers around a race between a couple of the best American runners and some of the best Tarahumara runners. Long story short Arnulfo Quimare (a Tarahumaran) beat Scott Jurek (The best American ultra runner and record holder of the 24-hour race).

1. Do you think the Tarahumara's way of life is better than our own?
2. Would you ever consider using vibram five fingers or something else like them?

Monday, May 9, 2011

East of Eden, John Steinbeck.

East of Eden, written by John Steinbeck, is centered around two families: The Trask's and The Hamilton's. Primarily set in the middle of the Salinas Valley in California, Steinbeck covers three generations spanning roughly sixty years.

At the beginning of the novel, Steinbeck goes into great detail about the Salinas Valley including sights, sounds, colors, and smells. The story unfolds by switching back and forth from the Hamilton and Trask family describing many love interests, financial troubles, and family problems. (I feel if I give any more information about the characters that it will spoil the novel because each character and family intertwines.)

The novel is thought to parallel many biblical events, mainly those of Cain and Abel due to the fact that there is often anger, vengeance, and violence. The novel, "was not well accepted by the critics of its day, who found it heavy-handed and unconvincing, especially in its use of Biblical allusion" (Wikipedia). Although many people disliked it, it soon became a bestseller and known as one of Steinbeck's greatest achievements.

1.) Throughout the novel, Steinbeck displays what it means to be a good person and what it means to be a bad person. What do you feel makes a person good? What do you feel makes a person evil?

2.) There are often cases of violence and vengeance within the book, often due to jealousy. Do you feel these are good ways to handle jealousy and personal problems, or do you think they should be dealt with peacefully?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Animal Farm by George Orwell

The story begins with a prestigious, prize-winning boar named Old Major calling for a meeting among the animals of the farm. Old Major gives a speech explaining a dream he had had of all animals on the farm being free of oppression from the humans. He said that if the animals worked together then this dream of his could become reality. 3 days after the meeting, Old Major dies, causing 3 young pigs (Napoleon, Snowball, and Squealer) to take his place and further his philosophy throughout the farm.
The animals soon overthrow Mr. Jones, the owner of the farm, and make him run off. The atmosphere among the animals is now ecstatic. They all realize that Old Major's dream for the farm is beginning to take shape. Snowball begins to teach the animals how to read and Napoleon takes a group of 9 young puppies to teach them in the ways of "animalism."
However, after Mr. Jones returns and is defeated again, the tension between Napoleon and Snowball begins to rise. Snowball wishes to build an electricity-producing windmill on the farm but Napoleon strongly disagrees with this notion. When a meeting is held to discuss the topic, Napoleon has the 9 attack dogs (formerly the 9 puppies) kill Snowball. Napoleon then tells the animals that the pigs will make all decisions on the farm, telling them that the decisions will be for the good of the animals.
Napoleon then changes his mind on the windmill, ordering that the animals make their main focus completing it. Boxer, the cart-horse at the farm, devotes all his efforts and energy toward the windmill and takes up the maxim "Napoleon is always right." While this is going on, Napoleon begins to rewrite history, illustrating Snowball as a villain and killing any that took part in Snowball's plans (which turns out to be anyone that opposed Napoleon's reign). Napoleon also begins to act like a human. He sleeps in a bed, trades with other neighboring farms, and drinks whiskey, all things that were banned by the original animalist principles.
The windmill that was constructed is then destroyed by a group of farmers. In the battle against the farmers, Boxer is wounded and near death. Squealer tells the animals that Boxer has died a noble death in battle, when in reality Napoleon had sold his most loyal follower to a glue maker so that he can buy whisky.
By the end of the novel, the pigs walk on two legs and wear clothing. They also begin to form an alliance with a human farmer. The pigs seem to make a total transformation into human beings, minus their appearance. The pigs destroy the original 7 commandments of Animal Farm and leave only 1 rule of guidance: "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."


1. Explain what Orwell was trying to convey with the phrase: "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."

2. Relate Animal Farm to events in history.

The Republic by Plato

Plato wrote this great example of early philosophy and political view around 360 BC. The book covers several different theories and ideas but one that stood out the most for me was the inheritance of a belief system from generation to generation. Plato establishes a mock belief system using examples and observations already seen in society at the time to show that no matter how absurd early teachings are, they will be accepted as the primary belief system within just five generations. Although I would and should tell you about the belief system he has established in the book, I would rather have you read the book if you are interested in this.

1- How do you feel about man made belief systems, like religion?

2- Do you believe that any idea or set of stories, no matter how irrational or unrealistic can really be deemed true and important after a certain length of time even when their truth isn't tested?

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

This book is about a male dominated society in which women are only valued if they are fertile or if they have had the good fortune to marry into a family of higher political standing. The women of lower class that are deemed fertile are made to wear only red, kept 'safe' by not allowing them too much physical exertion and not allowing them to leave their room except to go to the market once a day. They are not supposed to talk to other 'handmaids' as they are called, because they allow them to band together and defy the men in charge. The only job these women have is to have children for the upper class and higher ranking men and their wives. After bearing and giving birth to these children, the baby is taken away to be raised by the handmaid's host family and the handmaid is moved to another family, never to see her child again. Offred, handmaid to the "Commander", has a strange relationship with him, as he allows her to read in his office, something handmaids are forbidden to do. He takes her to a place where prostitutes live, a secret place run by the male dominated government. The Commander's wife sees this unwanted relationship and offers Offred a deal to have sex with her driver to become pregnant so that Offred can be removed from her household and the wife can have a baby to raise. Offred begins to develop a relationship with nick, the driver, another thing that is expressly forbidden.

1) What would you do if you were chosen to receive a 'handmaid' into your marriage or chosen to become a handmaid yourself?

2) How would you feel if you knew that you had children out in the world being raised by other families or that the child you are raising is not yours and you are raising it as though it were?

The Waves- Virginia Woolf

Staying true to her other novels like To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf's novel The Waves is not told through conventional methods. The Waves is a story about six individuals as the go from being children to adults. Like in her other novels, however, the main focus of the novel is not the physical actions of the characters but rather the individual consciousness and how they interact with the other characters. The entire book is written and told through soliloquies given by the six characters Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda, and Louis. Each character's consciousness reveals their desires and their personality; Louis is a misfit who seeks his own place in society; Neville desires to be loved and to love; Jinny is a socialite who bases her opinion of herself on the opinions of those around her; Susan rejects the modern city and returns to the countryside to become a mother; Rhoda constantly doubts himself, causing him to seclude himself from others. Percival, the final character, is the flawed hero to the other characters in the novel. He dies before the end of the novel and never speaks. Therefore, the reader is left to learn about him from the other characters. Woolf's novel follows these characters from their childhood days to their adult lives, allowing the reader to see the troubles and challenges that each character, each having their own strengths and weaknesses, deals with in life.

Discussion Questions:

1) Throughout the novel, each character struggles to define themselves. Neville, for example, defines himself by opposing society and its conventions while Jenny defines herself by society. How do you define yourself and is their a right or a wrong way to do so?

2) In her novels, Woolf typically uses a stream of consciousness technique rather than focusing on the physical when writing about a group of characters' struggle to define themselves. Why do you think she tells her stories this way instead of via a more conventional approach?