Continuing my summer thoughts in the spirit of “Beach Reading,” I have a confession to make. I am a great lover of the mystery story, the traditional thriller, and yes, even the noir genre. Dorothy L. Sayers wrote in defense of the idea that reading about murder is a justifiable activity, even from a religious point of view. I’ll save comments about her thoughts for another time, but simply confess to you that I not only love a well written mystery, but think that they often qualify as legitimate literature.
There was a “Golden Age” of the mystery from about 1920 to 1950. During this era, British authors perfected the genre. They delighted in presenting highly puzzling plots which played “fair” and gave all of the clues a reader would need to solve the mystery, if he or she were paying close attention.
In recent years, while there have been some well-written mysteries, many (most?) are dumbed down and rather prosaic, so it’s best if a person can become acquainted with the “Golden Age” mysteries first. Here are some authors from the Golden Age who literary-minded teenagers may enjoy:
Dorothy L. Sayers;
John Dickson Carr; Agatha Christie (of course); Margery Allingham; Ngaio
Marsh; Edmund Crispin; Josephine Tey; Michael Innes; Patricia
Wentworth; G K Chesterton (The Father Brown mysteries)
Reading a good mystery is a lovely way for a book lover to take a break from more serious literature, while still enjoying great writing. My personal favorites are Ngaio March, Josephine Tey, G. K. Chesterton (his Father Brown character), and Michael Innes. And let’s not forget the original detective story writers: Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
To start the summer, I’m sharing some favorite books and authors with you. You might like to try them sometime– maybe even this summer. When homeschooling our five children, I always looked forward to summer when I could explore “new to me” books in a leisurely manner.
I am selective about modern/contemporary literature, but I have a few authors I think are keepers. They are in no particular order, since I can’t decide which ones I like best. First on my list is Marilyn Robinson. I do not recommend starting with her earlier book, Housekeeping, but rather, go to her trilogy, starting with the Pultizer Prize winner, Gilead. Robinson has a strong grasp of the deeply Christian nature of our culture, and celebrates the family of a pastor in these brilliant novels.
Second on my list is Fred Chappell and his Kirkman tetralogy, beginning with I Am One of You Forever. His books also focus on family and contain a spiritual ethos, but they have a comic side to them that makes me laugh out loud when I reread them. He was poet laureate of North Carolina from 1997-2002, and has also won many awards for his work.
Finally, I recommend Ron Hansen’s book, Atticus, which is a prodigal son story (also a mystery) full of warmth and hope. In addition to receiving many book awards, two of Hansen’s novels have been made into movies. Hansen is a professor in my home territory at Santa Clara University, where I received my teaching degree.
I’m happy to be able to recommend the books of these three living authors to you, and perhaps you will dip into one or more of them while dipping your toes in the water, or vacationing in some mountain idyll. All three of these authors know how to “dig in” and find the “stories” that make you appreciate and rejoice in life and faith.
I hope you all have a blessed summer with family and friends, no matter where you are or what you are doing.
In several of our high school
courses we read about ghosts in short stories and plays, and students sometimes
ask me why we do this. When I return the favor and ask them what they
think, we often have some interesting discussions about the soul, spirituality,
Truly, literary ghosts are extremely important if we understand their
First, the ghosts we know are often really–ourselves. Great literature
reveals the human condition; it shows us how to rise above our weaknesses,
mistakes, and sins, and what happens when we don’t. Ghosts tell us
about ourselves and the things that haunt us, especiallyour own failings. They reflect
what we are thinking, deep down, underneath self-delusions, guilt, and hidden
self-knowledge. For instance, when we read Macbeth, we understand that
ghosts can be the creations of our own minds: they may be forbidden
desires, desires which dominate us so fully that against our own
consciences, we believe in them and obey them. If we give in to them, we
become ghosts ourselves: shells of our former selves who cower in
fright as we hide from the results of our own selfish, evil actions.
Often, ghosts are about place and space. Virginia Woolf’s story, “A Haunted House,” expresses how connected we are to the places in which we’ve lived and loved. Here the new owners of a house find mysterious ghosts whose residual experiences inspire the them to continue the love which the original couple has, it seems, extended to them through time, in this cherished home which still emanates the deep, abiding commitment of its previous owners. As we grow older we learn how important our homes and communities have been to us, and they become part of the warp and woof of our own spirits–so much so that sometimes, we find it hard to consciously assimilate the depth and breadth of our past experiences.
Finally, ghosts reveal the spiritual nature of our existence and our connection to immortality: life which extends beyond the present. When Hamlet is presented with the ghost of his father, he is not sure if the ghost is a demonic deception, or his dead father, directing him from the beyond. Even those of us with strong religious beliefs can’t conceive exactly of what lies beyond, or how those who have died view us. While Christians are instructed not to attempt to hold seances with the dead, this doesn’t abrogate the question: what, exactly, is the relationship of those of us on earth to those who have died? And what is it like for them, in their new state? Hamlet wrestles with how he should relate to what he thinks may be his father’s spirit, and in so doing reveals the internal conflicts we all experience when we confront personal tragedies, and how we might have been responsible for them, or may be able to repair them afterwards.
Ghosts may bring forth our regrets: sorrows which challenge us to either wallow in self-pity and anguish, or to accept reality, in the recognition that it is only in embracing our situation and our own failings that we find healing, peace, and maturation. Or, perhaps ghosts will bring comfort to us: the memories of times with loved ones now gone, the times with children now grown. Whatever our personal ghosts are, reading and writing about them is a way forward to understanding ourselves, the world we live in, and the God who created us.
The Fellowship of the Ring sets the stage for the Lord of the Rings series as Frodo and his companions begin their perilous and often confusing journey, which stands in contrast to the ordered world in which they live, The Shire, in Middle Earth. This “disordered” journey is a form of entering chaos: Like King Arthur’s knights as they sally forth from Camelot, the members of The Fellowship venture far and wide to conquer evils which surround them. However, unlike the Knights of the Round Table, the members of The Fellowship recognize that as they set out to destroy evil, they also bear the potential for the destruction of the kingdom within themselves. The Ring itself is a constant reminder to them that they must first fight their own internal selfish desires in order to save The Shire.
As a “quest” story, the novel contains elements of both classical and medieval literature. Middle Earth is a highly ordered world in which all creatures have their proper roles which are integral to the natures of the characters: an elf could no more attempt to behave like a hobbit than you or I could attempt to behave like a dog or a cat. This order is hierarchical; some creatures’ duties—and some characters’ duties– are more significant in the larger community than others; some folks are more civilized and wealthier than others. However, in this sort of society, a person with a “lower” occupation or status is not a less important person. For instance, the Innkeeper at The Sign of the Prancing Pony, Mr. Butterbur, is no less valuable than Gandalf. Rather, his role suits him and his class of creature; his job “belongs” in the fabric of the society just as much as Gandalf’s does. But Tolkien breaks free of the traditional medieval roles when he calls Frodo, that modest and insignificant hobbit, to save the kingdom.
As is also true in the King Arthur stories, Middle Earth is a place where the natural world is important and valuable. Being “good stewards” of what we are given to tend, whether it be a garden, a forest, or a river–is key, and there is a balance between the creatures’ using and respecting nature. Thus, the hobbits cut back the trees from the Old Forest at the edge of their lands, but leave the Old Forest alone in every other way. Nature is connected to many of the creatures closely, as we see with Goldberry, who, we are told, is the daughter of the River. Also, the natural world reflects the nature of the creatures who inhabit it; the hobbits’ shire is green and cozy and friendly. In Middle Earth, the physical world embodies the goodness and concreteness of reality, and this is most carried forth into the lives of the hobbits, whose liking for beer, food, gift-giving, home and companionship emphasizes their close and deep connection to the earth and world around them. The interactions which the members of The Fellowship will make with the forest and the river serve to help us understand that nature itself is being corrupted and disfigured; the hobbits are responsible for recovering both the kingdom and its environment.
The hobbits’ desire for comfort extends solidly to their ability to shut the outside world out and imagine that they live in complete safety. When The Fellowship of theRing opens, that safety is clearly no longer guaranteed. Rumblings of strange doings and mysterious strangers tell us early on to Beware! Middle Earth is not safe and this includes the fates of harmless, peace-loving hobbits. Their love of calm stands in stark contrast to the difficult quest which Frodo and his friends undertake; as the story unfolds, we begin to see that Middle Earth is now not the ordered world which it should be. Trouble is afoot, and Frodo, in spite of his fears, will choose to leave his comfortable home to confront this trouble.
As did the knights of medieval times, Frodo accepts the challenge to go forth in search of danger. Though Gandalf tells him that he should not go out of his way seek danger, the truth is that in order to make sure that the Shire is kept safe, Frodo must plunge headlong into an unknown evil, putting his life in jeopardy. Like martyrs and war heroes, Frodo charges ahead to do the right thing despite his fear, weakness, and sinful desires. Where the quest ends he does not know; the path he must follow is also a mystery. What is clear is that Frodo and his friends choose to respond to the challenge of the quest regardless of their great personal weaknesses and fears.
The hobbits respond with courage to a life-threatening situation in which they must stand up and choose which side they are on. Like the heroes of old, they embrace the challenge; what’s different with Tolkien’s story is that characters’ personal foibles do not just influence the story—they drive the story forward, because the interior lives and ethical choices of the protagonists are a reflection not only of their decisions to accept the quest, but of their personal spiritual and moral development. Middle Earth is a proving ground for the soul, as much as it is a place for the external battles in Middle Earth. Rather like our own world, if you believe in the Christian worldview.
Initially, the established roles of the hobbits are like those in the medieval world, but Tolkien moves past the traditional story as he reveals the hobbits’ “new” role as lowly individuals who make moral sacrifices in the hope re-establishing a place of goodness and happiness; a world free from despots where the inhabitants will live in a peaceful and joyous community of mutual love. The members of The Fellowship are “co-inheritors” in their Kingdom because they offer themselves up sacrificially to save and rejuvenate the world they know and love.
In Lit and Comp Year 2 we investigate Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and you can cut the symbolism with a knife! The scarlet letter Hester Prynne must wear (symbolizing her adultery); a simple rose bush; a child named Pearl; a freak meteor whose path makes the shape of an “A” which shoots through the sky at a climactic moment–these are just some of the enduring symbols which have entered annals of literature through this quintessentially American classic.
What are the results in the lives of those who live in a community–in this case, Puritan-era Boston–which emphasizes justice over mercy, punishment over compassion? What happens to individuals in a society which insists on its members revealing and repenting of their sins in public? Hawthorne invokes innovative symbolism in the spirit of the Romantic literary genre to delve into these questions.
Because an ancestor had been a judge at the Salem Witch
Trials, Hawthorne was ambivalent about his own Puritan heritage, and the novel
is his letter to the world expressing his angst. In fact, Hawthorne was so
shamed by the association that he added a “w” to the family name. His
internal conflicts come to life in The Scarlet Letter, as he delves into
the question of whether man’s law necessarily represents God’s law, and exactly
what the nature of God’s law is, through the lives of the inhabitants of
mid-17th century Boston.
In addition to telling a gripping tale, the book is prescient in that it reflects important conflicts and paradoxes yet to come in the American experience, especially the roles of women in society. However, the main theme revolves around the question of freedom of the will. Hawthorne places three adults in a situation where they each have the opportunity to choose their own futures freely, when they otherwise would not have had that option.
The “New World” functions seamlessly as the backdrop for the idea that there is a myriad possibilities, lives, and futures available to us. The three each choose very differently, and the reader can see their inner lives as they live out their choices–how their characters evolve or devolve. In short, the novel presents a psychological and sociological experiment: what are the dangers, benefits, and limits of the expression of the individual’s will? Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of our early American authors, but he qualifies as a forerunner to the psycho-therapist, too, based on content of The Scarlet Letter. If you have never read it, you may want to give it whirl!
A Land Remembered is a uniquely American epic—set in Florida, but reminiscent of the best of the Western histories and sagas. It reflects and retells the settling of Florida, incorporating stouthearted characters who survive swamp, jungle, hurricanes, and wild animals, to conquer the humid and often unfriendly Florida territory. The story also has themes redolent of the tales of Wild West: the arguments between those who want to fence the land and the earlier settlers who want the land left free and open; the fiercely independent spirits of those who dared to settle and conquer this hazardous, uncivilized land.
The tale covers 3 generations, beginning with Tobias MacIvey, the bold pioneer who first enters the Southern wilds, and continuing with his son Zech and then grandson Solomon. Each man represents (and furthers) a specific era in the development of Florida. Tobias, the patriarch, is the one most in tune with nature, as with his wife and baby he attempts to survive in the free, open lands while battling the elements. His attitude towards the Native Americans is one of friendly coexistence, and as his son Zech grows up, he inherits this attitude, and falls in love with a young Seminole woman—instead of choosing between her and the white woman he marries, he loves them both, thus symbolizing the tenuous “marriage” of the two cultures, and the influence of each upon the other.
The story also exhibits the ways in which this uncultured land, like the west, equalizes the races, as African-American ranch hand, “Frog” becomes part of the warp and woof of the MacIvey family. This primitive land, untouched by “culture,” providentially allows for all peoples to meet on a level plane, and they build the future together, rather than as master and servant. Florida is a new kind of “south.”
The grandson, Sol, chooses not to live on the land, but instead becomes a real estate developer, thus introducing us to the “new” Florida we know today: a land of entrepreneurs and people who, for the most part, do not live in the agrarian and ranching culture of those white people who previously populated the land. The story begins with a flashback as Sol, aged and dying, chooses to return to the cabin of his forefathers, leaving behind the life of luxury he has led, regretful that he has not kept the values of his father and grandfather. A Land Remembered is a profoundly “American” piece of literature in every way, genuine in its telling. It pulls powerfully at the spirits of those of us who love the pioneer character, with all of its bravery, faults, and independence of mind: the spirit which created America.⸸
“All I’m trying to tell you is to be strong. Don’t ever let nothing get you down. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to love, or to grieve when the thing you love is gone. Just don’t let it throw you, no matter how much it hurts.” ― Patrick D. Smith, A Land Remembered
Scenario: You’ve written the bulk of your essay, and you feel like you’re done. And I mean –DONE! You glare in desperation at the paper or computer screen, which seems to be floating in air before your unbelieving eyes in a taunting mirage, and you wonder why essays must have conclusion paragraphs, when you’ve said everything already. You know you’re supposed to write something more, but–what? Even students who have learned how to write solid introduction and “body” paragraphs can fall into despair when it comes to developing a conclusion paragraph.
Students are often taught in their early years to summarize the introduction paragraph and restate the thesis for their conclusion paragraphs–and–that’s it. Check in the box. This formulaic way of approaching an essay limits students’ understanding of the power they themselves have in developing their final paragraphs. It’s especially negative because it trains very young students to shut off their thought processes, which otherwise probably would have led them to some interesting new conclusions, based on what they have discovered during the very process of writing their essays. So even if students have done some good analysis in their middle (body) paragraphs, they are at sea when it comes to drawing their thoughts together into a galvanizing proclamation full of punch and power.
It’s important to remember that when you write, you are developing your thinking/logic processes (Write to think!); therefore, limiting students to regurgitating or rephrasing the points of the essay is not only boring for the reader: it actually trains the students not to think, not to make the kinds of connections which will grow them into independent thinkers and wise citizens.
I’ve said this before: Writing is structured but it’s not formulaic. Yes, students must learn the framework of building a paper, but no, they should not be taught to follow restrictive steps which do not involve the process of applying what they’ve learned. They must have the freedom to draw their own conclusions about the written “discussion” they have just engaged in with the reader. They are learning to think; they are learning to participate in the cultural engagement which Mortimer Adler first called “The Great Conversation.” When students are taught the regimen of walking step-by-step through conclusion paragraphs by simply “plugging in” a recap of their introductory paragraph with an added flourish, they are really being told that the body paragraphs of their essays are merely “proofs” for an equation that they have been asked to solve merely for the sake of the facts. Instead, they should be lead into learning to assimilate concepts and interpretations in ways which cause them to develop their own theories and hypotheses about what they have read and written.
What is the alternative? A better question might be, What are the alternatives? When comes to writing, the world is your oyster. But for now, let’s investigate a few ideas which will help students to create essays which command attention through piquing the reader’s thought processes and imagination. So, here are some suggestions as to how to approach writing conclusion paragraphs:
Some instructors tell students to “rephrase” the thesis statement in their final paragraph, but this serves no purpose except to weary the reader. Instead, students must rethink their thesis statements in light of the analysis they have provided in the essay, and use their new thoughts to pull the “parts” of their essay together to say something new and significant. In one way, it’s simple: What is the point of all that you have written here? What new idea are you communicating to your audience? If you do not have a new idea, then you really have nothing to say.
This does not mean that students who write essays in school should be expected to know all previous ideas ever concluded about a topic. Instructors understand that students may discover new ideas when they write which are, in truth, only “new” to them. This doesn’t matter, because the point of an essay is that it is an exercise in growing the students’ thought/writing processes. Much relies on the teacher here, who must assess whether the particular student is reaching, stretching beyond his or her previous ability, and gaining new understanding. While emphasizing the message of the thesis statement, students should draw conclusions which extend well past the basics of what they have written about. As the saying goes, “The sum is greater than the parts.”
A conclusion paragraph should include new insights, drawn from the material you have been writing about. This takes thought, and is one more reason why a strong essay will involve several drafts, over a period of days, perhaps longer. A final paragraph expresses the topic in a fresh, expanded way, causing the reader to draw original conclusions. It should cause the reader to take pause, to take notice. Finally, completing an essay with an emotional appeal (pathos, in classical terminology) compels the reader to think beyond previous assumptions–to see the topic in a more complex, multi-layered light. In short, an inspiring conclusion challenges the compelling him to rethink or modify his worldview.
The interplay between writing and thinking cannot be completely codified, but it’s there and it’s important. The reason this connection can’t be put into a formula is because each person is created as a unique individual, and comes with his or her own cultural and textual knowledge. Therefore, each of us can “see” and put together truths and new insights in our own particular way. A good teacher recognizes the freedom of thought a student must have in order to write well, and understands that a peaceful, accepting atmosphere, time, and contemplation are the requisite conditions students need for their thoughts to percolate to the point where they can be gathered together, synthesized, and woven into narrative which draws subtlety and significance from the topic at hand.
What is the point of an essay if it isn’t to enrich the understanding of the audience? What is the point of an education if it isn’t to learn to think, and live, to the potential to which you are called? While there may be times when students just have to write an essay to “put a check in the box,” shouldn’t we teachers help them to move beyond doing the minimum, so that they have the opportunity to become excited about writing, and thinking, and learning, and growing? Let’s Write to Think!
What does constitute a great piece of fiction? In our Literature & Composition: Year 1 class, we are reading the bittersweet classic by Margaret Craven, I Heard the Owl Call My Name. The story is about a young Anglican pastor, Mark Brian, who is sent to a rural native community in British Columbia, and concerns his spiritual and internal growth as he learns to love this land and people, unaware that he himself will soon die. Each year when I reread it, I choke up, no matter how much I’ve prepared myself beforehand for the moving conclusion. The book has such power because it speaks truths with beauty and simplicity; the author’s restrained diction causes the reader to genuinely feel the unspoken, deep emotions which the characters express, often through what they do not say as they face their trials and joys. The straightforward yet imagistic style of the book also goes along with the setting and flavor of the native culture, since the people there, in addition to living without most of the material comforts of modern life, are without guile. I Heard the Owl Call My Name also speaks to what is best in us, pointing our souls towards the spiritual values which lie deep within through its symbolic language, borrowed from the natural world.
The novel uses foreshadowing and contrasts between two disparate cultures in organic ways which function as a tapestry, weaving together plot development, theme, and tone to connect the reader emotionally with the characters and their culture. From the first page wherein we a learn that the young pastor is unaware that he is dying, until the closing chapters in which the earthly and spiritual pilgrimages of Mark come to a fitting and moving conclusion, the reader accompanies Mark on his journey towards Love.
The perfect novel is a vessel which contains a unity of subject, thought, and spirit. The perfect novel inspires and rejuvenates our souls, calling us towards the transcendent. The perfect novel leaves us with the sense that we are more complete than we were before we read it; we are more than the sum of our parts; we more keenly know and feel our connections to humanity and to our spiritual roots.
The previous article in this series discussed how to choose evidences for an essay. You must have solid “facts” or examples from your texts in order to begin to interpret a text, and your choices must be based on what you’ve decided to write your essay about, specifically. That’s the most challenging part of finding your evidences.
Learning how to write analysis and interpretation means learning how to think independently. The most difficult thing – the key skill — in learning to interpret and understand texts is to learn how to dig into the specific diction of that work. This article addresses how to interpret literary texts.
Before analyzing a work, first find the most important theme, and it’s essential to know that a theme is more than an idea and cannot be described in just one word. Rather, a theme, as the “message” of the text, is a phrase which expresses a deep meaning of this message. For instance, in The Fellowship of the Ring, a powerful theme is that true love means being willing to sacrifice oneself for the sake of others, even to the point of death. For an example of how to analyze a poem, see my article on Robert Frost’s poem, “Frost Thoughts: Poetry with a Punch.”
Interpreting and writing about a short poem is the best way to learn how to analyze a work, both because a student can focus on a specific, focused amount of text, and because the diction of a poem is concentrated and powerful. Studying poetry is the most helpful technique for learning about the various types of literary terms/devices have (metaphor, alliteration, etc.), the real focus should be on recognizing this figurative language and then explicating how it informs the text. It’s a skill which is gained through careful, aware reading and practice. And unlike what many believe about the art of analyzing literature, it’s a rich experience to learn the “secrets” of understanding literature: it is the key to unlocking the mysteries of writing which enlighten us, fulfill us, and help us grow and learn.
In this article I discuss how specificity and detail are your answers to solving the “mystery” of writing. The example I use is that of an academic essay, but specificity applies to all writing genres.
The Sherlock Holmes analogy springs to life again as we talk about the heart of your writing. If you are Holmes investigating 1) You look for evidences and develop a theory about how the crime was committed; 2) You use a theory and look for evidences. Solving a mystery is both analytic and synthetic (inductive and deductive).
When you write, your topic/subject is your mystery. Your topic must be specific, just as Holmes solves particular riddles. He doesn’t think about mysteries in general; in fact, when he has no particular mystery to solve, he falls into deep depression and resorts to taking cocaine!
Instructors often say, “Don’t be too specific, and don’t be too vague,” but most people should focus on the last part of that advice, as the challenge of writing is usually to clarify your point, not broaden it. So let’s say you want to write an academic essay about Frodo, based on The Fellowship of the Ring. You’ve decided that the theme you focus on is that of his self-sacrifice, so you write a thesis which asserts that the Shire is saved because Frodo is willing to take on the sacrificial quest of destroying the ring. Great–you’ve solved one aspect of the mystery! Now what?
You need to find “clues” from the text–evidences–which support your claim. For instance, Frodo accepts the dangerous assignment when Gandolf asks him to do it. Second, he continues the quest even when the Black Riders attempt to stop him and turn him into a wraith. And you continue on, finding other times when Frodo continues the journey. You can even go into times when he almost gives in to the power of the Ring, as these are also ways in which he would have given up the quest. (If you are writing an academic essay, be sure to use brief quotes from the text as your “evidences.”)
How do you determine whether an evidence/clue is an important one or not? Sherlock often runs across “red herrings” in his investigations: evidences which seem relevant to the crime, but are not. While it’s easier to determine what textual evidences which relate to your topic than it is for Sherlock to sort his clues out, it can sometimes be challenging to decide which are important.
Choosing the best textual evidences takes judgment and effort. First, find all of the examples you think are important. Then review them and choose only the ones you think are the strongest: do they push your thesis forward? Do they cause the reader to make deeper connections between your point and the text? How do your evidences help the reader to “see” the point you are making? Always loop back to your thesis and reassess as you flip back and forth between thinking about how powerfully your evidences develop your thesis and rereading the thesis. As with detective work, your strongest evidences will lead you to the strongest results!
Beginning the fall of 2019 Integritas Academywill offer an approved College Board AP course, live (syncronous) online, for English Literature and Composition. Please check out our course page at http://www.integritasacademy.com/about-register.html or email Cindy@integritasacademy.com