Minor High School Book Reports

These are some book reports I have included in the faint hope that someone might actually want to read them since they are no use just lying around. I’ve omitted some of the most horrendous ones.

 On Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl

04/01/08

Kon-Tiki
Voyage to Polynesia

In Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl tells the amazing story of a six-man journey across the Pacific in a raft from South America.

When Thor Heyerdahl begins to study the relics of the first people in South America, he discovers a curious thing: they shared much of their language, myths, art, and culture with the Polynesian peoples. The link? A mysterious tall blond race of intellectuals who disappeared west-ward over the sea, led by their legendary chief, Kon-Tiki, The Son of the Sun. This is the tale of how perseverance and sincerity pay off.

Heyerdahl writes his findings in a manuscript that theorizes the Polynesian people are descended from early South Americans who had come across the Pacific Ocean in a raft. No one will read it; they absolutely refuse to believe that such a thing was even possible. So Heyerdahl sets out to find a crew. He himself sets sail to Polynesia in a replica raft to prove that the ancient peoples could have done it. On the way, he and his crew discover amazing sea life, experience fierce storms and meet interesting people. They discover the ingenuity of the original Polynesians long before the raft lands them successfully in Polynesia, vindicating the theory.

Heyerdahl has faith in his work and goes to incredible lengths to prove the truth of a theory no one will believe. He first finds and persuades several government officials to fund and allow him to build the raft. Then he himself finds logs to build the colossal project, all the while ignoring all the people who scoff that the raft will fall apart in the water. Out on the sea, the crew is amazed to find the plausibility of such a venture. The raft overcomes all odds and doubts. Along the way, the crew discovers the joys of watching marine life and living at sea. The raft finally lands on an atoll, revealing the truth of centuries’ old legends.

Steadfastness has its due in this wonderful account. Although the descriptions can be a bit tedious, it is a wonderfully detailed account of men determined to prove their theory. It shows the sea’s beauty and the inventiveness of an ancient people who sailed west after the sun.

 On “The Screwtape Letters” and “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” by C.S. Lewis

05/09/08

The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast

A Commentary on Man and His Morality

These letters record a fictitious correspondence between/from Screwtape, a senior devil and Wormwood, an aprentice devil. The well-established senior writes to his nephew on how he may tempt a man into hell.

Screwtape advises first that if a man can be diverted from investigating the supernatural, he will avoid religion because he thinks it superstition. This, Screwtape advises, is a good thing. The danger begins when man begins to suspect that there is more to life than the physical or even that devils/demons exist.

If however, in spite of all a devil’s worst intentions, a man does begin the see beyond the physical or even becomes a Christian, then the surest way to keep him from God is to distract him. The way may be by simply drawing him to sin and ignore his faith; or man may be tempted to piously analyze every other church member or structure that has nothing to do with himself. By inperceptively drawing a man away, he will slowly cease to go to church and to be taught. However, by concerning man with looking into the “deep” truths that the Bible says nothing about or by tempting him to believe that one must be properly uncomfortable to be a Christian, he will begin to ignore what is essential to the faith while still in the church. While this is risky, it is by far the best scenario for devils.

As Screwtape himself states, “Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the alter.”Those who see what is happening in the spiritual realm must pay attention and not get distracted. What is essential is not so much whether a person celebrates passover as whether he believes Jesus was resurrected.

 On My Adventures as a Spy by Lord Baden-Powell

07/21/08

Spies and Their Craft

Spying is often portrayed, but seldom understood. In My Adventures as a Spy, Lord Baden-Powell explains the types and methods of spying by anecdotes from his own experience as a spy. Contrary to popular perception, most of a spy’s work depends on observation and theatrics rather than gadgetry. Further, a surprising amount of their tactics seems to involve reverse psychology.

Spies are valiant men for their country, despite their disguises and secrecy. There are many types of spies, those who gauge foreign culture, armies and geography and those who relay information of other spies and military provisions, as well as those who are traitors. The author reconnoitered foreign armies and terrain. On one occasion he was caught walking casually out of a restricted fortress, where he had been watching secret proceedings. He was only caught, however, because he turned away from the light as an oncoming car passed.

Because being a spy involves doing often illegal things discreetly, spies know the mindset of the people they deal with. Because secrecy is expected, spies attempt to be very open Lord baden-Powell was once commissioned to make drawings of enemy forts. To conceal his intent, he came as a naturalist and made drawings of butterflies with the outlines and specifications of the forts and guns concealed in the pattern of the butterflies. He then showed his work to army officers. On another occasion he needed to know the methods of foreign mountain troops. In the midst of observing their maneuvers, he was spotted. He quickly assumed the personality of an landscape painter. The troop captain told him all about their methods in trying to impress the apathetic Welsh artist. One anecdote shows the importance of the unexpected. Lord Baden-Powell and a Mr. Grootboom suspected that there was an ambush laid for them. To ascertain this, Mr. Grootboom dressed as a native and simply asked the ambush/soldiers what they were doing. They told him. Finally, predicting human tendencies allowsthe spy to take advantage of them. The author once climbed halfway up a ladder while escaping from a group of policemen. Although a policeman stood at the bottom of the ladder, but fifteen vertical feet from him, he did not see the unconcealed motionless fugitive.

Spies depend heavily on the unexpected, using their minds as a primary resource. More than anything, being a spy seems to include being normal. By knowing how a spy is thought to act, they may act so ordinary, that no one is able to pick them out.

I would recommend this book because it is exciting, well-written, but most importantly, true. It shows how, of a crowd of thousands of ordinary people, one person may protect their country by being just that.

On The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne

10/01/08

The Badge of Ignominy

An Analysis of the Scarlet Letter

Hester Prynne wears a badge of ignominy: this scarlet letter, which lurks throughout the entire story in many guises. Hester receives the merciful sentence to wear the letter “A” on her chest as an alternative to death for the crime of adultery. Her husband is assumed to be lost at sea, and the father of Hester’s child remains a mystery to all the town, except for an ominous physician in black with a crook in his back.

This is Roger Chillingsworth, who makes himself known in the little town of Boston, Massachusetts as a doctor. Although unwilling to own himself as Hester’s lawful husband, he makes it his mission to seek out Hester’s lover. Driven by his hatred, he discovers that the other participant in the crime is the frail guilt-ridden Minister Arthur Dimmesdale. Instead of exposing the Minister, as Hester has chosen not to do, he makes it his mission to become the best friend of the minister, to keep him alive by his medicine, but to suck the life out of him by irritating his conscience.

Little Pearl, the daughter of Hester and Arthur, is a wild little thing, who often perceives things more clearly than than the adults around her. She is Hester’s Chillingsworth, recognizing her mother by the scarlet letter, loving her because of it, and referencing it often, all while unawares of its meaning. Hester calls her my “my scarlet letter”. She is openly both the cause of Hester’s misery and her comfort. But while Hester wears her guilt openly, Arthur Dimmesdale, never with Hester’s strong backbone, bears his in his heart, which, fretted at by the vindictive doctor, eventually begins to sear itself on his chest.

This situation runs its course for seven years. Hester regularly becomes more able to bear her shame, while Arthur sinks lower and lower. Hester becomes a charitable person in spite of her sadness. She is loved and cherished by all in spite of her badge of shame. Her morals, however, have become corroded and she is prone to be bitter.

Arthur, too, becomes revered by all as if he were an angelic messenger from heaven. While he has all the love in the world, his shame is all the worse because he wishes that he could tell them how terrible he is and what a fake he has become. He tortures himself with these thoughts, the scarlet letter burning into his chest all the while and causing him to keep his hand over his heart. Ironically, however, the guilt of his fall keeps him from falling again. He keeps his hand over his heart still as if to hide what he would tell, but it is known. Ultimately, it is discovered by the child of her who would hide what is known.

Little Pearl dances throughout the story, but always with the question. “What does the scarlet letter mean, mother? And why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?” The child recognizes her father as kind, although all other children shrink from him, and she recognizes the feelings of her mother as if telepathically. She also recognizes right and wrong although it is obscured and twisted to the rest of the town.

Because, Hester’s morals have become twisted throughout the years she suggests to Arthur that they may run away together to escape their shame. Although Arthur’s morals are still perfectly intact, he he has a lapse of reason and agrees with her. Pearl, however, will not come to her mother when she sees that Hester is not wearing the scarlet letter. Pearl is also contrary to Minister Dimmesdale when he is planning to run away with her mother. But the role she is playing in the life of her mother is temporary. As her reflection in a stream is not concrete, the day comes when her mother no longer needs a little Chillingsworth to keep her from doing wrong.

That day arrives at the height of Minister Dimmesdale’s fame. He comes home the night before feeling freed and energized by his plans to run away with Hester. She has told him of the identity of her real husband, Chillingsworth; and Arthur is able to escape the torture of Chillingsworth for one night. The next day is the day when he is to preach his Election Sermon, the greatest honor of all. The day after, he will escape with Hester to Europe. Chillingsworth however, has discovered their plans and informs Hester that he will be on the same boat and will help make sure that Arthur gets there safely. He will haunt them wherever they attempt to hide.

But while Chillingsworth is acting out the part of the devil and Hester is feeling utterly hopeless, Arthur finishes his sermon, appears on the scene devoid of energy, and assumes the part of one saved by grace. He will not allow himself to fall again and be tormented by guilt. He pauses in front of Hester, and, in the view of all, confesses to his part in the crime from which Pearl, the little personification of mercy came. He shows his Scarlet Letter, also a mercy to help his confess, as well as a condemnation, and witness of what he had done. The confession, however, comes when he knows that he cannot stand the strain of guilt any longer. As he holds Hester and Pearl, he dies, having told the truth at last.

The scarlet letter represents Hester’s and Arthur’s guilt. It is what drives people away from Hester, even in her later years when she has been so charitable that she is loved. It represents, firstly, guilt. A guilt that remains, whether branded by society or the conscience.

The scarlet letter represents a guilt that has been branded. The Scarlet Letter asserts that society is the cause for the conscience’s guilt. Wherever society, whether the society knows of the guilt when they arrive, or not, the guilt will follow them; they cannot escape it. Arthur could not escape Chillingsworth anywhere but the scaffold where he confessed with Hester.

The scarlet letter also represents another kind of guilt: guilt unconfessed. Pearl ceases to be her mother’s tormentor when Master Dimmesdale is finally revealed, and Master Dimmesdale has sweet relief when it is.

The scarlet letter is also a punishment, which torment Master Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne for seven long years, when all they needed to do was confess totally to receive relief. Any punishment they received from the Puritans would be paltry as compared to the relief of their consciences.

Chillingsworth has hung his entire life on his revenge in the torture of Arthur Dimmesdale, and while Arthur could not escape him anywhere else, he escaped him in the town square where he confessed. Dimmesdale dies shortly afterward, a broken and depressed man. Pearl and her mother leave as planned. Pearl, however, has left her post as the assigned penance of her mother, and no longer tortures her with questions of the scarlet letter. But did Pearl really change? Or was Pearl no longer a torment to her mother because she could no longer be a torment? Could her mother have found peace sooner if she had told the whole truth? Chillingsworth appears to have undergone a change as well. Chillingsworth had hung his entire life on his revenge in the torture of Arthur Dimmesdale, and while Arthur could not escape him anywhere else, he escaped him in the town square where he confessed. His purpose in life gone, Dimmesdale dies shortly afterward, a broken and depressed man. In his will, he leaves his large estate to little Pearl, perhaps seeing her role and finding the heart to love her at last.

On The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

 05/15/09

Society as Seen by Arthur Conan Doyle

Although Sherlock Holmes spends much of his time berating Watson for the insufficient emphasis on logic in proportion to the descriptions of color and life contained in his accounts of Holmes adventures, Doyle has created in Holmes himself an interesting study on life in England in the eighteen-hundreds. Holmes is immune to class distinctions, able to mingle easily with both the upper and lower classes, allowing us to observe them. In doing so, he betrays Doyle’s own prejudices and opinions. Through Doyle’s choice of criminals and of protagonists we may observe that he felt the very class which continually brings Holmes their problems contains the most deadly criminals.

Doyle has stood convention on its head. Contrary to stereotype, only two of the crimes described in the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are perpetrated by possible members of the lower class. Most of the others are committed by people who traditionally have been above reproach. Indeed, as Holmes himself says, “When a doctor does go wrong. He is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge. Palmer and Pritchard were among the heads of their profession.” This is spoken of Dr. Roylott, who murders his step-daughters rather than lose their inheritance to a husband. Dr. Roylott, a member of an old family, shows a self-righteous passion in his violent, short temper. Perhaps more revealing, his temper springs from a knowledge of his fallibility; his dignity which will not allow him to accept criticism. He also feels an entitlement to his privacy to commit murders and thence to his step-daughter’s money.

All of the members of the upper class described in the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes seem to have one thing in common: a sense of dignity and of entitlement. Among them we have Lord Robert St. Simon, a poor member of the gentry who is marrying a rich American woman. He dignity is affronted when he discovers that his wife was already married. His annoyance seems justified until we consider that his wife believed her husband dead and that St. Simon had a secret himself before marriage.

As Doyle’s choice of villains demonstrates, it is not prosperous members of the nobility who are villainous, but rather, the ones who need money. This implies that without money, the gentry become just as desperate as those of the lower class, if not worse. John Clay is the villain of one of the stories. He is a well-educated nobleman who, finding theft more profitable than industry, has fallen to the level of a burglar. He displays his arrogance in the way he uses his education to commit crime, takes pride in his illusiveness, and yet demands respect even when he has been caught.

Indeed, it would seem that Doyle felt that all class barriers between could be pierced with a disguise. Holmes routinely carries out investigations disguised by little more than a new set of clothing and a change of facial expression. We see him as a simpleminded clergyman, a drunken groom, an opium addict, and a common loafer. He is so skilled that his disguise is never discovered. However, Holmes does not limit the usage of his observations to the manufacture of disguise; far more often he uses them to discover who the people around him really are. He uses everything from a hat, to a disturbance of the ground, to a paper to determine a man’s appearance, personality, and traits. This detail would seem to suggest that Doyle thought that class was not as important in the definition of a man, as man’s own choices and personality.

The portrayal of women in the stories is very interesting as well. They are shown as steadfast to a fault, clever, and compassionate. Indeed, in a famous episode, Doyle allows Holmes be outwitted by the jealous and clever Irene Adler. This seems to denote an opinion of Doyle’s part that there is more to women then was commonly seen in the late nineteenth century. He upends common thought by writing descriptions of independence and wit, the spirit of which foreshadows the women’s rights movement.

It would be informative to learn of Doyle’s relationship with his father. Whether by blood or by marriage, every father in the stories has the disgusting traits of greed, distrust, unrepentant rage or some combination thereof. Mr. Windiband, Mr. Rucastle, and Mr. Roylott, all attempt to gain the money of their daughters by preventing them from marrying. Mr. McCarthy attempts to arrange the marriage of his son to the daughter of his rival to in order gain an her estate. His rival kills him. Mr. Holder has not the decency to believe his son or to the wisdom see his niece’s deceit. Doyle appears to hint at an evil lurking in those whom we trust and value most: an evil which we are too blinded by love to see.

Doyle challenges our view of authority. The police force, the guardian of justice, is portrayed as a facade; Were it left the them, there would be no justice. Holmes almost always investigates cases in which the police cannot produce evidence or in which the police interpret the evidence incorrectly. They are shown as unobservant and clumsy. “Oh, how simple it would all have been had I been here before they came like a heard of buffalo and wallowed all over it.” Holmes laments, finding the scene of a murder confused with the footprints of the police. He proceeded to find amidst the muddle, evidence that pointed to the height, dominant limbs, attire, item contained the the pocket, brand of cigar, and mode of smoking, of the murderer.

Lestrade is easily swayed by conjecture and circumstantial evidence. In one case a note is found with the clothing of the missing person in a pond. Noticing that the initials on the note are the same as those of a lady with a possible motive for murder, Lestrade jumps to a conclusion. Holmes finds the missing person with the man actually denoted by the initials.

In several cases the force draws incorrect conclusions and Holmes finds it necessary to reinterpret the evidence for them. Neville St. Clair was nearly hung for murdering himself. Holmes found Neville’s clothing at the scene of the arrest of a beggar grounds to investigate the identity of the beggar. Holmes gets somewhat annoyed at the bungling of the police force. At one point, after he is accused of being a police agent, Holmes remarks to Watson,“Fancy his having the insolence to confound me with the official detective force!”

However, throughout the story, Doyle is very careful never to slander the character of the police. They sincerely go about their job, however dense they may be. Justice is finally served in the end, of a sort. Often Holmes leaves it to the courts to attest to the innocence of the accused, allowing guilty parties escape if the optimal outcome would not arise from their capture. “After all, Watson,” said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, “I am no retained by the police to supply their deficiencies. If Horner were in danger it would be another thing, but this fellow will not appear against him, and the case must collapse.” Thus Doyle challenges the definition of justice, whether it is not inadequate, whether our standards are now too stringent, and what justice actually is. In Doyle’s view, it seems to lie in the eye of the beholder, or at least in the eye of Sherlock Holmes.

In other places, Doyle is so stubbornly stuck to conventions of the eighteen-hundreds that his error is glaringly apparent. England had an obsession with her empire. Holmes states, “It is always a joy to me to meet an American, Mr Moulton, for I am one of those who believe that the folly of a monarch and the blundering of a Minister in far gone years will not prevent our children from being some day citizens of the same world-wide country under a flag which shall be a quartering of the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes.” Americans are resolute and good—unless they happen to be the members of the Ku Klux Klan; after all, America did separate from England. In contrast, all those from Australia, her former penal colony, are portrayed as dangerous but admirable people.

The opinions of the period toward foreigners stand out as hostile. The master of the globe, England looked askance at those whom she had not dominated. The Asians are seen as evil influences. They run the opium dens which lure many honest, hardworking members of the middle class to addiction. One of these helps Neville St. Clair carry on his charade as a beggar and, assisted by a Dane, to hide when his wife comes looking. One of the most notable Germans in the stories is a forger who is remarkably crueler than his English compatriots and attempts to murder anyone who might have the slightest suspicion of his activities. Nor is the King of Bohemia shown in any good light. He is shown as imperceptive and foppish. He comes to see Holmes on a quest to become free of the consequences of a commitment of his younger days toward a young lady. Indeed, the portrayal of nearly all outsiders seems to suggest the folly of all who will not take life honorably with a grain of salt, a cup of tea, and a few cold meat pies.

In Response to “A Calendar of Great Americans” by Woodrow Wilson

01/27/10

A Calendar of Great Americans

Not all the great men of America are great Americans, proclaims Woodrow Wilson. They may be great Russians, great Englishmen, great Texans, or great Southerners, but a great American is defined by his attributes, not by his heritage. Not to say that we could have done without our great Russians any more than we could have done without George Washington, or that Americans are any nobler than the rest of the world, but merely to establish a standard by which our present leaders may be evaluated. Wilson lays out the attributes themselves. It is my purpose to state why they are worthy attributes.

Wilson places hopefulness and confidence as the first standard of Americanism. But why should these be our most important national attributes? Firstly because they ensure that a fiery spirit exists which will stop at nothing to establish its goals. Like the first westerners, great Americans must be ready and willing to tackle a challenge, to do it wrong the first time and to correct their mistakes. Undeterred by humble beginnings, our great men and women must be willing to rise humbly to whatever heights they may attain. They must have a zeal for their union and for the processes which hold it together, justice and democracy, and must be willing to defend them with hope for the future.

An great American must have the versatility required to understand the viewpoints of his fellow Americans. He should take the time to learn their values, and if needed study them. But he should not be so restricted by any pursuit that his interest may not be piqued by another. Man attains depth by his voluntary pursuits, not only by the things he makes his living from. No great American is so narrow that he can see the future of but one field nor wish to learn but one thing. Likewise, he should not restrict himself to the study of his own section, any more than he should restrict himself to one pursuit. The greatest Americans are those which can reconcile the entire country in themselves.

The greatest judges of Americanism, however, are a man’s contemporaries. They have not taken the time that later historians will take to analyze a great man’s viewpoints and his prejudices. They simply know that they have seen a great man, and they flock to him. Why? Because there is an instant sympathy between him and his countrymen. Because they know that he is one of them, without a second thought. Because America just happens to know what an American is.

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