Flowers for Algernon- Daniel Keyes

This week’s book is a thought-provoking one, full of moral, social, and existential questions. So settle in for a serious few minutes. Grab a coffee, turn the ringer off on your phone, check Facebook one last time if you need to….

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Okay, ready? Let’s get talking…

Daniel Keyes’ novel Flowers for Algernon tells the story of Charlie, a developmentally impaired man of very low IQ and his remarkable journey to experimentally increase his intelligence, following the success of the same procedure on an mouse named Algernon. Keyes tells the story through a series of journal entries, termed “progris reports” or “progress reports,” depending on the stage of Charlie’s journey. This novel can be found in almost every secondary school English classroom, as required reading at some point in the curriculum. I read it when I was in high school just as students read it today. Why do you think it is so widely read?

Charlie’s story is pure fiction. The technology to make this kind of progress does not yet exist. But what if it did? It would be hailed as a scientific miracle but is it really? Charlie’s intelligence, and by extension the man himself, is seen as a problem to be fixed. Professor Nemur, Dr. Strauss, and even Miss Kinnian encourage Charlie to participate in the experiment because of his curious nature and kind spirit. But, as readers will see, as Charlie’s intelligence rises, some of the qualities that made him such a good candidate start to diminish. What is the ultimate cost of Charlie’s increased intellectual abilities?

Keyes looks to explore these and other questions. Here are some more to get those neurons firing:

– Why do you think that Keyes chose to tell the story through journal entries? Why not tell it as a running narrative from Charlie?

– Charlie lives most of his life with a very low IQ. How does experiencing the world differently influence his participation in the experiment?

– As his IQ increases, Charlie’s intellectual development moves much faster than his emotional development. What does this say about the different types of intelligence? Is it possible to be smart in one area but not another?

– What is Charlie’s greatest strength? Greatest weakness? Do these change as he becomes smarter?

– Why do you think that Charlie is so attached to Algernon? Do the other characters understand their connection? Why or why not?

– Charlie begins the novel believing that he is deficient in some way and that everyone around him is almost god-like, but as he later learns, each character has some sort of weakness. What does this say about the idea of “perfection?”

Family Reading- How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

HowtheGrinchStoleChristmasThis holiday, why not start a new tradition? Pick a holiday classic to read as a family! My suggestion for younger readers is Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, a classic Seussical story about a mean old miser, set on destroying Christmas for the joyful townsfolk of Whoville. The grinch, along with his dog-reindeer, Max, sneaks into the town dressed as “Santy Clause,” steals all of the presents, decorations, and even the roast beast!

Upon realizing that he had not stolen Christmas from the Who’s of Whoville, whose joy never came from presents or things, he and Max speed into town on his sleigh, full of holiday things, and brings Christmas back to the grateful Who’s.

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Here are a few questions and activities to help your little ones learn what is important this holiday season, alongside the Grinch.

– What do the Who’s like about Christmas? What do you like about Christmas?

– Why do you think the Who’s like to sing together at Christmas? Pick out your favorite holiday song and sing it together as a family.

– Some people don’t get to open a lot of presents during the holidays. Donate toys and gifts or volunteer at a soup kitchen to teach your kids about sharing and helping others during the holidays.

Search Volunteer Match, www.foodpantries.org, or Feeding America to find an organization near you.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow- Washington Irving

Ichabod Crane is probably one of my favorite characters of all-time. Because he’s such a… well, he’s such a character!

His description, most fitting for someone called “Crane,” is one of the most memorable and archetypal out there. With “narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together,” it is only too easy to picture him ambling about the small village, on his way to the schoolhouse. Oh, and he’s the singing-master of Sleepy Hollow and is more than happy to take his payment in free room and board at the homes of his pupils, most often those with “pretty sisters, or good housewives for mothers, noted for the comforts of the cupboard.” Add in his enthusiasm for the gentler sex, only surpassed by his enthusiasm for a beautiful and bountiful table, and you have a just-right mix of foolishness and likability for the perfect ghost story protagonist. Think a 19th Century Scooby Doo.

Ichabod Crane in the Disney short "The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad" (1949)

Ichabod Crane in the Disney short “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” (1949)

When Irving puts this comically lanky and somewhat awkward (especially when it comes to romancing the beautiful heiress Katrina Van Tassel- poor Ichabod!) schoolteacher in the path of the Headless Horseman, peril is sure to follow.

The short story has been adapted to numerous films and TV series, most recently a modern adaptation airing on FOX. While some have taken liberties with the details of the story (including the birthdate, occupation, and marital status of Ichabod), all offer insight and a worthwhile visual representation of this haunted village.

Set from Tim Burton film adaptation, "Sleepy Hollow" starring Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane (1999)

Set from Tim Burton film adaptation, “Sleepy Hollow” starring Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane (1999)

If you’re interested in learning more about the real-life village of Sleepy Hollow, head over to visitsleepyhollow.com or sleepyhollowny.gov. Bonus because it’s Halloween: haunted hayrides, a masquerade ball, and the terrifying Horseman’s Hollow!

Don’t forget to comment at The List, found at the top of the page, to get your favorite Halloween book featured as our next book club selection!

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde- Robert Louis Stevenson

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

In today’s chat about The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I’m going to focus on one discussion question. There are so many ways to tackle this story but the one that I think defines all of the others is this:

This book is the ultimate story of good vs. evil. Do you think that people can be defined in these terms? Do you think that an act can be defined as good or evil?

Reading this book in high school, I would have said yes, a person or an act can be “good” or “evil.” I thought, as many people do, that in order to be a “good person,” you have to perform good deeds. You need to “make wise choices,” as my mother always told us. I believed that your actions were measured on some sort of proverbial scale and THAT was how you determined good versus bad. I considered myself always on the side of “good,” as most of us do, and anyone that made me mad or even just annoyed me? Bad, of course. When I made a bad choice, it was a mistake; when someone else made a bad choice, it went straight to that scale.

As I transitioned into my adult life, I realized that people were not just a sum of their actions. I learned that good people can make bad choices, even a lot of them, but still have the potential to do good. I considered a person’s potential and underlying nature to be the most important aspect when weighing them on the “good” vs. “bad” scale.

Now, I find myself questioning the very definitions of “good” and “bad.” Sure, some actions can be rigidly defined as such: helping an elderly lady across a busy street vs. pushing the same elderly lady down and stealing her groceries. But rarely are actions in real life completed under such artificial constraints. Most of the time, people act with a countless number of competing demands. Maybe their situation necessitated their less-than-desirable actions. Maybe I didn’t see the entire picture of their circumstances, which might explain the actions that I thought would certainly be weighed on the “bad” side of their scale. For example, that car that cut me off the other day? Maybe they were on their way to the hospital to help an ailing relative. So when I honked at them, who was really the “bad guy” in that scenario?

Do I think that people and actions can be defined as “good” or “evil” by themselves? No, not without knowing more of their context. Even then, am I really in a position to decide? For that reason, this might be the scariest of the books that we are reading this Halloween. It has scenes of gruesome horror, sure. But the scariest part of all might be the depiction of “good” and “evil” and the fact that some people really think it’s that simple.

Dr. J and Mr. H on Thursday!

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

We’ll be discussing The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on Thursday. Here are a few questions to consider while reading:

– This book is the ultimate story of good vs. evil. Do you think that people can be defined in these terms? Do you think that an act can be defined as good or evil?

– What words does Robert Louis Stevenson use to describe his characters? Do these descriptions give some clue to their role in the story?

– Robert Louis Stevenson tells the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde through multiple narrators (Utterson, Lanyon, Jekyll). Does the perspective of the narrator influence the interpretation of the reader?

– Jekyll lives his life as one of two people even before he uncovers his “Hyde” side. He separates his “impatient gaiety of disposition” from his desire to appear “more than commonly grave” in his professional life. Does this attitude ultimately contribute to his discovery of Hyde or does it help him to deal with the reality of his discovery?