Books that Change Lives (Winter 2014)

We invited the Sturgis community to tell us about books that have changed the way they think or act.

Chris Abel, History – East

The Children’s Storyby James Clavell

The Children's StoryI was assigned to read this book as part of my Master’s program in Education.  At first I thought it was just another cute, little, 4300-word “tale” which would give us would-be teachers another message about how we need to diversify teaching techniques, recognize multiple intelligence, accommodate different learning styles and/or reinforce a variety of other educational “messages” we had been receiving in class, texts, articles and other formats.

I figured I’d sit down, read it quickly, spew some nonsense in class and never think about this “children’s book” again (other than, perhaps: “why did we have to read children’s books as part of a Master’s program?”)

Boy, was I wrong.  Nearly 20 years later and I can still recite passages from the book and parts of it still give me shivers to think about.

If you’ve ever wondered about the Powers That Be and the impact a teacher can have, for better or for worse…

If you’ve ever wondered how a real “1984” might look…

If you’ve ever thought you knew where something was headed and watched it get flipped upside down before you even realized (and enjoyed it)…

If you’ve ever wondered what the REAL purpose of education supposedly is…

If you’ve ever questioned any of your teachers’ motives…

If you’ve ever questioned your government’s motives in regards to education…

Then this is the book for you.  Be prepared to be blown away…

Personally, after reading this book, I’ve never looked at education, teaching and power the same again.  Teachers, students, administrators, parents, citizens, patriots, children… it….and wonder…

If you think it’s just for children….think again.

Shannon Crowley, Class of 2016 – West

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Girl in TranslationI read Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok recently and I think this book has definitely changed the way I think. This book was about the main character Kim, and her Ma who had come to America from Hong Kong for a new life. They struggle to adapt with their language and cultural barrier amongst all the other things that they struggle through. Reading this book has made me think differently about many things. It makes me think how no matter how much we think we know someone, we don’t. Its made me think that we should not assume anything about anyone. In this book Kim was basically leading a double life, she was a student during the day, but at night she worked at a factory illegally with her mother and she did not tell anyone. Not even her best friend. It just goes to show that people aren’t always who you think they are. People can surprise you, people can live harder lives than you think. We just have to have open minds and see the best in people. We can’t assume anything and we have to open our minds and realize that not everyone is who we think they are.

Alicia Fenney,  English – East and Class of 2003 Alumna

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Handmaid's TaleWhen I think of a book that has changed me I think immediately of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale because since completing it as a 28-year-old woman last winter, whenever I think about it I am plagued with a deep-seated heaviness. The book had a very visceral and corporeal affect on me while I was reading it – it raised emotional questions and physically made me ill – so my reaction to hearing the book’s title or seeing its cover after the fact does not surprise me. It’s classic in its futuristic glimpse at society but innovative in its ability to make the future feel like the past, and for that reason to remind us of how easy (or to at least make us question how easy) it is to slip into backwards, traditional, and terrifying thinking.

Someone who knew me well once said that if I could live in any time period it would be the Renaissance; to him I said no – I would never want to live in a time that was terrifying and oppressive to women (although indeed it is my favorite literary period!). The Handmaid’s Tale is similarly a time capsule to a previous time with the haunting feeling that such return to old ways could be right around the corner. When Atwood places the name of a real American city (I won’t give any spoilers as to which one), shivers will run up your spine as you realize the society she has created is one imagined at our doorstep and possible given recent politics and societal trends.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist masterpiece – one by a woman about women who oppress women in a future (or near-present?) that at times seems to be where we are headed. Read in shock as women are prized for their reproductive capability and discarded when their value has worn. Marvel at the narrative structure that leaves countless questions without answers. And feel the rigid discipline and terror that rule lives in a society that resembles those we see through a distant lens.

I must thank the Sturgis East English department for its impact on me. Although I taught at Sturgis for 6 years, I never read or taught the novel. When I finally got around to it… it was a book that changed my life!

Matthew Fetzer, History – East

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

Lord of the Rings

If I were to be cut off from the world and have only three books, this would be one. It is my pure escape. There are many themes that Tolkien weaves into this amazing epic. It is about the quest. It is about friendship and loyalty. It is about good and evil. It is about survival. It is about war and tyranny and armies of darkness. It is about the distance traveled to destroy evil, the journey of the soul for all those who become brave when they must leave the shire. The scale is vast. When we return, we are not the same.

Frodo Baggins of the Shire is a hobbit who lives a simple life of leisure in the country.  It is about his journey and his mission to destroy the One Ring that has brought evil into the world. He can only do so by throwing it into the fires of Mt. Doom in the land of Mordor, the heart of darkness on Middle Earth. The one ring has empowered Sauron, the evil tyrant of Mordor, who has drafted an army of orcs, disgusting goblins who form the core of his army to enslave all within his reach. The free peoples of Middle Earth must join together to survive. The story is about the quest of Frodo and his Fellowship to destroy the ring and with it the evil magic of Sauron. Along the way they must make their way through mountains, forests and swamps while traversing through the dark shadow that has covered Middle Earth. As they pass through the ruins and relics of a lost world, orcs and spies of the evil eye are everywhere.

I return to this often. I do so because it is a world so unlike our own. It is a world of heroes and magic. It is a world of marble white castles that reach for the heavens and shelter those who have fled the base evil below. It is a world of romance and hope that defies the darkness. Brave knights gallop into battle and you cheer for them. The King of Gondor is restored and peace will reign for a thousand years. This happens because it can in dreams and literature. In short, it is a world of infinite imagination. That is why I love stories, especially this greatest of them all. It taps the child in all of us where such things are real.  Most of all you see this through the eyes of a simple Hobbit, the child in us all. Perhaps it is because he is so humble that he is capable of so much.  I reflect on this because I traveled away from the shire of my life long ago. I am still on my journey. I don’t know if I will make it to Mt. Doom to throw the baggage of my life into the fires below. But I do know that the journey has made me stronger. I have seen much and made many friends along the way. What I have found is that while we can never return to the shire, we can always find home.

Kristen Gregg, Class of 2018 – East

Dear Bully by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones

Dear BullyDear Bully is a thought-provoking book where well known authors share their experience of bullying. Through poems, comics, stories, and memories I have been able to see through the eyes of the victim, the parents of a victim, the bystander, and even the bully. This book has shown me how each person sees the situation, and how different that can be. I found that to be fascinating, and took their advice if I am ever in one of their places.

One story in particular stood out to me; it was about a boy who was constantly beaten up by another boy on his walk home from school. Then one day the boy (the author) had a couple of friends walk with him. When the bully stepped out to beat the boy up, the boy’s friends attacked him. As the boy watched his friends, he didn’t feel satisfied with revenge and he didn’t join in. The boy wanted his friends to stop, and he didn’t want them to do it in the first place.

This story made me realize that when someone has hurt you, it won’t necessarily make you feel better to hurt them back or even want to hurt them. It also made me realize that you should try to understand where the bully is coming from. In other words, revenge isn’t always the answer. I never really was the revenge type of person in the first place, but this made me see that even thinking like they deserve revenge is not good for your character. I also found it empowering that a victim would think first of how he didn’t want the boy to be beaten. Even many years later, the author wished he had stopped his friends from beating up his bully. I think that’s pure character.

catch22Pete Richenburg, Art – West

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

I was in pretty bad shape both mentally and physically when I returned from Vietnam.  Eventually, the bodily wounds healed, but the ones inside kept festering.  At age nineteen, I saw things that no one should see, and participated in things that no one should. My values were topsy-turvy and my moral compass was askew.  About the only emotion I could muster was internal rage.  This went on for quite some time.  Enter Joseph Heller and Catch 22. There are no magic wands to make bad stuff go away, but Heller helped me realize that there were others who shared exactly the same experiences – that helped.  Heller addresses the futility and folly of mankind’s most absurd endeavor: War.  For me, Catch 22 was a manual for coping.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it.  At first, I found it amusing, after the fifth or sixth reading hilarious and deeply moving.  This really marked the beginning of the true healing process.  Many thanks to you, Joseph Heller!

Stacey Strong, Mathematics – East

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham

Carry onIn high school I saw the movie “Stand and Deliver,” the story of how math teacher Jaime Escalante taught calculus to students from the poorest school in East LA.  At Stanford I studied engineering with two of Escalante’s students.  They confirmed that he had created a program of excellence in the innercity.  His “path to calculus” empowered thousands of students to discover the power of mathematics– power that brings strong analytic skills, solid arguments, and powerful job opportunities.  In part because of Escalante’s legacy, I decided to teach.

Recently, I discovered the book Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham.  Not since Stand and Deliver have I found a teacher’s story so powerful.  The book tells the story of mathematician/navigator/astronomer Captain Nathaniel Bowditch, born in Salem, Massachusetts in the late 1700’s.  Most impressive and most inspirational in the story is Bowditch’s philosophy that the elite education of the time– celestial navigation– was to be taught to all willing crew on a ship.  He ensured that his entire crew, from deckhands to mates, knew how to use a sextant to determine longitude and latitude.  His egalitarian commitment to education serves as a great example for what we strive to do everyday.


Marion Weeks, Community Outreach Coordinator

A Handbook to Literature by William Harmon and Hugh Holman

During my senior year of college, I spent a semester doing a student teaching practicum at a regional school.  One of the classes I taught was advanced English. When the class was starting a new unit on the American novel, I wanted to provide a brief overview of the history of the novel.

Consider the following example of LBG (Life Before Google): I spent hours looking through my English textbooks for a concise history of the novel but found the texts provided too much detail. Feeling pressed for time, I asked a college reference librarian for help. He listened carefully, turned to a ready reference shelf behind the desk and presented me with A Handbook to Literature. It not only provided exactly what I needed for the class, it changed the course of my life.

After spending hours looking for a brief overview of the American novel, the librarian served up the definitive reference on literature within a couple of minutes. I was amazed and mightily impressed by his skills – like in Westerns when a cowboy on horseback gallops through town shooting a rifle and hits the bull’s eye.  How did he do that? I wanted to learn.

My plan after college had been to attend graduate school in English at UNC-Chapel Hill. I decided to change course and pursue a Masters in Library Science with a focus on reference work. I believed that learning how to do research was a practical skill that would serve me well no matter what profession I pursued.  Little did I know what an impact this change of plans would have on my life.

After completing the degree, I worked as a reference librarian for 20+ years in NC, GA, MA, Peace Corps in West Africa and finally at Sturgis.  Libraries are a positive environment and great places to work.  Over the years, I met many interesting people in search of information.  Although I no longer work in libraries, research has continued to be one of my favorite pursuits and a Handbook to Literature has remained my trusted sidekick. The moral of the story is I’m glad I asked for help; I only wish I had discovered my treasured handbook earlier in my college days!

Livvy Williams, Class of 2018 – West

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

FangirlMy first encounter with the book Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell was not with the book itself, but with the author. In eighth grade, I decided to sign up for National Novel Writing Month, which takes place in November and challenges writers to write a chosen number of words by the end of the month. One resource of the competition is “Pep Talks,” letters of encouragement written by successful authors. One day, in the midst of procrastination, I stumbled upon a pep talk written by an author named Rainbow Rowell. Skimming it, I realized that she was writing from experience: her book, Fangirl, had been written while she was participating in NanoWrimo. I would say that it was right then that I knew that this book would change my life. Never before had I had such a connection with the writer. A little while later, I downloaded the book, and I was soon completely immersed in the world of Cath, a writer herself.

It was a book that I couldn’t put down. I had never used my e-reader’s “highlighting” option before, but while reading that book I was highlighting passages, whole chunks of text; some that made me think, some that were just simply beautifully written, and some that I kept saying, over and over in my head, marvelling at the way the words fit together. Fangirl made me feel less alone. It was a book that was written about something that I understood, something that is as integral to me as breathing: writing. Sometimes, nestled in between Rowell’s beautiful words, I could see the process of NanoWrimo, or thought I could; see that is, perhaps, where she got stuck but forced herself to keep writing. I have read the book over and over again; it is one of my favorite books in the world. But then again, what else did I expect from a writer who wrote, in her pep talk: “First drafts always make me feel anxious and a little desperate.”

A Footnote about Cultural Soundings

Cultural Soundings provides an opportunity for the Sturgis community to weigh in on various topics and gives everyone a chance to to see Sturgis through the lens of literature, art, film, travel, music, etc. Past topics include:

Travel Tales (Fall 2011);   Sturgis Reads (Spring 2012);   Cape Cod Quintessence (Summer 2012);  Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation (Fall 2012);  Where Were You When…? (Summer 2013); Comfort Food (Fall 2013);  All Time Favorite Teachers (Summer 2014)
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