Curriculum choices

Classical Literature

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
This novel by one of the greatest and most revered British authors was published in serial form from 1860-1861, while its British audience waited impatiently for each new chapter to be published. Dickens is a master of characterization, from the mad Ms Havisham who spends the whole of her adult life in her wedding dress, to loving, sympathetic characters like Joe. We follow the growing up of Pip, and have very mixed feelings about him and how he changes in the novel. Pip is an orphan, living with his sister when he is summoned to go to Ms Havisham to meet her protégé, Estella. Over the years his visits continue, until one day he is told that he has “great expectations” and is sent off to be raised as a gentleman. The plot twists and turns and even though there seem to be too many characters to follow at times, they all seem to keep popping up in the novel again and again.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Another novel by Dickens, this is one of his earlier works and a touch more idealistic. The characters have a tendency to be a bit more black and white, villains mostly stay villains, and the good guys are pretty easy to pick out in here. While this is a bit faster paced than other books, it still has all of the wonderful Dickens characters in here. Oliver is an orphan raised in a rather bare and cruel setting. He runs off to London, only to fall into the company of some rather bad characters, only to be rescued by a sweet old man. Oh, but it doesn’t end there, this plot also loves to twist and turn all over the place. Don’t worry about if there are too many coincidences, just enjoy the adventure

Easily the most often chosen of all of his plays, Hamlet has a little bit of everything. We begin with ghosts of dead fathers; let’s throw in a touch of depression, spying, unrequited love, sword fights, and poisoning. While it has an abundance of action and twists, this is also one of Shakespeare’s most thoughtful and thought-provoking plays, giving you a lot to think about about life and the characters themselves. The play begins with the remarriage of Hamlet’s mother, only two months after his father has died. Hamlet is not taking it well, not only did his mother remarry far too quickly in his book, but he did not succeed to the throne of Denmark, his uncle, his new step-father taking the kingship. Add to this that his girlfriend stops seeing him and the ghost of his dead father shows up to tell Hamlet that he was murdered and now Hamlet must avenge him, and it is all quite enough to keep all of us reading.

The shortest and bloodiest of all of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth centers around the theme of ambition and to what lengths people will go to get what they want, and then what those lengths will do to you in the long run. Macbeth is a very noble character at the start of the play, a war hero, yet a chance encounter with some witches makes him start to desire the throne of Scotland. The only thing standing in his way is, well, the current king. Very inconvenient. Yet with a fortuitous visit by the king to Macbeth’s castle and some not so gentle prodding at times from his wife, Macbeth begins down a very dark path, the end of which most of you can probably guess at

This is often called Shakespeare’s most perfect play, we are drawn into a world of jealousy and betrayal. What would you do if everything that you believed in and trusted was suddenly thrown out of the window? This happens to the unfortunate Othello when his true, supposedly unshakeable, love for the fair Desdemona is called into question by the conniving Iago. Will Othello believe him? Why is he doing this? The movie O is based upon the events in this very tumultuous play.

This Greek play follows the character of Oedipus who is handed the prophesy at his birth that he will kill his own father. Can he and his parents avoid this prophesy? What if the prophesy went on to later include that he would sleep with his own mother? What would you do to avoid doing such a thing? What would you do if you found out that you already had? Rich in irony, this play by Sophocles explores all of these questions

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
Elizabeth Benet and Darcy do not like each other - or do they? He thinks that she is not pretty enough to “tempt him” and she believes that he is far too proud. Yet in this novel of five daughters, what they believe to begin with about people is not always what they end up thinking. The novel follows the Benet family, where five sisters must negotiate Victorian society with no dowries to tempt husbands and nothing but their charms to help them marry. And Elizabeth’s intelligence and wit will actually earn her several proposals, but who will she finally accept?

Chinese Literature

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
This was a ground-breaking novel when it was written in 1989 and then later made into a major motion picture (Are there ever minor motion pictures?). This novel follows four Chinese immigrants and their daughters. Each tells two tales in the course of the novel, so while the novel has the appearance of a collection of short stories, they all interconnect to form a larger story and picture in the end. From the mothers we get tales of concubines and betrayal in China, to the horrors of war, to the trials of emigrating and then raising children in a foreign culture. From the daughters we get their frustration over the traditions, habits, and secrets of their mothers, to their own struggles to fit into American culture.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
This story centers around two young gentlemen: the narrator of the story and Luo. Both young men have been sent away to be “reeducated” on the primitive Phoenix mountain during the time in China’s history after the Communist revolution and during Mao Zedong’s push to reeducate the children of the “intelligencia” so they can discover what it is like to be peasants. So, as sons of doctors and dentist, these two are sent away, and during their loneliness and depression suddenly find a source of hope: a beautiful mountain girl, the little seamstress. But what will happen when both fall in love with her?

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Kingston
This novel also focuses on the plight of how immigrants fit into American society and how do their children learn to adapt to the various pushes and pulls on them from parents, community, school, and society. The young woman in here is faced with this dilemma as we watch her grow from a young girl into adulthood. We find out about the legend of Fa Mulan and secrets from the parents’ pasts.

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min
Based on a true historical figure, and aided in the writing by Empress Orchid’s actual court documents, Anchee Min recreates this dynamic historical figure. Desperate, on the verge of marrying her opium-addict cousin, Orchid seizes the opportunity to try to become one of the wives/concubines of the new Emperor of China. We watch as she goes through a grueling selection process, yet once she finds herself in the Forbidden City, her struggles aren’t over; she must now win the affection of her husband while competing with the thousands of other women also selected. Only by doing this can she save herself from a barren, loveless life.

Survival novels

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
This novel is set in World War II Germany and is narrated by Death. If that hasn’t captured your interest yet, then we’ll introduce the character of Liesel, a foster girl who doesn’t read very well and has a few bed-wetting and nightmare issues. Add in a verbally abusive foster mother Rosa, but a kind, cigarette smoking foster father Hans, and a best friend Rudy who only wants to be kissed, and that seems like an interesting enough mix. But wait, for tension, we’ll add in a fist-fighting Jewish man to hide in the basement, and life becomes very interesting in the Hubermann household. Funny, touching, and tragic, this is an extraordinary story about the power of words and friendship.

The Kite Runner
Friendship and betrayal are truly the centerpieces of this novel. What would you do to protect a friend? To please a parent? In this novel by Kaled Hussini, Amir must face both of these choices. Growing up a lonely boy in a large empty house with a father who doesn't seem to notice him, his only friend is the son of their servant. But when he must choose between the approval of his father or this friendship, he makes a choice that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Full of surprises and the search for redemption, The Kite Runner travels from the Afghanistan of the 1960s, to San Francisco, then back into Afghanistan during the Taliban rule.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel
A boy and his family decide to emigrate to Canada, but a storm on the way sinks their ship. Pi is able to make it to a lifeboat, the only human passenger to do so. Unfortunately, a few non-human passengers also make it into the lifeboat: a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger. Pi must figure out how to survive in a lifeboat and not become supper himself. With no real weapons and limited supplies, he manages to survive for almost an entire year. How does he do it?

Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane
Set in Apartheid South Africa, this is Mark’s extraordinary story of growing up in the ghettos of Johannesburg. While white South Africa enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the world, the black ghettos were squalid, rat infested areas. Mark grew up with little food, in a two room shack. He watched his parents struggle with laws that tried to subjugate blacks at every step. He eventually starts school, due to the efforts of his mother. It is here that Mark finally begins to see a way out of the terror that is almost daily life in South Africa for blacks.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
Another true story, by the author of Into the Wild, this follows a doomed expedition to the top of Mt. Everest. The human body isn’t made to live at 29,000 feet, yet this group works to acclimatize and make it to the top of the world. But, when an unexpected storm blows in, and some climbers lag behind, the consequences turn disastrous. This is an extraordinary story of struggle, death, and survival.

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
Another story that is based on a real story, this novel focuses on the lives of the four Mirabal sisters. Set in the Dominican Republic under a brutal dictator, what do these women choose to do: do they quietly submit to injustice or fight against it? Not all of them answer in the same way, and they do not all bear the same consequences for their actions. Considered national heroines, Julia Alvarez tries to recreate the lives of these four extraordinary women.

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

This is a story that follows a young Haitian girl named Sophie. She grows up in Haiti with her aunt before, at twelve, coming to New York to be reunited with her mother. As she matures and tries to fit in with American society, this causes conflict and distrust between her and her mother. Her mother begins to "test" her in the same way that she was tested as a young girl in Haiti. How Sophie deals with this leads to more conflict between them.

Oedipus Materials