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English curriculum A’s and F’s

Kaelen’s Books

On my bookshelf, I have an entire shelf filled with the books I’ve read for Marlborough English classes. So in other words, I’ve read a lot of books for English classes. As is typical when reading a variety of books, some were amazing, while others were difficult to finish. Some made me cry tears of happiness and pain (like “The Book Thief”), some made me scream (shoutout to “Jane Eyre”), and some got me so invested that I read ahead because I needed to know what happened (like “Macbeth”). Because of my strong emotions surrounding some of these books (and plays), I decided to review my favorite and least favorite books from Marlborough’s English curriculum. 

Favorite: “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

With its cleverly crafted plot, dynamic characters and mysterious setting, “Hamlet” is definitely my favorite piece of literature that I’ve read in English class. My favorite part of this play is how complex the plot is, as the story has multiple subplots that converge in the final act to create an impactful and dramatic ending. There is also so much going on in the play that almost everyone can find a part that they enjoy. Do you like ghosts? Well, “Hamlet” has one. How about pirates? “Hamlet” has those too. Or royalty? Murder mystery? Close friendships? Tragic love stories? “Hamlet” has all of the above. Despite the amount of information packed into the play, all these plot points are woven into the story in a way that feels natural rather than confusing and engaging. I even found myself actually looking forward to doing my English homework each night. 

Another part of the play that I loved were the dynamic characters. While I wasn’t a huge fan of Hamlet himself (I found him whiny and insufferable), some of the other characters, like Horatio, are some of my favorite characters of all time. Whether I liked them or not, one aspect of every character in this play that I can appreciate is how their personalities are multifaceted and their actions can be interpreted in different ways. Speaking of interpretation, one of my favorite parts about “Hamlet,” and Shakespeare’s plays in general, are that they are open to interpretation by readers, directors and actors. Do I have a google document outlining how I would adapt “Hamlet” into a screen production, because I haven’t yet seen a production that shows my interpretation of the play? Absolutely. But that’s what makes “Hamlet” so good: each person interprets it differently, which is why this play is one of my favorite pieces of literature to discuss. 

Least favorite: “The Leavers” by Lisa Ko

Courtesy of Algonquin Books.

It’s been a year since I’ve read “The Leavers” and I’m still so conflicted on how I feel about this book. I wanted to love it, I really did. It has a great premise, comments on important social issues and is told in an interesting narrative style. But as I was reading the book, I found it to be boring and a bit disappointing because of the slow plot, annoying main character and forced symbolism. 

The story follows two people throughout their lives: Deming (who is renamed Daniel after he is adopted) and his mother Polly, who immigrated to America from China. The two were separated in Deming’s early childhood, and Deming was adopted by Peter and Kay, who are white college professors. The story alternates between Daniel and Polly’s perspectives to tell their respective stories and slowly weave their viewpoints together to reveal the truth behind Polly’s disappearance when Daniel was a little boy. 

I did enjoy the narrative style of the story, and thought it made for an emotional ending when their two stories converged. However, the majority of the plot moved incredibly slowly, and jumped backwards and forwards in time in a confusing way. One minute I would be reading about Daniel’s childhood and the next he’d be grown up playing music at a bar. I understand that these time jumps helped illustrate the separation, and eventual convergence, of Daniel’s two seemingly different identities. However, I thought they were not well executed and caused the story to feel confusing and disorganized.

Additionally, while I loved Polly as a character, I thought Daniel was one of the most annoying characters I’ve ever read about in a piece of literature, as he liked to complain and was ungrateful for all the things that his friends, mother and adopted parents had done for him. Finally, the symbolism in this book felt forced, as if it were trying to be the type of book that is analyzed in English class. For example, an important symbol in “The Leavers” is music, which could have been an impactful symbol if used sparingly. However, nearly every page mentioned music and it felt obvious that Ko was trying to use music as a symbol in the book. By mentioning this symbol too frequently and obviously, the symbolism felt forced and cheesy rather than an authentic, impactful addition to the book. Overall, while I loved elements of the story, such as the narrative style and Polly’s character, the majority of this book was disappointing, which is why this is my least favorite book I’ve read as part of the English curriculum at Marlborough. 

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