An epistolary novel, Pamela, by Samuel Richardson (SPOILER ALERT)
One word to describe this novel–long. Wayyyyy too long. Pamela, the titular character, tells her story through a series of letters. Never ending letters. The premise of the story is the temptations that the virtuous Pamela faces and her reward for remaining true and good throughout the course of these events. However, I find this very problematic for one major reason.
The source of Pamela’s “temptations” is Mr. B—. He is the aristocratic son of Pamela’s former lady, whom she served as a maid. He becomes enthralled with her and unleashes a series of increasingly disgusting plots to make her his mistress. Pamela’s virtue protects her and eventually Mr. B— realizes that he loves her and will eschew society’s rules and marry her. This is where I really lost it as a modern day reader. SHE RETURNS THE LOVE FOR HIM AFTER HE KIDNAPS HER AND TRIES TO RAPE HER MULTIPLE TIMES. Stockholm syndrome much? I just couldn’t fathom why this character allows herself to be used in such a way. I would have made a shank and gut stabbed Mrs. Jewkes or pulled a Lorena Bobbit on Mr. B—. I guess Pamela is a product of her times–essentially the weak, flowery version of womanhood sold to the masses. Her “virtue” forces her to rely on others and allow herself to be used instead of fighting back. I found this book a disgusting, misogynistic attack on women. This book is encouraging women to be weak, allow others to do whatever they want to them, pray they will be saved, then forgive their abuser. What kind of a message does that send?
A book from the year you were born (1985), White Noise by Don DeLillo
This novel really surprised me. From reading the description, it didn’t seem like something I would be too interested in, which was why I saved it for the last few books of my challenge. I also had a very difficult time getting access to this book. I had to interlibrary loan because it doesn’t seem to be popular enough to be found in used bookstores or on the normal library shelf. I didn’t want to purchase the Kindle version because I don’t typically re-read a book, so I try to get most of my books from the library, either physical copies or through the library e-book system. Luckily, my library rocks, and I got the interlibrary loan copy rather quickly.
Immediately, I fell in love. I couldn’t stop reading. Delillo’s prose is beautifully crafted. His wit is spot-on. His characters are lovably flawed and they don’t take themselves too seriously which keeps them from being yuppie scum academics. DeLillo takes a fairly normal mixed family and places them in an abnormal scenario to examine how such cast of characters would respond to a large-scale crises. Death is the central theme of this tale, and ultimately DeLillo keeps us hanging at the end–is death something to be feared or embraced? Why not both?
A book about Christmas, The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans
If I had to describe this book in one word, it would be trite. This book is absolutely, one hundred percent pandering to the lowest common denominator. It cashes in on the tragedy and sadness of desperate people seeking meaning for the random, awful chaos in their lives. There are two kinds of Christmas books—those pertaining to what I consider the true meaning of Christmas: remembering your fellow humans and being kind and loving to them, even if they are strangers. Truly, we should embrace the spirit of Christmas all year, but Christmas serves to take us out of that selfish little rut we wedge ourselves into and it forces us to think outside ourselves, at least for a short season. Then there’s the second kind—the Jesus is the ‘reason for the season’ kind. Which, okay, technically, yes that is true, but as we become more secularized, more and more people are getting away from that mindset. This book is very much the second kind—the all roads lead to Jesus variety.
It’s a sappy story about a rich old white lady who lives alone in a mansion. She hires a family to take care of her and the property. She’s a super nice old lady, but the family can tell she’s got a past she isn’t talking about. When the family moves in, they are storing their things up in the attic and the narrator is digging through the woman’s things (a little messed up, but I digress) and he comes across an ornate carved box. He calls it the Christmas box because it has a nativity scene on the front. Since this guy apparently doesn’t believe in privacy, he opens the box, discovers letters, and decides to read them because he feels entitled to invade this lady’s privacy. He believes them to be love letters. Later, he starts dreaming about an angel. It all comes together in the end that this old lady suffered a terrible tragedy, and it taught her the “true meaning of Christmas,” i.e. Jesus is super great, etc.
I mean no disrespect to anyone who is Christian. However, speaking as an Atheist, this definitely wasn’t the book for me. I found it annoying and gimmicky and the absolute worst sort of hackneyed writing that exists in contemporary literature. It did not make me feel warm and fuzzy for the holiday. It annoyed me and made me feel attacked on multiple fronts—for being an atheist, not being appreciative enough of what truly matters (i.e. God sacrificing his ‘only son’ for me, etc.), and it also seemed like kind of a middle finger to single childless people. Another one of those YOUR LIFE HAS NOOOOO MEANING UNTIL YOU HAVE HAD A BABY AND FOUND JESUS. Insert Robert Downey Jr. eye roll.
Book 49, a book about magic, The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
I fell in love with Alice Hoffman’s books in high school, and I devoured as many of them as I could find. This period of my life was “pre-English major” and I enjoyed literature much differently. Back then, all I cared about was a good story that pulled me in. I had no idea what good writing was. I loved Alice Hoffman’s ability to weave magic into real-life in a way that was almost believable, even though it defied the laws of the natural world. She did it so expertly that I found it unnecessary to suspend my disbelief. Later, I learned that this is an entire genre called Magical Realism, and it is, to this day, one of my favorite genres. Alice Hoffman also excels at creating characters with serious depth. You feel very invested in their outcomes.
For this reason, specifically, The Rules of Magic was an excellent choice as it is a prequel to her novel Practical Magic. Quite possibly the best part of this novel is the fact that you get insight into the crazy aunts from her other book. She sheds more light on the intriguing Owens clan. That deep connection to the Owens family and their plight is what drives the reader forward. I would not say this Hoffman’s best work; it’s probably one of my least favorite books by her if we’re talking strictly style and storyline. However, the connection to Gilly, Sally and their Aunts Jett and Franny kept me intrigued. Her writing is, at times, a bit repetitive, a bit overdone, and the plot is a little derivative—you see what’s coming a mile away—but the journey getting there is quite fun.
Most likely, I cannot read Alice Hoffman’s work and enjoy it the way I did before I studied literature. I have mentioned before that it is very hard for me to read a book without a pen in my hand; the literary scholar in me wants to annotate, underline, and basically over-analyze/tear apart everything I read. I can’t simply read for enjoyment anymore, and that’s what Alice Hoffman’s writing is: something to just sit and read and enjoy. A story to get wrapped up in and escape reality for a little while. Is she the best writer ever? No. But she builds some very loveable and interesting worlds and characters, and it’s well worth the trip to her imaginary worlds from time to time.
An action story: The Last of Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
I have owned a copy of this novel for about five years. Every Fall, I get a weird motivation to read the book. Funnily enough, I have started the book about five times and never gotten past the first ten pages. After I fail to read it, I put it back on the shelf and dutifully feel the longing to give it another try the next year. I truly believed that if I could just get past the first few pages, I would be sucked into the story and love it. Sadly, this was not the case. Try as I might, I seriously could not get into this book. I even felt duly motivated because this year, I did part of my engagement photo shoot in the Moravian Cemetery where Chingachook is buried in real life! Look at how pretty it is!
I wanted so badly to just fall in love with the characters and this story, but I couldn’t. I don’t know if it was the archaic writing style (thee’s and thou’s, etc.), the annoying, overly-pious White Christian characters, or the one dimensional Native American characters. Maybe it was the untranslated French rife throughout. No matter how you slice it, I HATED THIS BOOK. It was by far one of the most boring novels I have ever read. For an action packed story about escaping some of the toughest, scariest Natives in the North East, it was surprisingly dull, annoyingly pious, and of course, as a product of its time, almost offensively racist in the depiction of the Natives. The way the Natives speak—in these prolonged, annoying metaphors—was quite awful. I am hard pressed to find one thing I liked, so I will just say that I’m happy to finally mark this as read and take it off my shelves.
A Gothic Horror Story, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
I’m naming The Castle of Otranto my ‘WTF Did I Just Read’ book of the year. Of course, I mean this in the best possible way. The story is just so absurd, you end going, “wtf did I just read?” Yet it is highly entertaining, even though at times, it becomes so heavy-handed it feels a bit cheesy. A little history about this novel—it is considered the first gothic novel. This novel shaped what we know today as the modern Gothic genre. Also, it may be loosely based on a real story (according to Wikipedia, there is a real Castle Otranto and similar events may have happened to one of its residents). The novel is quite short, so I recommend everyone reads its, if for nothing else to see the “originator of Gothic.” Plus, it’s kind of crazy and hilarious. I don’t feel that I can get into the plot without giving too much away, but suffice it to say, this should be on everyone’s to-read list.
A noir story, The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
Ah, Dashiell Hammett. I first met Dash in one of my graduate courses reading The Maltese Falcon. I think I became enamored with him more for his career as a detective before writing, and also the whole politic/blacklisting, than his writing, but nonetheless, I have continue to carry a flame for him all these years. He is considered the master of the hardboiled detective story, so if you’re into that genre, he is a must-read. For me, the plots become a little formulaic (as is the norm with these sorts of stories), but the narrator is pretty fun and it’s always a fun puzzle trying to solve the mystery before you get to the end. Usually, there’s at least one or two good curveballs I didn’t see coming, so he is never *too* predictable.
In this novel, our narrator is a retired private detective on vacation with his wife, enjoying lots of cocktails and parties in the Big Apple. One of his former acquaintance’s ex wives and children run into him, and gets embroiled in a very odd series of events. Our narrator is then in a race with the police to figure out what really happened before any further incidents occur. Hammett is, as always, a quick but entertaining read.