2017 Reading Challenge, Book 31

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A book set in a place you’d visit, A Town like Alice, by Neville Shute

Back in high school, I read Neville Shute’s novel On the Beach. It has haunted me ever since—literally, it haunted my dreams,—it gave me horrific apocalyptic nightmares for years. To this day, it remains on my favorites list; it was terrifying because it was so well written and realistic, which is why I adore it despite the fact that it scared the crap out of me. Due to my immense love for Shute’s work, I bought a copy of A Town like Alice years ago and promised I’d revisit Shute’s work at some point. It seemed like a great opportunity to sneak this into my reading challenge under a book that takes place somewhere I’d like to visit. I have always wanted to visit Australia, so it was very fun to take an imaginary journey there through this piece of fiction.

Important to note: Shute uses a true story as the basis for the central plotline. In real life, a group of about 80 Dutch civilian women and children living in Sumatra were taken prisoner by Japanese forces in the 1942. At a loss for what to do with these women, the Japanese forced them to walk for two years from one end of the country to the other in search of a non-existent female prison camp. Many died along the way. In later years, the validity of this account has come into question—the Shute foundation claims he was mistaken, and the women were not forced to walk, but were transported. Either way, it’s a fascinating story. In my edition, Shute leaves a note to readers that he met one of the surviving women from this group, and while he had never before based his fiction on real people, he never met someone as courageous and inspiring as this woman, so he felt compelled to (sort-of) tell her story.

Shute chooses Noel Strachan, solicitor and Trustee of our main character, to narrate the tale. Our main character is the 30 something Miss Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman recently repatriated to England after surviving the war in Malaysia as a Japanese POW. Noel describes the process of creating a trust for one of his clients, a distant relative of Jean’s, which upon the death of Jean’s mother and brother during the war leaves the trust entirely to her. Suddenly finding herself wealthy beyond her imagination, Jean must consider what to do with her future. She decides to use part of her inheritance to return to the village in Malaya where she lived out the war years in peace after a grueling two-year death march around the country. She hopes in some small way to repay the villagers for their kindness, which led to her survival, by drilling a well for them. This leads her to divulge the harrowing tale to her trustee, and he to readers as he recounts her story. This aspect of the novel alone is fascinating and would be plenty enough to sustain the novel on its own. In fact, I’ve read several reviews where readers feel this should have been the story in its entirety. But I disagree—I enjoyed the second wind of this novel just as much as the first.

After recounting her tragic war years, Jean returns to Malaysia to dig the well. While there, she receives a shock. During the war, a young Australian POW helped the party of women survive by stealing food for them. The Japanese caught and tortured him in front of the women to prove a point, and the party of surviving women believed him to be dead. Upon her return to the village, however, Jean discovers that he survived and is living in Australia. This sparks an interest within her to find this man, Joe Harman, and reconnect with him to express her gratitude and sorrow over the torture he received at her expense. In an interesting twist of fate, around the same time, Joe discovers that Jean is an unmarried woman—he had hidden his love for her, even from himself, whilst under the assumption she was married. Once he discovered she was single, he decided he needed to reconnect with her and if possible, marry her. The conclusion of the story is the resolution between these two objects of fate, and the affects their love will have upon a small, rural outpost in the Australian outpost.

The novel is beautifully written throughout and will leave you sad when you reach the end—rather like saying goodbye to an old friend. Shute manages to incorporate it all—history, love, and economics—and create a beautiful and intriguing story of the power of the human will.

 

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 30

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A popular author’s first book, Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

Am I the only one around here who doesn’t apparently live in a 1950’s fantasy that the world is a wholesome place where nobody swears, has ill thoughts, or engages in misdeeds? After reading some of the reviews on Goodreads, I am shocked by how many people are so offended by “bad language” in literature that they felt necessary to put a disclaimer about it in their reviews. The point of literature, and all art, really, isn’t to avoid offense. It’s the exact opposite! Art is supposed to rip you from your comfortable little bubble and shove your face into the gritty reality that you spend so much time avoiding. It doesn’t gloss over the cracks and seediness of humanity; it revels in them. Art is supposed to jar us from our steady stream of routine disillusionment. It wakes us up, it makes alive, it allows us to empathize and become better humans. In my opinion, that is what differentiates “literature” from “books.” If that is what you’re looking for, then you will find that and more in Trainspotting. If you want to cuddle up with a warm novel that will help you avoid reality and warm your little heart, then this isn’t the story for you. Go read Nicholas Sparks or something.

The things that made this novel amazing:

The use of dialect. You will see this in just about every review. Welsh writes in a steady stream of Scottish dialect, which for most of us is a challenge. You almost have to read certain parts aloud, stop and re-read sections, and really pay attention to the context of the sentences to figure out what the hell the characters are saying most of the time. After a while, you will start to pick it up and things will go along more smoothly, but make no bones about it—this will test even the most stalwart of readers. However, for my fellow linguists out there, this also gives the novel its charm and makes it a real treat. There are some laugh-out-loud moments from the language the characters use, not to mention the crazy antics they get into. By giving these characters the use of their own slang and dialect, Welsh provides a level of authenticity that would otherwise be lost. The dialect also serves to reinforce the sense of camaraderie and community that this particular crew—the dregs of humanity—shares, despite the often horrific nature of their lives. It is a unique marker that makes them “one of the group,” for better or for worse.

Shifting narrative perspectives. You can essentially view this novel as a series of short stories, told from different characters’ points of view, and from different narrative points of view (first person, third person, etc.). Each story or chapter hangs together with the others on the narrative through-line of drug use (in this case, heroin). We see the varying stages of addiction—in the throws of the drug, in the sickness of withdrawal, shining recovery, and then ultimately, the relapse. While issues of addiction take center stage in this novel, there is a shadow narrative throughout. The true theme is less about the drugs and more about a class of people that society has given up on–poor people, uneducated people, people at the end of their rope and without the means to better their lives in any real way. The characters at the heart of this story are people who have nothing left to lose, which makes them dangerous but also somewhat free in a way that many of us aren’t. The grittiness of the novel isn’t about the drugs, but about the ways we treat fellow human beings that drive them to such desperation in the first place. This underlying theme is beautifully executed in large part to the choice of narrative structure on Welsh’s part. Through these beautifully rendered tidbits, we see the internal monologue of desperate human beings navigating a world that wants to pretend they don’t exist, and how that blindness to their true plight leads them down desperate avenues.

Morally bankrupt characters that are still weirdly likeable. No doubt about it, these people are the worst of humanity imagined into very solid, well-rounded characters–druggies, prostitutes, and violent sociopaths. You will watch them get into some truly hideous, gasp-inducing debauchery. They do things that will elicit shock from even the most jaded amongst us. You will be utterly revolted by the things these people do, and yet…there’s a weirdly likeable side to them, even at their worst. Particularly when you’re privy to the inner monologue, the ‘why’ behind their actions. It’s a fascinating look into the worst of humanity, and the scariest part of all may be when you find yourself empathizing with some of the things they think, feel, and say. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that “There but for the grace of God go I.”

This is definitely a MUST READ. Just give yourself plenty of time and space to navigate the language.

 

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 29

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A recommended book, Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

“All that succession and repetition of massed humanity…Those vile bodies…”

Vile Bodies has been on my to-read list for a long time, so I feel very privileged to have the time to read it at last. It was a different flavor from my normal reads, and I can say that though different, it was a pleasurable experience. While the overall tone and ultimate ending were not particularly uplifting, I felt the point Waugh was trying to make came through in the style and I was impressed with the way he used his writing style to convey the hopelessness of this lost generation.

Our story focuses upon the anti-hero Adam Fenwick-Synes. Adam is a talented writer with ambitions to marry his socialite girlfriend, Nina, but he is always broke and she refuses to marry him unless he makes something of himself. Since being a novelist doesn’t seem to pan out for him, Adam takes on the mantle of a gossip columnist to fix his monetary situation, but to no avail. The plot line follows Adam through a series of fragmented, drunken, and carefree episodes at high society gatherings. All of these endeavors dissolve into nothing and fizzle out with Adam drinking himself into oblivion before moving on to the next caper. As the novel progresses, fate strikes down each of the characters with increasingly negative outcomes, but they all seem shockingly unconcerned. In the end, Adam loses his love, and we are left in the final scene with Adam on the battlefront of the next Great War. The battlefield is desolate around him as he reads a letter from Nina, his former love, describing her comfortable life with her rich husband and a baby on the way. True to form, Adam unconcernedly tucks the letter into his pocket and stumbles around the battlefield until he finds someone with a bottle of booze. They get smashed and as the final scene fades out, the sounds of battle are becoming louder and moving closer.

The tone of the novel is what I find the most interesting. The characters are very blasé about life—they are quite disillusioned and live from one shenanigan to the next. They never seem troubled by anything, be it lack of money, physical danger to themselves or others, social ostracizing, etc. Their reactions to tragedy are dulled to an extreme point—for example, when their friend commits suicide, nobody bats an eye. In fact, Adam picks up his fallen friend’s job and his untimely demise is quite forgotten. Or when Adam’s friend Agatha crashes the race car and is hospitalized, rather than feel sadness or worry, they continue on as normal. In Agatha’s case, they even throw a  huge party that causes her to become even sicker and eventually she dies as a result of the party they throw. The only thing they seem afraid of, in all honesty, is boredom. This suggests that we are all, as the title suggests, just a pile of vile bodies occupying space until our time is up. Again, this Nihilistic viewpoint of the world isn’t very uplifting, but it expresses that feeling of hopelessness the generation of young people who lived after World War I and saw the impending start of World War II couldn’t help but feel. In the face of all that death and loss, how could that generation feel anything else?

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 28

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A book with a number in the title, One Plus One, Jojo Moyes

I can summarize my feelings about this book into a single word: disappointed. Coming off the coattails of the amazing, poignant Me Before You, I expected a great deal more from Moyes than what I got here. The plot of this novel was formulaic; like every other romcom before it, One plus One relied on your typical girl and boy hate each other, fall in love, but then realize there’s something crappy one of them did before the love part so they break up, but then eventually fall back together storyline. What a tired trope. The only redeeming aspect of this story is the characters. Moyes is wonderful at creating and fleshing out solid, three-dimensional characters. In particular, she hones in very well on lower-middle class families struggling to make ends meet. They are believable, likeable, and relatable to most people reading the story. Sadly, the characters and the often-witty repartee between them are wasted on such a derivative plot. The realistic struggle of a single mother doing her best to scrape together a life for her two children was poignant, but again, underscored by the predictability of the plot. Also, I’m not a huge fan of a story where a woman must rely on a man to save her—and this most certainly is that type of story. Chick lit at its worst, I am afraid to say. Save yourself the trouble and skip this one.

 

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 27

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A book at least 500 pages long, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Confession time: I actually listened to this book on audio disk; I did not read it in the traditional sense. Normally, this feels a little like cheating to me, but in this case, I am so glad that I made the choice to listen instead of read. I never would have been able to “hear” the amazing different accents in my mind. Listening to the person reading the story was amazing—she nailed the different English, Scottish, and even French accents that made it such a better, richer experience. I actually do recommend this as an audio over a traditional approach—something I don’t think I’ve ever said!

I obviously chose this book for my challenge because of its length, but there are plenty of long books to choose from, so why this one? I have heard from so many people that this is an excellent book, and while it definitely veers quite strictly out of my normal reading comfort zone, I thought maybe that is a good thing sometimes. Occasionally, you need to challenge yourself by trying something you normally wouldn’t read, and in my case, I was very pleasantly surprised. You’re probably thinking, why would this be considered “out of your comfort zone.” I don’t typically enjoy popular fiction, a la the Nicholas Sparks novels of the world. While they may have those great, tearjerker storylines that the masses clamor for, I generally find the writing to be quite awful. I don’t mean to sound snobby here, because believe me, I am by no means an elitist about anything in life, but the fact that I have a Master’s degree in English does make me feel like I do know a thing or two about good literature. I have studied the best authors in the history of the literary tradition. It’s hard to study the masters and then read something written by Jodi Piccoult or Mitch Albom. No matter how much I may wish I could just enjoy a nice story, my English major brain always analyzes the writing style and finds most of these “pop fiction” writers to be lacking. I don’t feel fulfilled. It’s like a film critic watching the Jersey Shore. No offense to people who like that level of entertainment—it serves a very real need/purpose, but it’s just not my thing. I’d much rather read a classic or something the average bear wouldn’t be interested in. But like everything in life, there are always exceptions. I am learning to give more books a chance rather than rule them out because of my assumptions about the writer, and usually I am rewarded. Usually.

I was hesitant about Outlander for several reasons outside of its popularity amongst the masses. I don’t typically go for Romances, and this struck me as one of the bodice-ripping variety. I also don’t usually enjoy science fiction unless it’s really GOOD science fiction, like a Bradbury or an Asimov. I know, I sound like a snob. Stick with me. This book also falls under the Historical Fiction genre, another with the potential to be a real snoozer for me personally, depending on the time (and 1700s Scotland definitely wouldn’t be my go-to historical epoch). The fact that Outlander embraces the traditions of several literary genres is actually a huge undertaking, and if done by a less talented writer, it would have been a disaster. For all of these reasons, I was very hesitant about attempting to read the book, but thankfully I took the leap. Gabaldon masterfully interweaves the history of recently post World War II English folks vacationing in Scotland with the brutal history of 1700s Scotland. She does great justice to maintaining historical accuracy down to every detail and artfully juxtaposes the vast differences of the two periods through the narration of our heroine Claire, a time travelling nurse who suddenly finds herself transported backward nearly 300 years into the past. I also felt that the author spread out the Romance parts enough—I hate the awkward sex scenes in most Romance novels. This book does have quite a lot of sex, but it’s intermixed with the other bits, so it doesn’t become too overwhelming. Then of course, we have the mystical/Pagan/magical side of things that the author addresses but does not fully explore in this first installation of the series. So there you have it—Outlander is a lot of things, and it does each of those things quite well.

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 26

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A book at least 100 years old, The Golden Ass by Apuleius

I feel like I’m really failing here with the ancient literature, but I just couldn’t even finish this one. I got about a quarter of the way into it, realized I was miserable, and made the executive decision to abandon ship. I almost never do that, but last year taught me that life is just too short to continue reading a book you don’t like. You may be asking where I even came up with the idea to read this book. I am a fan of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, and I have been working my way through that volume for years. I try to pick a few books from each section on the list for each year’s challenge. This one was free on my Kindle thanks to it being pre-copyright laws, so I added it to the list.

Honestly, a different edition may have been a better choice. The free Kindle edition I got had the “old spellings” of words as this was written before prescriptive grammar rules were applicable. That made it super difficult to read. It felt almost like translating from a foreign language at times. This issue coupled with another narrative that seemed to be a bunch of short stories put together for no apparent reason made this just too much for me to stick with. I never even made it to the main narrative thread—the numerous side stories building up the history (I think that’s what was going on?) lost me before I ever made it to the main part. Sadly, I think the “greatness” of this one is lost on me. I just don’t get the appeal. Perhaps someday with a different edition I will change my mind. Until then, I’m considering this one done and over!

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 25

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A translated book, Metamorphoses by Ovid

As a young girl, I used to love reading about Greek mythology. The different Gods and Goddesses, and all of the tales of mayhem, tricksters, and romance fascinated me. Even when I was well past sandbox age, I remember constructing a giant lump of sand to be Mount Olympus, and my friends and I would sit around acting out the parts of different Goddesses during recess breaks. As I grew older, I loved reading ancient Greek literature. I never formally studied it (outside of Homer’s The Odyssey) but I am a self-taught lover of ancient mythology and lore. That’s why I snagged a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses years ago at a used bookstore and have been waiting for so long to have the time to read it. After such a long buildup, I was so disappointed to find that I didn’t really enjoy this book at all.

Metamorphoses is a narrative poem in fifteen books and it describes the history of the world from creation up through Caesar. In essence, it is an anthology of Greek and Roman Mythology, containing over fifty stories. Theoretically, this should be awesome, but the reality of trying to cram it into a week (this is on me, I know) made it very un-awesome. There was just too much going on. As soon as I’d get really interested in one story, suddenly it had somehow bled into the next with seemingly little to no segue. This caused everything to become jumbled and confused in my mind and made it very hard to enjoy the narrative progression. There’s just a little too much “going on.” It’s not a traditional beginning-middle-end but rather a long procession of short stories somehow threaded together. I guess that’s the area I had issue with—how they are framed together. The answer (in my opinion) is that they really aren’t, which is confusing for the reader.

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