2018 Reading Challenge, Book 8

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The 158-Pound Marriage

I LOVE John Irving. He is legitimately one of my all-time favorite authors. But this book was a little too WTF for me to enjoy. To summarize, this is a novella about two married couples deciding to spice up their love lives and swing with one another. It’s really less about the slightly icky older married people sex and more so about the ramifications of physical and emotional affairs, even when one believes themselves to be going into it with eyes wide open. Lest you think me a prude, I was totally fine with the couples in the book doing their thang. The taught, sexy bits didn’t bother me, either. I guess the biggest question I had throughout the entire experience of reading this novel was just, why would you write about this topic in the first place? It seems like a really odd choice. Picture the worst relationship you ever had. Then picture writing a book about it–every grisly, emotionally charged detail. Then picture a bunch of strangers reading about it and judging you. It just seems….odd. What’s the main takeaway here?

Even more distracting than the topic of swinging gone awry was the underlying Batman and Robin vibe between the narrator and the other husband in the book. I often found myself wondering if the narrator was actually in love with Severin, and the whole thing was just a big, long, frustrating way to try (unsuccessfully) to be closer with him. Maybe I’m reading a little too much into his frustration and anger he feels toward Severin for ending the affair that seeps into the retelling of the story. The way I feel about this novel is probably the most confused I’ve felt after reading something in a long time. I didn’t really like it, and I’m not entirely sure I’m comfortable with the reasons WHY I didn’t like it.

The positive is that as always, John Irving is an amazingly talented writer who creates an entire world, rich with detail, that sucks you in. You always feel like these are real people that you know when you read his books. They are familiar enough to feel real, but just exotic enough to be entertaining. I could have done without the wrestling, but alas, it’s either bears or wrestling with Irving.

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2018 Reading Challenge, book 7

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The Devil and Miss Prym

Normally, I’m a huge Paulo Coelho fan. Like, HUGE. This novel just didn’t do it for me, though. It was just a little too….obvious. No subtlety. Very ham handed. It reminded me a lot of a C.S. Lewis novel, The Screwtape Letters, and that bothered me, too. I didn’t like the commentary from the narrator. I didn’t like any of the characters. The plot was super derivative. The moral of the story was a little stilted. Overall, just a big meh. Nothing close to what Coelho is capable of.

Plot wise, it’s a story about the quintessential battle between Good and Evil, complete with dueling Angels and Devils. Some ghosts are also present. A mysterious stranger comes to a small rural town to test his theory about man being good or evil by tempting the townspeople to break a commandment in return for several gold bricks. It’s a very quick read that shows the best and worst of humanity, but ultimately there can only be one winner–which will triumph, good or evil? I’ll let you discover for yourself.

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2018 Reading Challenge, books 2-6

 

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The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Years ago, I fell in love with Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It wasn’t until probably a year after finishing the novel that I stupidly realized it was an entire series. Luckily, around that time, I found a copy of the Ultimate Guide, which contains all five of the novels in the series–The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life, the Universe, and Everything, So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, and Mostly Harmless. Until this year, I didn’t really have time to go back and revisit this series, and it had been quite a while, so I decided to start over.

What a fun journey! I love Douglas Adams’ dorky sense of humor. Even though a lot of the physics and math and general “wibbly-wobbly, timey wimey” stuff goes right over my head at times, I couldn’t help but to laugh hysterically at most of the ridiculous capers the characters in these books get into. It’s never a dull moment with these folks, whether they are seconds away from being blown up, dealing with enamored robots, or trying to explain what tea is to an alien, it’s always funny and imaginative. If you’re looking for some good science fiction with a lot of comedy sprinkled in, this is the series for you!

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2018 Reading Challenge, Book 1

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Every so often, you come across a book that’s perfectly suited for the exact phase of life you are going through. When that happens, you identify so closely with the book that it feels like you’ve found your book soul mate. Interestingly, if you go back and revisit such a book years later, it can seem like a very different experience depending on how your life has changed over time. It can feel nostalgic, or silly, or so different from what you remember that it couldn’t possibly be the same. I have experienced this same phenomenon with old TV shows from my childhood. In the golden glow of memory, these shows remain the pillars of amazingness from my youth. But as an adult, watching with my adult experiences behind me, they seem so much less amazing than my memory held them.

I have the suspicion that Goodbye, Vitamin, is one such book. At this particular moment in my life, this book was so incredibly relatable that it could almost be about my life. As such, I responded to it in such a visceral way. I feel confident this is a novel anyone could enjoy, but for me personally, it was so spot on that I gave it a very high review. It really resonated with me. But even if it doesn’t resonate with you on the same levels, the writing is still fun and sharp and beautiful, and there will be something there for you, too.

Our narrator is recently jilted thirty year old Ruth. After spending most of her adult life with her fiancé Joel, even leaving college to keep the relationship going so he could pursue his medical education in another state, Ruth is left with only regret and a cold diamond ring lurking at the bottom of her purse when her fiancé decides to leave her for another woman. As Ruth looks back on the relationship, she looks back over her best years, now gone and spent on someone who ended up not being worthy of her. All that is left at the end of that road is regret and remorse for “wasting” her time and her youth on the wrong person. That sense of regret is something Ruth struggles with throughout the novel. Ultimately, like anyone in this predicament, she will have to come to terms with the failed relationship—will she let it be something that defines her as a failure? Will she be the sort of person to view her experiences as “wasted,” and dwell in negativity, or will she embrace the experience as something that, while ultimately not what she had hoped for, still ends up being a rich experience that taught her a lot about herself and about love? Can she allow herself to move forward with hope and the belief that love, though it may be short lasted, is never wasted? Never a mistake?

Ruth returns home to parse out these complicated questions, but she does so under the guise of helping her mother keep an eye on her ailing father. In reality, Ruth is in too fragile a state over her lost love to cope with the situation at home. Her father, a brilliant History professor, has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. When Ruth initially comes home for the holidays, everything appears normal on the surface. However, she starts to notice little cracks in her father’s behavior and memory. As Ruth works through the loss of her fiancé, she ultimately ends up sifting through her complicated relationship with the other man in her life—her father. Though he loved Ruth and was a great father to her, he had an affair with another woman, greatly hurting her mother, and he stopped attempting to hide his alcoholism when she left home, which really affected her younger brother. The decline of her father and the reaction to his deterioration by the rest of the family forcers her to deal with her memories of a perfect father and reconcile them with the reality of her mom and brother’s experiences.

Yet again, Ruth has to decide if a relationship must be good or bad—either a waste or worthwhile—or can it be both? Can her father have been a great father, but also be a terrible husband? In the difficulty of realizing a parent isn’t a superhero, but merely a fallible human being, Ruth is torn. This becomes increasingly difficult as her father begins to fall apart, becoming abusive and combative as he falls prey to the dementia invading his mind. For the second time in a year, she is forced to evaluate how she will let these important yet flawed relationships define her future and her sense of self. I personally felt that the novel end on a positive note, but I would be interested to see how other’s interpreted Ruth’s choices.

For me, this book was mostly about #adulting, a concept that I still struggle with on a daily basis at the age of 32. It’s about realizing that the quaint notions of this binary world that you had in your 20’s when life was easy breezy were laughably incorrect; it’s about owning up to the fact that the world is dark and scary and complicated, but also beautiful and hilarious and full of light, and that’s okay. It’s okay to hate it and love it at the same time. You can deeply regret a relationship but still see the value in what it taught you about yourself and about the types of relationships you want in your future. It’s okay to still have wonderful memories of your parents from childhood, and see their failures and shortcomings with adult eyes because now you know it doesn’t mean they loved you any less—they just did the best they could with what they had. The world was never was an either/or scenario, it just seemed that way, and waking up to that reality can be tough, but it also allows you to live (and love) more deeply.

On a personal note, this book resonated with me because I went through the exact same thing. I spent my 20’s married to a man that couldn’t love me the way I needed, and when he left me and I was alone and 30, I spent a lot of time being really angry—at him, and at myself—for wasting my best years. I spent a few years wallowing in sadness that I would never fall in love, or get to have babies, or buy a home, all because I had to start over again at 30. It was a really dark, depressing place. During this awful time, my parent suffered a heart attack and I had to really step up and start taking care of them. For the first time in my life, I was the “adult” and they were the “kid.” Seeing my parent in this new light forced me to deal with the issues in our previously strained relationship and re-evaluate my relationships as a whole. While it was a rough, dark, awful time, it was necessary, and I have come out the other side much better for it. Ultimately, I have decided that nothing was a waste—it all added to the person I am today, and I love that person. I like to believe that is where Ruth ends up, too.

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2018 Reading Challenge

Ok folks, I am writing this a bit late, but nonetheless, let’s get 2018 started with a bang! This year, I will be marrying the love of my life (insert gushy romantic interlude here) so I don’t have quite as much down time as I had in the past few years to focus on my reading challenge. The last few months of 2017 were quite challenging as I had to push through a lot of wedding planning, and I only anticipate this will become even more challenging as we get closer to the wedding date (which, in case you’re wondering, is 8.18.18!).

To keep it simple, this year my goal is to read as many of the unread books on my bookshelves as possible. The reason is twofold: practically speaking, we will probably be buying a home and moving in the near future. Lugging my hundreds of books around the last few moves was definitely not a fun task, so I promised my fiancé that I would stop book hoarding and start giving away books after I read them. Believe me when I say that it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do–my only real vice is hoarding cheap, used books–but I had a ridiculous amount in my little two bedroom apartment. So I did a few purges of books I read that I will probably never read again, and the more I give away, the easier it gets. There are a few shelves worth of favorites that I will keep, but everything else must go! Now I’m at the point where I have probably a hundred books left, and they are all unread ones (minus the few favorites I’m hanging on to). The second reason for this choice is just simple: I have a lot of really amazing books on my to-do list sitting on these shelves. No need to go out looking for them elsewhere until I get through these ones!

My game plan is to just go through the shelves as the spirit moves me and work through as many as I can before the end of the year. If nothing else, it will at least be fun!

 

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 52

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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?

 

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 51

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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?

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