2017 Reading Challenge, Book 47

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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.

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 46

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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.

 

 

 

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Reading Challenge 2017, Book 45

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A book of short stories, Everything that Rises must Converge by Flannery O’Connor

In general, I am not a short story gal. I love a good novel that I can really sink my teeth into. Flannery O’Connor, however, is the exception to my rule. Something about her writing is just so intoxicating. Even in a short story format, it’s so rich and fulfilling. You feel as though you’ve plumbed the depths of her characters and their stories despite the brief length. To me, that marks an extremely talented writer.

I know that most people focus upon the Christian elements in O’Connor’s writing, which to be fair, are quite prevalent throughout all of the stories in this collection. However, the thing that struck me is the way she writes mothers. In nearly every story, there is a male narrator dealing, to some degree, with a well-meaning but overbearing (often racist/bigoted) white mother (or, in my favorite story, an overbearing wife). The father is almost always deceased or out of the picture–tapping into some autobiographical similarities with O’Conner herself, whose father died when she was young. I found the dynamic between the narrator and their mothers fascinating and quite telling. I also feel that the mothers represented the “Old South” and the narrators were the new breed of “liberal Southerner” trying to find a new way. The two are consistently at odds, and neither ever really “wins” in terms of the conflict. The fact that so many of her narrators are males also intrigues me–I’m not sure why, but it merits further thinking. O’Conner’s settings are also quite endearing–beautiful rural farmland, small town America–it evokes a nostalgia for a “better time” that perhaps, as O’Conner seems to suggest, never truly existed. Maybe this is her overarching theme in this collection.

Regardless of your intentions–be they scholarly interest or pure entertainment–O’Conner will not disappoint. Her characters are wonderfully, scandalously flawed, and entirely real in their shortcomings. The racial issues she takes to task are still completely relevant to today’s reader–some would argue maybe even more so. Whatever you take away from this collection, and believe me, there is a lot, you will be satisfied.

 

 

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 44

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A book with non-human characters, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

One dark, misty evening, a man walks through a home with a long knife dripping in blood. The bodies of the three victims lie where he left them, but he continues onward looking for the last member of the slain family–a toddler. Unfortunately for him, the toddler is the adventurous sort and managed to crawl out of his crib and toddle up the lane to the local graveyard. In the middle of the night, the graveyard is inhabited by all manner of creatures–ghosts, ghouls, demons, and things so ancient the other creatures don’t even know what they are called. This interesting microcosm of undead critters makes a group decision to keep the toddler, protect him, and raise him as one of their own. Admittedly, this will be a difficult task, but it’s one they feel destined to undertake.

Nobody Owens, as the graveyard folk name him, grows up in the most unconventional of ways possible. His home, school, and playground is the consecrated ground of the cemetery–the only place his adoptive family can protect him. He learns the non-human tricks of blending in, moving like a shadow, and disappearing in order to remain off the radar of the human world. Yet, like all children, Nobody becomes more inquisitive and thirsty for knowledge of the outside world as he ages. Soon he longs to venture out into the world, much to the anxiety of his adoptive graveyard family.

This story is the adventures of Nobody Owens, child of the graveyard, as he ventures out to greet his destiny. As his place in the universe unfolds through a mysterious series of events, you can’t help but cheer him on. Above all else, this story demonstrates that love does, in fact, surpass the limitations of life and death. It is an eternal and improbable force to be reckoned with.

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 43

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A book by an author you love, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an excellent October read—it is perfect to get you into the Halloween mood. It is a blend of nostalgic childhood nightmares entwined with beautifully crafted magical realism. In Gaiman’s talented hands, it feels as natural as breathing and as profoundly horrifying as falling into a nightmare. For me, this novel had the same creepy factor as Coraline— that awful feeling of being a child who is trapped and unable to save yourself or your parents from some unimaginable horror. Gaiman taps into this visceral feeling so masterfully, it takes me back to that place from my childhood in an instant. I hated feeling powerless to stop things that I knew were wrong or bad, and to have adults not believe me when I told them that impossible things were, indeed, happening. Tapping back into that powerlessness is a raw and horrifying experience beyond any other nightmarish ghouls a writer can think up because it taps into real nightmares–the true terrors of my past, long hidden in a deep closet within the deepest spaces of my mind. This gives Gaiman’s writing real power in my opinion. To reduce a reader to that small, terrifying space in just a stroke of a pen—well, no other writer has been able to accomplish that for me. It’s an extremely uncomfortable feeling, but it is still genius to have that ability. True art should make us uncomfortable; it should hold up that mirror and force you to look at the ugly parts. Coming face to face with your own inner demons is probably the scariest thing for an adult, and this novel definitely made me squirm.

In this novel, Gaiman’s adult protagonist visits home for a family funeral. He travels down the lane where his old house used to stand, and continues down to the end of the lane where he encounters an old farm. When he gets out of the car, memories of his childhood flood back—slowly at first, then rushing, like the titular ocean. A fantastic yet oddly believable story about magic and terrifying creatures unfolds as the narrator recounts the tale about the girl who lived by the ocean at the end of the lane. In true Neil Gaiman style, you will be swept up into this narrative until the gripping, tragic conclusion. 

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 41

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A memoir: Running with Scissors, Augusten Burroughs

Really the best way I can describe the first installment of Augusten Burroughs’ autobiography is this: it reads like a David Sedaris book with an extremely dark edge to the humor. Where Sedaris’ writing is just straight up, laugh out loud funny in its honesty and the use of observational humor that preys upon the awkwardness of both Sedaris and the reader, Burroughs is more like an, ‘I have also survived some messed up shit so I find this funny in a really effed up sort of way’ humor. I am sure it’s not for everyone, but for those of us who also had a shocking, outrageous childhood, this is like cuddling up with a friend who truly just ‘gets it.’ It feels comfortable and familiar in a weird sort of way.

Buckle yourself in and prepare for the wild ride of Burroughs’ early years. Strapped with a psychotic poetess mother and an uncaring, alcoholic father, Augusten was doomed to the life of a (semi) dysfunctional writer. Throw in being turned over to his mother’s psychiatrist, and it’s a wonder that Augusten, like many of us, made it out of childhood alive and even remotely sane. His writing is intoxicating, dark, and hilarious. You will be sad when you reach the end.

 

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 42

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A book written by someone younger than 30, Evelina by Fanny Burney

This book made its way onto my 2017 challenge out of pure fan girl holdover from graduate school. I registered late my first semester of school and missed out on the literature elective that year. I had to take a class about the theories of the foundational documents of the US and where the founders drew their inspiration. It was actually a really amazing class, but at the time I was very disappointed to miss out on the literature elective, and I tried to read along with the students on my own time. I wanted to be able to participate in the discussions that leaked into our classes from the literature they were exploring. Evelina was on the list, and sadly, I never got around to reading it before school ended. This year, I finally carved out some time to explore it, and boy, was I disappointed…

Maybe it was a timing thing. I was smack in the middle of this when I got engaged, then a few days later I flew to Seattle for a week-long vacation. In my engagement glow, I had no time or thoughts for reading, and while I had big plans to finish this book on vacation, I just couldn’t get into it once I had put it down. This was back in August. I tried so many times to finish it, but the longer I waited, the less able I was to pursue it. By sheer force of will, I managed to finish, but it was a struggle. I own that this one may be on me due to all the fun things going on in my life, but it’s also partly Burney’s fault as a writer, and here’s why.

Too damn long. I read this on my Kindle, so I don’t know how long it actually was, but it felt TOO DAMN LONG. Like, endlessly long. Like how am I still only 45% done and I have been reading this for ten years long. Ok, not really but you get my drift. What a snoozefest. I am sure this was the style back then, but it really dragged, particularly about halfway through. If she had condensed some of the plot and characters, it would have been a far better novel. Which leads me to my next point.

Too damn convoluted. There are so many characters, it’s almost impossible to keep things straight, especially when you continually pick the book up and put it down. About halfway through the plot because so convoluted with all of these characters and love triangles and subplots, as a reader I just couldn’t be invested enough in any one thing to stick with the book. I just felt like, why do I care? About any of this? If things had been a little simplified, less farcical, maybe it would have resonated with me on a deeper level. I’m sure this says more about me as a modern reader than Fanny Burney’s writing style, but hey, you’re reading my review, so there.

To summarize, I was disappointed. I had placed this book on a pedestal for so many years and in the end, it was like a poor man’s Jane Austen for me. And between you and I, I absolutely hate Jane Austen’s writing, so that is probably one of the meanest things I can say about a book.

 

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