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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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 40

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A book set in your favorite historical period, Enemy at the Gates, by William Craig

I have my grandfather’s original copy of this book, which was a huge motivator for me to read it. Plus, I love anything having to do with World War II history. Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad is a non-fiction collection of interviews Craig conducted turned into a loose narrative outlining this critical battle. Historically, the Battle for Stalingrad triggered the end of the War for the Germans. Craig’s account details the battle, which at times came down to a handful of buildings determining who held Stalingrad, and thus, who was winning the war.

For my taste, this wasn’t a terribly enjoyable read because it was very much a detailed account of the battle strategies employed by both sides of the war. Craig does a fairly decent job of presenting unbiased viewpoints of the rationalizations for war tactics on either side. However, I just don’t particularly find this information interesting or useful. I am more interested in the human factor of the war, not the stratagems. Craig does pepper in several narrative points throughout this book of the horrible sights, sounds, and experiences of the people involved, but it largely focuses on an objective strategic overview. Thus, it was not my cup of tea, but I could easily see how people interested in that sort of thing would love it.

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 39

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A book that makes you cry, The Light of Fireflies, by Paul Pen

Based on the description of this novel, I really thought this was going to be one of those great allegorical books that changes your life and makes you ugly cry with a moving, sentimental ending. I was envisioning magical realism, a la Pan’s Labyrinth or a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, sprinkled with Emma Donoghue’s Room. What this book really was? Me going what the hell did I just read?! upon completionI really don’t even know where to start with this one. I don’t know how to tag it. I can’t even think how to begin describing it without ruining the whole thing. Here goes…

As you have probably read from the book jacket, the story is told from the first person point of view of a little boy who lives in a basement with his family, all of whom are (mysteriously) horrifically burned. The little boy has grown up in the dark, dank basement which is as shrouded in mysteries as it is in darkness. You think in the beginning that this some amazing metaphor, loaded with meaning that is skewed by the perspective of a child…but really it’s just a mystery novel with some plot twists that become pretty predictable as you’re reading along. There wasn’t a “grand meaning” behind any of it. It was mostly just a really weird mystery novel. Like, super weird choices made by this author. Read on if you dare.

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 38

 

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A banned book, The Monk, by Matthew Lewis

I chose this book because I was intrigued by the description. I have to admit, I thought it was going to be scandalous, like Marquis de Sade level scandal. I confess myself disappointed. I would rank The Monk on the upper middle level of the scandal scale, albeit back when it was written, I’m sure it was much more shocking. We have become immune to the sex scandals of the Catholic Church in recent years. If anything, this novel is trying so hard to be shocking that it’s kind of funny, and can be appreciated as such. Sort of like a scary movie that is trying really hard to terrify you, but is coming off as quite corny instead.

The Monk is the story of a young man revered throughout the land for his capacity as a holy Man. Set in Spain, a devoutly Catholic country, the Monk holds great power over the people. He is known far and wide for his obedience and fervor for the Catholic faith, and is held as the example to which all good Catholics should aspire. Sadly, like many men of power before (and after) him, he lets this go to his head, and ends up making some really horrible decisions. Like, Oedipus level bad choices.

Full to the brim of scandal–murder, rape, incest, devil worship? (that part gets admittedly quite weird–I’m pretty sure Satan actually appears and carries him off at the end?)–so much I can’t even begin to list it here, nor will I, because it will spoil the fun. Something so bad, it’s actually kind of good. You will see every twist coming a mile away (ok, except maybe the Satan spoiler) but it will be super fun, in a weird way.

I’m sure in its time, this was meant to be a scathing commentary on Catholicism, but with Secularism on the rise (coupled with the Catholic church’s recent penchant for scandal), it’s more just ridiculously over the top shock jock to modern readers. Sadly, none of us are really that shocked at the premise of a creepy, rapey priest anymore.

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 37

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A book written by a female, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

I am super excited to have read my first ever George Eliot novel! She has long been on my shelf, but I never got around to her work. I am so happy that has been amended. I knew from the second I started reading that I was going to love her work. Any lover of free-spirited, intelligent, deeply flawed women is going to love this novel, too. Our heroine, Maggie Tulliver, is both wonderful and wonderfully annoying. You will love her sense of humor, her intelligence, and her independent will. You will be annoyed to no end by her co-dependance on her family–particularly her total asshole of a brother, Tom. Lastly, you will enjoy this book if you have lots of family drama–and let’s be real, who doesn’t? It’s a little bit Romeo & Juliet, mixed with a Thomas Hardy vibe–you’ve got the clashing families and forbidden love wrapped up with the weird love triangles of Hardy, with the profound level of tragedy present in both. You will love Maggie, but at the same time, you will be endlessly frustrated with her. To me, that’s the mark of an excellent writer–Maggie is not one-dimensional; she is flawed just as if she were a real person.

Eliot is definitely writing for the ladies, here, and by that I mean, she perfectly encapsulates the struggle that most women endure–finding the balance between being who you are with who society wants you to be. It’s easy to say one doesn’t care much about society in the larger sense–but in the sense of family, friends, co-workers, etc., we do care very much about compartmentalizing ourselves into what is expected of us as daughters, wives, mothers, and women. This is a very modern struggle for women–which is a bit sad considering how long ago this novel was written. One would hope that things would change, but alas, we are still finding ourselves at the mercy of the Tom Tullivers of the world. It’s beautiful how Eliot depicts the ridiculous hypocrisy between the way we treat men and women–from childhood through adulthood. We see selfish, flawed, irrational Tom, who is allowed to fully engage in his horrible, biased, imperfect nature and be not only tolerated, but praised for his flaws, verses the kind, loving Maggie who is consistently punished for aspiring to treat others with gentleness and kindness, even those who are deemed her enemies. Maggie does not blindly follow what she is told, but rather empathizes with others and tries to see the balanced view, and for this, she is condemned. It’s a stunning portrait on gender inequality and makes a resounding statement that still resonates in the modern world.

 

 

 

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