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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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 24

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A book you read based on its cover, The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

Set in South Africa, this novel artfully serves as a blunt, unrestrained examination of racial relations between the native Black majority and the White ruling class. Lessing pulls no punches as she unflinchingly peels back the polite veneer of racism to portray the seething, awful thought process that pervades this society and substantiates its racial inequities. Lessing exposes readers to the insidiousness of racist ideology and aids us in gaining a better understanding of how such systemic inequality not only takes root but also flourishes, even in a nation where the oppressed group is the majority. Using an omniscient narrator, Lessing adeptly reveals the hateful, ugly thoughts of the White farmers and their inherently biased views of Black laborers. We are privy to the breakdown in language as well as culture that serves to exacerbate the issue and fuel the elitist ideology that represses the laboring class.

Lessing also uses this novel as an opportunity to comment upon rampant sexism against women. Mary, our heroine, for lack of a better term, is a bright, industrious, happy young woman. She is completely self-reliant and happy to be on her own until one day, she overhears her “friends” making comments about how ‘ridiculous’ she looks, how others laugh at her for being her age and unmarried, and how they wonder what is wrong with her and why she doesn’t see how hilarious she is by dressing and acting younger than she is. These comments devastate Mary and turn her into a needy, self-conscious shell of her former self (thanks a lot, male gaze!). She decides to marry because “other people want her to,” not because of any real desire to do so or love for another person. She marries an unsuccessful farmer named Dick, and this is where her story takes a tragic turn. She moves to the farm and has nothing to occupy her days. Her husband expects her to be a “spoiled wife” satisfied with running a household. Like countless independent women before her, Mary is so bored and lacking direction that she begins to hate everyone and everything. She takes out her anger on Dick and the Black servants/farm hands. We watch her self-destruct and mentally unravel throughout the course of the novel until her untimely end. While I would argue the novel’s focus is foremost on the racial relationships in South Africa, it also contains within it the shadow narrative of how the male gaze and sexist institutions destroy women.

The novel opens with the murder of a white woman—Mary—and the crime presumably committed by one of the native ranch workers. However, circumstances are more than a little suspicious; when the Black police arrive, the worker comes out from behind a bush and simply says, “I am here,” which is taken as an admission of guilt. But is it really? When the White police arrive, they are disgusted to find Mary and don’t bother to hide their feelings. They blame the victim for getting murdered—it was her own fault for having a sexual relationship with someone outside of her caste. It’s unclear whether this is a fact or a rumor but nevertheless, the police don’t take the murder seriously. Mary’s husband is driven mad by the series of events and is taken away by the police. The story then circles back to the beginning and we see Mary’s life and  the subsequent events that lead up to her murder. As we watch Mary’s descent into madness and the actions that lead to her death, Lessing artfully highlights the racist and sexist paradigms that lead people to such horrific outcomes, making a poignant statement through this tragic tale. This novel is definitely a must-read.

 

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 23

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A book with a one word title, Plainsong by Kent Haruf

At its core, Plainsong is a series of vignettes portraying the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of small town living. Readers are privy to the thoughts and actions of several characters thanks to a shifting narrative perspective that shores up the interconnectedness of small-town life. We see a cast of characters that individually appear to have nothing in common, but when viewed as a whole, we see how their stories intertwine and overlap as it only can in a small town. These folks are simple, with simple ideas, but at times, they are able to recognize the complexity of their world, and they rise or fail to meet these challenges and support one another.

Our cast of characters includes Guthrie, local high school history teacher and his two young boys. At the outset of the story, Guthrie’s wife is severely depressed and in the process of leaving him and the children. We see his and the children’s points of view several times throughout the story. The other main protagonist is pregnant high school student Victoria Robadeaux, disowned by her own mother due to the unexpected pregnancy. Victoria seeks shelter and assistance from Mrs. Jones, another teacher, who has a love interest in Guthrie. Mrs. Jones initially attempts to care for Victoria, but she ends up moving her in with the elderly brothers who are friends of both she and Guthrie.

While the novel’s content is mainly uplifting, there are also pockets of very awkward, off-putting encounters peppered throughout, reminding us of both the benefits and drawback to living in close quarters with others. For example, we see the overwhelmingly positive of the brothers taking Victoria in, accepting her, loving her, and ultimately protecting her. We see the community work together to try and protect and save this young girl—Guthrie stands up for her to the peril of his own career, Mrs. Jones attempts to help her, etc. Yet we also see the ugliness of humanity in the mother’s depression/abandonment of her children, the young boys watching the sex scene in the abandoned cabin, Guthrie’s troubled student bullying the boys, Victoria at the party, etc. These scenes all hint at an underlying darkness in the town/nature of man, and as readers, we are left with the ultimate decision on the true nature of humanity—are we inherently good, bad, or really a balance of the two? My takeaway is the latter—we all strive for goodness, but at times we must succumb to the worst in us. I use Guthrie in this example; he is a great father, tries to do right by his estranged wife, but at times he lets his anger rule him—when he physically assaults the troubled student in the hallway and later when he goes to the bully’s home and threatens him not to touch his children. Ultimately, we all strive for good but will have moments of weakness, and that’s okay.

Please bear in mind that this is the first book in a series, which I did not know before reading, so the novel’s conclusion may leave you wanting if you don’t read the rest of the books. However, I felt like it came to a fairly satisfying conclusion, and I do not think I’ll be rushing to read the following books in the series. Haruf’s writing is decent—he has a plain, masculine style (think almost Hemingway-esqe) to his prose that mirrors the “simple folk” of his characters. It’s pleasant but not my favorite style.

 

 

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 22

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A Pulitzer winner, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

*Review contains spoilers

While I have labeled this novel as a Romance, I must warn readers that it definitely isn’t the type of story with a pleasant, happy ending. Be forewarned that this novel does not follow the traditional, “all’s well that ends well” trope of a Romance, but rather it explores the dark and twisty side of unrequited love. Personally, I find this aspect of a good love story equally fulfilling, but only if I’m in a darker mood. Wharton certainly manages to pull on the reader’s heartstrings by centering the plot on a universally relatable experience–the one that got away.

Wharton’s characters are the wealthy elite aristocracy of New York in the late 1800s. This story focuses upon the younger generation that has just reached marriageable age. In particular, the plot focuses upon one such young man, Newland Archer. Archer is a rich, intelligent, debonair youth with his future and the world at his feet. What makes Archer unique, and thus worthy of our attention, is that unlike many of his cronies, he seems to have the rare capacity for seeing the absurdity of wealthy social customs. What I mean by that is, while the customs of his class force him to behave in a certain manner, he realizes how foolish and restrictive these customs are, yet he cannot do much to rebel against them.

This is important as the main thrust of the plot centers upon his tragic love for the beautiful Countess Ellen Olenska, a young woman estranged from her cruel husband, and Archer’s inability to be with her due to the restrictive customs of his class. While they are both in love with one another, a divorce from her husband would ruin her, and then they would both be outcasts. Archer is engaged to marry Ellen’s sweet cousin May, but when he meets Ellen, he is ready to throw it all away and run away with her. The course of the novel is the resulting delicate dance between doing what one wants and doing what is expected of one. For Archer and Ellen, unfortunately, the latter takes precedence. At one point, after Archer has married May, he is still ready to divorce her and leave with Ellen to “escape to some land” where their union will be acceptable, but Ellen discovers May is pregnant and refuses to break up their family. Instead, Archer and Ellen lead separate lives until both of their respective spouses have died and they are now both finally free to be together. Archer works up the nerve after all of those years to see Ellen and resume the courtship, but at the last moment, he waits outside her door and then leaves after deciding he wants to live his remaining years with the memory of how they were rather than tainting it with how they are after a lifetime spent apart. It’s a sad but poignant look at the life not lived. Both had happy lives on their own path, but could have been happier if they had spent it together.

Edith Wharton obviously has intimate knowledge of the upper class as evidenced by her methodical documentation of their intricate social customs throughout the novel. However, the true genius of her work rests upon her ability to leverage the intimate knowledge of this culture with the capacity for simultaneously jesting at its absurdity. Wharton is able to expose the customs taken for granted—invisible, really, to those within this class—and hold them up for display. When parsed out individually, these behaviors start to become somewhat ridiculous and over-the-top in the grand scheme of life. One would assume that wealthy people have total freedom, but Wharton reveals this not to be the case. In many ways, their own class behavioral expectations restrict them more than their middle class peers. They may have all the material wealth in the world, but when it comes to follow the matters of their hearts, they are poor men and women indeed.

 

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 21

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A book by a new author, The Mothers by Brit Bennett

This novel was like a breath of fresh air. Something about Bennett’s writing style just feels new and different from the things I’ve been reading lately. I fell into her world, and it was a pleasant journey. While some of the subject matter is dark and fraught with potential moral pitfalls, Bennett navigates these issues with objectivity and distance, yet she manages to make us feel intimately connected to the characters and the story at the same time. That, in my humble opinion, takes great skill. We never feel bogged down by Bennett’s judgments of these women and their choices; rather, Bennett holds up a mirror for us to see things objectively and come to our own conclusions. Surprisingly, the characters are so relatable and likeable that even in their worst moments, I felt like I could understand the choices they made, even when I disagreed with them. I think this was what felt so refreshing—right now, my social media pages are swarming with everyone’s opinions and their personal agendas. The demands on women and sovereignty over our own bodies is in a very hostile place. The political climate is so charged that you really can’t see many things objectively. Bennett gives us the facts and allows us the breathing room to make our own decisions, which feels novel at this particular moment in time.

The novel centers a complicated choice made in youth that reverberates throughout the futures of two women. In an odd way, this choice simultaneously binds the fates of both women together while also severing their bond. Bennett manages to write her characters in a way that feels as if you know these women intimately. It feels almost as if you have been each of them at different points in your life. While at times, they make truly difficult choices that may oppose our personal moral codes, they are still so loveable in their fallibility that you cannot help but empathize with them in their darkest moments. I believe this is only possible because of Bennett’s rich character development and writing talent.

Above all, The Mothers remains true to its titular theme, exploring the idea of motherhood. Motherhood is a concept that on that surface appears simple, but has become increasingly fraught and complex as our society evolves. There are mothers in all shapes and forms; there are those who bear children, and those who cannot or chose not to, but take up the mantel of motherhood in other forms. There are women who mother young girls on their journey toward womanhood. Some mothers decide not to mother at all. It seems that all roads to motherhood, whichever form they take, come with certain value judgments attached. So many women feel judged by others for the type of mother they choose to be. It can be an overwhelming experience, which is the unifying element of all motherhood. This novel experiments with the various ways motherhood occurs in our world, and it celebrates the different types of mothers—both the good and bad—that keep our world turning.

 

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