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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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 20

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Book 20, a book published this year, Lucky You by Erika Carter

This novel focuses on the relationship between three young women who feels how many young women do—trapped in a life they do not want, yet they are unsure of what future they do want or how to get there. They are flaky, selfish, and experimenting with the world, trying on different roles to see what fits. It’s written very genuinely and yet, there’s something so off-putting about it—I think it’s because while most of us go through this experimental phase, we don’t want to reminisce about it. Witnessing one’s passage into adulthood is cringe-worthy. Remembering the stupid things we did and said while figuring out who we are can be unpleasant. I think this might by why I found this novel such a struggle. The writing was fine, but I disliked the characters so much I couldn’t dig in. Worst of all, none of them really changes or resolves their glaring issues, so I felt left at the end of the novel thinking, ‘why did I read this?’

Let’s take a look at the main characters, which may explain at least some of my reaction toward this novel. I bet if you know people like these girls, you have hopefully long since phased them out of your life by now.

Chloe
We meet Chloe while she is on the verge of a mental breakdown, pulling out her hair by the roots and waiting for the showerheads to speak to her as they did to her schizophrenic mother. Unsatisfied with her own life, she begins encroaching upon the life of her friend and co-worker Ellie—following the band Ellie loved, hanging out with Ellie’s friends, and even dating Ellie’s ex-boyfriend. As Chloe digs deeper into Ellie’s life, her madness unravels further. It’s hard to like or dislike Chloe as she really seems not to have much personality, other than what she siphons off from those around her. You end feeling more sorry for her than anything else and hopeful that she will get some help for her issues.

Rachel
Initially, Rachel seems the most functional of the three friends. She’s in love with burly, rugged Autry and living with him on his grandmother’s old farm. They are going “off the grid” in an attempt to heal themselves physically and mentally from the scars and toxicity of consumerism and greed and the fast-past modern world. However, at the end of the novel we see that Rachel is little better than her friends. She lives her life moving through a series of Rachels; she’ll fall into a new lifestyle (biker, tennis pro, hippie, etc) for a short time until she becomes bored or the situation becomes untenable. Then she will “shed her skin” and start anew–a brand new Rachel that sometimes contradicts directly with the ideology of the last Rachel she left behind. In essence, she’s a phony and an opportunist. She’s terrified to face herself and find out what she’s really like. Instead, she loses herself in the men she dates and takes on their personas as her own. Obviously, you can’t deny yourself and your true personality forever, so eventually she will leave the relationship and find someone new. The only redeeming quality about Rachel is that she’s aware of her pattern. At least she can acknowledge her flaw, she just doesn’t seem to concerned with overcoming it any time soon.

Ellie
Flaky, self-destructive, alcoholic, and immature, Ellie is the least likable character in the novel. While they all have annoying qualities, Ellie’s seem to be the least redeeming. Every single action she takes is self-serving. It’s all calculated to manipulate others while appearing completely benign on the surface. When she can no longer control things, she engages in self-destructive behaviors—drinking too much, sleeping with men she doesn’t even like, putting herself in harm’s way. If things get too bad, she just disappears and starts a new life somewhere else without telling her friends. She is the ultimate self-centered person, which is what makes her so largely unlikable. The other two may be phony, but they do at least attempt to see outside of themselves at times. Ellie is always focused inward.

These three women come together on Autry’s farm where they spend a year on what he calls ‘the experiment,’ or living off-grid. As you can imagine, forcing these three delusional, selfish women to disengage from a world full of distractions behind which they can hide to a place where they are left to deal only with themselves and their inner beasts is going to be at the very least interesting to observe. Think of it as akin to watching really bad reality tv where the personalities on the show are saying one thing during the voice over, then the camera cuts to them doing literally the opposite thing they just said. You hate them, yet you watch. You love to hate them. In a way, it makes you feel better about your own choices. That’s what this novel is like. Entertaining for sure, but in a very uncomfortable way.

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 19

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Book 19, a book about travel, Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

“I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found, nor much identification from shapes which symbolize continents and states” (Steinbeck 71).

I am one of those people for whom the travel bug does not need to bite very hard before I’m ready to pack my bags and hit the road. I have rarely lived in the same place longer than 2-3 years in my adult life, so I enjoy reading about travel and daydreaming about all the trips I would love to take if time and money permitted. It’s been about four years since my last trip, so at this point, I am frothing at the mouth for some travel adventures. Especially now that Spring is upon us, I am feeling driven by an urge to get out and explore. Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley is perfect to scratch that itch.

I knew that I loved Steinbeck’s fiction (that’s a given), but I had no idea how in love I would be with this non-fiction travelogue written after revisiting the United States in his sixties. I LOVE THIS BOOK. I’m putting in my top ten favorites. I’m not sure if it’s the travelling, Steinbeck’s gentleman Poodle companion Charley, the beautiful way Steinbeck has of capturing the American landscape in his prose, or his humor and wit throughout his travels. It all adds up to equal an inspiring, witty, charming travelogue. I found myself highlighting so many lines. Here are a few of my favorites:

“I took one companion on my journey—an old French gentleman poodle known as Charley” (Steinbeck 8).

“I suppose our capacity for self-delusion is boundless” (Steinbeck 11).

“I laid in a hundred and fifty pounds of those books one hasn’t got around to reading—and of course those are the books one isn’t ever going to get around to reading” (Steinbeck 11).

“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us” (Steinbeck 4).

“I think today if we forbade our illiterate children to touch the wonderful things of our literature, perhaps they might steal them and find secret joy” (37)

“One goes, not so much to see but to tell afterward” (161)

“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always” (186)

I love the relationship between John and Charley. Anyone who has ever had a super tight relationship with their pet will love the moments where he describes Charley’s mannerisms and behavior on the road. I also enjoyed the conversations and idiosyncrasies he encounters while travelling throughout various states. Everyone will roll their eyes at the weird, petty bureaucracies he experiences as we have ALL been there. Sometimes he handles them with grace, other times he breaks down at the sheer stupidity of what he’s asked to do, both of which are hilarious to read. I loved the moments in which he transcends the barrier of being a stranger to engage in genuine conversations with the folks he meets along the road.  I despaired during the moments where he witnesses protests against de-segregation in the South and the ugliness he met there in the small-minded people. I felt the same breaking down and disgust of humanity at those low points that he felt. Yet he finds so much good out there, too.

As Steinbeck says himself, this isn’t meant to be a representative of ALL experiences on a journey across the country. Every journey is unique, and this is merely the one he had at this particular moment in time. Even if it can’t stand fall every journey, or as a representative of all the people in the USA, it still holds value in the highs and lows, the beauty and the ugliness it uncovered along the way. It still highlights the diversity of our great country and exposes the miracle that despite our seeming differences, we are all really more alike than we are different. We are united in being Americans and in that shared identity.

  

 

Steinbeck, John. Travels with Charley. Bantam, 1968.

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 18

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Book 18, A book with a color in the title, Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close

This choice for my reading challenge came about out of pure curiosity; I have seen several of my friends reading this book and so I wondered what made it so appealing. I feel sometimes like I pick too many literary/classic works as well, so my goal was to have this year’s choices reflect some more contemporary/popular choices like this novel. What do so many women find appealing about this novel? I suppose it does have the same draw as something along the lines of Sex in the City, but on a far more generic and underdeveloped level. It focuses upon the romantic relationships of young women, which as a young woman would obviously be appealing as it relates deeply to your own experiences (if you are a straight, white, college-educated woman).

The narrative arc is told from a third person omniscient narrator who skips from character to character, always young women in the same group of friends, providing snippets of the various romantic relationships these women have as they grow up. It follows them from their early twenties into the next ten years of their lives. We see some of them married, with children; others experience a full range of dating horrible men in pursuit of finding The One. At times, it’s funny. Sometimes it’s sad, but nearly always it waxes nostalgic to the types of relationship you yourself have had. Whether you’re the one who married your high school sweetheart, or the toxic bachelorette in your thirties (like me!), there’s at least one relationship here that will ring eerily true to your own experiences.

For me, the writing was almost unbearable. It was so weak. I struggled throughout most of the novel with my eyes rolling, but then I’d be struck with this kernel of truth that nearly knocked me over. I didn’t expect to find some of these profoundly true experiences and thoughts buried deeply in the badly written prose. Those small moments kept me from abandoning all hope. One of the weakest parts of the writing was the author’s inability to write a character that had any depth. I hate to admit this, but the characters held zero appeal for me. They are a handful of twenty something white girls, all with similar names, so they blur. It’s hard to keep everyone straight—they are friends from high school, or college, or work. I guess it doesn’t really matter—these girls stand in for ALL girls at one point or another in our lives. The “everywoman” if you will. Perhaps this is why the author chose to make them so generic. But it’s a fine balance, and in doing this she makes the reader also not care much about the characters or what they are experiencing. They aren’t particularly likable. They are over privileged upper middle class brats whining about a lot of stupid things, but then they hit a universally unifying experience that resonates with you as a reader, and you hate them a little less.

One thing that resonates with virtually all women is the drudgery of weddings and being a bridesmaid. In the beginning, weddings are fun, hopeful events. After you’ve been to dozens, they become a cookie-cutter snoozefest. There is a great deal of effort put into pretending you care about the toaster the bride got at her shower, or the horror she feels at cummerbunds that don’t match table napkins, but it’s something women fake our way through for our girlfriends because we know someday, we will demand the reciprocal behavior when it is our turn. Then after the plague of weddings comes the pretense of caring about what type of poo the new baby has done, or trying to do the math involved with decoding a baby’s age in weeks and months (seriously, wth is with that? Just say the kid is 2 months old). It realistically paints a picture of being an outsider in the Tribe of Womanhood, and how ridiculous it looks from the outside. But it also underscores the love we have for our friends to go along with the ruse.

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 17

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Book 17, a book you own but haven’t read, Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is such a rich writer; she touches upon so many different themes in this novel that it’s hard to know where to begin when unpacking her work. While I have read reviewers complaining about this very trait, I think the point is that a great writer doesn’t or shouldn’t need to spell everything out for you. They hint and reveal certain truths, and it’s up to the reader to do the work of parsing through these ideas to find one’s own meaning and relationship to what the author reveals. They pull back the curtain; we do the looking and the thinking. Smith makes you do your work as a reader, and I can see how some will resist putting in the time and effort needed to deconstruct her ambitious novels. I guess that’s my nice way of saying, she’s a literary writer, so expect to take a deep dive and plan accordingly.

The narrative skips temporally between the “now” at the beginning, and the narrator’s childhood/teenage years/early adulthood. It also changes geographically, going from London to NYC, to Africa, and everywhere in between. Therefore, you must pay attention while you read. I felt Smith accomplished this quite seamlessly, but I have read reviews saying this confused readers. One thing that remains constant despite our time travelling from chapter to chapter is the thread of the friendship between the unnamed narrator and her childhood friend Tracey that runs consistently throughout. The plot consists of the evolving relationship between the two girls as they age and each chooses a different path into adulthood.

Throughout the course of this friendship, Smith touches upon many issues. As stated above, she touches upon them—she leaves it to the reader to take a closer examination and connect the ways in which these separate issues form a web that serves to oppress and alter the path for each of the women in this story. Smith touches upon issues of race, gender, sexuality, the male gaze, the white savior complex, inherent complexities in mother/daughter relationships, and upward social mobility. Possibly the most consistent theme that  recurs throughout the novel is the plight of the “othered” person—those of us who don’t belong in mainstream culture, nor do we fit with the other sub groups. Our unnamed narrator is biracial, and while she doesn’t fit in with either black or white groups in Britain, nor does she fit anywhere in Africa—in fact, they even refer to her as a white girl there. She identifies with various groups, but they never seem to accept her fully as one of their own. She falls somewhere in the middle, in a no man’s land of otherness that is unique and lonely, particularly in her quest for meaning. Perhaps this is why she clings so tightly to the relationship with Tracey despite her friend’s glaring flaws.

For me personally, the theme that struck closest to home was the aimlessness the narrator feels. As a childless, unwed thirty-something woman with no real career path—just ideas about the kind of life you want to lead and the differences you want to make—that lost feeling can be so unbearable and I completely identified with the narrator in that regard. That feeling of ‘what next?’ can be so overwhelming. As she is looking back and examining her life experiences, parsing them out to finding common threads but not knowing how they tie back in for an overall meaning, I identified with that so strongly. I like that at the end, she doesn’t really have an answer. I think that’s how life is sometimes. You can’t always see the forest for the trees. The title Swing Time refers to the recurring theme of dance, which is on the literal level the means by which both girls initially hope to overcome their social status in life. However, I think metaphorically it represents the dance of life itself and the many changing tempos and styles we switch in and out of as we navigate the different stages and situations we pass through. Sometimes we try to blend in and other times, we freestyle, making it up as we go along.

 

 

 

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 16

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Book 16, a book from your childhood, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

I’m going to sound stupid admitting this, but I truly had no idea how pervasive Treasure Island was in American culture until I finally read this book. Think about it! Long John Silver’s restaurant is based on the character (who is a pirate…and a cook) with the same name. There are casinos and resorts named after the book. The pop culture stereotype of pirates with eye patches, one leg, parrots that talk, treasure maps, all of that came from this book. The entire Pirates of the Caribbean franchise echoes much of this book! It’s so odd to take the figure of the pirate, common place in pop culture, and see where much of it originated from. It’s like listening to a song you love, then realizing the song is actually a cover of an older song. Such an odd feeling!

Through fate, fortune, destiny, or whatever you want to call it, our narrator young Jim Hawkins meets with an old sailor who takes up residency at his family’s Inn. The old sailor is an interesting fellow to say the least, and he ends up getting Jim’s family implicated in some crazy antics involved the sailor’s pirate acquaintances involved–you guessed it–a map to buried treasure on some remote island. Several of the townspeople, including Jim, decide to go looking for it. They form a crew and borrow a boat, and off they go. However, it turns out that the mission for this ship is one of the worst kept secrets of the town, and Jim overhears a conversation between two of the crew that reveals several of them are actually (gasp) pirates. They plan to mutiny against the townspeople and steal the treasure for themselves. The rest of the tale is the adventure at sea/on the island in face of this mutiny and the resolution of the battle for the treasure.

I don’t know why this is considered a children’s book. It seems a little gory for younger kids, and also at this point it’s so dated that many kids would struggle with the language. I definitely enjoyed it, though! It’s a nicely paced adventure story that will keep you entertained for a few afternoons. If you’re anything like me, you’ll also take great pleasure experiencing the, “So that’s where that came from!” moments when you realize how much of this book is in our popular culture so many years after it was written.

 

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2017 Reading Challenge, Book 15

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Book 15, a play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Tiffany & Jack Thorne

For those of you who do not know me, to say that I am a fan of Harry Potter is putting it mildly. I wrote my graduate thesis on the series because it was so influential on my scholarship and how I approached other texts. For most of my life, Harry and his crew have been a vital part of me. I grew up alongside them. I learned how to be a good human being with them, even when faced with the tough choices in my life. I honor them on a daily basis as I wrestle with my own demons, always trying to be a better person even when it’s difficult. The series shaped me into the person I am today. The crushing emptiness I felt when the final book had been written and the last movie released was intense. For a while, I felt like I’d have nothing to look forward to ever again. In some ways, my youth ended when Harry’s story concluded. My youthful optimism and hopefulness were squelched under the realities of becoming an adult and the hard choices we are faced with as we grow up. I’ve been spending less and less time in Harry’s world as the obligations of adulthood consume me. In some ways, I miss it terribly, but in others, I realize I can’t ever go back to the time or the emotional space I existed in when Harry’s story was still unwritten. Although I may revisit, it will never be “new” again and it feels like a loss rather than comfort when I do go back.

I know I’m not alone in this. You might feel I’m being a tad dramatic, but the writing of these books spanned my entire youth, adolescence, and ended as I was becoming an adult. We’re talking over ten years. That’s a long commitment for someone so young. Honestly, my relationship to Harry Potter is probably my longest and most functional (yikes).

Lately, it seems like many things relating to Harry’s magical world have been popping up. This sudden resurgence back into the magical world has left me with some very confusing emotions. On the one hand, I felt thrilled at the prospect of having access to new information and insights into my familiar, happy, magical world (a place to which I escaped often in my youth). Another side of me, perhaps my more realistic side, felt deflated—I couldn’t get the nagging voice of reason out of my head saying, “It’s not them, though. It’s their world, but it’s not THEM. Their story is finished. You cannot go back.” Honestly, and I am dead serious about this—I feel like reading anything new or seeing any other films that come out is a betrayal to Harry, Ron, and Hermione. It’s not focused on their stories. It’s a voyeuristic view into tidbits about their world. It almost feels…creepy. Stalkerish. Let them be already! Let them have their happy ending! This sad, weird train of thought took up most of my headspace as the fervor surrounding the newly released material, the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them, and of course, the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child continued to build. Everyone who knows me approached me so excitedly, wanting to see my happiness and excitement about the new material, only to be perplexed at my almost angry response and at times, indifference (depending on the day). I would vehemently proclaim that I would NOT be watching the film or reading the new content. Sometimes I would just shrug my shoulders and say, “yes, well. It’s not THEM, though. So do I really care? No.” I admit, I was being a bit smug with the latter statement, but you get the drift.

As the new material came out, I was happily living in my little bubble ignoring it. Of course, there was a part of me that despaired to read it all, to see it all, but a bigger part feared that I would hate it, that I would be disappointed, and that it would taint my memory of the perfect ending to a perfect story. I avoided it all like the plague, confusing all of my friends and family who have watched my unmitigated HP fervor over the years. Most people didn’t understand, but I felt good about my decision. Until I couldn’t take it any longer and I cracked. Of course I saw the movie! Of course I read the play! I’m only human! Here I am, several months late—but I eventually made it to the party. Am I glad I read it? The jury is still out on that one, but here is my review. Be forewarned, there may be spoilers.

Deep breath. Here goes.

A play? What the what?! As a literature major, I read quite a few plays throughout my years of study. I taught them in my classroom when I became a teacher. Once you’ve been exposed to reading plays, they don’t seem any different than reading a novel. I know so many people worried about that key difference, but for me, it really had no bearing on my experience. I feel like I had to mention this since being in a play format was such a big to-do, but I also feel you can’t really take my opinion on that aspect of the overall review because I would consider myself a little biased on this point. As everyone else will tell you, I’m sure watching the performance rather than reading it here would be a much more dynamic experience. The actors would invariably lend the play some of the depth that it’s clearly lacking (see below). That being said, I will proceed with my review. There, that’s the first hurdle out of the way.

Secondly, it  clearly wasn’t written by J.K. Rowling, though presumably she did have to sign off on it and give her blessing before it was published. Let me be clear—it’s quite obvious this was not her work. The writing is levels, hell—worlds—below her work. As many reviewers put it, and I totally agree, this feels like bad fan fiction. The characters are all there, but they are boiled down into caricatures of themselves. It’s like having a weird dream where you’re talking to your significant other, and you know it’s them, but they look NOTHING like themselves. You’ll recognize bits and pieces of these characters, but it’s not really them. You just get derivatives of the most surface level characteristics of them all. Rowling’s humor was subtle and well-done; this play tries so hard to be funny that its desperation wafts from the page. It’s ham handed and pathetic. Think bad dad jokes that aren’t awkward enough to be funny. They’re just bad. The pacing was off, too. I know it’s a play, not an 800 page novel, and we don’t have the time to cram in the depth needed to truly feel like a J.K. experience, but even so, it was speeding along at a break-neck pace. So quickly, in fact, that it left out a lot of key characters and plot points from the books that made continuity a bit of an issue.

The writing was bad. The characters were recognizable, but barely. The essence of what made HP good just wasn’t there. The plot was ambitious, and probably would have made an excellent novel, but it just didn’t work for me in the short space provided for a play. I found myself extremely disappointed with the words and actions of many characters (namely, Harry and his piss-poor parenting skills) and I can sum it up as such: there’s a reason fairytales end with “and they lived happily ever after.” It turns out, the ever after part is really quite boring. The characters we loved have become middle aged, boring, and JUST LIKE US. Who wants to see that? Not I. I prefer to leave them, eternally poised to live their happily ever after, at the end of book seven.

 

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