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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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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