Saturday, June 15, 2019

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

When people talk about the greatest books ever written, Don Quixote is almost always mentioned. Published in Spain in 1605, this story of the chivalrous knight Don Quixote of La Mancha and his faithful squire Sancho Panza is regarded by many as the foundation of the modern novel. In its pages, Miguel de Cervantes weaves a memorable and comic tale that uses a wide variety of literary techniques, including metafiction, poetry, allusions, and realism. Its influence in the literary world is profound, and despite its daunting length (940 pages of tiny print in my version), I've always been interested in reading it. It's one of those books, you know? A bucket list-type of book for classics lovers.

I always struggle with how to write about books like this. The greatness of Don Quixote is universally recognized, so it feels foolish to offer my opinions on it, especially if any of them happen to be negative. After all, I read the classics just for the joy of it. I'm not a literary scholar, so my analysis would be suspect at best. So, rather than try to give this novel a "review," I'm going to record some of my thoughts and feelings on it in this space. I recognize that this work is a masterpiece. My goal here is to reflect on my personal reading experience.

The plot of the novel follows Don Quixote, a Spanish man driven crazy by his love of reading tales of knights and chivalry. He's read so many of these stories that he comes to believe he is a knight himself and that he is deeply in love with the beautiful Princess Dulcinea del Toboso. He decides to set off on a quest to seek his own adventures and become famous throughout the world. He convinces Sancho Panza, a loyal and dim neighbor of his, to take on the role of his squire, and the pair begin to wander the Spanish countryside, helping those in need, battling monsters, and defeating evildoers.

Of course, Don Quixote isn't really a knight, Dulcinea del Toboso doesn't really exist, and he doesn't really battle monsters or defeat evildoers. In reality, his chivalrous acts are comedic misadventures that entertain or confuse all the people around him. His first and most famous quest is when he fights the "giants" that are actually windmills, but he gets into many other situations like this throughout the text. He frees a group of convicted criminals under the assumption that they are being unjustly detained. He assaults a barber and wears his shaving basin on his head for quite some time, believing it to be a famous helmet. He tries to halt an invading army that is actually a flock of sheep. As he moves from one "adventure" to another, he relentlessly gets himself injured through falls, fights, and the tricks other people play on him. Sancho remains by his side through it all providing comic relief, too simple to understand if what Don Quixote says is real or if it is all a delusion.

The novel is split into two parts, and both parts stick to the same basic structure of following Don Quixote and Sancho Panza around as they get into one scrape after another. They move through different locations and interact with different people, but the essence of what they are doing stays constant. The one big difference between the two parts is that Don Quixote's adventures from part one are actually published in the universe of the novel by the time part two starts. This means that most of the other characters he comes across in part two have actually read what happened to him in part one. In this way, he does achieve the fame that he set out to achieve, but it's not fame he earned through noble deeds, it's fame he earned through people laughing at his mental instability.

This knowledge means that people are able to craft elaborate scenarios to trick him for their own entertainment. So in part two, instead of running across commonplace events and interpreting them through the lens of his "knighthood," random noblemen prank him mercilessly. They make him believe he took a trip on a flying wooden horse. They make him believe a crowd of female servants sprouted beards. They make him believe he is speaking to a bronze sculpture of a head. Perhaps most disturbing of all, they make him believe that Dulcinea has become enchanted and the only way to break the spell on her is for Sancho is whip himself 3,300 times. These tricks go on for quite some time until one of Don Quixote's neighbors, out of concern for his health, tricks him into renouncing his knighthood and coming home, where his adventures finally come to an end.

As this novel is over 900 pages, this was a long reading experience for me. By the end of the story, I felt like I'd been out on an adventure myself - and much like Don Quixote's journey, it had its ups and downs. One aspect of the story I really liked were the characters of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza themselves. Cervantes did an excellent job making them pretty lovable. Don Quixote's unwavering belief in the rules of chivalry and the high standards to which he held himself were charming and the idea of him trying to bring honor to a dishonorable world was admirable. Sancho was endearing in his simple-mindedness and he had all of the funniest lines in the novel. It's clear in the text that he knew on some level that a lot of what Don Quixote said wasn't right, but he went along with it anyway, partly out of affection for his friend, and partly just in case Don Quixote's promise to gift him with an island to govern might eventually come true. He was a steadfast, loyal squire, and that was easy to like.

Another neat aspect of the novel was how Cervantes incorporated some petty revenge for plagiarism going on during his time. The second part of Don Quixote wasn't published until ten years after part one, and in those intervening years, a different author published their own part two of the story. It's clear from the text that Cervantes was very upset at this, as he has Don Quixote bring up the false story several times, roundly condemning it. He even goes so far as to have Don Quixote meet one of the characters from the fake part two, convince that character that he had never really met Don Quixote, and make him sign an affidavit swearing to that fact. As a lover of  public shade being thrown, no matter how old it is, I enjoyed this.

What I struggled with a little bit was the pacing and the ultimate theme of the story. After a while, reading adventure after adventure got old. There wasn't enough variation in the plot to completely engage me in what was going on. Rather than having one overarching storyline, Don Quixote felt very episodic. The characters stumble from one situation to the next without an ultimate goal in mind. By the time I got to part two, I was basically reading just to finish. It was still genuinely funny and clever throughout, but so much repetition started to wear on me.

Despite those feelings, however, I did finish reading the whole thing. Unfortunately, I was left unclear on what the overall message of the story was supposed to be. I couldn't tell if Cervantes was saying that the world should have been more like Don Quixote, or if Don Quixote's ideas of chivalry were hopelessly out of date and inappropriate for his modern world. As a reader, I wanted the message to be the former, but the fact is that Cervantes doesn't show much sympathy for his hero. He tortures him mercilessly throughout the novel with beatings and injuries, then subjects him to a series of rather cruel pranks by the noblemen in part two of the story. All of the injuries and tricks are written for laughs, like Don Quixote and Sancho are just meant to be fools. There isn't really an indication that readers are supposed to feel bad for Don Quixote or to feel like he is being mistreated. I feel like that was something I brought into the story based on my own feelings, and not something Cervantes encouraged at all.

I feel like I missed something though, because that can't be right. If that's really true, and Cervantes wrote Don Quixote to be no more than a fool, why is this novel so beloved? People clearly see more to the story than a slapstick comedy. Ultimately, I think there are a couple of valid theme ideas floating around in here and readers should interpret the message however they want to, but I do wish that Cervantes had been a bit more clear on what he intended Don Quixote's ultimate purpose to be. I do acknowledge that the time period this was written in and the fact that I have to read a translated version of the work probably play parts in my lack of clarity here. 

Although my opinions on Don Quixote ended up being mixed, I'm very happy that I made it all the way through the novel. The characters were so memorable and the story was so classic that I felt like I was reading history, which is why I love reading the classics in the first place. While I'm still wondering about what message Cervantes truly meant to send to his readers, I'm content to have had this experience. I can now cross this one off my literary bucket list and move onto another adventure.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#62 on my list): 47/100 
Back to the Classics 2019 (Very Long Classic) 8/12 Books Read 

Total Books Read in 2019: 32

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Book Junkie Trials 2019

I wasn't planning on joining any more reading challenges this year, but when I saw the Book Junkie Trials announced on YouTube, I had to join in. The rules are fairly elaborate, so I would recommend watching the official announcement video I linked above, but basically, this is a fantasy-themed reading challenge created by Rachael Marie in which you participate on a quest to find "The Bookie Grail" by completing different reading prompts.

The first step in the challenge is to take a personality quiz to get sorted into your challenge team (mage, scribe, bard, or outlaw). I was sorted into the scribe group. Each team has its own strength and weakness, and each has a separate route to the grail. Each stop on the journey has its own reading prompt assigned to it, making the challenge different for each team. I've copied the scribe map and prompts below. Posting to a blog is not a part of this challenge (posting to Twitter is), but I wanted to keep a record of my progress here too.

Image and challenge prompts by: Rachael Marie

 The Scribe Prompts

1. Dwarf Mount: You spot a fair tavern wench, however the Dwarf Mines, grimey and
dusty, didn’t evoke a very romantic feeling. Read a book with a hint of romance to get you in
the mood.
(My book choice: The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang)

2. Apothecary Towers: Where the wizards dwell. Tricksters. They have blind-folded you
and randomised all your books, choose a book at random from your bookshelf.
(My book choice: Matched by Ally Conde)

3. The Great Library: Ahh the great archives, find and read a book
that has been on your TBR forever.
(My book choice: The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang)

4. The Drowning Deep: The Whirlpool... is so.... mesmerising. Read a book
with rich world-building that will suck you into its own world, instead.
(My book choice: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi - This is my over 500 pager)

5. The Bookie Grail: Here you find a lost manuscript, delivered on
this forgotten island by a fallen star. Read the group book: Stardust
(My book choice: Stardust by Neil Gaiman)

Scribe Ability
The ability to rewrite their tale.
Their unique ability is to read a book that wasn’t on their declared TBR
- as long as it still completes the challenge.

Scribe Weakness
As scribes spend so much time documenting their findings,
one of their challenges will take MUCH longer than normal.
They must read a book over 500 pages.

This challenge takes place during the month of July, and I'm already feeling antsy to get started! I'm hoping to finish my quest early on in the month and then try out some of the other team prompts for extra points. Completing additional prompts will "level up" your character for next year's challenge, which sounds awesome to me.

I've been feeling a little bit low lately, but I'm really looking forward to trying this out. I'm thinking it will energize me and help me enjoy my summer break. Is anyone else out there interested in giving this challenge a shot? All the information you need is in Rachael Marie's announcement video. Check out the links in the description box for the team maps, the challenge tracker, and the personality quiz.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Graceling by Kristin Cashore has been sitting on my shelf for a long time - like, for several years. It's been so long that I don't even remember where I bought it, or what attracted it to me in the first place. I used to love young adult fantasy when I was...well...a young adult, I guess, but I've lost some of my zest for it in recent years. Thanks to book reviews on Youtube, however, I'm slowly making my way back to the genre. After hearing a few reviewers talk about this one, I decided to give it a go and finally check it off my TBR.

Graceling takes place in a realm known as the Seven Kingdoms. In this land, a small segment of the population is born with a "grace," or a special talent. The graces people can be born with take many forms, from mundane activities like being really excellent at swimming, to supernatural skills like the ability to read minds. Those born with a grace are regarded with suspicion by the rest of the ordinary citizens of the kingdom, so to be a Graceling is a mixed blessing at best.

The plot of the novel follows King Randa of the Middluns' niece, a young woman named Katsa. Katsa was born with a killing grace - she is able to defeat anyone in combat with ease. As this sort of skill is quite useful for a monarch, the king uses her like his own personal weapon. He sends her out to do his dirty work, killing, beating, and torturing his enemies. Inwardly, Katsa hates using her grace for this purpose, but she feels like she has no choice but to comply. To make up for some of her actions, she works secretly with a network of sympathizers to help out people in need all across the land.

As part of this secret work, Katsa rescues a man who has been kidnapped and hidden in a neighboring kingdom. It's a mysterious case; Katsa can't determine who gave the original order to kidnap the man or uncover any motives as to why. In her investigation, she ends up working together with the kidnapped man's grandson, Po, to try and uncover the truth of what happened. Their investigation ends up leading them into a dangerous adventure full of danger, conspiracy, and, of course, romance.

I was surprised at how much I ended up enjoying this novel. The plot is full of interesting ideas, the characters are likable and well-developed, and the pacing is excellent. The idea of the graces is unique and adds variety and suspense to the story, along with some good opportunities for character growth. There were no points where I was bored or felt like reading was a slog. Even the romance, which can easily be cringe-worthy in young adult fantasy, was believable and sweet to read. While this doesn't rise to the ranks of giants in this genre, like Harry Potter, it is highly entertaining and worth the time.

Katsa is an admirable heroine for young readers to look up to. The days of damsels in distress are long gone in young adult fantasies these days, but I found Katsa to be different than the new sort of "tough-girl" characters we see now. While she is undoubtedly independent and able to take care of herself, her feelings about those abilities are complex. Her skills are a result of her grace, and she is constantly using it in a way she is uncomfortable with for the king. Beyond that, she finds it difficult to control it, with anger often driving her to impulsive and dangerous actions. Part of her story is learning to take ownership of her grace and to use it in ways that she sees fit. She changes quite a bit from the beginning of the novel, and that growth arc is satisfying to read. Her feelings and emotions feel genuine, even if her abilities are impossible. It makes it easy to suspend your disbelief and go along for the ride.

There are two companion novels in this universe, which I an interested in reading soon. Kristin Cashore has created an interesting world in Graceling, and I want to spend more time there. If I had actually read this book as young adult, I feel like it would have ended up being a favorite of mine. Reading it now, I am still impressed and entertained. It's simply a great story, and you can't ask much more than that from this sort of novel.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 16/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 31

Monday, May 27, 2019

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Back when I was in college, I took a literature course called "Realism and Naturalism." I didn't know anything about this literary period when I first went into the class, but it was my favorite one by the time I came out of it. Something about the stories I read here fascinated me. They were gritty and dark and pretty much always ended with a tragedy, but still, I was in love. For the first time, I found myself having actual thoughts and opinions about literature. I started raising my hand and speaking with classmates. I started reading classic novels with the same kind of interest that I had for contemporary novels. Best of all, this was the class where I met some of my favorite authors. Edith Wharton, Frank Norris, and Henry James became authors that I still seek out and read to this day.

The instructor for this course was a young graduate student, but her enthusiasm for this period and her expertise were clear. I loved the reading selections she made and the way she taught the course. I distinctly remember her telling us one day that her favorite naturalism novel of all time was Jude the Obscure. This wasn't one of the readings assigned in the class, but I always remembered the title, and meant to read it myself one day. When I saw that one of the categories in the Back to the Classics challenge was a "classic tragedy," I figured that this was the perfect time to pick it up.

The plot of the novel follows Jude Fawley, a young orphan being raised by his aunt in a small English village. Despite being born into a poor family, Jude has scholarly aspirations. He dreams of attending one of the colleges in Christminster, a nearby, academically-focused city. He embarks on a course of self-study, teaching himself Latin and Greek and reading everything he can get his hands on as he grows into maturity. In an effort to fund his reading materials and eventual tuition payments, Jude apprentices himself to a stone mason, and he eventually becomes quite skilled at that trade. As he works and trains, however, he always holds fast to his dreams of higher education and uses all his free time to continue his personal studies.

Things begin to veer off track for him when he meets Arabella Donn, a country girl living near his aunt's house. He begins a relationship with her that becomes physical very quickly. A pregnancy scare leads him to push his studies aside and get married, a step he almost immediately comes to regret. His marriage with Arabella is a very unhappy one. They quarrel constantly and are obviously unsuited for each other. After a particularly bad fight, Arabella decides to move with her family to Australia, and Jude is only too happy to let her go. He returns to his studies again, but with a shadow over his heart. By entering into a marriage, he knows that he has spoiled any future romantic prospects in his life. His wife may be out of the country, but she is still his wife, and he is living in a time where the social attitudes concerning marriage and divorce are extremely conservative. Marriage is forever here, so Jude has doomed himself.

He still has his academic dreams though, and he resolves to continue forward on that path. He redoubles his efforts in that direction and finally moves himself to Christminster, the city he has been in love with since his childhood. He is soon thrown off track again, however, for two reasons. One, he discovers that the cost of attending a university is so expensive that he will realistically never be able to afford the tuition no matter how hard he works, and two, he meets his cousin, Sue Bridehead, and falls hopelessly in love with her. Both of these events are disastrous for Jude. Realizing that his scholarly goals will never happen ruins a huge part of his identity, and his love for Sue is tragically impossible. He is already married, and she is about to be married to someone else herself. Sue has strong romantic feelings for Jude too, but she goes through with her own wedding anyway, and winds up desperately unhappy.

Despite that fact that everything about a relationship between Jude and Sue is inappropriate at this point, the pair can't keep away from each other. Through a combination of moving between different towns and making arrangements with their original spouses, they manage to get divorces and move in together. However, neither wants to get married again, even to each other, based on the bad experiences they had the first time around. Instead, they live together and have children out of wedlock, an act that alienates them from society and creates huge financial difficulties for them. Things go from bad to worse for the pair until a truly shocking act drives them towards their final ruin.

I don't use the word "shocking" here lightly. The end of Jude the Obscure is horrific and tragic and I did not see it coming. If any readers out there aren't already spoiled as to the specifics of it, I strongly encourage you to read the book for yourself and let it hit you. It feels like a punch in the chest. It will be a reading moment you always remember, which is something I love about novels from this time period.

I don't mean to imply, however, that the final events in the novel are just a gimmick or there merely for shock value.Thomas Hardy's themes are clear throughout the text. His message is all about how harmful social divisions and expectations can be, especially the attitudes and laws around marriages in the late 1800s. We see this in Jude's failed academic pursuits and in the string of failed marriages taking place across the novel. In Jude, we have a character that is doing the best he can. He saves money and studies to achieve academic success, he marries a woman when he believes it is the only honorable course of action, he lets that woman go when it becomes clear they are both unhappy, and he tries to be a good provider for the woman he discovers later on to be his one true love. None of that is good enough.

The problem is, Jude wasn't born at the right social station to do anything more than be a tradesman and follow the rules. He reaches too high and gets smacked right back down. Hardy's story allows that reader to see that Jude didn't deserve this, and that the rules governing society at this time period are unnecessarily punitive. Why is it so improper and ridiculous for a man to want to improve himself? Why is the barrier to entering a university so high? Why can't people obtain divorces easily and without intense social stigma? Why is a marriage necessary for domestic happiness at all?

These kinds of questions brought Hardy some negative reviews when Jude was first published. People interpreted his work as being anti-marriage and labeled the novel as "obscene." Hardy wrote about these reactions in the postscript to the first edition of the work, in which he defended himself as being not anti-marriage, but pro-divorce. His opinion was that, "a marriage should be dissolvable as soon as it becomes a cruelty to either of the parties," a view that seems quite reasonable now, but was very controversial during his lifetime. He ended up being so disappointed with the reception to this novel that he never wrote another one. Jude the Obscure is his very last book, which is a shame, because he lived another 33 years after it's publication.

Along with from the complex themes present in the novel, there are many other aspects to enjoy. Hardy's prose is masterful, his characters are layered and nuanced, and his plot twists and turns are very engaging. This is one of those classics that is on the longer side, but still easy and relatively quick to read. The only thing difficult about it is how dark it is. Nothing goes right for Jude, and that gets to be heavy after a while. However, if you enjoy sad novels, you can't do much better than this one.   

Thinking back to my college instructor who called Jude the Obscure her favorite book, I can understand why she liked it. This is a well-written work that asks interesting social questions and gives readers a wonderfully tragic story to hang those questions around. This novel didn't grab me in the same way the other works we read in the class did, so I would still say I prefer Edith Wharton or Frank Norris overall, but this was still a very worthwhile read and an excellent choice for my "classic tragedy" challenge category.   

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#33 on my list): 46/100 
Back to the Classics 2019 (Classic Tragedy) 7/12 Books Read 

Total Books Read in 2019: 30

Sunday, May 12, 2019

A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

For my next read, I was in the mood for some young adult fantasy. I picked up A Curse so Dark and Lonely from Target last month, so I decided to give that one a shot. It's a "Beauty and The Beast" reimagining, and I have a weird fondness for stories inspired by fairy tales, so I went into my reading with pretty high hopes. I was expecting romance, adventure, and maybe, hopefully, a scene in which a young woman is gifted an entire library (which is not something from the original tale, I know, but it is my favorite part of the movie).

A Curse So Dark and Lonely is told from two alternating perspectives. The first perspective is from Rhen, the prince of a kingdom named Emberfall. Rhen has been cursed by an evil enchantress to keep repeating the same three months on an  endless loop in his castle. At the end of each of these three months, he transforms into a monster and goes on a rampage around Emberfall, killing anyone in sight. At the end of his rampage, the season resets and he becomes himself again. The villages outside his castle don't loop with him,  they still experience the forward march of time, and any people killed there stay dead. It's only Rhen, his only remaining guardsman, Grey, and his castle that reset. In order to break this cycle ad sync back up with the rest of his kingdom, Rhen must find a girl to fall in love with him. He's wooed countless girls over countless cycles of his curse, but he hasn't had any luck finding true love yet.

The second perspective in the novel is from Harper, a young woman living in our modern reality in Washington D.C. As the story begins, she is mysteriously whisked away into Rhen's timeline, where he plans to try his luck wooing her in order to break his curse. Harper, however, is completely unlike the other women he has tried this with in the past. She is a fighter and isn't willing to entertain any ideas of romance. She only wants to find a way home, back to her struggling family and terminally ill mother. She will stop at nothing to return, and even attempts to confront the enchantress responsible for the magic that brought her to Emberfall. The longer she stays in the kingdom, however, the more she comes to care about the people living there, including Rhen and Grey. A rival kingdom has noticed the absence of the royal family and a lack of soldiers protecting Emberfall, and is making moves to invade the territory. Her desire to help the struggling kingdom directly conflicts with her need to return home. As the danger to Emberfalls grows, Harper must try to find a way to help all of the people she cares about.

I ended up liking this novel a lot more than I thought I would. Kemmerer's take on a classic fairy tale is creative and interesting, and her characters were well-developed. I especially enjoyed Harper; she was far from a damsel in distress, and was eager to learn how to fight and take care of herself when given the opportunities. I also liked that fact that she was very principled. Even when thrown into an entirely different world, she did not hesitate to defend people who needed it and stand up for what was right. She comes to care deeply about the people of Emberfall, which helps forge a powerful connection between her and Rhen. It was obvious from the beginning that these two characters were destined to fall in love, but I appreciated that the eventual relationship was forged through the strength of her character rather than through superficial characteristics, like her beauty.

It's also noteworthy that Harper has cerebral palsy, which is a congenital disorder than affects movement and coordination. The condition affects people in different ways; in Harper's case, she has a pronounced limp and weakness in one of her legs. She does not let this illness define her, however, and manages to make her way around the world just fine. Kemmerer portrays her well in this regard. She is a character with this disorder, but it does not define her. It is mentioned from time to time, but is not treated as a big plot point. It's just a part of who she is, which is true for the hundreds of thousand of people who have it in real life. You don't often see protagonists with medical conditions like this where the condition is not the whole focus of the story. I appreciated this. We need more characters like this in our young adult books.

Rhen and Grey were also characterized well. Rhen was suitably tormented by the curse, and his feelings of guilt and despair at the situation were interesting to delve into. Unlike in the original fairy tale, Rhen is initially cursed because he spent the night with the evil enchantress, promised her the world, then didn't deliver. Of course, he was spoiled and selfish in his youth as well, but having the enchantress be a spurned lover was an interesting twist on the story. It made the curse more personal, and allowed the enchantress character to have a bit more depth. She appears throughout the story, and her cruel, twisted behavior helps the reader sympathize more with Rhen. He definitely learns and grows throughout the cycles of his curse, seeing him be forced to watch his kingdom suffer because of his selfishness while he is stuck in time makes this change feel genuine.

I admit though, that I was more of a fan of Grey, the lone, faithful guardsman to Rhen. He stays by his prince, helping him try to break the curse, long after all of the other Emberfall guardsmen have fled or been killed. I have a thing for loyalty in characters, so his perseverance to his job and his unfailing friendship with Rhen really appealed to me. I was secretly hoping that he'd end up with Harper, as there was definitely a bit of a spark between them too, but of course, his type of character wouldn't do such a thing to Rhen.

While the book was engaging throughout, I did think that things moved too slowly in the middle. There were several scenes in an inn where Harper and Rhen assisted some villagers that I could have done without, as well as some sections where they visited neighboring villages that dragged. The novel is almost 500 pages long, and some trimming definitely could have been done here and there.  Also, the story eventually becomes intensely political, with strategy sessions and battle plans taking center stage. I would have preferred more scenes developing the romance between the protagonists instead. However, the ending of the book is exciting and interesting enough to make up for the slow parts and I still consistently enjoyed my read.

The novel ends with an epilogue that contains a major cliffhanger, meaning that I'm going to be anxiously awaiting the sequel that is set to come out in 2020. I will definitely continue on with the series, despite the fact that Harper was (sadly) not bookish at all and there was no library scene. This was a very creative and different take on a classic fairy tale and I am looking forward to diving back into the world of Emberfall next year.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 15/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 29

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

*This review will contain some spoilers*

I first came across Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits when I was searching for some books about different cultures to add to my Classics Club list. This Latin American novel was one of the ones that kept popping up, so even though it was published in the 1980s, making it stretch my definition of what a "classic" is, I decided to give it a go. I picked it up towards the end of April in an effort to continue catching up on my reads from that list.

The story is set in Chile and it follows three generations of the wealthy Trueba family throughout the 1900s. The story is mostly told from the perspective of Esteban Trueba, who is the patriarch of the family, although the journals and letters of other characters, along with some elements of magical realism, allow the perspectives of other family members to come across. The plot centers around the women in Esteban's life, including his wife Clara, his daughter Blanca, and his granddaughter Alba. Esteban is a cruel and rash man, and his relationship with each of the women is largely characterized by his demanding and violent nature. He does have his moments of regret and change over the years, however, and the political upheavals that rock Chile towards the end of the novel become a catalyst for his personal growth.

As this is a generational story, it's difficult to succinctly summarize the whole novel. It moves through many years, with the women in the story each taking a turn to drive the plot. The first part of the novel features Esteban's wife Clara, a woman known for many eccentricities as well as an ability to see spirits and predict the future. She marries Esteban because she has seen her future self do it, and while Esteban loves her with a devotion that borders on obsession, she does not particularly love him. Eventually, she bears him three children: twin boys and a daughter named Blanca.

When Blanca is old enough, the story shifts over to focus on her. She does not have her mother's ability to see spirits, and is a bit more practical-minded. She falls in love with a boy who works on their estate, someone who is far below her social station. Esteban would never allow such a match, so they are forced to sneak around to meet each other. Eventually, Blanca becomes pregnant and Esteban, filled with rage at this development, attacks her lover, nearly killing him, and marries her off to a family acquaintance. The marriage doesn't work out as planned and Blanca returns home, where she gives birth to her daughter, Alba.

Alba takes over the focus of the story for the last part of the novel. As a young adult, she takes a more active role in the socialist movement that is picking up steam in the country, much to her grandfather Esteban's consternation. She also falls in love with an inappropriate man, a leftist, whom Esteban sees as an enemy to his own political viewpoints. Like her mother, she must sneak around to be with the one she loves. Despite this, she becomes very close to her grandfather, and he loves her devotedly. His old age, and the changing politics of the time, are softening him a bit; he is coming to realize that his harshness as a younger man has cost him a lot. When the military seizes control of Chile and establishes a dictatorship to quash the socialists, Alba is taken prisoner and Esteban embarks on a quest to get her back.

The House of the Spirits is truly an epic read. Allende does an excellent job depicting the different generations of the Trueba family throughout the years with appropriate pacing and weight. The story is big and it feels big. Similarly, her language is beautiful and draws you right into the story. The magical elements, including Clara's clairvoyance and the spirits that drift in and out from time to time, are well-incorporated and wonderfully weird. It is clear from page one that this is a special book, and it has earned its place as one of the most respected works in the Latin American literary cannon.

I enjoyed my reading for the most part, but there were a few elements I struggled with. One of the big ones was that Esteban is a serial rapist. He rapes many women throughout the course of the novel and really only stops due to various injuries or old age. He leave many of his victims with children that he does not acknowledge in any way and never shows a bit of remorse for his actions. He believes it is his right to behave in this way. While he does end up suffering for this behavior by the end of the story, the person who suffers the most for his behavior is Alba, who is assaulted by one of his illegitimate offspring. Her reaction to this is one of oddly placid acceptance that didn't sit right with me. I do not believe that Allende means for the readers to love Esteban. I believe that she means to present him as a very flawed character that is tormented by regrets. However, this whole "great cycle of rape" plot point didn't sit well with me.

Another aspect of the story that I didn't love was the fact that neither Blanca, Alba, or the political strife that comes later in the novel were as interesting as Clara. The best character in the story, with her mysterious ways and magical powers, comes first in the line of featured women, and as the plot gradually shifts away from her, it becomes more boring. I found myself wanting more time with her and less of everything else. As the novel reaches it's final quarter or so, the socialist movement and the resulting military coup take center stage, and without knowing a lot about the politics of the period, I found my mind wandering.

Neither of those points takes away from the fact that The House of the Spirits is a worthwhile read and an obvious great work of literature. I am glad I ended up picking it for my Classics Club list because this is one of those novels that you feel accomplished and wiser after reading. I learned more about life in a different culture and experienced the writing of an excellent new-to-me author. Time with The House of the Spirits is time well spent.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#17 on my list): 45/100

Total Books Read in 2019:28

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck

Earlier this month, I read Cannery Row by John Steinbeck and really enjoyed it. In doing a bit of research on the novel afterwards, I discovered that Steinbeck actually wrote a sequel to it.  This was weird to me; I'm not used to the classic novels I read being part of a series. I knew that I wanted to give the second book, Sweet Thursday, a shot. I stopped by a Barnes and Noble and got lucky - it was sitting right there on the shelf, waiting for me.

Sweet Thursday is structured as another collection of  connected stories about the residents of Cannery Row in Monterey, California. This novel picks up shortly after WWII ends, several years after the events of the first novel. The intervening years have brought many changes to the neighborhood. For example, Lee Chong no longer owns the grocery store, and Dora, the brothel owner, has passed away in her sleep. Henri, the artist, has left town and the sardine canneries for which the street was named are now closed due to over-fishing. Some of the residents still remain, however, including Mack and most of his boys living in the Palace Flophouse and Doc, the kindly marine biologist that everyone loves and looks to for advice.

Most of the stories in the collection center around the neighborhood's quest to find a wife for Doc. Doc has come back from an administrative job in the war feeling depressed, and he isn't sure why. His old hobbies no longer satisfy him, and he finds himself struggling to settle back into his pre-war routines of catching and preserving marine animals for schools and museums. He tries to offset this sadness by writing a research paper on the octopus, but finds himself unable to even get started on it, and his inability to do this depresses him further. The rest of the town can sense his struggles and they decide to try and help by finding him a woman to marry.

They settle on Suzy, a new arrival in town that has recently started working at The Bear Flag, the town's brothel. Suzy isn't cut out to be a working girl. She speaks her mind too readily, is very disagreeable, and doesn't fit in with the rest of the girls. Despite that, there's something about her that draws people in. Fauna, the new madam of The Bear Flag, determines that she would be better suited as a wife, and begins to nudge her towards Doc. The rest of the street, including Mack, Hazel, and the rest of the Flophouse boys, do what they can to assist her and finally, on one absolutely perfect Thursday, everything starts falling into place.

This novel was completely charming and a very fitting sequel to Cannery Row. Anyone who enjoyed the first novel will likely enjoy this second one as well. It has the same sort of endearing characters and unlikely, but funny, plot points. In fact, Sweet Thursday is even happier and more satisfying than its predecessor, with some romance added into the mix of stories. As Steinbeck's most famous works tackle social issues, like Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, it was definitely a surprise to read a lighthearted romance from him. It didn't have the same emotional impact as his more serious novels, but it was an incredibly nice, happy read.

I learned from the introduction to my edition that Steinbeck wrote Sweet Thursday after coming out a a rough patch in his own life. The death of a close friend and the dissolution of his second marriage caused him to fall into a depression. Meeting the woman who would become his third wife helped him turn things around and become happy again. He based Doc and Suzy's story on his own, which is probably why their sorrow in the beginning of the novel and their recovery at the end feel so genuine. He was truly writing from his heart here, and the story is all the stronger for it.

Overall, Steinbeck's writing was, as usual, a treat to read. It flowed smoothly across the pages and brought his quirky, goodhearted characters to life. I especially loved Hazel in this novel. He isn't a smart man, but he is a loyal and well-meaning one. When he notices that Doc is struggling with something, he stops at nothing to try and help him. What he does to "help" is quite unorthodox and also completely illegal, but I have to admit, it got results. I really enjoyed watching him figure out what he could do to support his friend.

I really liked Sweet Thursday. It has all the good stuff from Cannery Row plus a nice bit of romance for a beloved character. These two novels together show a different aspect of Steinbeck than I was previously familiar with, and I enjoyed experiencing some lighter fare from him. While I can't say I would rate either of these novels higher than his more serious works, I still liked them a great deal. It's nice to read something that makes you feel good, and this series is one of those ones that lifts you up.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 14/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 27