Tuesday, November 24, 2020

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee


I only have a few match-ups left in my Then Versus Now Challenge, and I decided to finally take on the one that I was dreading the most this month. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has been a favorite of mine ever since I read it in ninth grade. Later on in my life, when I became a teacher, I taught the novel to my own students for several years. I know the story backwards and forwards. I've created projects, essays, and assignments for it and given hundreds of quizzes on its content. I know this book. I love this book. I was dreading going back to it because the only thing to match it up against was its "sequel," Go Set a Watchman. I'm getting ahead of myself though. Before taking on Watchman, I had the pleasure of rereading this Pulitzer Prize winning classic one more time.

To Kill a Mockingbird is the coming of age story of Jem and Scout Finch, two kids growing up in the sleepy Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s. Their mother passed away when Scout was just a baby, so they are being raised by their father, Atticus Finch. Atticus is a respected lawyer in town and his approach to raising his children raises a few eyebrows. His kids call him by his first name, he speaks to them with more honesty than is usual, and he allows Scout to be her true, tomboy self. Both children adore him and spend their days having little adventures all over town.

They are forced to grow up quickly, however, when Atticus agrees to take the case of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of rape by a white woman. While the residents of Maycomb genuinely like Atticus under normal circumstances, the racism of the era brings out a lot of ugliness towards him and his family as the trial draws near. This confuses Scout and offends Jem. They both wonder why Atticus agreed to take on a case that brings him so much trouble, but he explains that defending Tom is the right thing to do. He fully expects to lose in court; Maycomb's racist attitudes won't allow for a different outcome, but he believes that everyone deserves a fair trial, no matter what color their skin is. Together, Scout and Jem watch as he tries his best to get justice for Tom in the face of some serious and dangerous opposition, and they learn a lot about kindness, equality, and empathy along the way. 

To me, To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece. Although the subject matter is often sad and it depicts an ugly side of our world, its themes of fairness and understanding create an overall tone of hope. Harper Lee's writing contains a wonderful mixture of dry humor and emotion, and the plot of the story is well-constructed. Things flow nicely and make sense. The book feels complete. To me, this novel doesn't read like a typical classic. I often have a sense of disconnectedness when I read older works. I can often feel the years stretching between me and the texts. This story, however, stays in my heart. When I read it, I fall into it just like I do with newer novels. 

A big part of that feeling comes from the characters. Atticus, Scout, and Jem make you feel warm inside when you read about them; they live their lives being as good as they can, help their neighbors, and stand up for what they believe in, even when it is difficult to do so. Watching Atticus raise Jem and Scout to be honest, respectable people is satisfying. The kids get into scrapes and make mistakes, but Atticus is always there to lead them through their troubles. When he has troubles of his own, his children are there for him. Their family is one that you want to root for. This doesn't mean that they are bland though. Each character is wonderfully unique, with their own personalities. Scout, in particular, is a little spitfire. The blend of her childhood innocence and her adventurous spirit makes her an interesting, if at times unreliable, narrator. She is too young to understand the nuances of everything she witnesses in this novel, but her narration and observation of the events is enough for readers to infer the truth of the story. She grows in believable and authentic ways throughout the plot, and her coming to terms with the messiness and unfairness of life is very relatable. 

I know this novel has its detractors, especially today, in an era where the way we look at racism and inequality is rapidly changing and becoming more nuanced and refined. There are some who criticize Mockingbird for containing the white savior trope. There are others who dislike its language, which includes gratuitous use of the n-word. I've also heard the opinion that this novel, written by a white woman, does a poor job reflecting the realities of the black experience during this time period. All of those criticisms have merit. I believe, however, that the good in the novel outweighs the outdated concepts. Atticus gives us a character to look up to, to admire. Perhaps he's impossibly good, but most literary heroes are. His story gives us hope that with compassion and patience, we can make a better world. These ideas are timeless and keep this novel relevant today even though some of its story hasn't aged well. My feelings for this book haven't changed over several readings. It is truly a special story and remains one of my very favorite classics.

 Challenge Tally

Then vs. Now: 22/27

Total Books Read in 2020: 76

Monday, November 23, 2020

Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

The last book left in my True Books 2020 Challenge this year was Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton. I rescued this memoir off my husband's donate pile when he was reorganizing his books ages ago. I was initially drawn to it because of the high praise it received from Anthony Bourdain, who called it, "the best memoir by a chef ever." I was also curious to see what kind of struggles Hamilton might have had to face as a woman trying to succeed in the male-dominated culinary world. Happy to read something shorter and less dense than my last few picks have been, I got started.

The memoir begins with Hamilton's unconventional childhood with a pair of artsy, bohemian parents. Her French mother introduced her to all sorts of simple, fresh foods, immaculately prepared. Rather than the traditional kid fare of chicken nuggets and mac and cheese, Hamilton grew up eating classic, simple dishes with ingredients like olives, sardines, rabbit, and fiddleheads. She spent her days playing with her siblings in their large, secluded home in the forest, and attending a series of elaborate parties hosted by her parents each year. She lived this way quite happily until her parents divorced when she was a young teenager. From that point forward, she became fiercely independent. She lied about her age in order to take a series of restaurant jobs, in which she gradually moved from washing dishes, to prepping food, to serving in a bar. As she moved around from place to place after finishing high school, working with food was a constant in her life. Even so, she wasn't nurturing any ambitions to become a chef as a young adult. Food was simply her comfort zone and a reliable way to bring in money.

Her memoir skips around a bit from there as she recounts the path that led her towards opening a restaurant. She spent time working a series of high-end catering jobs and worked for several years as the chef at a children's summer camp. She also spent some time backpacking across Europe, where she learned about all different sorts of cuisines. A brief moment of dissatisfaction with her career path led her to enroll in a college and get her MFA in creative writing, but she returned to food jobs soon after that was over. Eventually, an acquaintance mentioned an empty café space he had for sale, and she decided to take the plunge and open Prune, her own restaurant. She served the simple kind of food with classic ingredients she ate growing up and it was an immediate success.

The final section of the memoir deals mostly with her meeting and marrying her husband and having her two sons. Her marriage is unconventional and largely unhappy, but she does enjoy interacting with her husband's Italian family. They own a large villa in Italy, and her trips there over the summer further expand her culinary education.

Much like with the last few novels I've read this month, I felt split on this one. On the positive side, the first half was quite interesting and engaging. I enjoyed seeing Hamilton's weird and risky adolescence and the beginnings of her career. Her writing was often vivid and beautiful, especially when she was describing food. There were a lot of passages in here that made me and curious to try different meals. This was also a relatively quick read, which was something I definitely needed after making my way through some longer books recently.

On the negative side, I felt like this memoir lacked a strong narrative flow. Chunks of Hamilton's life and career are completely skipped over, leaving me wondering about what happened in the missing sections. For example, in one chapter she describes opening her restaurant for the first time, then the next chapter abruptly picks back up with it being wildly successful. There were a lot of moments like this, where she'd be doing something like appearing on Martha Stewart or speaking at the Culinary Institutes of America with absolutely no explanation as to what led up to these opportunities. As a result, the story felt incomplete. The second half of the memoir, which dealt largely with her ill-fated and extremely depressing marriage, really drifted away from food and was dreary to get through. It actually made me quite sad for her, as I can't imagine living the strange, loveless life she did for so long. It wasn't what I was expecting or looking for in a memoir about the rise of a chef. 

On top of this, her general attitude and demeanor seemed to grow increasingly entitled and arrogant throughout the story. At one point, she tells an anecdote about how she blocked a bus stop so she could sit in her car with her husband and drink beers and eat salami sandwiches. She literally describes elderly people struggling to walk around her car to board the bus like readers are supposed to think this is cute or endearing. It was neither. Once I realized that I did not enjoy Hamilton's personality, it limited how interested I could be in her story. She's far from the world's worst person, but there were enough moments where she behaved in a spoiled or self-contradictory way that I was mildly irritated with her a lot throughout my reading.

In the end, I think the biggest drawback for me ended up being her position (or lack thereof) on women succeeding in the culinary world. She only addresses this in one chapter, and it is a complete mess of contradictions. She goes from believing that women have no problems in the profession anymore, to regarding women who take jobs at food magazines in order to spend more time with their families as being quitters who will never be successful, to believing that she did have to work harder sometimes to keep up with the guys, to crying about not being at home with her babies in the space of ten pages or so. I suppose being a woman in a traditionally male field is tough because other women are frequently going to look to you as some kind of role model or expert on how to succeed, even when you don't have opinions or advice to give. Hamilton really does not. She went from working in catering to owning her own restaurant. She didn't have to struggle under male chefs in culinary school or other restaurants as she worked her way up. Her experience wasn't easy, but it wasn't riddled with institutional sexism either. I can't blame her for that, but I do wish she had left the topic out entirely. The chapter devoted to it was not satisfying to read and not flattering to her.

So while I obviously had some issues with this one, it was certainly engaging enough to keep my attention. I feel like if it were any longer, my review might be different. As it was however, Blood, Bones, and Butter was a quick read about a world that I know very little about. It was interesting to see how Gabrielle Hamilton made her way to the top of the food world, even if she took an unconventional path and even if her personality rubbed me the wrong way at times. Despite all the picky things I have to say about it, I did ultimately enjoy the novel more than I disliked it.

As I mentioned at the top of this review, this was the last book in my True Books 2020 Challenge! I definitely succeeded in my goal to read more nonfiction this year. I'm so pleased to have finished this one successfully.

Challenge Tally

True Books 2020: 14/14 - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2020: 75

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie


I first came across Midnight's Children when I was researching titles for my Classics Club list. I knew that I wanted to include works from diverse authors, and this novel popped right up while I was exploring different possibilities. I didn't know much about Salman Rushdie before reading, only that he famously had a fatwa issued for his assassination in Iran after he published his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses. I was interested to read something from him, and I figured that Midnight's Children, winner of both the Booker Prize and the Best of Booker Prize, was a great place to start. 

The plot of the novel is pretty epic and meandering, making it a difficult one to adequately summarize. Essentially, Midnight's Children is the strange and fantastical story of Saleem Sinai, a young man whose life has intimate and magical connections to the history of India. Saleem was born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the exact date of India's independence. The timing of his birth imbues him with powerful psychic powers, and as he grows up, he discovers that he can see into people's minds. Most importantly, he is able to form a psychic link with the hundreds of other children who share his birthday and who also have a wide array of magical powers of their own. He comes to call this group the Midnight Children, and the meetings he facilitates in his mind to bring them together he calls the Midnight's Children Conferences. 

As the story progresses, Saleem weaves together an incredibly intricate and far-reaching story about himself and his family that spans generations. He speaks of both small, simple things from his childhood and more weighty matters from his adult life. The actions he takes, whether significant or insignificant, tend to have a ripple effect that impacts major historical and political events in India. In time, he comes to believe that his life has a direct influence on his country. He initially thinks that this connection to India and his ability to connect all the Midnight's Children could be used for some good, moral purpose. However, as time goes on and the children grow increasingly different from each other, he eventually abandons that idea. Similarly, other parts of his life begin to sour right alongside the political situation in his country, leading him down a strange and twisted path that he never could have envisioned for himself.  

Midnight's Children was an incredibly detailed and well-crafted novel. It is very obvious that Salman Rushdie is a uniquely talented writer and his novels deserve all the praise and accolades they have acquired over the years. I don't think I've ever read something so full of little writerly tricks before. Images, ideas, and events repeat throughout the text in unexpected and satisfying ways, characters pop in and out in the most unlikely and interesting places, and the interactions between Saleem's life and his country's history were interesting to watch unfold. Saleem was a well-constructed unreliable narrator, and Rushdie did a nice job of including enough plausible and implausible information throughout the book to keep readers guessing as to how much of what he was describing was real. It's the kind of good book that you know is good while you are reading it.

However, at the same time, Midnight's Children was not a good book for me. While the care and skill in its construction was obvious, I found reading it to be a surprisingly unpleasant experience. The story itself is ugly and dark. Tragedy upon tragedy besets Saleem and his family, and they bring a lot of it on themselves. They are a quarrelsome, vicious bunch of characters most of the time, and I didn't particularly enjoy any of them. The story was often gross as well. One of the major symbols throughout the plot is Saleem's massive nose, which is constantly dripping snot everywhere for most of the novel. It's mentioned a lot and I got tired of hearing about it pretty quickly. When combined with the numerous descriptions of other oddly sized body parts, spit, and urine that fill the pages, it just felt disgusting to me a lot of the time, which didn't make for a nice, relaxing read.

I also couldn't get away from the nagging feeling that this was a book written by a man for other men to find meaningful. I'm not trying to say that women can't enjoy this book, because of course they can, it just felt to me like a man's story. There were several female characters present, but they definitely were of secondary importance the the male characters, and there were a few weird sexual situations throughout that I didn't love. For example, at one point in his childhood, Saleem accidentally sees his mother naked. He describes her backside as a "black mango," which is off-putting enough on it's own, but he continually brings up the black mango throughout the rest of the story. Accidentally seeing your parents naked is almost a rite of passage for kids, but this way of describing it and fixating on it definitely felt like something only a man would write. There were quite a few little things like that sprinkled throughout the story that felt a bit alienating to me or made me roll my eyes.  

Midnight's Children contains 540 pages of very small print, and making my way through a story that long without being invested in the characters and feeling grossed out by a lot of it was a trial for me. While I can clearly see that Rushdie created a remarkable work here with many excellent qualities, I also just didn't have that great of a time reading it. It felt more like work than a relaxing activity. It's weird to feel so split on a novel with such a positive reputation, but not every book is going to suit every reader, no matter how critically acclaimed it may be. Ultimately, I'm not mad that I read this and I'm happy that I increased my knowledge of classic literature, but I don't think I'm going to be seeking out more of Rushdie's novels in the future.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#16 on my list): 79/100 books completed

Total Books Read in 2020: 74

Monday, November 9, 2020

Back to the Classics 2020 - Wrap Up Post

2020 is (finally) winding down, and I've finished another year of the Back to the Classics challenge. This year, my reading was very diverse. I sailed on a man-of-war, searched Scotland for a perfect view, was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, and traveled across Middle-Earth. I read about a boy growing up in England in the 1800s and about a boy growing up in the American South in the 1900s. I read about divorces, affairs and family dramas. I read a whole lot of poems. It was definitely a journey. Here's the complete list:     

1. 19th Century Classic: White Jacket by Herman Melville (1850) - Completed January 2020
2. 20th Century Classic: The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford (1915) - Completed April 2020
3. Classic by a Female Author: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (1913) - Completed March 2020
4. Classic in Translation: The Green Ray by Jules Verne (1882) - Completed January 2020
5. Classic by a Person of Color: Black Boy by Richard Wright (1945) - Completed February 2020
6. A Genre Classic: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954) - Completed June 2020
7. A Classic with a Person's Name in the Title: Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1886) - Completed March 2020
8. A Classic with a Place in the Title : The Tenant of Wildfeld Hall by Anne BrontĂ« (1848) - Completed March 2020
9. A Classic with Nature in the Title: The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton (1922) - Completed May 2020
11. An Abandoned Classic: Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855) - Completed August 2020
12. A Classic Adaptation: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey (1962) - Completed November 2020 

I found a few new favorites this year, which was very nice. In particular, Wives and Daughters, The Green Ray, and The Glimpses of the Moon stand out as ones I will remember. In a year where a I ended up reading a lot of books I didn't quite click with, my selections for this challenge were largely enjoyable.

I finished all twelve prompts, meaning I get three entries in the prize drawing. If I should win, I can be contacted at quiet.kristina [at] gmail [dot] com.

As always, I adore Back to the Classics. This was my sixth time completing it and I'm already ready to do it all over again next year and make my way through even more books.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey


My final prompt for the Back to the Classics Challenge was to read a classic with a movie adaptation. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was already on my Classics Club list and suited the category perfectly. The movie version of this novel is very famous in its own right, and I had somehow never seen it before. I decided that now was the time to read the book and then give the movie a try, to see how they compared.

The novel is told from the point of view of "Chief" Bromden, a long-term patient at a psychiatric hospital. He pretends like he is deaf and mute, but he can actually hear and speak just fine - he simply chooses not to interact with others. He struggles with paranoia and is subject to a lot of delusions. He believes that he and all the other patients are being controlled by something he calls the "combine," a vast mechanism that uses listening devices to break everyone's spirits and keep them in line. This idea is personified in Nurse Ratched, the head nurse on the ward. She controls the patients and staff with an iron fist, and employs several cruel strategies to keep everyone in their place.  Bromden, and everyone else, are afraid of her. 

Bromden is a keen observer as well, and as a result, he knows quite a lot about the other patients and staff at the hospital. Through his (unreliable) narration, he tells us the story of what happens when a new patient, Randle McMurphy, is admitted to his ward. Right away, McMurphy is obviously different from the rest of the men. He's loud, crude, and doesn't care much for authority. He's also extremely charismatic and quite fond of gambling. Right away, he begins making friends with the other patients and making friendly wagers with them. They bet on cards and many other random things over McMurphy's first few weeks. Eventually, as he grows closer and closer to the other patients, he starts to see them as more than easy marks. He begins to actually care about them a little and starts encouraging them to laugh and loosen up.

Of course, Nurse Ratched is aghast at these developments. McMurphy's unpredictable, boisterous behavior and his effect on the other patients are elements that she can't control, and it drives her crazy. Determined to regain her dominance over the ward, she exerts as much cruel, quiet pressure on the men as she can. Frustrated with her behavior, McMurphy sets up a new wager with the men. He bets them that he can get rid of Nurse Ratched in a week. This bet sets off a chain of events leading to a violent, shocking conclusion. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a story about the machine of American society, individuality, control, and what happens when mental health is thrown into that mix. 

My thoughts on this book are very scattered, and I've been struggling to write this review for a few days now. I did enjoy reading it, and I think it's a unique story that gives its readers a lot to think about. Its characters are well developed, with McMurphy and Nurse Rached in particular being very memorable. The writing style was very readable too and the story was easy to get into. I liked its exploration of mental health issues in the sixties, including the use of electroshock therapy and lobotomies. It's clear that Kesey was no fan of how patients in these facilities were treated during this time and he does a good job conveying the barbarity of a lot of the practices typically employed. This feels like a notable postmodern classic when you are reading it, and it's clear to see why the work has endured over time. It's not exactly my favorite kind of book, but I can see why others love it. I'm sure the movie adaptation aids its popularity as well, as many of the performances in that are widely praised.

What stopped me from just writing a generally positive review and moving on here was how incredibly poorly it has aged. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are blatant throughout its pages. The black orderlies that work at the hospital are continually referred to using slurs (including the N-word at one point) and described as homosexual rapists, there is a Japanese nurse repeated referred to using a slur, and the female characters are all either evil or promiscuous. At one point, the men tell McMurphy that Nurse Rached is unbeatable because she is so old that no one can "get it up" for her to rape her into compliance, which is pretty horrible on several different levels. Of course, one can always make the argument that the time period the novel was written in excuses this. To an extent, I suppose it does. However, the sheer amount of offensive material in here seems extreme.

This novel, with it's blend of strong literary elements and outdated, offensive content made me question - at what point does a classic novel outlive its readability? If I were black, or gay, I certainly wouldn't feel like reading this was valuable or enriching to my life. As a woman, I was pretty close to feeling like it wasn't really worth the read as it was. I think this is one case where just watching the movie adaptation is probably enough, especially if you belong to one of the groups Kesey marginalizes. 

So ultimately, this was a mixed bag for me. I settled on a three star review - a middle rating for a book I felt split on. The novel is clearly notable for its time period and the story is compelling. However, it has not aged well at all, which makes me question whether anyone really needs to read it anymore. There are so many wonderful novels out there in the world. I'm still not sure if the (admittedly sizable) literary merits of this one justify me spending my limited reading time on it.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2020 (A Classic Adaptation): 12/12 - Completed!
Classics Club (#90 on my list): 78/100 books completed

Total Books Read in 2020: 73

Saturday, October 31, 2020

October Wrap Up


October ended up being a pretty awful reading month for me. It's a shame, because I had been saving up some of my darker reads for now and I was excited to do a little seasonal theming. I ended up completely losing my reading momentum with The Last Man, which I did not enjoy at all. I compounded the problem next by picked up The Witches, which was interesting, but way too dense for my mood at the time. I ended up only finishing three books and falling woefully short of my goals. Here's what I ended up completing:

I'm hoping to get myself back on track in November. My goal is to finish reading the books I set for myself in October and then continue chipping away at my other reading challenges as best I can. Here's my list:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey 
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
The Last Policeman by Ben Winters
Thorn by Intisar Khanani
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

When I'm not enjoying reading, I don't feel like myself. Hopefully November will set me straight again. 

The Witches by Stacy Schiff

After the disaster that was reading The Last Man, I was anxious to get into another book and revive my interest in reading. Next up on my list was The Witches by Stacy Schiff. This nonfiction novel about the Salem witch trials was part of my True Books 2020 Challenge. I had been saving this one until October to read, as it seemed to be a good match for the season. I live close enough to Salem to go there for a weekend, so I was hoping to learn about all about what happened back in 1692, and then go see some of the historical sites. Covid has ruined that plan, at least for now, but I was still interested to learn about this weird part of American history.

The Witches is an extremely detailed account of the hysteria that gripped Salem in 1692 when a group of teenage girls went into strange fits and began accusing their neighbors of practicing witchcraft. As their Puritan community believed wholeheartedly in the existence of witches, the girls' stories were taken seriously and the accused were arrested and put on trial. The Puritan community was soon turned on its head, as more and more accusations were made and more and more "witches" were rounded up and put in prison. Some were prosecuted and were put to death, while others saved themselves by confessing to consorting with the devil and naming other witches for the witch hunters to round up. Neighbors accused neighbors, daughters accused mothers, and husbands accused wives. Before the fervor died down, Massachusetts executed fourteen women, five men, and two dogs for witchcraft, and imprisoned many more. The incident tore the community apart and left deep wounds that took generations to heal.

Schiff conveys the story chronologically, starting by giving the reader a picture of how Salem was founded and what it was like to live there in the 1690s. From there, she describes the initial accusations and traces how the fear and suspicion always present in Salem started a runaway sequence of events that led to a lot of innocent people being killed. She discusses the trials themselves, the executions that took place, and the eventual petering out of the mayhem once it became unsustainable. The Salem Witch Trials are one of those events from history that seem unbelievable, but Schiff does a nice job giving as much context and reasoning as possible to explain how it happened.

I learned a lot of interesting things from this novel, but not without a price. This was obviously a well-researched and expertly constructed account, but part of it were very dry. The middle of the story was especially challenging, as it felt like a lot of the same type of information being given over and over. There are only so many accounts of ridiculously false testimony you can read before getting bored. There were also a lot of moments where Schiff detoured into the background of various people, which I felt stopped the momentum of the book. Additionally, there were a lot of names to keep track of, and I found it impossible to keep everyone straight. It wasn't necessary to remember exactly who everyone was to understand the overall narrative, but it did bother me a bit that I couldn't recall who everyone was as I was reading. 

Overall, I did enjoy my experience with The Witches, but I found parts of it difficult to get through. I think that maybe I wasn't in the right mood for another long, dense read after The Last Man, so part of this is my fault. I ended up learning a lot though, so it was a successful experience. I won't remember this as one of my favorite nonfiction reads, but I will definitely remember what I learned about history from it. I am still hoping to visit Salem myself one day, once this Covid nightmare is over. 

Challenge Tally

True Books 2020: 13/14

Total Books Read in 2020: 72