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Friday, July 30, 2021

July Wrap Up


So, July is over and I actually did okay on my reading goals! I finished everything I set out to do and even found a few new favorites. Here's what I read:

My favorite read of the month was The Bear by Andrew Krivak, which I found to be really poignant and unique. I also truly loved The Girl from the Sea. Both made it onto my all-time favorites list.

My least favorite read of the month was The Little White Horse, which is so strange for me. It's a classic children's novel, and I generally love those. This one, however, I found to be quite preachy and full of sexist ideas. 

In August, I'm going to try and finish another one of the gigantic classics I have left on my Classics Club list, and then spend the rest of the month trying to power through some random books from my shelves. Here's the plan:

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
At least two books chosen from my owned-not-read list based on my mood
At least 100 pages of Les Misérables

I am very intimidated by Gravity's Rainbow. It's another book in the 700 page zone and it's not the type of classic I typically enjoy. I'll be glad to get it finished, but I'm not expecting to enjoy the experience. I hope to be wrong about this though! 

At this point, I only have four books left from my Classics Club list to read. It's insane that I'm so close to meeting my goal. There's definitely some challenging books left on there though, so it's not over yet. If I manage to stick to this plan, I'll only have two left to try and read in September, and one of them is Les Misérables, which I'm already about 900 pages into right now. Let's hope I can stay on track! 

The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag


With the end of July swiftly approaching, I decided to pick up a shorter book next so that I could meet my goal of reading two non-classic books from my shelves this month. I went with a young adult graphic novel that I picked up recently, The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag. This initially caught my eye at Barnes and Noble because of the beautiful artwork on the cover, but when I flipped through it and saw that it involved selkies and was LGBTQIA+ friendly, I knew I had to give it a try.

The plot of the novel follows a fifteen year old girl named Morgan who lives in a small island town with her mom and little brother. She's been feeling a bit emotional lately because her parents recently split up. her brother's been acting quite mean as a result of it, and, on top of all that, she's gay and feels too scared to come out to her friends and family. She has a plan though. She is determined to finish high school and then move to a college somewhere far away. She reasons that once she's away from everyone that knows her, she can finally be herself and have a bit of a fresh start. She just has to lay low for the next few years until she can make her escape. 

Her carefully crafted plan is turned on its head, however, when she slips and falls into the ocean one night and is rescued by a cute and mysterious girl named Keltie. Keltie appears to be some sort of mythical sea creature, so Morgan assumes that she's hallucinating her after her fall, but soon enough she learns the truth-- Keltie is real and she is a selkie. Both girls are attracted to each other and before long they start relationship. Morgan wants to keep it a secret because she hasn't come out as gay to anyone in her life yet, but Keltie, who doesn't really understand the prejudices of human society, is very hurt by this. She agrees to carry on in secret though, because the feelings between the pair are so strong.

Aside from the issues surrounding the girls' romance, there are other problems happening on the island. A new boat tour is due to start running soon, and the pollution from this threatens to destroy Keltie's ocean community. In order to try and fix it, she needs Morgan's help. Getting involved in the situation, however, conflicts with Morgan's desire to fit in and not draw attention to herself. She must decide if she wants to step up and fully put herself out there in front of everyone she knows, or continue to stay safe and anonymous in the background. 

This book was an absolute delight and I really loved every page of it. The story was a really interesting blend of social issues and fantasy, and the relationships between the characters felt authentic and genuine. Morgan's fears about her sexuality were very relatable and her romance with Keltie was sweet and pure. The themes of acceptance, honestly, and bravery were perfect for a young adult audience. The illustrations were beautiful as well. The color palette was bright and friendly and many of the pages made me pause to appreciate just how pretty they were. It really was fantastic.

One thing I especially liked about the messaging in the story was the idea that it's important to be yourself right now. Morgan continually made plans to be free and open eventually, but Keltie's influence pushes her to change her plans and embrace who she is right away. As someone that also puts off doing things until conditions are "perfect," I could relate to the wisdom of this idea that we shouldn't wait to seize our happiness. I think this is a great message for younger readers to hear, and one that is relatable to everyone, no matter what situation they are struggling with.

It was a really nice surprise to find another favorite with The Girl from the Sea. This was a sweet read with excellent themes and a lot of heart. I know I'm going to be recommending this book like crazy to my students next year. As far as young adult graphic novels go, you can't do much better than this.

Challenge Tally
Clear the Shelves 2021: 18/50 (keep)

Total Books Read in 2021: 37

The Bear by Andrew Krivak


After making my way through 700 pages of Vanity Fair this month, I wanted to move onto a shorter and easier read. I decided to try The Bear, a 2020 literary fiction novel by Andrew Krivak. I first heard about this book on YouTube, and what caught my attention was the fact that one of the characters is an actual bear. Bears are one of my favorite animals, so I knew I had to pick it up. I bought it when it first came out and it's been sitting on my shelf ever since. As it's only about 220 pages long, it seemed like the perfect follow up to the dense classic I just finished. So, I finally got started on it, hoping for a relaxing time and wondering how exactly a bear was going to fit into the story.

The plot of the novel follows the last two people on earth, a father and his young daughter. Whatever event that happened to lead to human extinction happened so long ago that neither father nor daughter know what happened. All they know is how their lives are now; they live off the land, hunting game and foraging in the dense forest around them to survive. The father works to teach the daughter everything he knows about survival, as he knows that once he is gone, she will be completely alone. Luckily, the daughter is strong and capable. As she grows from child to teenager, she becomes a skilled hunter and learns to take care of herself.

Eventually, on a long foraging journey away from their small cabin, the father passes away. The daughter, all on her own now, is nearly crippled by her grief and despair. In her darkest moment, a bear emerges from the woods and speaks to her. He encourages her to keep going and agrees to travel beside her as she makes her way back home. Along the way she faces harsh winter conditions and must call on all of the knowledge her father gave her to survive. The Bear is a story about grief, loss, and memory, and about the connections humans can have with the natural world.

This novel was absolutely beautiful. Krivak tells the story using simple prose that reads almost like a fairy tale, but in a way that remains grounded in reality. It seems strange to say that while discussing a book with talking animals, but somehow this feels more like a natural occurrence than a magical one in the context of the story. The characters, who remain unnamed, feel genuine as well. It is easy to form an empathetic connection with both the father and the daughter. It's been awhile since I've felt emotional while reading, but I was definitely moved by this story in a couple of places. Watching the daughter struggle to come to some kind of acceptance and peace after the loss of her father, knowing that she is completely alone in the world, definitely pulled on my heartstrings. Krivak does a nice job of exploring how we grieve and how we carry forward the memories of those we've lost, and the fact that it's set against the background of the end of humanity added a lot of interesting layers to think about.

The connection between the humans in the story and nature was interesting to explore. The father and daughter were completely at the mercy of the woods around them, and conditions were often hostile to them. At the same time, they were able to find everything they needed to live through their own ingenuity and hard work. They respected the natural world and made good use of everything they took from it. The daughter in particular learns to live so well in the wild that she develops almost a sixth sense for survival there and is able to communicate on different levels with the plants and animals. Of course, the best example of this is her relationship with the bear, who emerges from the woods to help her find her way out of her despair. Watching these characters and their spiritual connection to the wilderness made me contemplate if all of our innovations and conveniences have robbed us of something important. The book is never preachy on this point, but it does lead one to think about their relationship with nature and the interconnectedness of all living things.

Ultimately, I think that The Bear is a tremendous novel and I can't recommend it highly enough. It's a quick read that managed to explore big concepts in a tender and genuine way. It felt special and important and it made me think about love and loss in a lot of different ways. When I first started reading, I didn't really think I'd be discovering a new favorite, but that's exactly what happened. This is undoubtedly going to be one of my favorite books of the year.   

Challenge Tally
Clear the Shelves 2021: 17/50 (keep)

Total Books Read in 2021: 36

Monday, July 26, 2021

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray


I think I initially wanted to read Vanity Fair as a teenager because of Reese Witherspoon. She starred in a movie adaptation of the novel back in the 2000s, and as a kid that grew up watching Legally Blonde and Cruel Intentions, I wanted to see whatever she did. I decided to read the book before watching the movie, so I bought the novel way back when I was in high school. I actually started reading it, but its length and difficult language were a bit too much for me back then. It was one of the few books I ended up putting down (I never ended up watching the movie either). I always knew I wanted to go back to it eventually, so I put it on my Classics Club list. When I saw that the Back to the Classics Challenge had a prompt to read a humorous or satirical classic this year, I knew that Vanity Fair would be the perfect fit. I started off my reading once again, hoping that all my experience over the years reading classics would help me to do better than I did on my first attempt.

The plot of the novel follows several different characters living in England during the Napoleonic Wars, the most prominent of which is Becky Sharp. Becky is a penniless orphan from a lower class family at the start of the story, but she doesn't let that get her down. She is determined to climb her way to the top of the social hierarchy using her formidable powers of deception, flattery, and flirtation. Throughout the course of the novel, she schemes her way into a marriage far above her station and then proceeds to live quite lavishly on "nothing a year" through her husband's meager gambling winnings, extensive lines of credit, and manipulation of her friends and in-laws. Her spirit is admirable, but her methods are very selfish and ruthless. Before long, her intricate system of lies and deceit start to catch up with her and she must find a way to maintain the social position she worked so hard to achieve.

Another character we follow through the novel is Amelia Sedley, an old school friend of Becky's that is in every way her opposite. Where Becky is devious, tricky, and bold, Amelia is shy, meek, and obedient. She starts the novel off very comfortable financially, but when her father loses his fortune through poor business decisions, she finds herself at the lower end of society. Instead of scheming to climb back up like Becky does, she quietly accepts her fate, performs all the admirable duties of a good daughter, and suffers mightily for it. Her fall stands in stark contrast to Becky's rise, and the reader is left to wonder if all her goodness will end up being rewarded in the end. 

Through the stories of Becky, Amelia, and a handful of other characters, Thackeray mercilessly lampoons English society and their fixation on social status and money. The novel abounds with instances of people behaving quite badly under the corrupting influence of wealth. They betray friends and family, disregard the feelings of others, and generally behave like monsters in the pursuit of obtaining or maintaining their money. The rich are shown to be silly and callous and the characters that struggle or don't care much about such things are generally shown to be more admirable than their richer counterparts. The overall message is clear - there is nothing about having a lot of money that makes anyone particularly deserving of luxury or status. The divisions between people that have money and those that don't are entirely random, and not at all connected to strength of character or innate goodness. The process of acquiring money if you don't have it is quite corrupting and can lead to personal disaster when taken too far. At the same time, sacrificing and living without can lead one into an equal amount of misery and sadness. Essentially, money is tricky, life is random, and people are terrible. The book is really funny though, I swear.
I enjoyed Vanity Fair well enough. It was full of biting sarcasm and hilarious characters. I appreciated the sense of humor throughout it and could tell that Thackeray was a master of social satire. What I struggled with was its length. My edition of the novel had 696 pages of tiny print, and most of that felt rather aimless. It follows many characters over the course of many year and there's never really one driving plot that unites them all together. It's that kind of book where you're watching characters doing things and have no idea what any of it is building to; you're just along for the ride. There are a lot of obscure allusions to culture and history from the time period which were difficult to understand as well, so parts of the text were confusing. I tried to set myself a goal of reading 50 pages a day, and it was tough to stick to that. It was good, but it definitely wasn't a page turner. If you're in the mood for a big, thick classic though, you could definitely do worse. 

I think what I liked the most about the story were the shades of gray among the characters. No one is all good or all bad, not even Becky, who has got to be one of the most outrageously selfish characters of all time. This made the story feel a bit more authentic, even though it's clearly a satire. Similarly, I liked the idea in the text that those who end up with money don't necessarily deserve it. Those who rise or fall in society largely do so based on accidents of birth, and hard work or virtue do not provide a straight path to financial security or even to happiness. In fact, it's often that people succeed by employing the exact opposite tactics. These are cynical ideas to be sure, but they make for an interesting story. It's funny that although this book was set during the 1800s, the ways money can cause problems in society hasn't really changed that much. It was the root of all evil back then and it remains so today.

Overall, I thought Vanity Fair was a solid read, although the process of getting through it felt hopelessly long a lot of the time. Still, it had an interesting cast of characters, contained some excellent social commentary, and definitely gave the reader a lot to think about. I'm glad to have experienced this one; meeting Becky Sharp alone was worth the price of admission. Reflecting back on my first try at the novel, it's pretty cool to think about how far I have come as a reader of classics. I thought this book was too difficult back in high school, and now it was not a big deal at all to understand (obscure allusions notwithstanding). Now I suppose my next step will be to finally watch the movie adaptation and see how it measures up.

Challenge Tally

Classics Club (#64 on my list): 96/100 books completed
Back to the Classics 2021 (A Humorous or Satirical Classic): 10/12

Total Books Read in 2021: 35

Saturday, July 24, 2021

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

One of the prompts in the Back to the Classics Challenge this year was to read a children's classic. This is one of my absolute favorite types of classic to read, so I was excited for it. I've already read a lot of the most well-known books of this genre, so figuring out which one to read this year was a little bit of a challenge. I ended up searching through my Goodreads wish list for ideas and came across The Little White Horse, a children's novel written in the 1940s by Elizabeth Goudge. I first heard about this book in an article about J.K. Rowling's favorite reads (this was back when I thought she was a cool person and cared about her opinions). She recommended it and I was interested to see what it was like, so I figured I might as well give it a try now.

The novel is set in the 1840s and follows a young orphan named Maria Merryweather. As the story begins, her father has recently died and she and her governess are traveling to live with her uncle, Sir Benjamin. He lives on a fairytale-like estate named Moonacre Manor, and when Maria arrives there, everything is absolutely delightful. Her new house is like a castle, and the inside is filled with curious objects, amazing food, and beautiful clothes. There are lots of funny, loyal animals around to play with and even a young shepherd boy named Robin to befriend. There is a subtle kind of magic about the place, and Maria settles in very comfortably. The Merryweather family has an old and a deep connection to the land, the house, and the little village nearby, so she feels instantly like she belongs.

But while most things are wonderful at Moonacre, it doesn't take Maria long to figure out that there are a few wrongs bubbling underneath the surface of the idyllic estate. There is a piece of the property that one of her ancestors seized from the church long ago, and the religious community there still longs to have it back. There is also a man that lives in another castle beyond the woods bordering the estate that nurtures an old grudge against the family. He leads a band of men that routinely poach game from Merryweather property and cause general alarm in the village. Before long, Maria feels called upon to right these wrongs and she embarks on a journey filled with danger, friendship, and magic to restore Moonacre to its full glory and bring peace and happiness to everyone. 

This is one of those novels that I probably would have loved if I read it as a child. Reading it as an adult, however, with no prior knowledge of what I was getting into, was a very strange experience. Things started off well enough. Elizabeth Goudge writes with a pitch-perfect fairy tale tone, weaving in lots of detail and wonder into her descriptions. Maria was a suitably perfect little heroine, and the impossibly smart animals, rooms full of intriguing items, and Merryweather family legends created an intriguing start to the story. It was very cute and very proper, just like you would expect a children's classic to be. 

Eventually however, as Maria started learning more about Moonacre, I realized that I was reading one of those deeply religious children's stories. Similar to The Chronicles of Narnia, the Christian themes ran very deep here. Large amounts of the plot dealt with returning a parcel of land "back to God" and Maria worked closely with the town parson to make that happen. Lots and lots of time is spent describing church services and religious ceremonies. It is clear that one of Goudge's main purposes in the story is to promote Christianity, which is fine if that lines up with your beliefs, but I was more into this novel for the fantasy. This was a very preachy read. I'm not religious, so I was bored with these elements. 

The book also reinforces a number of gender stereotypes, which is very common in an older children's story, but I was annoyed by it a bit more than usual in this novel. This is probably because the story directly advocates for girls to be agreeable, proper, and not cause a fuss. One of the subplots involved the breakup of Sir Benjamin's engagement when he was a young man, and the problem was that he and his fiancée had a minor disagreement about something small. When Maria heard about this, she chastises the woman involved for being petty and not agreeing to what Sir Benjamin wanted. Her uncle receives no such criticism, even though he was equally at fault in the situation. Other examples of stereotypes abound throughout the plot as well: all the women in the story are described as small, dainty, and beautiful, female virtue is consistently equated with obedience, and at one point, Maria spends part of the novel in a wedding dress and is claimed as a future bride by another character. There are even a few characters in the story that state point-blank that they do not like women, and have to be won over by Maria's sweetness. A lot of plot elements in it aged very poorly, and I know it sounds silly to be critical of a novel written in the 1940s for this, but honestly, it was a lot. 

There were a couple of other parts of the story that didn't age well for different reasons. The Meryweather family, for example, it pretty deeply inter-married. Lots of cousin incest. Lots. In fact, the boy Maria ends up with is distantly related to her, so it's not like the incest was something that only Merryweather ancestors did. Another issue was the name of the antagonist of the story, Monsieur Coque de Noir. He has taken a black rooster to be his symbol and he actually carries a black rooster around with him frequently. Unfortunately, he is called the "black cock" throughout the story, and several references are made to the black cock that he carries around everywhere. I know this is me being immature, but I couldn't help but snicker every time I read about the black cock on his shoulder. Those words appear over and over throughout the text and are hilarious every time. This was all very distracting and took me out of the story. 

So basically, this won't be remembered as a particular favorite of mine. I didn't hate it, but it was so religious and full of stereotypes that I couldn't really enjoy it either. That being said, I can totally understand why people who read it when they were children feel an attachment to it. It is magical. It is full of wonder and adventure. Young readers of the past wouldn't notice anything else. Coming to it as an adult wasn't a worthwhile experience. I'm going to chalk this up to one more disappointment J.K. Rowling has given me and move on with my reading life. 

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2021 (A Children's Classic): 9/12

Total Books Read in 2021: 34

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

The Tempest by William Shakespeare

I had a few Shakespeare plays left on my Classics Club list, so I decided to try one of them for my next read. I settled on The Tempest, a play I didn't know too much about but was intrigued by. Prior to starting, all I knew was that it contained magic and a wizard-like main character. That sounded so weird for a Shakespeare play that I had to see what it was like. The fact that it was also pretty short interested me as well. I've read a lot of long books lately and I wanted a bit of a break. I went into my reading hoping for a unique experience, and I wasn't disappointed. 

The plot of the drama centers around Prospero, the former Duke of Milan. As the play begins, he's been stranded on a remote island with his daughter Miranda. They've been there for twelve years after Prospero fell victim to a plot to depose him led by his own brother, Antonio, and Alonso, the King of Naples. Prospero is a powerful sorcerer, and he uses his magical abilities to control the only two other beings on the island, Caliban and Ariel, whom he uses as his servants. Caliban is described as a monstrous creature of some sort, and Ariel is a magical spirit. Both submit to Prospero's bidding and are essentially his slaves.

Prospero has little to do on the island aside from tutor his daughter and dream about getting revenge on Antonio and Alonso. He finally gets his chance when they sail near his island on their way back from a royal wedding. He uses his magic to create a tempest and has Ariel to shipwreck them, causing them both to wash up on his beach along with a handful of other prominent nobles, including King Alonso's son, Ferdinand. With all his old enemies within his grasp, Prospero enacts an elaborate scheme to get vengeance on those who wronged him and get his title back. He uses a combination of matchmaking, guilt, and deception to push his way back to the top, and delivers a powerful message about loyalty and family to those who don't understand the value of it.

As I mentioned before, I knew going in that this play was different from the Shakespeare works I was familiar with. That ended up being a bit of an understatement. This play was absolutely wild. It had no rules. There were magic spells, spirits, witches, invisibility cloaks, and even some literal goddesses. You could never predict what would happen next, because it seemed like anything could happen in this world. No background is ever established for all these odd elements. Prospero seemed to have a lot of power, although where it came and the way he used it was very unclear. There was a mention of him needing certain books to wield it, but details on any of those elements were basically nonexistent. Caliban was repeatedly referred to as some kind of misshapen monster, but exactly what he is and what powers he may have had aren't described. It was the same for Ariel. Where he came from, what he could do, and the magic Prospero relied on to control him was never explained. It was all pretty bewildering.

This is a play, of course, and it was written a very long time ago, so I'm not going to knock it for not having modern worldbuilding or descriptions; this was meant to be seen, after all, and not read. My goodness though, it was strange. It felt different than other Shakespeare plays that included magical elements. I read A Midsummer Night's Dream and Macbeth in high school, and of course I read Hamlet just recently. All of those have elements of magic or the supernatural in them. This play felt weirder and more disorienting than all of them though. You definitely had to suspend your disbelief to get into the story.

That being said though, this was still a fun play to read. The setting was bizarre, but the themes were relatable and pretty standard for a Shakespeare play. Prospero suffers a betrayal. He wants his rightful title restored and he wants to punish those who wronged him. His brother Antonio is a ruthless and greedy character, hungry for power and wealth. King Alonso is a man tempted into a misuse of his power, and he regrets it bitterly when confronted with the possible loss of his son. Ariel owes Prospero a debt and must repay it in order to regain his freedom. Miranda and Ferdinand are an innocents struggling under the weight of their families' misdeeds, but hopeful in making their own happiness. All of these situations and characters are compelling and make for an interesting story. Watching them, with their very human problems, interact with the supernatural set dressing was engaging. 

The Tempest is categorized as either a comedy or a tragicomedy depending on which source you look at. It contains both comedic and serious elements, and it doesn't end in a bloodbath, so either label will work. With all the magic and lack of murders, it was definitely a different experience from two of my more recent reads--Hamlet and King Lear. It was more lighthearted for sure, and I think that made it feel less impactful as well. I didn't find myself forming much of a bond with the characters or coming to care deeply about their situations. The stakes never felt particularly high, despite all the dramatic magical displays. I was still entertained though, and I think this would be awesome to see performed in a theater. Out of all the Shakespeare plays I have read, this one falls in the middle of the pack for me. It was a quirky little read and I'm glad I got the chance to experience it.

Challenge Tally

Classics Club (#5 on my list): 95/100 books completed

Total Books Read in 2021: 33

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

June Wrap Up


Well, the end of June is upon us and my reading for the month was...not super impressive. I had planned to get through more books, but I had my birthday and a family visit to contend with, so I fell behind my goal. No worries though, I think I can make up for it in July. Here's what I did manage to finish:

100 pages of Les Misérables

Thankfully, I didn't really have any books that I disliked this month. The slowest reading was probably the Les Misérables pages, because I was at one of the sections that meandered into a detailed description of French history. Thankfully, I'm past that bit now, so it's back to being enjoyable.

My favorite read of the month was Six of Crows, an adventure novel set in the Grishaverse that was surprisingly fun and engaging. I was actually really into it - something that I've struggled with a little bit in my reading lately. The sequel, Crooked Kingdom, was also really good. I been donating lots of the books I read this year for my Clear the Shelves challenge, but those two I'm actually going to hang onto.

My plan for July is to make up the two books I didn't get to this month, and then conquer one of the biggest classics left on my Classics Club list, Vanity Fair. Summer is a good time for me to try and knock that out, as it's much harder to take on huge classics during the school year. Here's what I hope to get through:

The Tempest by William Shakespeare
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
At least two books chosen from my owned-not-read list based on my mood
At least 100 pages of Les Misérables

This is a really ambitious lineup, but I'm hoping that I can make it work with my summer break. These are all basically the polar opposite of typical summer reads, but hey, I've got six months left to finish my Classics Club list so there's no time to do themes here!