Thursday, June 30, 2016
During the month of July, I'm going to read books by some of my favorite authors. See, I have this troubling pattern going on in my reading: I'll often read a book, love it to pieces, and then never get around to reading anything else by that author. This isn't on purpose at all - there's just so many books out there in the world that I want to read!
So, the purpose of this month is to go back and think about books I have really enjoyed in the past and read something else by that author. I'm really hoping to find some new favorites this month.
I'm planning my reading list conservatively, because it's going to take me a while yet to finish The Count of Monte Cristo. Here's the plan so far:
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - I developed a soft spot for Dickens after reading Bleak House in college. I read A Tale of Two Cities last year, and I'm excited to give another of his most famous novels a try.
The Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby is my all-time favorite book. Ever. It's crazy that I haven't read anything else from Fitzgerald, so it's time to try another of his novels!
Roman Fever and Other Stories by Edith Wharton - The House of Mirth moved me to tears in college. I'm excited to see how I like some of Wharton's short fiction.
*All three of the above books fill various categories in my Back to the Classics Challenge.
Bonus Round Books:
I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling
This is my last month before school starts up again and my reading time takes a hit. I am determined to read my butt off this month!
My month of reading adventure novels has drawn to a (sort of) close. I say that because I'm currently making my way through The Count of Monte Cristo, so I'm going to be a little bit late moving onto my next theme. I still wanted to write my wrap up post on time though, so I will come back and edit once I've finished with The Count.
This month turned out differently than I expected. I had this vague idea in my head of adventure novels being full of dashing heroes and thrilling situations. You know, Indiana Jones-style. What I discovered was that the word "adventure" is actually really vague.
An adventure could be:
-Solving a murder mystery in the town you live in
-A quest for revenge after a deep betrayal
-Surviving a voyage to discover the North Pole
-Trying to establish a new home in space
-Magic, dragons, wishes and folklore
-Surviving a work camp in Siberia
There are so many possibilities of what an adventure could be that it's impossible to accurately define the word! I read some great books and some stinkers this month, but what they all had in common was that the characters, real or fictional, all had a drive to keep on going, despite some truly awful situations. I suppose adventure is courage in the face of danger, and the motivation to live, no matter what obstacles get thrown into your way.
A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Revenant by Michael Punke
In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Best of the Month: In the Kingdom of Ice
Worst of the Month: Seveneves
-Both The Revenant and In the Kingdom of Ice feature characters surviving on pemmican, a survival food made from a mixture of meat, fat, and berries. I'd never heard of it until this month, and to see it described twice within a matter of weeks was kind of funny.
-Both In the Kingdom of Ice and Between Shades of Gray feature people suffering from scurvy in Siberia.
-A Study in Scarlet, The Revenant, and The Count of Monte Cristo feature plot lines based on revenge.
Books I didn't get to, but am saving for later:
S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst
I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
In the Kingdom of Ice
As I'm still working on The Count of Monte Cristo, my month of adventure reading isn't quite done yet. I'll be back once I've made my way through that for some final thoughts, and then it will be onto the next theme!
Monday, June 27, 2016
Did you know that during WWII, the Soviet Union deported hundreds of thousand of people from the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to forced labor camps in Siberia? These people, most of whom were women and children, were forced to live in horrific conditions while they did construction, manufacturing and farm work for the Soviets. They were treated as prisoners with life sentences; their crimes were allegedly being anti-Soviet. Thousands starved, froze to death or succumbed to disease during this time period. After Stalin's death, these deportees were gradually released, with the last of them being freed as late as 1963. It was an awful event in human history, and the survivors of the mass deportations weren't even allowed to legally share their stories until 1991, when the dissolution of the USSR eliminated their fear of being sent to prison for speaking about what happened.
This is the setting of Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. The story follows Lina, her brother Jonas and their mother when they are taken from their home in Lithuania in the middle of the night and put on a train to Siberia to work on a collective farm. The conditions that the family must face are horrific, with violence, starvation, disease, and sexual abuse commonplace. Interspersed with these events are brief flashbacks that show scenes from Lina's formerly idyllic life as an artsy teenager and from events that point towards why her family was taken. Everything comes together at the end of the story to educate the reader about a little-known part of history and to send a powerful message about how love can help us draw on reserves of strength we didn't know we had.
This novel is both brutal and beautiful. Sepetys' unadorned language brings her characters, and history itself, to life. It's difficult and sad to believe that these events actually happened, and that people really suffered living in the inhumane conditions that Lina and her family did. It's not an easy read, to be sure, but it is an important one. People should know about this chapter in history, and anyone can admire the strength of the characters as they fight to survive against impossible odds.
I'm excited already to recommend this Between Shades of Gray to my students, because I know this is a book that will keep kids engaged from page one. If I had one small criticism for this novel, it would be that Lina could have been developed a bit more. While many of the other characters show the titular "shades of gray" in their personalities, Lina seems rather one-note. She is fiery, speaks her mind, and is strong. These are excellent traits for a character in a story like this, but she does lack a bit of vulnerability to round her out. I wish I had gotten a chance to learn a bit more about the different dimensions of her personality.
Overall, I'm very glad that I chose to read this novel during my month of reading adventure stories. This was a different kind of adventure - not the swashbuckling kind, but the struggle to survive kind. Action-packed and emotionally charged, Between Shades of Gray is a wonderful achievement in young adult historical fiction. I look forward to reading more from Ruta Sepetys in the future (I already have another of her novels on my bookshelf, ready to go).
Friday, June 24, 2016
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin is a book that feels like a grand old fairy tale. Written in a simple style and interspersed with several short stories based on classic Chinese tales, Mountain tells the story of Minli, a young Chinese girl living in the Valley of the Fruitless Mountain. Minli lives in a small hut with her mother and father, eking out a living growing rice in the fields around her village. Inspired by her father's fantastical stories and her mother's growing dissatisfaction with their poverty, she sets out on a grand adventure to meet the mythical Old Man of the Moon and ask him to change her family's fortune. Minli's adventure is fraught with danger and magic, and when she finally reaches the end of her journey, she must make some difficult choices about what truly makes families happy.
Mountain is a Newberry Honor winner, and it richly deserves the award. Everything good is squished onto its pages; imagination, kindness, generosity, friendship, and sacrifice are all present and characters are rewarded for demonstrating them. Minli has a strong sense of right and wrong and acts accordingly. She is a character that is good because that is the right way to be, and instead of this making the story flat, it imbues it with a sense of wonder. This is light reading to be sure, but like any good fairy tale, it takes you away to a world where things are fantastic and crazy, but governed by universal truths that make sense. Kindness is rewarded. Evil is punished. It's nice to visit a place where the world operates with those rules.
Coming off of reading Seveneves, a novel that was essentially joyless, I needed Mountain. This book made me happy. While this was written with a middle grades audience in mind, the messages contained in its pages are timeless. In fact, you could make the argument that the themes present here could have a larger impact on adult audiences, who have so often seen bad behavior from others that they have become too used to it. This is a children's book the way children's books are meant to be - simple, magical and happy. This is a perfect bedtime story book and one that would strongly recommend for young readers and older readers looking to indulge in a bit of wonder.
Thursday, June 23, 2016
I've been planning on reading Seveneves since late last year when I saw that it won second place in the Goodreads Choice Awards for science fiction. I had never read anything by Neal Stephenson before, but I considered this book a pretty safe bet for me; it won a reader's choice award and it's a space survival story. What's not to like there? I loved The Martian and Aurora, so I thought this would be a great chance to find another author I would like in a genre I have traditionally enjoyed very much.
I was wrong. I was so wrong. This was one of the most difficult reading experiences of my life. I'm now questioning if I really even like science fiction. I'm almost to the point of questioning whether I like reading in general. Let's start at the beginning.
Seveneves contains three distinct parts. The first section describes the moon exploding due to an unknowable natural incident (referred to simply as "The Agent), and the last few years of life on Earth as government leaders and scientists work together to try and save as much of humanity as possible. Utilizing the International Space Station as a hub, they design a kind of space-ark, and launch as many bright, young people up to it as possible before the earth is destroyed by falling moon rocks. This sections covers around two years. The second section details the difficulties that arise on the ark while trying to survive in space. Scientific and political problems plague the crew and a fuel shortage leads a team of astronauts to embark on a dangerous mission to mine water from a passing asteroid. This section covers another five years or so. By the end of this section, all that remains of humanity are eight women, only seven of whom are still young enough to bear children (hence the "Seven Eves"). The fate of the whole human race rests on their shoulders.
Then the story jumps forward 5000 years. Hope you didn't like any of the characters you had been following too much, because they're all dead now.
The last part of the novel is about how humanity, which has done a very impressive job reestablishing themselves in space, terraform and return to earth. Political problems abound, due to the fact that the genetic engineering choices of the original Eves have created seven different "races" of people, each displaying the traits their Eve selected when they started rebuilding the human race. Shockingly, not all of the races get along. Also, there are some pretty big surprises waiting for everyone down on earth, which leads to further complications. After a lot of exploring, negotiating and fighting, the whole story wraps up with a throwaway joke about plumbing. The end.
Okay, so here's my disclaimer: I didn't completely hate this novel, and I understand that Neal Stephenson is a very famous author and has tons of fans that loved this book. I turned out not to be one of those people, and that's fine.
Things I liked:
1. The last section of the book. The different "races" of people and situation that evolved when everyone traveled back to Earth was very interesting, and I thought this idea had great potential. Sadly, this last section was quite short in comparison to the rest of the novel, so it wasn't explored as deeply as it could have been. Honestly, I would have been happy if these events of this last section were the entire book.
2. The diverse cast of characters. This was nice to see. There were lots of female characters, characters of different cultural backgrounds, and characters of different sexualities included.
3. The basic story. Space! Scary stuff! Figuring out how to survive in crazy conditions! There was a good book buried in here...somewhere.
Things I didn't like:
1. The amount of scientific explanations. There were literally hundreds of pages throughout this book dedicated to explaining the complicated scientific principles behind everything that happened in the story. It slowed the pace of the novel down tremendously, was difficult to understand, and very frustrating to read. I don't mind science being included in a science fiction novel, (in fact, I liked it in The Martian) and this is an expected inclusion in a hard science fiction novel, but Stephenson's writing was dry and awful to get through.
2. Underdeveloped characters. With all of the space dedicated to scientific explanations, the characters in this story were planted squarely in the backseat. They were very flat, and as such, I was unable to bring myself to care about them very much. I felt no emotional connection to any of them. It almost feels like Stephenson doesn't understand how human beings function or interact with each other. Complex characters are the biggest part of why I love reading, and with such a weak cast, I was unable to really get lost in this novel like I wanted to.
3. The SHAMEFUL amount of straight exposition. You know that old saying about how writers should "show, not tell"? Stephenson took this concept, lit it on fire, and shot the ashes out of a cannon. It felt like 90% of the novel was backstory, narrator-delivered explanations and characters saying overly dumb statements in a transparent effort to explain things to readers. Nothing felt organic. It's this issue that really confuses me as to how Stephenson is so popular. I have never noticed an exposition problem this major in a book before.
4. Characters that are transparent copies of real people. One character in the book is very obviously meant to be Neil deGrasse Tyson. Another is clearly Malala Yousafzai. Rather than trying to create his own, likeable characters for readers to enjoy, Stephenson chose to try and draw on preexisting positive feelings people have towards actual human beings. Some reviews I have read think this is "fun." I think it's lazy writing.
5. The length. Simply put, this book was too long. There was no reason this shouldn't have been either trimmed down significantly or split up into two or three different novels. I love long books too. I have read a lot of them in my time. This was over-the-top long. Does Stephenson have an editor? Does he get a certain amount of free reign in this area based on his past successes? I don't understand how this book got published in this form. I don't understand why so many people loved this book. I'm just lost here.
I finished all of Seveneves. I kept thinking there would be some sort of profound ending that made the slog worth it, but there wasn't. All I found at the ending was a weak joke about plumbing repair and a sense of sadness about the amount of time I wasted reading this. After doing a little research around the internet, I read a lot of reviews acknowledging that this isn't Stephenson's best work (even though many reviewers still viewed this novel positively overall). Perhaps people have a soft spot for this author based on his previous books. Maybe I simply started off with the wrong Stephenson novel. One thing I do know for certain is that I'm not reading another anytime soon to find out. This one was a disappointment to me, which is a shame, because I spent six months trying to carve out a good chunk of time to read it.
I would stay far away from this one unless you are deeply into hard science fiction, value technical details over character and love the writing of Neal Stephenson. I know that applies to a lot of readers out there, so I'm not trying to be glib. It just turned out that, sadly, I am not one of those people.
Monday, June 13, 2016
In the Kingdom of Ice tells the true story of the 1879 polar voyage of the USS Jeannette, during which Lieutenant George De Long and his crew attempted to reach the North Pole. Speculation about what exactly was at the top of the world ran high throughout the nineteenth century, and the prevailing opinion at that time was that the North Pole rested in the middle of a warm, open polar sea (an idea that turned out to be dangerously, tragically incorrect). De Long, entranced with the idea of being the first to explore this area, organized and led the expedition into this dangerous and uncharted Arctic region. Through the use of letters, newspaper articles, journals, and other documents from those involved, Hampton Sides tells the story of what happened on the voyage.
I read this novel as part of my month of reading adventure stories, and I could not be happier with my pick. As far as narrative nonfiction goes, this In the Kingdom of Ice is certainly one of the best I've ever read. Sides conveys the story in a style that reads like fiction. He not only presents a thoroughly detailed and informational history of this event, but he also makes the figures in the story come to life. I was completely sucked into this story and I didn't want to stop reading until I found out what happened to each and every crew member on this voyage. It's absolutely incredible to me that this all really happened.
The story of the Jeannette is undoubtedly a real-life adventure. The overwhelming cold, terrible sailing conditions, and treacherous ice floes tested De Long and his men beyond what any average human being could bear. The subtitle of this novel foreshadows that the mission is full of hardships, but despite the dire circumstances that the crew were routinely facing, this wasn't a story of mutiny or fighting. Instead, this was a story of courage and perseverance. While reading, I felt deep admiration for the men on this voyage, and admired the strength of character they showed as one disaster after another befell them. They wouldn't give up on each other, and the loyalty they demonstrated to their mission, their captain, and their friends was inspiring.
In the Kingdom of Ice is a very unique novel. Reading it was not only educational, but uplifting as well. Some of the best qualities of humanity spring out from its pages. It's reassuring to know that people this brave used to exist - it gives me hope that they still exist today. I didn't expect to enjoy this book as much as I did; it's always nice when a novel takes you by surprise! I highly recommend this true adventure.
Sunday, June 5, 2016
Next up in my quest to have an adventure-themed June was The Revenant by Michael Punke. This historical fiction novel set in the 1820s follows Hugh Glass, a trapper with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. While on a scouting mission with a small group of traders, Glass is brutally mauled by a grizzly bear. His injuries are extensive, and he is not expected to survive. Facing the pressure of a quickly approaching winter and the dangers of hostile Native American tribes in the area, the leader of Glass' group leaves him behind with two company men, who are entrusted with the task of caring for him until he dies. When the men decide to rob and abandon Glass instead, he sets out on a grueling mission to get revenge on those who betrayed him and left him for dead.
As someone with a long memory and a propensity to hang on to anger for irrationally long stretches of time, this novel grabbed me from page one and didn't let go. The grizzly attack comes early in the novel, and the remainder of the plot is a suspenseful blend of action scenes and survival strategies as Glass' resourcefulness and experience as a frontiersman are repeatedly tested. His anger at his betrayers burns brightly and motivates him to endure near-impossible situations. When he can't walk due to his injuries, he literally crawls in the direction he needs to go. He moves with a single-minded purpose that is almost a little scary, but in a way that the reader understands and respects him for.
Mixed in with Glass' revenge quest are updates and backstories on the other characters in the novel. Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald, the betrayers, are fleshed out, as well as some of the other frontiersmen in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. These short interludes help break up the narrative and provide some additional food for thought on the motivations driving the events in the novel. While Glass is single-minded in his interpretation of his situation, there are a few shades of gray in the mix that are interesting to ponder.
These sections also help provide a historical context for the story. The fur trade during this time period has an interesting and complex history, and Punke's writing is very well-researched. While The Revenant is historical fiction, the setting, events, and many of the characters are real. The details scattered throughout this novel on history and frontier living give readers a better sense of what life in this era was like.
Aside from a few swears and frontier-style violence, this book doesn't contain anything that would prevent me from recommending it to my students. This reminded me of the classic young adult survival story, Hatchet (but with more murderous anger). I think a lot of my male students, who struggle to find something to read, would love this.
One small gripe I have with this novel is that there are barely any female characters throughout the entire story. The ones that exist serve only to die immediately, provided some handy characterization for Glass. While the lack of women is most likely historically accurate to the time period and situations Punke was writing about, it would have been nice to have a couple females with speaking parts in the mix.
Overall, I very much enjoyed The Revenant and I think it was an excellent choice for my theme of adventure novels. Next, I want to check out the movie, but I'm almost afraid to see some of the injuries described in the book on the screen! I suppose I'll have to drum up some Hugh Glass-style courage and persevere through the blood.
Saturday, June 4, 2016
"There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it."
One of the elements in the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge this year is to read a classic detective novel. When choosing which book to tackle for this one, my mind went immediately to the most famous of all literary detectives, Sherlock Holmes. Aside from being a fan of the Robert Downey Jr. movies and reading "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" with my sixth graders years ago, my knowledge of Sherlock Holmes is woefully inadequate. So, I decided it was high time I got to know this character. Naturally, I started at the beginning of his adventures with the very first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet.
*Warning - Spoilers follow!*
The plot of A Study in Scarlet is framed as a recollection in the journal of one Dr. John Watson, who becomes Holmes' roommate in the beginning of the novel. Dr. Watson is immediately intrigued by the eccentric Sherlock Holmes, who reveals himself to be an expert in the science of deduction, which he uses to help the police solve crimes. Before long, Watson is able to tag along after Holmes when his help is requested in the investigation of a mysterious murder. A dead man has been discovered in a vacant house in Brixton. The body is unmarked, making the cause of death difficult to determine, and the only clues of note are a lady's wedding ring and a word scrawled in blood on the wall. As Holmes uses his superior thinking skills to deduce the identity of the murderer, Watson records the events as they unfold. In this way, the readers get to experience watching Holmes do his impressive detective work.
This is a fun little adventure, but I admit, I was surprised by some of the content. I'm not going to be the arrogant blogger who criticizes Arthur Conan Doyle's work with her nose up in the air here (because I obviously could not do better were I to try and write a mystery novel), but I had a few hangups that I want to explore. To be clear, I liked the story, but I expected to be a little bit more impressed than I was. I'm disappointed that I wasn't exactly blown away with this novel.
I thought Sherlock Holmes was a delightfully weird character. His expertise in fields as diverse as boxing, chemistry and the violin were intriguing, and his quick wit and intelligence were very fun to read. I love smart, quirky characters, so the way Doyle characterized Holmes was right up my alley. I also really liked some of his comments regarding how other, lesser, people try to take credit for the work of more capable people. Although I am not a detective, I know the type of people he was commenting on very well, so his thoughts rang true to me, especially this remark:
So while I really enjoyed Holmes as a character, some of his "deductions" during the plot of the novel struck me as absolutely impossible. For a character who claims to do all of his detective work through pure logic, a lot of what Holmes said seemed to me to be nothing more than amazingly accurate guesses. For example, towards the end of the novel, when Holmes is describing how he put all the pieces of the crime together, he says this of the wedding ring that was found near the murder victim:"What you do in this world is a matter of no consequence...The question is, what can you make people believe you have done?"
Well, obviously, right? Who wouldn't guess that?"Clearly, the murderer had used [the wedding ring] to remind his victim of some dead or absent woman."
These type of deductions happen again and again throughout the novel. While I understand that the reader is supposed to just go along for the ride and chalk these deductions up to the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes, they rang false to me. I would have preferred the story to be a bit more intricate, and contain revelations that actually made sense when all is said and done at the end.
On the other hand, I do acknowledge that A Study in Scarlet is an early detective novel, and also Doyle's first story with Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps the mysteries and deductions become better as the stories go on. In any case, while I was rolling my eyes a bit at what Holmes was able to "deduce," I still enjoyed him as a character very much.
Another bit of weirdness I experienced with the story was how it switches narration completely in the middle of the novel and starts telling the backstory of the murderer. The first part of the book is clearly labeled as coming from the notes of Dr. Watson, and tells the story of the murder and Holmes' investigation of it. Holmes gets to the point of arresting the murderer, you turn the page, and all of a sudden you're reading about a man walking through the desert in the American Southwest. The change is so abrupt and unexpected that I honestly thought that I had touched something wrong on my Kindle and had somehow switched books.
Eventually, you figure out what you're reading once you get to learn some of the characters' names, but the shift seemed bizarre. About half of the novel deals with this flashback, and I hate to say it, but it's rather boring. While it gives you information to clarify why the murder that the novel is centered around occurs, no character in this section is as interesting as Sherlock Holmes. I wanted to get back to him to see how he solved the crime, not read about how evil the Mormons that settled Salt Lake City were.
Speaking of that, the fact that the crime is rooted in the practices of the Mormon faith was bizarre. When you pick up a Sherlock Holmes novel, the last thing you would suspect is that a band of murderous Mormons, including Brigham Young himself, are a significant part of the story. Expect the unexpected when you read Sherlock Holmes, I guess.
Eventually, the narration shifts back to Watson's notes, and the last few chapters of the novel consist of Holmes explaining how he figured the whole thing out. I found this structure to be disruptive to the reading process. The inclusion of the backstory didn't seem to flow naturally into Watson's journal and it broke my ability to get lost in the story.
The last little piece of the story that troubled me was some of the language that Doyle uses in describing different characters. A lot of his wording has not aged well. He refers to a band of street boys that Holmes employs as "street Arabs," some stereotypical references to Native Americans are used, and his depiction of the Mormon faith is more than a bit troubling. Doyle refers to their practice of marrying multiple wives as having "harems" and depicts their religion as one steeped in kidnapping and murder.
I did a bit of research to see if Doyle's depiction of Mormonism was in any way based on fact, and it turns out that it really wasn't. While there is some historical precedent for violence within the Mormon community, it does not appear that anything like what Doyle wrote about was true. Doyle himself admitted that his description of Mormons was stated "more luridly" than a historical piece of writing would have been. Years later, his daughter said that, "You know, father would be the first to admit that his first Sherlock Holmes novel was full of errors about the Mormons." So basically, Doyle's writing was offensive, and it was recognized as being offensive during his lifetime. Not exactly cool. However, his depiction, incorrect as it is, was based on the misinformation about Mormons that was rife during his time period. We can't judge Doyle too harshly by contemporary standards, it's just a bit jarring to read such an antiquated and prejudiced account of a religion.
So essentially, while I did like reading A Study in Scarlet and being introduced to one of the most famous literary characters of all time, the experience was not quite as impressive as I was expecting. Some pretty unrealistic "deductions," and a bizarre and troubling backstory impeded my enjoyment of the mystery plot. I am definitely interested in reading more of Sherlock Holmes' adventures though, because I suspect that they must become better as they go on. I get the feeling that this first story must be like the first couple episodes of some TV series - a bit awkward until they really find their footing. This one is okay, but I have a feeling that my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories are still in front of me.