Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Summer I Saved the 65 Days by Michele Weber Hurwitz

With a little extra time left in February, I decided to cross the "book recommended by a librarian" prompt off my Popsugar challenge list. For this category, I asked the librarian in my school (who is one of the world's best people) for help. She pointed me towards The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days without hesitation. She told me that the world could do with a little more kindness these days, and that this novel about a teen girl who performs random acts of kindness around her neighborhood embraces that theme wholeheartedly. Happy to try out a book with such a positive premise, I started on it right away.

The Summer I Saved the World follows 13-your-old Nina Ross. While relaxing in her hammock one afternoon, she notices her elderly neighbor struggling to plant some marigolds in her yard. When her neighbor gives up in frustration, Nina decides to sneak over and plant the flowers herself. She feels so good after finishing this anonymous act of kindness that she decides to keep going. She makes a plan to perform one act of kindness each day for her entire summer break and see what comes from it. She babysits, leaves little gifts in mailboxes, plays with neighborhood kids, compliments others, and helps out with chores.  All of these little kindnesses end up causing a ripple effect in her neighborhood and start to bring previously disconnected people together as a community.

This book is a really charming read. The message about how small actions can create big changes is very appropriate for our current social climate, which feels unbearably rude and cruel at the moment. Nina is such a nice character that I found myself rooting for her to complete her summer quest. Her growth throughout the story was balanced nicely. She becomes much more mature as a young woman, but is still believable as kid. The story is a light and simple one, but its goals are noble. I was engaged from page one and really enjoyed the story.

The only negative note I had while reading was that the story lacked a bit of diversity among its characters. Nina is undoubtedly a child of privilege. She lives in a nice house in a quiet neighborhood. Her parents are attorneys, and aside from them always being at work, she doesn't really face any hardships in her life. She has the time and money to work on her acts of kindnesses, and all of the other neighbors in her cul-de-sac are much the same. While it was nice to read a book where financial and social issues didn't plague the characters, I felt like it might not appeal to other readers for that reason. If Hurwitz's audience is kids, and her goal is to encourage them to make a difference in their neighborhoods by being kind, then she might have made more of an effort to include characters that don't have it so easy all the time. Most kids don't live like Nina.

This is a small criticism though, and didn't really affect my overall feelings about the book. The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days is a pure feel-good story. It's nice to read those sometimes. It would make a great Disney Channel original movie. I enjoyed it because it was so nice, and showed a world that I wish existed - one where people actively try to care for each other and help each other out. I never would have picked this one up without my librarian's recommendation, so once again, I am glad to be participating in reading challenges this year.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (A book recommended by a librarian) 16/40

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Maus II: A Survivor's Tale: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman

After reading Maus I earlier this month, I knew that I had to read Maus II in short order. I was immediately drawn into Spiegelman's account of his father's Holocaust experience and I wanted to see how the story ended. The novel also satisfied the "story within a story" category in my Popsugar reading challenge, because the novel is framed as Artie, the cartoonist, looking after his father while interviewing him about his survivor story. This was one of the categories that I thought might be tough to figure out, so everything lined up perfectly.

Maus II picks up right where the first volume in the series left off, with Spiegelman's father Vladek and his wife Anja being captured by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. Vladek winds up being separated from his wife right away and sent to the men's area of the camp. His cleverness and determination to survive lead him through a series of coveted jobs. He secures work as a translator, tinsmith, and shoe repairman - all positions that allowed him to access extra food and clothing, which he would use to barter or send to Anja, keeping them both alive. Life inside Auschwitz is difficult and horrific. Vladek sees terrible things. However, his intelligence and more than a bit of good luck manage to carry both him and Anja through. As the end of the war approaches, both are able to get out of the camp and reunite back in Poland.

Interwoven with Vladek's story are the moments back in the present that show his son interviewing him. Artie's relationship with his father is complicated. He loves him, of course, but he also struggles to deal with his eccentricities. Vladek is elderly, in poor health, quite miserly with money, has no qualms about resorting to emotional blackmail to control his son, and is just plain embarrassing a lot of the time. Artie feels guilty for his less-than-charitable thoughts towards his father, because a lot of his irrational behavior is likely due to his experiences in the war. He also feels some survivor's guilt because he didn't have to go through any real hardships in his life. It was interesting to watch him try to sort through his emotions towards his father while interviewing him.

Maus II carries on with the same art style as Maus I, with Jewish characters drawn as mice, Nazis as cats, and most others as pigs. The cartoons are simple and effective; the contrast between the innocent-looking animals and the horrific subject matter creates a poignant tone. Vladek's narration is a similar mix of simplicity and emotion. As he recounts his story, he casually drops in short sentences like, "I never saw him again" or "the Nazis finished him." His words show the cheapness of human life in a concentration camp, and make for an unsettling reading experience.

One particularly intriguing element of this novel for me was watching Vladek scheme and make deals inside Auschwitz. In order to stay alive in a place like that, one had to be very street smart. Bartering, making the right connections, knowing when to share versus when to save things for yourself, and being a convincing liar were vital survival skills. Even then, luck played a huge part of whether you lived or died. Vladek was good enough at playing the game to save both his wife and himself. His courage and determination were incredible. I would not have been so brave if I were in his place, and I found his actions admirable and fascinating. I hadn't thought of concentration camp life in this way before. I feel like I learned something new.

While the whole of Maus II is excellent, there is one particular moment in the novel that stands out to me. Towards the end, Vladek mentions to Artie that he had a picture taken of himself in a concentration camp uniform after he escaped. He shows it to his son. Instead of making this picture into a drawing of a mouse, Spiegelman includes the actual photograph. Seeing Vladek's real face in the striped outfit felt like a punch to the gut. I was so used to seeing the mice, that seeing that one photo was a shock. It served as a powerful reminder that there were human faces behind all the whiskers in the book, and they suffered on a scale beyond what most of us could ever imagine.

Now that I've read the complete story, I think that I enjoyed Maus II even more than Maus I. Both volumes are tremendous, and should be required reading for those learning about the Holocaust. I'm very grateful that my Popsugar challenge pushed me to read this series. They have left quite an impression on my heart and they won't be leaving my thoughts anytime soon.   

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (A book that is a story within a story) 15/40


Saturday, February 18, 2017

Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet

I've had Lydia Millet's Mermaids in Paradise sitting on my shelf for a couple of years now. I remember that there was a lot of hype surrounding this book when it first came out. In fact, I discovered it from an Amazon email promoting it as one of the must-reads coming out that month. As a 90s kid that was exactly the right age to fall in love with Ariel when Disney's The Little Mermaid came out, I was pretty intrigued by this story of a young couple discovering mermaids while on their honeymoon. When I saw that one of my Popsugar reading challenge categories was "a book involving a mythical creature," I knew it was finally time to give this one a shot.

The plot of Mermaids in Paradise follows newlywed couple Deb and Chip as they embark on a tropical honeymoon in the Caribbean. As they settle into their resort, Chip's friendly and outgoing nature leads them to make friends with some colorful fellow-vacationers, including a marine biologist and a documentary filmmaker. Deb narrates, and her wry sense of humor and cutting observations about the other people on the island show her to be a mixture of bemused and annoyed with her new husband's gregarious nature.

Before long, however, Deb and Chip's comfortable little bubble of newlywed bliss bursts when mermaids are discovered on the island. After seeing the evidence with their own eyes, the couple is drawn into a crusade to protect these extraordinary creatures and stop the resort from turning their habitat into a tourist attraction. Working together with like-minded vacationers and locals, they embark on a quest to try and outsmart the corporate overlords of the island.

I was left scratching my head on this one because I'm not sure what this book was trying to be. It started off fairly funny, with Deb's comedic observations on the minutiae of everyday life filling the pages. While not all of her jokes hit, the beginning sections of the novel maintained an overall sense of irreverent fun. Once the mermaids come into the picture, however, the tone veers away from being lighthearted and lands in maudlin territory. Deb still narrates with a sarcastic voice, but the jokes stop being lighthearted and her points become preachy.  I've finished reading, but I still can't even clearly articulate what she was preaching about. It was a bit of a mess.

The plot changed post-mermaid discovery as well, and became boring and contrived. The actions of the resort's "parent company" were ridiculous. They acted in a completely illegal manner, seemingly oblivious to the fact that any tourist destination they set up on such a foundation would be dismantled once law enforcement caught up with them. Deb and Chip's group of budding activists were similarly ineffective, and spent more time planning in hotel rooms than they did actually helping the mermaids. The story stopped being interesting when it became clear that the rest of the novel was going to be about two groups of people who didn't know what they were doing trying to outsmart each other.

The mermaids themselves only appeared in the novel for very brief moments, and only from a distance. They did not interact with the characters in any way, and I did not get to learn any details about them. The mermaids were the most intriguing aspect of the plot for me, so this was a big disappointment. I was left wondering why anyone would bother to write a book that includes mythical creatures if they didn't plan on really including them in the story.

Sadly, Mermaids in Paradise wasn't a winner for me. I started out enjoying it, but my enjoyment dropped off more and more the deeper I got into the story. The ending, which contains a twist that Millet undoubtedly thought quite clever, was one of the dumbest things I'd ever read in my life, and ended the book on a sour note. Still, it wasn't all bad, hence my overall rating of 2/5. Not every story is destined to be a winner. At least I finally read this one, so I can add it to the donate pile and clear up more shelf space.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (A book involving a mythical creature) 14/40
Mount TBR: previously owned 13/60 


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas by John Scalzi

Redshirts is the second novel I've read by John Scalzi (the first being Lock In). It is also the second audio book that I have completed. When I first started listening, I assumed that I would be using this book to fulfill the "book with a subtitle" category in my Popsugar challenge. However, as the novel progressed, I realized that it would be a better pick for a different category - a book set in two time periods. Novels with subtitles aren't difficult to find. Novels with characters that travel through time, on the other hand, are a bit more rare.

Redshirts is based around a well-known Star Trek joke. Back in the days of the original series, low-ranking crew members of the Enterprise, called red shirts because of their uniform color, were killed off at an incredible rate. Their frequent, often gruesome deaths, served to further the plot of an episode, increase the action or emotion of a scene, or add to the development of one of the more major characters. Scalzi has taken this idea and added an extra layer to it - what might happen if the red shirts caught on to what was happening to them and started asking questions?  

The plot of Redshirts follows Ensign Andrew Dahl. As the novel begins, he has just secured a posting to the flagship of the Universal Union, the Intrepid. Excited to begin exploring the universe, he jumps into his duties in the ship's xenobiology lab. Before long, however, he starts to notice something strange. The crew on the Intrepid all seem to be terrified of being sent on away missions, and scatter to the four winds whenever an officer approaches their stations.

The reason for this, as Andrew soon finds out, is that low-ranking crew members, such as himself, always seem to die on away missions. The amount of fatalities on the Intrepid is far higher than on other Universal Union ships. Curiously, officers seem to be immune from this problem. While ensigns die on nearly every outing, they seem to be bulletproof. Even more alarming, a mysterious man appears as if from nowhere and warns Andrew to stay away from something he calls "the narrative."

Intrigued with (and frightened by) this phenomenon, Andrew decides to investigate and try to get to the bottom of what's going on before he becomes the next ensign to tragically lose his life. His efforts set him on an adventure through time and space to figure out the truth of his existence. It turns out that his world is vastly different than he thought, and saving himself will require him to break through the fourth wall.

I found this novel to be charming and funny. I actually laughed out loud at a few points. The Star Trek references and jokes are absolutely spot on and will definitely please fans of the series. The story is interesting, the plot twists are clever, and the characters are likable. Shakespeare it was not, but it was an easy novel to listen to and a real treat for science fiction fans.

What was not so fun, however, were the novel's codas. Scalzi provides three endings to the book, each of which focus on what happens to a different character after the events of the novel. Compared to the funny, irreverent tone of the main plot, the codas are a combination of boring and overly sentimental. They focus on minor characters that I wasn't anxious to find out more about and don't add much value to the story.

Ultimately though, the codas weren't bad enough to spoil my enjoyment of the novel. This was a fun science fiction adventure and a great pick for Trekkies. The audio version of the book is read by Wil Wheaton, which provides another little Star Trek reference. Fans of comedic sci-fi would do well to give this one a shot.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (A book set in two different time periods) 13/40

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

February is Black History Month, making it the perfect time to cross "a book by a person of color" off of my Popsugar Challenge list. For this category, I chose Another Brooklyn by African American author Jacqueline Woodson. I already considered myself a fan of Woodson based on her work in the young adult genre, especially Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir of her childhood written in verse. Another Brooklyn, a novel for adults, kept appearing on all the "best of 2016" lists that I came across. Interested to see if her work for grownups would be as great as her work for younger readers, I dove in.

Another Brooklyn centers around a woman named August. At the beginning of the novel, she is attending her father's funeral. On the way home, she happens to run into an old childhood friend, which triggers a stream of memories from her youth that fill the remainder of the novel. The memories concern August's adolescence in Brooklyn, including her experiences growing up without a mother, the close friendships she forms with three girls from the neighborhood, going through puberty, attracting unwanted attention from men, and struggling to find her path in life as a new adult. The memories flit across the pages just like real memories play across our minds, out of order, missing information, and in short bursts. There isn't one driving narrative in Another Brooklyn. Instead, it is a journey through the collection of experiences that helped form August as a person. The novel feels like a dream - slightly surreal and always moving. This technique invites the reader to think about the text and try to full in the gaps in the story.  

This book was beautiful and engaging. It's a slim little volume, easily read in just one or two sittings, but the impression it leaves is lasting. Woodson's language feels poetic and authentic. She explores issues relating to racial inequality, poverty. womanhood, religion, friendships, and family in a way that feels moving and true. I was transported to Brooklyn while reading and came to care about August and her friends, each of whom were dealing with their own troubles and drawing on the strength of each other survive. I raced through the story because I couldn't put it down.

Another Brooklyn is one of those novels that puts you in a trance - you just can't focus on anything else until you finish reading it. Even after that, you're stuck thinking about the characters for days. This is a truly great book, and Jacqueline Woodson is an important voice in literature for both young adults and older audiences. This is not merely a great novel by an author of color, it is a great novel period. This is a new favorite for me.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (A book by a person of color) 12/40 
Mount TBR: previously owned 12/60 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I first bought Water for Elephants about six years ago, right before the movie version came out. I never got around to reading it, but I would notice it sitting on my shelf from time to time and make a mental note to get to it soon. When I saw that one of the categories for my Popsugar reading challenge was, "a book that's been on your TBR list for way too long," I figured that now was the perfect time to give it a try. Also, with it being near Valentine's Day, I wanted to read a little romance anyway. When I pulled the novel from my bookcase, it was covered in a pretty serious layer of dust and the pages had yellowed, which helped illustrate just how long this book had been sitting around my house. It was definitely an appropriate choice for my challenge.

The story, set in the time of the Depression and Prohibition, follows Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student who abruptly leaves college after the sudden and tragic death of his parents. He jumps on board a circus train in the middle of the night and soon finds himself working as a vet for the show, caring for a menagerie of animals that includes everything from horses to orangutans. His status within the company is somewhat murky, as his job falls somewhere between the lower-class manual laborers and the bosses and performers. He interacts with a wide variety of people as a result, and makes friends with quite a collection of characters, including Walter, the dwarf he bunks with, and August, the mercurial boss of the animals. He quickly learns that there is a very ugly side to the circus business, and unchecked violence, poverty, alcoholism, and greed among the company have combined to create a life that is dangerous and difficult. However, Jacob loves the animals he is caring for, and feels responsible for their well-being, so he stays with the show.

Before long, Jacob has fallen in love with two very different females. One is Rosie, a newly-acquired, mischievous elephant that frustrates the rest of the crew with her antics and her apparent refusal to learn tricks. The other is Marlena, a performer in the show and August's wife. Jacob tries to ignore his feelings for Marlena, but the attraction between them grows stronger as time goes on. August, a man who is prone to outbursts of incredible anger and violence, suspects their feelings and becomes terrifyingly abusive. He beats Rosie when she doesn't perform, and beats both Jacob and Marlena when he suspects them of having an affair. As matters become increasingly untenable, Jacob works to protect Rosie and Marlena and find a way out for them all.

The novel is set in two time periods, with a 93-year-old Jacob narrating from a nursing home in some sections, and his memories from when he was a young man taking over in other sections. The main circus story is a flashback. Surprisingly, I actually liked the old-man-Jacob sections the most. They felt more real and emotional to me than the rest of the novel. Jacob's frustrations with his aging mind and body were authentic, and his pain and embarrassment over feeling like a burden to the rest of his family touched on fears that most people have about getting older. The endings of both the young and old Jacob stories were satisfying. One contained a twist that I honestly did not see coming and the other contained a sweet symmetry that I really enjoyed.  Overall, this was an entertaining, but not perfect, reading experience.

Water for Elephants benefits from it's unusual and colorful setting. Gruen obviously put a lot of research into the world of Depression-era traveling circuses and the little details and anecdotes sprinkled throughout the text were very interesting. I feel like I learned something about the time period after reading this book. For example, I didn't know anything about the Jamaica Ginger poisonings in the 1930's or the practice of "redlighting" employees. The little slices of history helped to make the setting feel vivid and real. 

What did not feel vivid and real, however, were most of the characters. Jacob and Marlena were both very flat. Neither one grows or changes throughout the course of the novel. Jacob is a kindhearted, chivalrous young man, and Marlena is a beautiful woman in desperate need of rescue, and they remain that way from the beginning of the novel until the end. Their romance was underdeveloped, and sadly, I never felt like I believed in their relationship or in who they were supposed to be as individuals. It's a shame that the richness of the circus setting was wasted on such uninteresting characters. The best character, hands down, was Rosie the elephant, and I get the feeling that was only because Gruen used stories about other, real elephants, to build her personality.

Another small issue I had with the novel were the handful of disturbingly graphic sexual encounters. I don't mind sex in books at all, but the way these particular scenes were written were so awkward and gross that I was completely turned off by them. This might come from Gruen trying (and failing) to describe sex in the way that a male narrator would, or maybe sex scenes just aren't her specialty, but they were absolutely cringe-inducing.

Despite my few gripes however, I was interested and engaged in the book until the end. Water for Elephants was a solid, easy-to-read little piece of escapism, and it is easy to understand why it was a bestseller when it was first published. The romance didn't quite do it for me, but it was worth reading for the interesting setting alone. This one was fun.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (A book that's been on your TBR list for too long) 11/40 
Mount TBR: previously owned 11/60 


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman

My Popsugar Reading Challenge had me scouring my shelves for "a book with a cat on the cover" this month. At first I thought that I didn't own a book that met the requirement, but then I remembered Maus, with its Hitler-as-a-cat illustration on the front. I had been meaning to get to this graphic novel about the Holocaust for a while now, so I wasted no time diving in.

Maus is the story of a young cartoonist named Artie interviewing his father Vladek about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. He plans to turn his father's story into a graphic novel. Artie draws the story out of his father over the course of a series of visits. The story begins with how Vladek met and married Artie's mother and had his first child, then gradually recounts how how the family lost their home and possessions to the Nazis, how they were shuffled around from ghetto to ghetto, how they were forced to give up their child and go into hiding to survive, and how they were eventually rounded up and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Interspersed with the Holocaust story are glimpses of Vladek's current living situation. It is revealed in the very beginning of the novel that Artie's mother has passed away and his father has remarried a woman named Mala that he constantly fights with. He also suffers from heart problems, and has a disturbing tendency to hoard useless items. The relationship between father and son is strained at times, and communication between them is difficult. Artie doesn't always understand Vladek's perspective on things. In spite of these issues, however, he remains intrigued by his father's history, and continues his visits so that he can further his project.

All of the characters in the novel are represented as animals in the illustrations. The Jewish characters are mice, the Nazis are cats, and all of the other characters are pigs. This technique worked to make the story even more poignant. Readers generally associate talking animals with nice stories in children's books. Watching a mouse being shot dead in an alley is a shocking juxtaposition. It helps bring a deeper sense of sadness to a topic that is already emotionally heavy.

I have read quite a few excellent books set during the Holocaust. The Book Thief and All the Light We Cannot See are two special favorites of mine. Maus is another fantastic novel that I can add to my list. The creative art style and tragic story combine to create a different, and very touching, reading experience. There is another volume in this series, which picks up after Vladek is taken to Auschwitz. I ordered it straightaway after finishing Maus I so I can see the conclusion to Vladek's story. Art Spiegelman has created something very special with this series, and everyone would benefit from checking it out. 

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (A book with a cat on the cover) 10/40 
Mount TBR: previously owned 10/60 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

King Lear by William Shakespeare

“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.” 

One of the works I read with my students each year is Romeo and Juliet, and the experience of teaching this play has caused me to develop a deep appreciation for William Shakespeare. I liked him just fine before teaching his work, of course, but reading Romeo and Juliet so many times has really helped me to understand his incomparable style. The poetry of the lines, the timeless stories, and the unforgettable characters more than earn Shakespeare his reputation of being the greatest and most influential writer of all time.

Despite my admiration for his work however, I haven't read very many of his plays. Aside from Romeo and Juliet, I have only read Othello and Macbeth, and both of those were back when I was in high school. One of my goals as a reader is to explore more of Shakespeare's classics, so when "a classic published before 1800" popped up as one of the categories in my Back to the Classics reading challenge this year, I knew it was time to try another one of his plays.  

King Lear has always appealed to me, both because of its reputation and because I knew three female characters were at the heart of it. I also knew that some top English actors I love, like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, had taken on the title role in various adaptations over the years. I resolved that if King Lear was good enough for Patrick Stewart, then it was certainly good enough for me, and dove in.

The play begins with a famous opening scene - King Lear, old and tired of the heavy duties of being king of Britain, decides to split up his kingdom between his three daughters so that he can retire. He declares that he will divide his kingdom based on how much his daughters profess to love him, with the most impressive declaration getting the biggest slice of land. Goneril and Regan, his two eldest daughters, both give quite impressive, flowery speeches about the depth of their love for him, and are rewarded accordingly. However, when it is his youngest daughter Cordelia's turn to speak, she is barely able to respond. She is shy, not as artful with words as her sisters, and more realistic. She manages to answer that she loves him as a daughter should love a father, and that her past actions should speak for her when words fail her. Furious with her lack of response, Lear disowns her and gives her no piece of his kingdom. He completely strips her of her dowry, which drives one of her potential suitors away immediately. However, the King of France recognizes the strength of Cordelia's character and marries her despite her lack of money, and takes her away to be Queen of France.

Before long, Lear regrets both his decision to give up his lands and to disown Cordelia. Goneril and Regan prove to be cruel and selfish. They do not take care of him in his old age, treat him like a child, and deny him the provisions they agreed to when he first divided the kingdom between them. They believe him to be a senile fool and spend their time ignoring him as much as possible while scheming to acquire more lands and power. They both latch on to another deceptive and loathesome character, Edmund, and wreak havoc on the kingdom and on each other in his name. Lear, humiliated and ashamed of his actions, vows revenge upon his daughters:
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall--I will do such things--
What they are yet I know not, but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
Before long, however, the pain Lear feels become too much to bear, and he is driven mad. After being locked outside of Regan's home, he wanders for hours in a terrible thunderstorm, raging at everything he comes across. A few subjects who are still faithful to him, including his court fool, an old beggar, and a crazy person attempt to help him, but the damage is done and his mind is never truly whole again. Cordelia eventually returns, bringing the armies of France to try and defend her father's kingdom against the treachery of her sisters, but Goneril and Regan's deceptions and schemes are nigh unstoppable by this time, and lead nearly everyone to a tragic end.

The play ends on a funeral note, with one of the surviving characters noting that:
The weight of this sad time we must obey.
Speak what we feel, and not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most. We that are young
Shall never see so much, not live so long.
It is utter nonsense to "review" King Lear, because this is a work of highly recognized literary merit. Many believe it to be Shakespeare's finest tragedy, and my personal opinions wouldn't even register against a work of this caliber. What I will comment on instead are the thoughts I had while reading. My rating is only a reflection of my personal experiences, and not meant to be a comment on the quality of the work as a whole. It's a masterpiece. That being said, there were things I loved and things I wished were a little different.

I was a little nervous when I started reading, because Shakespeare is challenging to understand. The language is beautiful, but Shakespeare wrote King Lear around 1606, and the way we speak English has evolved a lot since then. To combat this, I used the No Fear Shakespeare edition of the play, which contains a line by line translation of the work side by side with the original. Being able to refer to the translation was immensely helpful when I got stuck, but I found that I didn't need it as much as I had feared. I think reading Romeo and Juliet so many times gave me a bit of a leg up in the language department. I got through it just fine.

I loved the characters and the plot. The story contains everything from familial drama, to political strife, to adulterous affairs, to some truly shocking violence (at one point, I literally gasped out loud at the stage directions). It was interesting from page one. It was easy to sympathize with King Lear as he watches his family disintegrate, and even easier to hate the evil triad of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund. The ending was fittingly tragic and the overall message of actions and experiences being more important than words came across clearly. Lear brought his tragedies on himself, through his own arrogance and laziness, but I really felt bad for him in spite of that. Who would ever want to suspect their children of being capable of such evil and callousness towards their own family? This play is sad and serious, more sad that Romeo and Juliet in my estimation, and had little comic relief to lighten the mood.

One things I wished were different about the play was the treatment of Cordelia. After being disowned in the opening scene, she drops out of the play entirely until almost the very end. When she does show back up, she demonstrates her goodness and loyalty admirably, but in a rather weak and quiet way. She spends most of her lines crying and wringing her hands over her father. It was nice to see the strength of her love for Lear, but in comparison to the terrible schemes her sisters are able to set into motion, she appears weak. I understand that she had to fail in order for this to be a proper Shakespearean tragedy, but I wish she had a little more backbone and a lot more to say in the interim. We are left with the overall impression that women should be meek, mild, and obedient beyond reason in order to be "good." I know that these thoughts are a reflection of the time period this play was written in, however, and I do accept that.

One other small aspect of the play that I wished were different was the lack of poetry. There was some rhyming throughout King Lear, but not anything close to what Shakespeare achieved in Romeo and Juliet, in which sonnets frequently appear in dialogue form. I found that I missed that background rhythm, but this didn't detract from my overall enjoyment of the story.

I believe I made the right choice in choosing King Lear to start exploring more Shakespeare with. It is action-packed, full of memorable characters and dialogue, and fittingly tragic. I am sorry that I never got a chance to study this one in an academic setting, but I'm happy that I experienced it on my own. I would highly recommend this one to anyone looking to expand their knowledge of Shakespearean tragedies.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics: (A classic published before 1800) 4/12
Classics Club: (#4 on my list) 4/100 
Popsugar Challenge: (A book with a title that's a character's name) 9/40 
Mount TBR: previously owned 9/60 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

 "To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream."

One of my Back to the Classics challenge categories this year was to read a classic from the 20th century. One of my Popsugar challenge categories was to read a book about an interesting woman. Together, these two directives presented the perfect opportunity to finally read The Bell Jar. Sylvia Plath's semi-autobiographical story of a young woman enduring a nervous breakdown is a mainstay on feminist fiction lists, and is a novel that I had always meant to get around to reading.

Now that I'm on the other side of it, I barely know what to write. The Bell Jar pulled me into its darkly engaging plot from page one. It touched on so many frustrations that I've felt in my own life that I quickly became emotionally involved in the story, and felt quite drained upon finishing. This was a book that spoke to me deeply, and as is the case with books that lodge themselves firmly into one's brain, I raced through it and finished reading it in just a few days. It's left me tired, a little melancholy, and very quiet. This is one read I won't be forgetting for a while.

The novel tells the story of Esther Greenwood, a talented young student whom we first meet while she is working for a month at a fashion magazine in New York. The temporary job is a prize for a writing contest she won; school, scholarships, and contests are areas where Esther shines and sets herself apart from others with her writing skills. However, despite her numerous successes, Esther feels a sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction. She describes her ambivalence towards choosing a path in life using beautiful analogy to a fig tree:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet, and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

As her month in New York draws to an end, she begins a slow descent towards a mental breakdown, culminating in a suicide attempt and subsequent hospitalization.

The novel is told from Esther's perspective, a technique which plunges the reader into her shoes and allows for total immersion in the story. As the narrator's mental state deteriorates, so do the quality of the details in the narrative. Time skips around, new stories pop up from the middle of nowhere, and erratic behavior is presented as normal. Plath's style here is artful, and makes the reader feel like they are losing their own grip on reality. It was jarring to read.

Punctuating Esther's decline are the worries that many young women struggle with as they begin transitioning into adulthood. Uncertainty as to one's place in the world, frustration towards sexism, and worries about how marriage and motherhood might transform a woman fill the pages, distorted through the lens of Esther's mental illness - an effect she describes as "living under a bell jar." Her thoughts on these topics have been my thoughts, and most likely, the thoughts of thousands of other women. Particularly striking to me was this passage:

And I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard's kitchen mat...

I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn't want to write poems anymore. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.      

Plath's words rang so true to my heart that I felt even closer to Esther as the story went on. The Bell Jar surely deserves its place on feminist reading book lists for daring to voice what so many women privately wonder about, even today.

The back of my copy of this novel contained some autobiographical information on Sylvia Plath, which I read after finishing the story. In this section, I learned that this work is a very thinly veiled version of Plath's own mental breakdown. In fact, the resemblance between Plath's life and situations and people from the novel was so obvious that Plath did not ever want The Bell Jar published in the United States, for fear of offending her friends and family. She published it in England under a pen name. It didn't come out in the U.S. until after her death. Sadly, Plath committed suicide in 1963.

It wasn't surprising to learn that Plath struggled with these issues in her real life, because the writing in The Bell Jar felt so authentic. It reminded me of It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, another novel about mental illness written by an author who was, himself, mentally ill. It seems that writing from a place of experience when it comes to depression and suicide can make for some extremely moving work.

The Bell Jar is my first five-star read of 2017, and it has become one of my new favorite classics. Most of my other favorite classic novels, like The Great Gatsby and Of Mice and Men feel like museum exhibits of the past - endlessly interesting to examine, but separated from me by a velvet rope. The Bell Jar isn't like that at all. It's a window that I can lean into and get a good look around, or a door I can open and walk inside of, touching everything I come across. It feels real and important, and speaks to me as a woman. It's a truly great novel.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics: (20th Century Classic) 3/12
Classics Club: (#8 on my list) 3/100
Popsugar Challenge: (A book about an interesting woman) 8/40 
Mount TBR: previously owned 8/60

February 2017 Reading Plan

I always love the start of a new month. It's like turning to a fresh page in your notebook - a blank space full of endless possibilities.

In planning my reads this month, I tried to blend my challenge requirements with a few books that fit in with February. I have a love story included for Valentine's Day, and a book by an African American author for Black History Month. I'm also expanding my horizons a bit with a play and a graphic novel in the mix. Here's the plan:

1. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  • Back to the Classics: 20th Century Classic
  • Classics Club: #8 on my list
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book about an interesting woman
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

2. King Lear by William Shakespeare
  • Back to the Classics: A classic published before 1800
  • Classics Club: #4 on my list
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book with a title that's a character's name
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

3. Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book with a cat on the cover
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

4. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book that's been on your TBR list for way too long
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

5. Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book by a person of color
  • Mount TBR: previously owned


Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book involving a mythical creature
  • Mount TBR: previously owned 

I have a lot going on this month with the Disney Princess Half Marathon weekend and all of the requisite training for it, but I'm still hoping to finish everything on this list. As always, reading is my number one priority.

Mount TBR 2017 Challenge

*Edited on 12/31/17 to add:

Well, I finished this challenge successfully! I reached the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro by reading 60 books that I already had sitting on my shelves! I did end up buying a whole lot of books in 2017 that I haven't read yet though, so there are definitely more mountains to climb in my future!

This post will serve as my record of all the books I have read for my Mount TBR 2017 Challenge. This challenge is all about reading books that you already owned prior to 2017. I have signed up for the Mount Kilimanjaro level, meaning I need to read a total of 60 books from my shelves throughout the year. Books will be added and linked to their review when I have completed them.

1. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (3/5 stars)
2. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (4/5 stars)
3. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (2/5 stars)
4. The Omnivore's Dilemma: Young Reader's Edition by Michael Pollan (3/5 stars)
5. Lock In by John Scalzi (3/5 stars)
6. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2/5 stars)
7. Dear White America by Tim Wise (4/5 stars)
8. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (5/5 stars)
9. King Lear by William Shakespeare (4/5 stars)
10. Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman (4/5 stars)
11. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (3/5 stars)
12. Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson by Jacqueline Woodson (5/5 stars)
13. Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet (2/5 stars)
14. Germinal by Émile Zola (4/5 stars)
15. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (3/5 stars)
16. Letters From The Looney Bin by Thatcher C. Nalley (1/5 stars)
17. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (4/5 stars)
18. Hollow City by Ransom Riggs (3/5 stars)
19. Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs (2/5 stars)
20. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (4/5 stars)
21. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (4/5 stars)
22. The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck (4/5 stars)
23. The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (3/5 stars)
24. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling; Illustrations by Jim Kay (5/5 stars)
25. Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner (5/5 stars)
26. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (4/5 stars)
27. Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (4/5 stars)
28. Rigorous Reading by Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher (2/5 stars)
29. Trouble by Non Pratt (3/5 stars)
30. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling; Illustrations by Jim Kay (5/5 stars)
31. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina (3/5 stars)
32. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (4/5 stars)
33. The Odyssey by Homer (4/5 stars)
34. Labor Day by Joyce Maynard (4/5 stars)
35. The Girls by Emma Cline (4/5 stars)
36. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster (5/5 stars)
37. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2/5 stars)
38. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (abridged) (3/5 stars)
39. Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers (3/5 stars)
40. Colorblind by Tim Wise (4/5 stars)
41. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (2/5 stars)
42. Pax by Sara Pennypacker (3/5 stars)
43. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys (5/5 stars)
44. The Suicide Club by Robert Louis Stevenson (2/5 stars)
45. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (3/5 stars)
46. Frost by M.P. Kozlowsky (3/5 stars)
47. The Scourge by Jennifer Nielsen (2/5 stars)
48. Dracula by Bram Stoker (3/5 stars)
49. American Gods by Neil Gaiman (5/5 stars)
50. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (4/5 stars)
51. Pointe by Brandy Colbert (4/5 stars)
52. A Little Something Different by Sandy Hall (3/5 stars)
53. Boys Don't Knit by T.S. Easton (3/5 stars)
54. This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales (2/5 stars)
55. To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han (4/5 stars)
56. The Good Sister by Jamie Kain (4/5 stars)
57. The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider (2/5 stars)
58. The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson (3/5 stars)
59. Firecracker by David Iserson (3/5 stars)
60. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton (1/5 stars)

January 2017 Reading Wrap Up

Photo by Mditha

My first month of reading in 2017 is over, and I have to say that it was a rousing success!  I read a total of seven books, each of which counted for multiple categories in my challenges. I have also made sure to read a little bit everyday, and I have definitely felt happier for it.

Here's breakdown of everything I finished in January:

1. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (3/5 stars)
  • Back to the Classics: 19th Century Classic
  • Classics Club: #41 on my list
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book about travel
  • Mount TBR: previously owned
2. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (4/5 stars)
  • Back to the Classics: A classic about an animal
  • Classics Club: #21 on my list
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book from a nonhuman perspective
  • Mount TBR: previously owned
3. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (2/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book with multiple authors
  • Mount TBR: previously owned
4. The Omnivore's Dilemma: Young Reader's Edition by Michael Pollan (3/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book about food
  • Mount TBR: previously owned
5. Lock In by John Scalzi (3/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: An audio book
  • Mount TBR: previously owned 
6. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: An espionage thriller
  • Mount TBR: previously owned
7. Dear White America by Tim Wise (4/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book written by someone you admire
  • Mount TBR: previously owned 

My favorite of the month was, surprisingly enough, Black Beauty. I didn't predict what an impression this sweet little book would leave on me, but I find myself thinking about it whenever I see a horse now. I've never had an interaction with a real horse in my life, but I suddenly have an opinion on equine welfare.

My least favorite was Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which I found to be a mix of pointless and overly-sentimental. It seems like John Green works are really hit-or-miss for me. This one, like An Abundance of Katherines, was a miss.

Another high point of my month was discovering the joys of audio books! Lock In helped me get back on track with my exercising. I can't imagine running without listening to a book now, as the fact that I'm almost finished with Redshirts will attest.

I'm heading into February with a lot of energy and motivation. I'm hoping to keep up this pace with my reading, as it definitely helps to calm my mind and keep me happy. Life has been good so far in 2017!