Friday, June 30, 2017

June 2017 Reading Wrap Up

The month of June has really flown by, hasn't it? I'm pretty sure the passage of time speeds up for teachers during summer vacation. Here's what I managed to read with my extra downtime:

1. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (4/5 stars)
  • Back to the Classics: A classic set in a place you'd like to visit
  • Classics Club: #43 on my list
  • Mount TBR: Previously owned

2. The Odyssey by Homer (4/5 stars)
  • Classics Club: #61 on my list
  • Mount TBR: Previously owned
  • Popsugar Challenge: A steampunk novel

4. Labor Day by Joyce Maynard (4/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book set around a holiday other than Christmas
  • Mount TBR: Previously owned

5. The Girls by Emma Cline (4/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book you bought on a trip
  • Mount TBR: Previously owned

6. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster (5/5 stars)
  • Classics Club: #95 on my list
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book set in a hotel
  • Mount TBR: Previously owned

7. The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman (2/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: a book that's becoming a movie in 2017

My current challenge status is:

I have read 47 books so far in 2017!

I had a lot of highs and lows this month, with everything I read rating fairly high or pretty low. My favorite of the month was E.M. Forster's A Room with a View, which I found to be both charming and emotional. I loved Lucy Honeychurch, the plucky heroine, and really enjoyed Forster's witty writing style. This novel made it onto my Favorites List.

My least favorite of the month was The Diamond Age, a steampunk novel whose ending took a disappointing turn for the bizarre. After investing so much time in this 500 page tome, I felt robbed when it ended nonsensically. 

I have one month left of my summer break. That means I have one more month where I read to my heart's content. I'm not going to waste it!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

My last regular category in the Popsugar Challenge was a bit of a toughie. It was to read a book that's becoming a movie in 2017. I looked at a bunch of lists of books being turned into movies this year and discovered that I had already read most of the ones that interested me. I started listening to Stephen King's It on Audible during my runs, but injuries and illness made my running sporadic for a few months and I lost my place in it. I want to go back to that novel eventually, but I figured that I had better start with something else for now. When The Zookeeper's Wife went on sale on Amazon, I decided to give this nonfiction WWII story a try.

 The Zookeeper's Wife tells the true story of Polish zookeepers Antonina Zabinski and her husband Jan. After Nazis bombed their zoo in Warsaw, they managed to save over 300 Jewish people by hiding them inside their empty animal cages and zoo buildings. They also aided Polish resistance fighters, regularly giving them a place to lay low when needed. By maintaining an elaborate system of coded language and subterfuge, Antonina and Jan evaded discovery by the Germans and helped the fight against Nazi oppression.

The story focuses mainly on Antonina, who is described as a strong woman who has a special gift with animals. Her life at the zoo prior to the war was idyllic and busy. She carried out her extensive duties at the zoo, entertained many important guests that came to see the animals, raised her own small son, and cared for an unusual menagerie of pets at home, including such varied species as lynxes, otters, and a badger. When the war arrived at her doorstep, she was forced to watch everything she loved slowly be dismantled. The zoo's beautiful exhibits were destroyed by bombs, animals died or escaped, and German soldiers harassed her family over the course of several terrifying incidents. However, she managed to keep her head up, preserve what remained of the zoo, and help as many people as she could to survive the war. She was a truly remarkable woman, and her story is nothing short of inspiring.

Ackerman reconstructed this story primarily through entries from Antonina's journal, and she regularly weaves together Antonina's words with other historical facts and details about the time period. Her writing style is highly descriptive and very artistic, which has the benefit of making the story read like a fiction novel in parts, but it also has the drawback of feeling less accurate than a more traditional nonfiction text would. She is also prone to lengthy digressions away from Antonina in which she gives a lot of extra details about other people, animals, landscapes, and local Polish customs. Ackerman is a gifted writer, and the way she writes nonfiction is unusual. It's one of those situations where people with either be totally into it or will be annoyed by it.

As for myself, I enjoyed her writing well enough in the beginning, and I and found most of her extra information to be interesting, but my patience for it dropped off over time. I started to get frustrated with all the extraneous details and had trouble following the thread of Antonina's story. I started getting the order of events mixed up, forgetting who different people were, and confusing the names of the pets. The subject matter of the novel is intensely interesting, and that kept me engaged in the story, but this wasn't a pleasurable read for me. The format was so scattered and the digressions so random that I found myself irritated and anxious to just finish the book and be done with it.

Despite my disappointment in Ackerman's writing style, I am still glad that I chose to read The Zookeeper's Wife. I learned a lot about how Poland was affected by WWII, and I really enjoyed the parts of the novel that focused on Antonina and her family. I loved the story and am in awe of Antonina's bravery, I just wish that a different writer had taken on the task of bringing her story to the world.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (a book that's becoming a movie in 2017) 40/40 - Yay!

Total Books Read in 2017: 47

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

“Let yourself go. Pull out from the depths those thoughts that you do not understand, and spread them out in the sunlight and know the meaning of them.” 

I wasn't planning on reading A Room with a View this month, but a misunderstanding ended up putting me in its path. I was attempting to complete the Popsugar Challenge category of reading "a book set in a hotel." I initially planned on using Muriel Barbary's The Elegance of the Hedgehog for it. I thought that book was set in a hotel because the description on the back of it started with, "We are in an elegant hôtel particulier in the center of Paris..." It only took me a few pages of reading to realize that in French, the language this novel was originally written in, the term "hôtel particulier" means fancy apartments. It's not set in a hotel at all. D'oh.

So obviously, that book didn't fit the challenge category I was going for. After some research, I discovered that E.M. Forster's A Room with a View is set in a hotel in Italy. Since I already owned the novel, and it happened to be on my Classics Club list, I read that one instead. As it turns out, this was a very happy accident. A Room with a View is fantastic, and has become a new favorite for me.

The novel is set in the early 1900s and follows Lucy Honeychurch, a young English woman who is traveling in Italy with her cousin and chaperone, Miss Bartlett. Lucy arrives eager to see the sights and have some adventures, but is quickly frustrated by the overbearing behavior of her chaperone and the strict set of societal rules she is expected to follow. She feels a longing to be truthful and authentic in her relationships and finds observing the usual niceties to be tiresome. Nevertheless, she remains cheerful and endeavors to have a nice trip, despite Miss Bartlett's strict management and the judgemental eyes of her fellow hotel guests.

On their first night in Florence, they run into Mr. Emerson and his son George, two fellow travelers. The behavior of this father and son pair is quite unorthodox. They seem incapable of fitting in with the upper crust of society and continually behave in an awkward and embarrassing manner. They are always saying the wrong things and inserting themselves where they don't belong. Despite their social ineptitude, however, both Mr. Emerson and George are obviously kind, intelligent, and well-meaning people. They display the authenticity in their thoughts and actions that Lucy wishes for herself. She finds herself becoming rather fond of them, even though they scandalize most of the other guests.

Eventually, Lucy finds herself developing romantic feelings for George. After a brief and unexpected moment of passion with him, she flees Florence with Miss Bartlett and they head to the next stop on their European tour. Lucy is confused and frightened by her feelings, and George is wholly unsuitable as a potential husband, so she tries to ignore her heart and move on with her life. When she returns to her family home in England, she gets engaged to a conventional man she has known for years named Cecil Vyse and begins to plan for her wedding.

Fate brings her and George together again when he and his father decide to purchase a cottage very near to her home. George soon resumes his attentions towards Lucy and she finds her old feelings for him bubbling to the surface again. Caught between her head and her heart, she has to decide whether to stick with Cecil, the safe and appropriate choice, or throw caution to the wind and take a chance with George.

I really liked this novel, and what struck me the most about it was the characterization of Lucy. She is quite a forward-thinking woman for her time. She is frustrated by the restrictions of society and by the stereotypical role women are expected to inhabit within it. She doesn't exactly know what she wants or who she is, but she is brave enough to try and figure it out. I love reading classic novels, but I often find the female characters to be a bit flat within them. A Room with a View did not have this problem. Lucy was a great mix of plucky, kind, and creative, and I enjoyed following her journey.

I also enjoyed the minor characters in the novel. Miss Bartlett was delightfully unbearable, Mr. Emerson was completely charming, and Cecil was a very convincing prig. In fact, the only character I thought was a bit flat was George himself, who was a moody and boring at times. I enjoyed everyone else in the novel enough to make up for this though, so that's a very minor criticism.

A Room with a View is considered to be Forster's most optimistic and accessible novel. While it was undoubtedly a lighthearted story, it wasn't all smiles and sunshine. Lucy's choices have consequences. People are hurt throughout the novel and not everything is completely resolved at the end. It maintains a good balance between being cheerful and being realistic. Forster's writing is consistently clever, alternating between humor and poignant observations with ease. His style is very readable and addictive. I finished the book in just a few days, and I'm interested in seeking out his other works in the future.    

So even though I didn't plan on picking this book up anytime soon, I'm certainly glad that circumstances led me to it. I suppose this is just one more point in favor of participating in reading challenges - you end up finding lots of little treasures, sometimes hiding in plain sight on your bookshelf.  A Room with a View is one such novel. I won't be forgetting this charming coming-of-age story for a long time to come.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#95 on my list) 14/100
Popsugar Challenge: (a book set in a hotel) 39/40
TBR Challenge (previously owned): 36/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 46 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Girls by Emma Cline

In trying to complete the initial 40 Popsugar Challenge reading categories, I chose to read Emma Cline's The Girls next. I bought this book last December while on a trip to visit my sister. She lives on the other side of the state from me, about three hours away. It may not have been a vacation to an exotic locale, but I figured that outing definitely counts as a "trip."

The Girls was a New York Times bestseller last year, and I saw tons of hype for it spreading all over the internet. I usually end up reading popular books ages after they come out, so I was excited to read one that was within a year of its publication date. The response to this novel on Goodreads is very mixed, with some people swearing it's one of the most amazing things they've ever read and other people claiming that they hated it so much they couldn't even finish it. I was interested to see which side of the divide I would fall on.

The novel tells the story of Evie Boyd, a fourteen-year-old girl growing up in Northern California in 1969. Her summer break is just beginning at the start of the book, and she isn't having an easy time of things. She is desperate to catch the attention of boys, feels inadequate and awkward all the time, and is insecure about her physical appearance. She is at a vulnerable time in her life, made worse by her parents recent divorce and her approaching transition to a boarding school in the fall. Everything seems embarrassing and sad to her, especially her mother's clumsy attempts to date again. Even Connie, her friend since childhood, is no longer much of a comfort. She's in that tricky spot between child and woman, and she is anxious to look grown up and be accepted by an older crowd.

One day while out at a park, Evie spots a group of girls hanging out. They are older teens and they seem to have an aura of freedom and beauty about them that make them fascinating. These girls don't have to care what other people think of them or worry about if boys will like them. Their carefree attitudes draw Evie to them, and before long she is tagging along with the group. She quickly forms a deep attachment to their leader, the wild and free-spirited Suzanne. 

Before long, Suzanne and the other girls invite Evie to come and stay with them at their ranch. They live with several other people, most of them women, in a hippie-style commune. They present their community as a wonderful place, where everyone loves and helps each other. They are led by a man named Russel, and everyone speaks of him with awe and longing in their voices. He is aspiring to become a musician, they tell her, and it's only a matter of time until he hits it big. Evie, desperate to fit in with the group and be as free as her new friends, goes along with this unusual living arrangement and begins spending more and more time at the ranch. What her age and vulnerability prevent her from understanding (or perhaps from acknowledging), is that her new friends are a cult and that Russel is their abusive leader.    

The living conditions at the ranch are terrible and dirty. Everyone is filthy and malnourished and no one has anything resembling a job or money. However, the alcohol is flowing and the pot is plentiful, which makes up for a lot. Evie falls into their lifestyle of being constantly stoned and drunk, so she doesn't mind the grime and lack of basic necessities. She also participates in sexual encounters with Russel, just like the rest of the girls at the ranch. At first she's uncomfortable with this, but her desperation for male attention and deep desire to stay friends with Suzanne soon erase all of her concerns. She also starts participating in petty crimes, like stealing money from her mother's purse and breaking into homes, to try and become an accepted member of the group. At one point she is disturbed to realize that she has reached a point where she will do anything Suzanne or Russel ask her to, no matter how crazy it is. Her attachment to her new friends is too deep for her to walk away.

As the summer wears on, things at the ranch begin to break down. Russel enters into a conflict with a musician who was supposed to help him get a record deal. When the deal falls through, Russel is furious. He enlists some of his girls to go and teach this musician a lesson. His power over them is so complete that they agree to commit a heinous act of violence against this man. Evie is caught up in the middle of these plans; slowly, she inches closer and closer to participating in something that would destroy her life.

The Girls is a very powerful novel. Cline's writing is distinctive and dark, and her observations about the mind of a young girl are stunningly realistic. All of Evie's insecurities and worries felt real and mirrored many of the thoughts I had growing up. Cline's ability to put that difficult, vulnerable time into words is impressive; it also has the effect of creating a fantastic unreliable narrator in Evie. Mature readers know that things are horrifying at the ranch, and Evie's teenage rationalization of the situation is quite off-putting. She is so lonely and so desperate to fit into a group that she becomes the perfect target for Suzanne and Russel. While the idea of a fourteen year old girl falling in with a cult seems rather farfetched, Cline's characterization makes it understandable.

Another effect of using a vulnerable teenager as a narrator is that it eliminates a lot of detail about the other characters and daily functioning of the cult. Evie is a typical self-absorbed teen. Her narration focuses mostly on herself - how she feels, what she thinks, etc. This deepens the mystique of the group and allows suspense to deepen throughout the story. The events in this novel are based off of Charles Manson and his group of followers, but names and details are changed. Because of this, the reader knows that terrible things will happen, but remains unsure on the specifics of how everyone will end up. While some reviewers noted this lack of details on the cult as a weak point in the novel, I found it to be a strength. I felt like the hazy details of life on the ranch matched up with the psyche of a fourteen-year-old girl who was not only desperate to belong, but drunk and high much of the time as well. It felt like the right amount of information was given.

 Besides, at its heart, this is not a story about a cult at all. It's a story about a young girl and how the insecurities that have been ingrained in her since childhood were easily exploited by others. It's a warning about how the typical feminine standards of beauty and sexuality are dangerous to the well-being of women. As Evie notes in the novel, she wasn't that much different from any of the other girls she was hanging out with. It only takes a little push to become trapped in something terrible that you can't get out of, and the lessons we teach girls about beauty, weight, sex, and being meek and agreeable are exactly the sort of thing other people can use to control them.

One small issue I had with the writing was that some of the imagery was pretty gross. The novel has a gritty tone, so you don't go into it expecting things to be pretty and perfect all the time, but I feel like Cline may have went a bit overboard on some of the details. Everyone's breath, body odor, and snot were mentioned repeatedly. Bad smells were described in detail. The smell of sex, semen, or masturbation was lurking around every corner. Everything was described as being dirty, smelly, or both. It irked me after a while. Overall though, this is a minor criticism. The important stuff in the novel, like characters, plot, and emotional impact, were great.

Ultimately, I thought that The Girls was a great read. It was well-written and had a lot of important things to say about female adolescence. It was just the right blend of chilling, suspenseful, and emotional. This was Emma Cline's first novel, and I think she is definitely an author to look out for in the future. I'm very glad that I chose to pick this one up.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (a book you bought on a trip) 38/40
TBR Challenge (previously owned): 35/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 45

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Labor Day by Joyce Maynard

 My list of Popsugar categories is steadily getting smaller and smaller. With just four categories left out of the original forty, I chose to tackle the "book set around a holiday other than Christmas" prompt next. I had to head online for suggestions on this one, as I had no clue what to read for it. I found what I was looking for in the Popsugar Goodreads group. Someone suggested Labor Day by Joyce Maynard, and I just happened to have that novel loaded into my Kindle already. I randomly downloaded it when it was on sale for a few bucks on Amazon a little while back and then forgot that I owned it (a hazard of owning books that you can't see sitting on your shelf). As the title suggests, the story is set over a Labor Day weekend. Pleased that I already had a book that would work for this challenge, I dove in.

Labor Day tells the story of thirteen-year-old Henry Johnson. He lives alone with his mother Adele in a rural New England town. His parents are divorced, and he sees his father, stepmother, and step-siblings once a week for an awkward family dinner. Aside from those days, it's just him and his mom, which isn't an easy life, because his mother suffers from a mental illness. She only leaves the house when absolutely necessary and alternates between being sad and paranoid most of the time. She and Henry subsist on canned and frozen foods, which Henry has to shop for alone while she waits in the car. She works a part-time job over the phone, which she can only bear to do sometimes because of the social interaction required. Because of her issues, Henry spends much of his time attempting to cheer her up and take care of the house. There is no shortage of love and care between Henry and Adele, but their lives are very lonely and abnormal. Henry knows this, and worries about things quite a bit.

The action of the story begins over Labor Day weekend. School is about to begin again and Henry's recent growth spurt has forced a rare shopping trip to the local Price Mart. While perusing the store, a strange man approaches Henry and asks for help. He's hurt his ankle and cut his leg in an accident, he explains, and wants a ride back to their house to patch himself up. He says that Henry and Adele look like just the people he needs to help him. Henry and his mom are suspicious, but they agree to help the man, whose name, as they soon learn, is Frank. Before long he tells them the truth of his situation. He has just escaped from prison and needs a place to lay low for awhile.

Adele and Henry drive Frank back to their house, where things quickly become complicated. Frank explains that he was serving a prison sentence for murder, which is obviously alarming, but his kind and respectful manner wins over the hearts of both mother and son. Adele and Henry have essentially become Frank's hostages, but they have been so lonely for so long that they are starved for the presence of a husband and father in their lives. Over the course of the long holiday weekend, Frank steps up to that father figure role, making home repairs, cooking real meals, and playing games of catch in the backyard with Henry. He and Adele fall in love and begin having a sexual relationship. Soon, they start making plans to take Henry and disappear to Canada.

Henry, who had previously been enjoying Frank's fatherly companionship and influence on his mother, begins to feel more conflicted about their living situation as these plans to move are discussed. He becomes concerned that the pair might eventually leave him behind, or that his mother will start to love Frank more than him. He considers turning Frank into the police, who have maintained a very public manhunt for him since his escape. As the weekend progresses and their plans to move become more solid, Henry has to sort out his feelings about his mother and Frank and decide on his course of action. Will he stick with this new and highly unorthodox family arrangement that seems to bring his mother so much happiness, or force a return to the old lonely days where it's just him and Adele against the world?

Going into this novel, I expected it to be like a Lifetime movie - high on intrigue and short on substance. After reading, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the amount of subtlety and depth that Maynard created. The characters of Adele and Henry were very well-written, with lots of characterization that made me feel for them. The idea of a woman falling in love with an escaped convict over the course of a few days sounds ludicrous on its face, but the background Maynard gives her, the mental illness, and the intense loneliness that she grapples make the story almost believable. Henry's pain and inner turmoil over his mother's depression and his own sense of isolation is similarly beautifully described. He is an unreliable narrator due to his age, and his preteen view of the world adds a lot of poignancy to the story. Frank's background was also very well drawn, with enough shades of gray included in his backstory to make you question how much of a criminal he actually was. This was a story full of very dysfunctional people, but everyone within it was struggling with difficult emotions common to everyone. I was drawn right into the story and finished it in just a few days.

Labor Day was a great little novel and it raised a lot of questions in my mind. I love books that make me think, and this one did just that. It wasn't high literature, but it was much better than I was expecting. I'm going to have to seek out more of Maynard's work in the future when I'm in the mood for a fast-paced and emotional read. I'm glad that my Popsugar Challenge led me to give this author a try.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (a book set around a holiday other than Christmas) 37/40
TBR Challenge (previously owned): 34/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 44

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

One of the more nebulous categories in my Popsugar Reading Challenge this year was to read a steampunk novel. I knew the genre had something to do with the Victorian time period and lots of copper cogs and gears, but I didn't have a true definition what this term really meant. Accordingly, I took to the internet to do some research and collect some book recommendations. I found what I was looking for on a website aptly named "The Best Sci Fi Books." I learned that the steampunk genre is defined as a type of science fiction which combines the Victorian time period with more modern technology, especially devices that are steam-powered. Topics typically covered in this genre include widely varying ideas like time travel, alternate histories, magic, romance, and supernatural creatures like vampires. Think top hats mixed with aviator goggles and steamships and you've got the general idea.

After looking through the website's list of book recommendations, I decided to try The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson. The summary I read promised that the novel included some interesting feminist ideas, which intrigued me right away. This pick also allowed me to give Neal Stephenson another shot. It just happens to be one year this month since I read a different novel by him, Seveneves. My review was not positive. I felt like his characterization was weak and didn't like his obsessive focus on describing the technical aspects of his world. After a year of recovery from that reading experience, I finally felt ready to try another one of his novels to see if I just started out with a dud of a book, or if I truly don't like him as an author. Stephenson is very famous in the science fiction world and has won multiple awards for his novels, so I felt like I needed to give him another shot.

The Diamond Age is set in a future where the structure of the world has changed entirely due to the prevalence of nanotechnology. This new technology has enabled people to craft everything from necessities to luxury items using matter compilers. This has eliminated a lot of the problems of poverty, but exacerbated other societal issues, like conflicts between different cultures and religions.  The countries of the world no longer exist as we know them; different alliances have risen up and formed new countries based mostly on race and religion. The largest and most successful of these factions have modeled themselves on the society of the Victorian time period, and live according to their restrictive moral code. In this way, the novel qualifies as steampunk, but in a slightly different way than a traditional novel in this genre. The characters in this story have chosen to live a life that imitates the past rather than actually being set in a past time period.

The story follows a few different characters, but is mostly centered around a young girl named Nell. She lives with her mother and brother in an unincorporated city surrounding the neo-Victorians. Her family is too poor to belong to one of the big societies, so they live on the fringes of it and scrape by using the free food provided by public matter compilers and their mother's meager income. Nell's luck changes one day when her brother manages to swipe a mysterious book from a stranger and gifts it to her. The book, titled "A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer," is quite unique. It is designed to bond with a little girl and help her learn to be strong and independent. Nell quickly falls in love with the primer and begins learning everything from how to read to how to defend herself from its interactive pages. The stories that the primer tells Nell are structured like fairy tales, but symbolize events going on in her life and in the world at large. By reading, she becomes intelligent enough about how the world works to both take care of herself and change the fabric of society.

Aside from the development of Nell, the novel also follows a few other characters, including the brilliant nano-tech that crafted the primer, some big players in the different factions, a theater magnate, and the actress that does the primer's voice work. Each one plays a role in either Nell's evolution or the ever-increasing conflicts going on between the societies. While the threads of their stories seem quite separate at first, they all converge in the end as Nell comes of age and begins to use the knowledge she gained from her book. This is a story about what the world might be like post-scarcity and the role that individuals could play within it, if they have the strength and intelligence to step outside the accepted pattern of things.

I liked The Diamond Age more than Seveneves, but I was still troubled by several aspects of it. On the positive side, I liked Nell's character and really enjoyed following her journey. She is definitely a protagonist that you want to root for. I also really enjoyed the concept of focusing on young girls in particular as targets for the primer; it was interesting to see the juxtaposition between the repressive Victorian society and the newly-empowered Nell. For the most part, the story was quite interesting and even though the book was long, I was able to move through it reasonably fast without feeling like it was a slog.

On the negative side, I was bothered by some of the same issues in this novel as I was with Seveneves last year. The summary I wrote above falls woefully short of describing everything that happens throughout the course of this novel, but the plot is so bizarre that to explain it any further would be impossible. The amount of technical detail included in The Diamond Age is staggering. I found the long descriptions of how the nanotechnology functioned to be dry, difficult to understand, and disruptive to the reading process. The amount of detail included about the setting was also overwhelming. It was to the point where I was never really clear on how the world worked because there was just too much exposition about it and nothing was logical enough to infer what I didn't understand. It was impossible to keep straight in my head.

On top of all this extraneous detail, I found some parts of the plot to be deeply confusing. For example, there is a mysterious faction named the Drummers that somehow live under the sea and communicate through near-constant sexual orgies. The way this works is not explained in a way that made complete sense to me. I felt like I could almost understand what Stephenson was going for, but I couldn't articulate it if I had to, which is a shame, because this ended up being an integral thread of the plot. I ran into a similar situation with the experimental theater troupe known as Dramatis Personae. They put on shows that work with a mix of physical staging, virtual simulations, multiple stories occurring simultaneously, and audience participation. It was really difficult to envision what this would look like. I didn't enjoy feeling lost throughout big chunks of the story.

The ending of the novel was a huge disappointment. Once Nell decides to leave her school and make her own way in the world, the plot stops making sense. For some reason, Nell ends up choosing to go work in a brothel where she is eventually raped. Nothing in the story up to this point would lead the reader to think she would choose to work in such a situation, and no explanation is ever given for it. It was very sad to see a strong female character that spent most of the book learning how to navigate the top rungs of society degraded by pointless sexual violence. This was a terrible choice that spoiled the story for me. I thought this novel was going to be about female empowerment, and it ended up falling into the tired old pattern of using violence against women as a meaningless plot point.

In the final chapters, a war breaks out between the different factions. Sadly, I didn't really understand which groups were on which sides, why they were fighting, and what anyone was hoping to achieve. After spending most of the book being interested in the story, it was weird to see everything devolve into such a confusing mess. All of a sudden, everyone was shooting everyone else, people were blowing themselves up, and an army of twelve year old girls were stripping naked and walking into the ocean to join Drummer sex orgies. I was left wishing for a real ending that made sense after investing all that time into the first three quarters of this 500 page book.

Despite liking most of The Diamond Age well enough, I think that I've now read enough Neal Stephenson to know that I'm just not a fan. I don't like his style of writing and I'm not good at envisioning his worlds. I think it's good to read books that take you out of your comfort zone every now and then, but Stephenson's writing challenges me in a way that I don't find to be enjoyable. I think he has very intriguing ideas and is undoubtedly very creative, but his delivery is confusing and overly detailed. He focuses on the technical details of his setting instead of developing his characters, which ultimately spoils the reading experience for me. I'm glad that I dipped my toe into this new genre, but I think Stephenson and I are done for the foreseeable future.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (a steampunk novel) 36/40

Total Books Read in 2017: 43

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Odyssey by Homer

In assembling my Classic Club list, I included a handful of books that I consider to be intimidating reads. Some books are on there due to their impressive length, like War and Peace. Others are on there due to fears that I won't understand them, like Ulysses. I think it's important to challenge myself as a reader, and to make an attempt to read the more difficult classics. There are a total of ten of these books on my list, meaning that I should probably read at least two books from that section per year if I want to spread them out over the life of the five-year challenge. I decided to start with Homer's classic tale of adventure, The Odyssey.

The Odyssey was included in my intimidating category due to its age. This tale of Odysseus struggling to make it home after the Trojan War was being told orally to ancient Greeks before the idea of a book, or of writing itself, for that matter, was even conceived of. I have never read an ancient work on my own before and was concerned that it might be a dry reading experience. I did have a bit of a head start, however, because I teach an excerpted version of The Odyssey to my English I honors students each year. I'm fine reading a version of the tale that's distilled down to the most relevant bits, but I was worried that reading the full version might not be as fun. Luckily, I found out pretty quickly that I was wrong.

*Warning - this summary contains spoilers*

The Odyssey is composed of 24 chapter-like books and describes the story of Odysseus, a hero of the Trojan War who is struggling to make it back to his small kingdom of Ithaca. The gods haven't given him an easy time of things so far. The war itself took him away from his family for ten years, and his journey back has taken another ten, due to a series of terrible mishaps and unlucky adventures. At the start of the story he is released from a seven year imprisonment on the island of the goddess Calypso and makes his way to King Alcinous in Scheria. King Alcinous promises to see him the rest of the way home, but first begs Odysseus to tell him the story of his journey so far. What follows is a thrilling tale full of hideous monsters, gods and goddesses, incredible triumphs, and emotional tragedies. Throughout it all, Odysseus displays the traits of a true epic hero - strength, leadership, prowess in battle, deference to the gods, and intelligence. He also displays more than a few flaws, and his boldness and arrogance get him and his men into more than a few unnecessary scrapes.

While Odysseus is telling his story to Alcinous, an entire other plot is occurring back at his home in Ithaca. Penelope and Telemachus, the wife and son he left behind when setting out for war, have been tormented for years by the eligible young men of the city. These men assume that after all this time, Odysseus is surely dead, and they lay about his estate hoping to tempt Penelope into marrying one of them. The suitors waste Odyssues' wine and livestock and bring dishonor upon themselves with their boorish behavior. When Telemachus, who was just a baby when Odysseus left, reaches manhood, he resolves to discover the truth of what happened to his father. He travels abroad to a few different cities searching for news. In his absence, the suitors hatch a plot to kill him, so that one of them might seize Odysseus' lands and title for themselves. Luckily for Telemachus, the goddess Athena has taken an interest in his safety and protects him from the suitors' evil schemes.

These two stories intersect when Alcinous makes good on his promise and brings Odysseus home to Ithaca. With the help of Athena, he and Telemachus wage a strategic and bloody battle to take back his house and reunite with his family. Odysseus comes back to his rightful place at last and Athena helpfully makes peace between him and the families of the suitors that he killed, closing the tale on a triumphant note.  

Reading The Odyssey was a very unique experience. Not only is it a legitimately exciting adventure story, but it is also very clearly a peek into ancient Greek storytelling traditions and customs. This work, more than any other I have read, is a clear reflection of a totally different time period. Throughout the story I learned about how the ancient Greeks lived, ate, worshiped, and treated guests. I also learned what their stories sounded like when they gathered together to hear a tale, with epithets, similes, and precise explanations of the parentage of each character included. Reading this story carries you away to the ancient world. It's not like reading modern prose, and that's what makes it so cool to dive into.

The best part of the tale for me was definitely the description of Odysseus' journey. The creatures he encounters are fearsome indeed, and his wily escapes from trouble had me cheering him on in his quest to get home. Whether blinding a cyclops, tricking a witch, or skirting a sea monster, Odysseus manages to persevere and keep moving forward. I was surprised to discover that this part of the story only comprised about a third of the total books in the epic. Most of the books are devoted to the suitors back in Ithaca, which was too bad, because I found the spoiled behavior of the human characters to be rather dull in comparison.

Despite that imbalance, the only time the story truly dragged for me was the section between when Odysseus arrives in Ithaca and when he actually takes back his house. Athena disguises him as a beggar so that he can snoop around his own estate unnoticed and formulate a plan before beginning the battle. As he is ridiculously outnumbered, this is a great idea strategically. However, it takes a good many pages before he actually starts the fight. He creates a fake backstory for his beggar persona and insists on telling this story, in detail, to several different characters around his house. I could have done without the repetitions of this cover story for sure, but that was really the only part that I didn't enjoy reading.

While I went into this experience feeling intimidated about taking on an epic story from the ancient world, I found that it wasn't a difficult read at all. I learned a lot about the customs of a time long gone by, and found a deeper appreciation for a story that I had only read the "good parts" of prior to this. I'm glad that I can bring my deeper knowledge of this text into the classroom next year. Beyond the educational aspects of reading The Odyssey, I discovered something more important too - that despite the thousands of years that stretch between this story and myself, there are things about people and situations that will always stay the same. Bravery, loyalty, fear, sadness, and family motivate us to act in ways we never thought possible, both good and bad. The human spirit is so strong that we can overcome nearly anything and fight any monster to get back to those we love. While cultures, religions, and customs will always change with the march of time, what defines a hero has remained the same. The will to fight and get back what's ours are impulses that live on forever in the hearts of men, and those impulses are what makes The Odyssey a truly timeless tale.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#61 on my list): 13/100
TBR Challenge (previously owned): 33/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 42

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Anyone who knows me as a reader knows that I love the fantasy genre. My ardor for it has cooled a bit since I was a kid, but I still love to pick up a book full of magic and adventure now and then. I have a special place in my heart for classics in this genre, which is why most people are surprised to learn that I have never read any of J.R.R. Tolkien's work. It's shocking, I know. I've spent hours with Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Neverending Story, and A Wrinkle in Time, but I've never cracked the binding on a Lord of the Rings book. I've decided to remedy this big hole in my literary landscape starting this year.

I decided to start off with The Hobbit, which is actually set before the Lord of the Rings series. From what I gather, it is not necessary to read this one first, but it is chronologically first in the Tolkien universe, and it was published before the Lord of the Rings books, so it made sense to me to begin there. It also takes care of one of the categories in my Back to the Classics challenge - a classic set in a place you'd like to visit. Literally speaking, I'd love to visit the high fantasy landscapes of Middle-Earth, the world where these books are set. I can imagine lazy days lounging around Bag End with Bilbo, enjoying a second breakfast, or more adventurous days traversing forests filled with impossible creatures. Figuratively speaking, I'd love to visit Middle-Earth so I can up my fantasy literature IQ. So essentially, The Hobbit was a great fit for me on many levels.

The plot of the novel follows Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit living a very quiet, respectable life in his hobbit hole under The Hill. His comfortable little world gets turned upside down with the arrival of Gandalf, a great wizard who turns up one day and gives Bilbo a quest. He places him into a party of thirteen dwarfs, who are on a mission to reclaim the treasure of their forefathers from a fearsome dragon named Smaug. Bilbo seems a very unlikely choice for this mission. He's had no adventuring experience in his life, doesn't approve of such things on the whole, and is generally more concerned with what his next meal will be than with anything that requires physical exertion. Gandalf, however, sees something in Bilbo that others do not, and promises the dwarfs that he will become invaluable to them before long.

Wanting to maintain his pride and impress Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarfs, Bilbo agrees to go on the journey. After reviewing their plan and route with Gandalf, the group sets out immediately. From the start, nothing goes according to plan. Bilbo and his new friends run afoul of everything from trolls, to goblins, to giant spiders. At first, Bilbo is more of a liability than a help. He is rather clumsy and unsure of what to do in the many dangerous situations the group runs up against. However, his luck starts to turn around when he comes across a mysterious ring that allows him to become invisible. After successfully stealing this ring from a creature named Gollum, Bilbo starts to come into his own. He takes on a leadership role in the group, assists in several daring escapes, and masterminds many clever plans to aid them on their journey. Soon, he has become an important and respected member of the party, just as Gandalf had predicted.

After facing many trials, the group finally reaches the Lonely Mountain where Smaug lives. He is guarding the stolen treasure they seek. Smaug is a huge and fearsome dragon and Bilbo and his friends must figure out how to breach his domain, steal back their treasure, and escape unscathed. Dealing with Smaug, and the aftermath of their plan, forms the final conflict in the novel. Bilbo and his friends are put to the ultimate test of not only bravery, but diplomacy and sacrifice as well, as their friends and foes from earlier in the novel return for one final battle.

I thought this was a fantastic old-school adventure novel. It had everything - monsters, magic, friendship, and, of course, lots of danger. The plot was very well-paced, with each chapter bringing a new adventure to fall into. It was very cool seeing the origin of the the famous ring, as well as meeting Gollum for the first time. The writing style felt like an old storybook, very reminiscent of the Narnia series. This is one of those snuggle-up-with-a-cup-of-tea kind of books, and I enjoyed the experience of reading it very much. I found myself wishing that I had discovered this story as a kid, so I could have formed that special childhood-favorite bond with it. As it was, I still got pretty attached to this story.

The theme of the novel centers around the personal growth of Bilbo. Although he is technically an adult throughout the duration of the story, this is really a coming of age tale for him. He starts off as a quiet and unassuming character and by the end of the story he is almost completely different. He never gives up his affinity for creature comforts, but he is a braver and more confident hobbit in the end. His story serves as a lesson to readers that we all have qualities that make us special inside, if only we are brave enough to seek them out and put them into practice. Just as Gandalf sees talents buried inside Bilbo, we all have greatness hiding somewhere inside of us. We are all simply waiting for the right adventure to come along and bring it out. I really liked that idea of maybe being stronger than you think you are, under the right circumstances.

While I greatly enjoyed seeing Bilbo grow and change throughout the story, it was a bit disappointing to see no other characters undergo any development. The dwarfs in Bilbo's group (aside from Thorin) are interchangeable, Gandalf is already the perfect mentor figure, and no other characters stick around long enough to have an arc of their own. This isn't entirely unexpected in an older children's fantasy novel, but I wish there had been a bit more depth to some of the secondary figures. It was also a shame that no female characters at all were present in the story - also not unusual in an older work, but it was still a bit tiresome. I would have loved to see a female dwarf get in on the adventure. I think Tolkien should have done better in this regard.

Despite those drawbacks, however, The Hobbit was still a wonderful story. It deserves its reputation as one of the most classic works of the fantasy genre. Adult and child readers alike have loved this novel for generations, and I find that I am no exception. I'm excited to move onto the Lord of the Rings trilogy next and finally patch up this gap in my reading knowledge.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#43 on my list): 12/100
Back to the Classics (a classic set in a place you'd like to visit): 10/12
TBR Challenge (previously owned): 32/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 41

Thursday, June 1, 2017

June 2017 Reading Plan

June is here and that means I am officially on summer break! It's a good thing too, because my reading plans for this month include some longer books that usual. Here's what I've got on deck:

1. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Back to the Classics: A classic set in a place you'd like to visit
  • Classics Club: #43 on my list
  • Mount TBR: Previously owned
2. The Odyssey by Homer
  • Classics Club: #61 on my list
  • Mount TBR: Previously owned
3. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
  • Popsugar Challenge: A steampunk novel
4. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book set in a hotel
  • Mount TBR: Previously owned
5. Labor Day by Joyce Maynard
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book set around a holiday other than Christmas
  • Mount TBR: Previously owned


6. The Girls by Emma Cline
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book you bought on a trip
  • Mount TBR: Previously owned

Last summer, The Count of Monte Cristo took up most of my reading time. While that was an excellent reading experience, it was a little disappointing not to be able to read much else. I'm hoping that I get a chance to go through more books this time around. 

Interesting side note: If I complete this set of books, I will be only one book shy of FINISHING my Popsugar Challenge! This means that pretty soon I will unlock the bonus categories!