Monday, July 31, 2017

July 2017 Reading Wrap Up

Another month has come and gone. I know it's not the official end of summer according to the calendar, but the end of July always marks the end of summer for me. I go back to work starting August 1, so my mind is shifting to fall mode. New students and lesson planning are on the horizon, which means that I'm going to have to make it a point to continue reading a little bit each day.

Here's how I did in July:

1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2/5 stars)
  • Mount TBR: Previously owned

2. Dune by Frank Herbert (Working on this in chunks with an online reading group - more to come soon!)
  • Classics Club: #47 on my list
  • Popsugar Challenge (bonus category): A book that's more than 800 pages
  • Classics Club: #61 on my list
  • Mount TBR: Previously owned
  • Classics Club: #26 on my list
  • Popsugar Challenge (bonus category): A book with an eccentric character
  • Mount TBR: Previously owned

5. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson (3/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge (bonus category): A bestseller from 2016

6. Colorblind by Tim Wise (4/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge (bonus category): A book about a difficult topic
  • Mount TBR: Previously owned

My current challenge status is:

I have read 52 books so far in 2017!

This month was a bit of a disappointing one for reading. I read a lot of so-so books. The lone standout was Colorblind, which was an excellent analysis of post racial liberalism in America. While I enjoyed it very much, it was a challenging read with lots of complex ideas to ponder. The topic was heavy too, and made me feel sad and frustrated at points. So unfortunately, I didn't have a standout "fun" novel this time around (although Dune has been promising so far). Hopefully I'll find something to fall in love with next month.

Colorblind by Tim Wise

The next Popsugar bonus challenge I chose to complete was the "book about a difficult topic" prompt. Finding the right novel for this one was easy, because I still had two books I purchased at the Tim Wise speaking engagement I attended last year sitting on my shelf. Wise is a writer and educator on racial justice, a topic which never fails to stir up controversy. While he has explored several aspects of racism in his works, Colorblind focuses on the concept of colorblindness in politics. Wise's opinion is that politicians who embrace colorblind policies in their work are actually helping to perpetuate racial injustice in America. Based on the amount of people I know personally that get upset when anything relating to race is discussed at school, I knew that this was the perfect text for the "difficult topic" prompt.

Colorblind begins with a preface that explains what Wise calls post-racial liberalism, a form of politics that combines race-neutral rhetoric and colorblind public policies. Politicians who embrace post-racial liberalism will favor laws and programs designed to help all people instead of laws and programs aimed at helping members of a specific race. They will say that they "do not see color" and claim to regard all humans equally. He goes on to explain how Barak Obama rose to the presidency using these beliefs and sets up the rest of the novel as an explanation of how colorblind politics have affected different aspects of American's lives over time. He asserts that choosing to ignore race when designing laws to help the public actually perpetuates and worsens systemic racism because it allows people to ignore the unique needs and problems of different cultures.

The following chapters go on to discuss the evolution of colorblind policies over time, specific examples of their harmful effects in the areas of employment, housing, education, and healthcare, and suggestions for alternative policy approaches that would promote racial equality. Wise's writing is intelligent and well-reasoned. He provides ample support for his points and explains his arguments logically. That being said, Colorblind isn't light reading. I needed to concentrate and be in a quiet room while I read this to make sure that I understood all of Wise's complex ideas. It was a mental challenge to wrap my head around everything he was saying, and some of it, while interesting, was a bit dry and repetitive. However, once I got my head in the right place with the material, I learned a lot about how systemic racism operates in the U.S. It's heartbreakingly unfair.

Before reading this, for example, I had no idea that minorities were hit harder by the recent housing crisis than whites. They were routinely given the riskiest loans with the highest interest rates, even in cases where their financial backgrounds were the same as white loan applicants that got a better deal. I also had no idea that doctors are less likely to prescribe effective medications or recommend lifesaving surgeries to people of color, leading to worse health outcomes for these groups overall. I didn't know that the stress of dealing with discrimination all the time makes minorities physically ill due to stress hormones constantly being released. I didn't know that black men feel pressured to change their names so that a prospective employer can't tell that they are black from a job application. I hadn't heard that conservative commentators and leaders were saying that the Affordable Care Act was actually "reparations for slavery" in disguise to ruin white support for Obama's healthcare plan. People of color have to struggle against so much to attain the same benefits that whites can easily reach out and grasp. It's depressing. I agree with Wise that a post racial liberal philosophy won't be effective in eliminating these injustices. They will continue on unchecked if we ignore them in favor of promoting social programs for all people.  

After reading Colorblind, I am convinced that claiming to "not see color" is terribly misguided. I understand that people who say this are speaking from a good place, but pretending like race doesn't exist is an ineffective way to deal with the systemic racism that still plagues American institutions. I believe that politicians should tackle these problems head on, instead of relying on race-neutral tactics just to get elected. Race is certainly an uncomfortable topic, and white people have never been particularly good at discussing it. This must change if we are to move forward and achieve true equality between all racial groups. Tim Wise's novel is a valuable teaching tool to help educate people on why we must drop the whole idea of being "colorblind" and become conscious of what our fellow Americans from different backgrounds have to struggle against.

Challenge Tally 
Popsugar Bonus Challenge (a bestseller from 2016): 3/12
TBR Challenge: (previously owned) 40/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 52

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson

One of my Popsugar bonus prompts this year was to read a bestseller from 2016. I went online to check out some of last year's top novels and right away, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck caught my eye. One look at the cover explains why - it's definitely an attention-grabber! This self-help novel by Mark Manson claims to teach people how to improve their lives by not caring about things too much. As an inveterate worrier and constantly anxious person, I thought that this philosophy might be useful for me. I decided to give it a try.

Mark Manson, a popular blogger and entrepreneur, wrote The Subtle Art as a reaction against the typical advice offered in self-help books. He rejects what he sees as an industry-wide reliance on positive thinking and empty platitudes. Instead, he believes that people should accept that life is full of difficult and painful moments. The secret to weathering them is to embrace negatives for what they are, move on from them appropriately, and be selective about what you choose to get worked up over. By learning to let go of things that don't really matter, he argues that people can find deeper satisfaction with their lives.

Manson's process for implementing this sort of thinking involves identifying your core values, determining if they are, in fact, the things you need to be caring about, and focusing your energy towards living up to those values in your daily life. Any emotions, problems, people, or situations that don't align with your core values aren't worth worrying about. While this sounds relatively simple, Manson explains that learning to change your thinking in this way is a lifelong process. The most difficult part is determining what your personal values are and evaluating whether they are harmful to your mental well being. Doing this requires a lot of introspection and brutal honesty, but Manson claims that you can change your life for the better if you are able to analyze your thoughts and feelings properly.

As the title implies, Manson's writing style is irreverent and profanity-laced. He mixes in a lot of humor alongside his points to keep the reader engaged and keeps his language very casual. While some scientific studies and historical examples are utilized to support his arguments, most of The Subtle Art is supported by personal anecdotes from Manson's life, which gives the novel a friendly, down-to-earth feel. Much of what he asserts is common sense, but his unique way of stating his points gives readers a lot to think about. This book encourages a lot of self-reflection, which I enjoyed. For a self-help book, this was very entertaining. I can understand why it was a bestseller last year.

Despite these positives, my enthusiasm for the work overall was lukewarm. I liked it, but only found it to be of limited use for me. Many of the negative values and behaviors that Manson elaborated on, like being entitled or irresponsible, didn't really apply to me. I also found myself wishing that he had provided a bit more scientific information to support his claims. When it comes down to it, Manson has literally no qualifications to provide any psychological advice. While I think that his philosophy was sound, I would have liked more input from experts, just to lend a deeper legitimacy to the work. Some of the profanity was a bit over the top too. I wasn't offended by the language, but I did think that some of the writing was focused on how many times Manson could insert four-letter-words instead of being focused on his points.  

So while I had a good time reading The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, I didn't fall completely in love with it. I thought the advice was interesting and invited meaningful self-reflection, but it would have been improved with a bit more input from experts in psychology. Regardless, it was still an entertaining read that gave me some different ways to think about how I relate to the wider world. I know that I will use some of the ideas from it to shape my thinking as I move into the stressful beginning of the next school year. I'm glad that I chose to try this one.

Challenge Tally 
Popsugar Bonus Challenge (a bestseller from 2016): 2/12

Total Books Read in 2017: 51

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Mary Poppins by P.L Travers

“Don't you know that everybody's got a Fairyland of their own?” 

After tackling War and Peace for the better part of this month, I wanted to switch to a shorter and lighter read for my next book and Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers' beloved story about a magical British nanny, fit the bill perfectly. This novel fit into several of my challenge categories for this year, including my Classics Club list and the Popsugar "book with an eccentric character" bonus category.

Having been raised watching (and absolutely loving) the Disney version of this classic, I knew that I'd have to keep a very open mind while reading. I was aware that the Mary from the books had a bit of a harder edge than the Disney version of the character. I also knew that Travers did not approve of the film at all, to the point where she refused to let Disney make any sequels. So, as I started reading, I tried to keep the movie in a separate box in my head, and just enjoy the book on its own merits.

The plot of Mary Poppins is very simple. At the beginning of the story, we learn that the Banks family of Number Seventeen, Cherry-Tree Lane, are in need of a new nanny. Luckily for them, a wind from the east blows the enigmatic Mary Poppins to their doorstep. Mrs. Banks hires her on immediately and she begins taking care of the children. In her charge are Jane and Michael, the two eldest, and little John and Barbara, who are infant twins.

Jane and Michael soon learn the Mary Poppins isn't an ordinary nanny. She can slide up banisters, pull a never-ending amount of bulky objects out of her carpetbag, speak to animals, travel long distances in the blink of an eye, and even fly. Her personality is quite prickly and she demands perfect obedience from the children. Mary doesn't play games, speak encouraging words, or flatter Jane and Michael. Rather, she treats them in a very no-nonsense and, at times, condescending manner. Despite her outward harshness, the children are fascinated with her magical abilities. She takes them on several fantastic adventures throughout the course of the book. However, at the conclusion of these adventures Mary refuses to acknowledge that they ever happened at all, leaving the children wondering if what they experienced was real, or some sort of dream. When the wind changes directions and blows from the west, Mary opens her umbrella and flies away with no ceremony, devastating Jane and Michael, who had grown to love her. They story does end on hope though - Mary leaves a note behind with a vague promise to return one day.

Each chapter in Mary Poppins is a self-contained little adventure, making this a good choice for parents to read as a bedtime story to their kids. There isn't really any connection between the tales at all aside from the fact that they star the same characters. While this strategy gives the novel an old-fashioned storybook feel, it also makes it disjointed and shallow. Aside from a few witty one-liners, I didn't find much to sink my teeth into. There didn't appear to be one major theme or lesson present in the work, except perhaps the idea that magic could be hiding in the most mundane places, and we ought to pay better attention. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that there isn't a whole lot for an adult audience to enjoy. This is true children's literature.

That being said, the adventures that Mary brings the Banks children on are very creative and fun to read. During their time with Mary, Jane and Michael get to have a tea party on the ceiling, travel to the four corners of the globe in the space of a few minutes, visit a zoo where the animals walk free and the humans are in cages, and meet one of the Pleiades from Greek mythology, among other things. Most of these stories are all wondrous fun, but a few have some oddly dark tones to them. One such adventure is when the children visit Mrs. Corry's shop. Mrs. Corry is a little wizened old woman that runs a sweets shop with her two giantess daughters. Her relationship with her daughters is terrible. She mercilessly ridicules them in front of customers until they break down in tears. Seeing the emotional abuse going on actually made me uncomfortable, but Travers glosses over it as if it's nothing. During the children's visit with Mrs. Corry, she breaks off two of her fingers to feed to John and Barbara, claiming that they taste like a different type of sweet each day. Her fingers regrow immediately, and she confesses to nibbling on them herself from time to time if she gets hungry. Later in the chapter, Jane and Michael spy her sticking stars up in the night sky with Mary. Nothing further about her is ever explained, because Mary always refuses to discuss anything magical that happens with the children, so the character remains a weird, dark mystery. Odd little chapters like that make the novel quite unique and a little unsettling.

A classic children's novel full of odd adventures, iconic characters, and magical moments would normally earn high praise from me. However, in the case of Mary Poppins, I have to admit that Mary's demeanor irked me. It wasn't that she was tough, or strict, or had high expectations for the kids. It was that she was mean. For example, once she told Michael that, "the very sight of him was more than any self-respecting person could be expected to stand," among other insults. In fact, she never seemed to have a nice word to say to anyone. I found myself wishing that she'd bend just a little and show some outward affection for the kids, who so obviously loved her to bits, but she didn't. I understand that her standoffish attitude is part of her eccentricity as a character, but I wasn't a fan of it. She was a little too tough for me.

Overall, my feelings on Mary Poppins were mixed. It is definitely a one-of-a-kind book with some very imaginative adventures, but its lack of a deeper story or overarching theme made it feel shallow. I understand why those who read this novel as kids would have a strong, nostalgic connection to it. Coming to it as an adult, however, left me shrugging my shoulders. I'm glad to have experienced this story in its original form, but all things considered, this won't be one of my favorites in the children's literature genre.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#26 on my list): 16/100 
Popsugar Bonus Challenge (a book with an eccentric character): 1/12
TBR Challenge: (previously owned) 39/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 50

Friday, July 21, 2017

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Things on this blog have been quiet lately, which always makes my feel antsy inside - like I'm not keeping up with things I'm supposed to be keeping up with. However, I was most definitely not slacking during the past few weeks. I was reading War and Peace.

War and Peace is a novel that fit into all my reading challenges this year. I needed a Russian classic for Back to the Classics, it was on my Classics Club list, it was mentioned in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, making it fit a Popsugar bonus category, and it had been sitting on my bookshelf for years, making it fit the TBR Challenge. This was not an easy read. War and Peace is notoriously long and it is filled with detailed descriptions of battles, philosophical meanderings, and a large amount of similarly named characters. I persevered through the difficult parts and finally finished reading it this morning. I felt a deep sense of pride in my accomplishment...until I flipped to the back flap of the novel to check out the biographical information for Tolstoy and saw these heartbreaking words printed in small font halfway the flap: "Translated and abridged by Princess Alexandra Kropotkin."

Disappointed doesn't even being to cover it. I thought I had read the whole thing. In reality, somewhere between 500-700 pages of material were cut from my version. This put me in a difficult position. Should I consider this novel to be completed and checked off my lists, or should I go back and read an unabridged version?

My usual feelings about abridged versions of classics are that they aren't the "real" book and reading those are akin to taking a shameful literary shortcut. My first impulse was to declare my efforts of the past three weeks wasted and rule that the novel I read didn't count. As I seriously considered that option, however, I found myself dreading the concept of rereading this tome in an even longer format. In my opinion, a sense of dread is not what reading classics is supposed to be about. So, after checking out some online reviews to see what I had missed out on, I think I am going to cut myself a break here and consider this one to be temporarily done. I'll explain more later.

The plot of War and Peace concerns the lives of several aristocratic Russian families between 1805 and 1820. Russia moves in and out of wars against Napoleon during this time, and Tolstoy alternates chapters on how the ongoing political strife affects each of these families. With such a broad story, there are many characters to keep track of. The main protagonists include:
  • Pierre Behzukov, the illegitimate son of a wealthy Count whose fortunes take a dramatic turn when his father dies and makes him his sole heir. Pierre is equal parts intellectual and bumbling. He bounces between several different modes of life, most of which leave him feeling empty and confused. He struggles to understand his purpose in life and who he ultimately wants to be.
  • Andrei Bulkonsky, a moody prince who distinguishes himself through military service in the wars. He comes to prefer life in the service over dealing with his social butterfly of a wife, difficult to manage elderly father, and needy sister. He spends most of the novel away from home.
  • Nikolai Rostov, a young count who takes an active role in the war. He spends much of the novel uncertain about how to manage his personal life. He faces intense pressure from his family to marry for wealth, as their personal finances are falling apart due to mismanagement. He falls in love with two different women (one rich and one poor) and must choose which of them to marry.
  • Natasha Rostov, Nikolai's otherworldly, beautiful sister. Everyone instantly feels drawn to her charismatic personality and child-like joy. She becomes romantically linked with several characters throughout the book and most of her storylines concern her preoccupation with courting, romance, and heartbreak.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of France. Yes, he's actually a character in this novel. Russians throughout the novel regard him with either admiration or loathing, and Tolstoy focuses on his incredible power and military strategies in his sections.
Aside from these figures, there are several more characters to keep up with, many of which have similar names to each other and float between nicknames, titles, and full names without warning. One of my biggest challenges while reading was trying to keep everyone straight. I would often pause in the middle of a chapter and mentally run through who all the characters were and how they were connected to each other in my mind before proceeding. It eventually got easier to remember the names as time went on, but it was never completely easy for me.

In addition to following the large cast of characters throughout the novel, Tolstoy includes several chapters that focus on military history, battle strategies, and other philosophical musings. These were difficult to get through for me, as I'm not particularly interested in those topics. Aside from a lack of personal interest in the subject matter, these digressions stopped the action of the story and disrupted my engagement with the novel. From what I was able to gather online, it appears that much of the excised material in my abridged version of the book were chapters like this, which is most of the reason that I'm not prepared to go back and read the novel in full right now. I was honestly struggling to stay awake and focused during these sections. I was not able to find the beauty in them that other readers were.

While this was definitely a challenging read for me on many levels, I did enjoy parts of it. The chapters focusing on the characters during peace times, with their romantic entanglements and family dramas, were wonderful. I often found myself wishing for a more fair and realistic portrayal of the female characters, but I was still able to get into the story. Tolstoy, while undoubtedly a masterful writer, strictly regards women as innocent angels or immoral whores with not much in between. This is (disappointingly) normal for his time period and I moved past it. The sections focusing on the war were less enjoyable to me. I found them difficult to follow due to my lack of knowledge of military terminology. However, I was still able to appreciate the epic scale on which Tolstoy was able to craft these scenes.

With so much going on in War and Peace, one aspect of it that I'm still thinking over is what it was ultimately about. It is nearly impossible to give a concise summary of the action due to its many characters and frequent digressions, and I wasn't able to discover an overarching theme that ties it all together. It seems to be about a lot of things - patriotism, the injustices of war, abuses in the military, the fighting spirit of Russian men, the poor behavior of the wealthy, the value of romantic love, the purpose of life, the virtues of motherhood, the obligations of family vs. country, etc. I couldn't settle on one thing that this story was trying to say. A lot of the points from the list above contradict other points Tolstoy makes too. This means that either I wasn't astute enough to grasp what Tolstoy was trying to say, or that this is simply a big book about a lot of big ideas. I hope it's the latter and that I'm not just a poor reader of Russian classics.

War and Peace is certainly a literary masterpiece. I acknowledge that. At the same time, this was not my favorite classic. I enjoyed Tolstoy's Anna Karenina much more than this one. Then again, due to my mistake in reading an abridged version, I suppose I can't really make a final judgement unless I go back and read the whole novel, the way it was meant to be experienced.

I'm going to use this as a learning experience. I will check which version of a novel I'm reading much more thoroughly from now on, especially if the work is long or if it is translated. I am also going to stop purchasing Barnes and Noble editions of classics. Their abridged works are not labeled clearly enough (I accidentally bought an abridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo from them too), and they use inferior translations of non-English works (like my Barnes and Noble Jules Verne collection, which uses different character names in some stories than the originals). I don't blame them for what was my own mistake, but I do blame them for taking advantage of readers who can't spend a lot on books and assume that a Barnes and Noble version wouldn't be significantly different from any other version.

I'm also going to make a few promises. First, I will not use this novel as my Russian classic in my Back to the Classics challenge. I will read something else instead. Similarly, I will read something else for the Popsugar category "a book mentioned in another book." Second, on my Classics Club list, I will note that I read an abridged version of War and Peace. My deadline to finish that list is December 31, 2021. I will have read the complete version of the novel by that time. Maybe I won't be as confused in my second go-around.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#61 on my list): 15/100
TBR Challenge: (previously owned) 38/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 49

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Mount TBR 2017 Checkpoint 2: Mount Kilimanjaro

We are halfway through the year and it's time for another Mount TBR check in! I know it's awfully cliché to say this, but the time has gone by awfully fast.

1. Progress:

I have finished 37 out of my required 60 books, which means that I am seven books ahead of schedule. If I were actually climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, I would be 10,223 feet high right now. That's pretty good, but I still own a ton of books that I haven't read yet. I still have a lot of work to do!

2.A book that was new to me:

One book that was new to me was The Odyssey. I hadn't read any other ancient works for pleasure prior to this one, and I ended up having a great time with it. I was concerned initially that it would be boring or difficult to understand, but happily, it was neither of those things. I actually enjoyed Odysseus' adventure quite a bit. Reading this made me want to give other ancient Greek works a shot.

I'm on track to finish this challenge early at this point. I am hopeful that I can keep up this pace in the next few months!

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I had Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog on my reading list last month, but when I figured out that it didn't actually fit the reading challenge I wanted to use it for, I put it aside. It was bothering me that I had it sitting around unfinished, so I decided to make it my first read in July. This novel stayed on bestseller lists for over a year after it was published, and a lot of people rave about it, so I went into it expecting something really great.

Now that I'm finished with it, all I can say is...yikes. I was not a big fan. But first, a summary.

The story features two protagonists, and the narration is split between their personal writings. The first is Renée Michel, a 54-year-old concierge in a luxury Parisian apartment building. She behaves exactly as one would expect a women in her profession to act. She keeps to herself, performs her duties reliably, and is careful to appear simple-minded in public. It is her firm belief that people from different social classes should not mix together, so she feigns ignorance in front of the wealthy residents of her building. In private, however, Renée is a self-taught intellectual with a deep appreciation for fine art, literature, music, movies, and food. She indulges in these luxuries alone in her apartment and lives in a near-constant state of anxiety that she will slip and reveal her true nature in front of someone.

The other protagonist is Paloma Josse, a twelve-year-old resident of the apartment building where Renée works. Paloma possesses a genius intellect, but much like Renée, strives to hide it from everyone. She performs just well enough in school to be second in her class and plays the part of a typical adolescent at home. Privately, she is so disillusioned with life that she doesn't see the point of continuing to go through the motions and has made plans to burn down her family's apartment and commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. Her narration takes the form of journal entries in which she catalogues profound thoughts and movements that she notices as the time before her birthday arrives.

When a new resident, a wealthy and wise Japanese businessman named Kakuro Ozu, moves into the building, he takes a special interest in both Renée and Paloma. He can sense that they are intellectually similar to himself and he begins to draw them out of their seclusion with some kindly prodding. Before long, they are all friendly with each other and enjoy deep discussions about philosophy over jasmine tea and delicate French pastries. Through this companionship, Renée begins to reconsider her views on the mixing of social classes and Paloma begins to rethink her violent plans. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a novel about finding the beauty in the universe and the struggle to find the purpose of life.

I had many struggles with this story, the first of which was the lack of a plot. After Barbery introduces both protagonists, the action moves quite slowly until the final third of the book when Mr. Ozu appears. Many of the chapters are meditations on various topics by Renée and Paloma, such as the purpose of art or the nuances of a tea ceremony. These digressions do not move the story forward at all and are often difficult to follow as they are overloaded with uncommon vocabulary and dense philosophical theories. It felt like I was reading a book of personal musings in the guise of a novel and my mind wandered quite a bit in these sections.

Another issue I had was the characterization. To put it simply, both Renée and Paloma are mean. They both constantly belittle the other apartment residents in their writings and assume that hiding their intelligence is a necessity because none of the other, lesser people around them could possibly understand or appreciate their talents. They internally pick everyone around them apart for everything from their grammatical mistakes to their hobbies. Their beliefs are bizarre and snobbish, and it's unclear for most of the novel why they feel this way about the world. Some illumination on this point is provided for Renée at the very end of the story, but her backstory comes too late for the reader to start sympathizing with her. No reasoning for Paloma's beliefs are ever given at all. These characters are written in such a way that it's obvious the reader is meant to find them deep, complicated, and put-upon. I found them to be extremely unpleasant, which limited how much enjoyment I could get out of this book.

Mr. Ozu suffers from one-dimensional characterization as well, but in the opposite direction. He is a little too wonderful. He preternaturally senses the inner brilliance of Renée and Paloma right away, despite them having successfully fooled everyone around them for decades. He has impeccable taste in art, music, and literature. He is a gourmet chef. He always knows exactly what to do and how to act. In short, his character isn't remotely believable. I don't even want to go into the fact that two incredibly intelligent women needed to be rescued from their own ennui by a man they barely know, so I'll move on.

To be fair, not everything about this novel is bad. Barbery is obviously an academic herself and she has quite a way with words. Many of the passages from Hedgehog were beautiful and rang true to my heart. I was able to move through the novel relatively quickly and was invested in finding out what would happen in the end. This is not a bad book by any means, and I can see why many people have fallen in love with it. I've never been one for philosophy, so it's just not my style.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a novel for thinkers. It's for people who are more interested in the big questions it poses about life than they are about the characters who ask them. For a reader like me, who loves a good story and well-developed characters above all, it's not a great pick. Beyond that, I don't think I'm smart enough to understand what Barbery was going for in this work. I didn't get all of the philosophy and I'm not sure what I was supposed to take away from the strange ending. I'm pretty sure I'd be one of those people Renée and Paloma internally pick on for being hopelessly obtuse. I am still glad that I read it, because it was a very different kind of book, but it's not destined to become a favorite of mine. 

Challenge Tally
TBR Challenge: (previously owned) 37/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 48

Saturday, July 1, 2017

July 2017 Reading Plan

 Summer is running out alarmingly fast. It's already July and that means that there's only one month left before I'm in front of a new batch of students. Accordingly, I'm going to try and tackle one of the longer books for my Back to the Classics Challenge for this year before my reading time becomes drastically reduced. I'm expecting that book, War and Peace, to take up most of my reading time this month, so I'm rounding out my list with some shorter novels that won't take too long to get through.

I'm also starting in on the Popsugar bonus categories this month. Since I finished the original 40 reading prompts, I can start in on the additional ten categories now. I have to read one or two of those a month to finish by the end of the year.

The final thing I'm working on this month is an online reading club. I'm participating in a reading group that will be working on Dune by Frank Herbert. There are a certain amount of pages I'm supposed to read each week. This should last throughout July and August, so I will be starting to read this novel during this month, but won't finish it for a little while yet.

Here's the official breakdown:

1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
  • Mount TBR: Previously owned

2. Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Classics Club: #47 on my list
  • Popsugar Challenge (bonus category): A book that's more than 800 pages

3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • Back to the Classics: A Russian classic
  • Classics Club: #61 on my list
  • Popsugar Challenge (bonus category): A book that's been mentioned in another book
  • Mount TBR: Previously owned

4. Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
  • Classics Club: #26 on my list
  • Popsugar Challenge (bonus category): A book with an eccentric character
  • Mount TBR: Previously owned

5. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
  • Popsugar Challenge (bonus category): A bestseller from 2016


6. Colorblind by Tim Wise
  • Popsugar Challenge (bonus category): A book about a difficult topic
  • Mount TBR: Previously owned

I've got a really odd collection of books to read this month - we've got everything from a Russian brick, to a science fiction giant, to a beloved children's classic, to a self-help book, to a book on race relations. This should be interesting!