Tuesday, August 29, 2017

August 2017 Reading Wrap Up

It's the end of August and I'm not ready! I didn't end up reading all that I had planned this month, due to a combination of school starting back up and Crime and Punishment being a difficult read for me. Here's what I did manage to get done:

1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (2/5 stars)
  • Back to the Classics: A Russian classic
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

2. Pax by Sara Pennypacker (3/5 stars)
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

3. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys (5/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book about an immigrant or a refugee
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

My current challenge status is:

I have read 55 books so far in 2017!

My best read of the month was undoubtedly Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. This young adult historical fiction novel was both educational and touching. Sepetys has a knack for portraying history in ways that are poignant and complex. I couldn't put this one down.

My least favorite read was Crime and Punishment, a classic that I felt was composed of long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of greatness. The good moments got swallowed up by the tedious ones for me, creating a slog of a reading experience.

I can't help but be a bit disappointed that I read so little in August. However, I'm resolved to make up for it in September. I can't believe I only have four months left to finish all my reading challenges! I'm in a good place with them, but I'm starting to feel the need to go faster. I've still got some bricks to get through this year, so I need to get my butt in gear.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

I was a big fan of Between Shades of Gray, so when I saw that Ruta Sepetys had written another WWII historical fiction novel for young adults, I picked it up right away. Of course, I didn't get around to reading it until now (a year later). Typical me. I chose to pick it up this month because I needed a book about an immigrant or refugee for one of my Popsugar bonus categories, and this book fit the prompt. I started reading expecting another emotional and riveting story packed with historical details, and guess what? I wasn't disappointed. Salt to the Sea is one of my favorite reads of the year so far, and has even made it onto my favorite books of all time list.

The story is set during the closing days of WWII and is told from the perspectives of four different teenagers. Three of them, Joana, Emilia, and Florian, are attempting to cross East Prussia on foot and escape the advancing Russian troops. They hope to find salvation on the Wilhelm Gustloff, a luxury German cruise ship that has been refitted to help thousands of German soldiers and refugees travel out of the war's path. Each character has their own secrets and reasons for needing to get out of Prussia, which are slowly revealed as the narration skips around throughout the course of the novel. The remaining character, Alfred, is a German soldier stationed aboard the Gustloff. His chapters provide insight into how the Nazis handle the mass of approaching refugees. The characters' struggles to reach the Gustloff and what happens when the ship finally sets sail make up the bulk of the novel, with some flashbacks to their lives before the war making up the rest.

Sometimes, when a novel switches perspectives regularly between different characters, problems can occur. For example, the story might become difficult to follow or one of the characters might be less interesting than the others, causing their chapters to drag. None of those issues arose in Salt to the Sea. I liked all the characters and had no trouble following the plot. I was able to form connections to the story and become invested in what was going on. Surprisingly, I found Alfred's chapters to be the most intriguing. His thoughts were equal parts disturbing and deluded, making him quite the unreliable narrator. I enjoyed sifting through his words for clues as to what was really going on with him.

While the plot remains relatively simple throughout the story, the novel is engaging and gripping from page one. The short chapters, interesting characters, and persistent tension combine to create a narrative that you don't want to put down. Sepetys is extremely skilled at combining historical fact with fictional characters, and her writing brings emotion and depth to real events from little-known parts of history. I learned a lot about Lithuania in Between Shades of Gray, and now I know about the Wilhelm Gustloff from this novel. I love how history and literature can work together to create moving stories, and Salt to the Sea excels at this idea.

To put it simply, Salt to the Sea is beautiful. It captures the emotional experience of refugees, conveys the terror and heartache of WWII, and sheds light on a terrible and little-known part of history. Sepetys gives voices to those who had to live through extraordinarily difficult times in a way that feels genuine. This was a gripping story told well, and it's one of those books that I won't hesitate to recommend to everyone.

Challenge Tally 
Popsugar Bonus Challenge (a book about an immigrant or refugee): 4/12
TBR Challenge: (previously owned) 43/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 55

Friday, August 25, 2017

Pax by Sara Pennypacker

After the long slog that was Crime and Punishment, I decided to pick something a bit quicker to read for my next novel. Pax, by Sara Pennypacker, seemed to fit the bill. I'd had this sitting on my shelf for some time after purchasing it in a big order of young adult fiction destined for my classroom library. The beautiful cover was what caught my eye initially, and the summary on the inside flap promised a heartwarming story about a boy and his pet fox. I started out with high hopes that this would be a touching read. And it was...mostly.

The story opens with a rather upsetting scene. Pax the fox is riding in the car with his boy, Peter, and Peter's father. Pax notices that Peter is crying, but he doesn't understand why. A short while later, the car stops in a wooded area. Peter, who is still visibly upset, throws Pax's favorite toy into the woods. Assuming that it's a game of fetch, Pax bounds away in pursuit. When he returns with the toy, Peter and his father are gone. Pax, a fox who has been raised by humans for almost his entire life, has been abandoned in the wilderness. Unsure of what to do, Pax settles down to wait, hoping that his boy will come back.

The perspective shifts to Peter in the next chapter and we learn that he is on his way to his grandfather's house. He is going to live there for a while while his father fights in the war. He was not allowed to bring Pax with him, and he is absolutely devastated by how he left him behind. He torments himself with thoughts of how Pax must be lost, hungry, and frightened out on his own. Before long, he decides to run away and try to find him.

For the rest of the novel, the perspective shifts between Pax and Peter as they try to make their way back to each other. Both run into others that help them along the way. Pax becomes friends with a family of foxes and starts to learn about how to live in the wild. Before long, he is running, playing, and hunting with his own species for the first time. Peter, who injures himself almost immediately after setting out, meets up with an odd woman living alone on her family farm. Through her honestly and kindness, she helps to heal Peter both inside and out. When Pax and Peter finally do reunite, both are different, and both must make some difficult decisions about how to carry on.

On the whole, I enjoyed this novel. The relationship between Pax and Peter felt real and strong, and Pennypacker included a lot of nice little observations on topics ranging from the costs of war, to family relationships, to animal welfare, and more. My only real disappointment came in the fact that a lot of these topics felt under-developed and hazy. For example, the war that is present in the background of every chapter is never defined. No dates or locations are named that would allow the reader to make inferences about what is going on. Aside from a vague reference to the fight being about water, nothing is explained. That lack of knowledge felt weird while reading. It was distracting for me because I was constantly trying to figure out if I was missing clues that would help me put the book in a specific time period.

Similarly, there is a problem going on between Peter and his father that isn't ever explained. References are made to his father being an angry man. Peter fears that he will become like him. Pax also makes references to the boy's father being frightening, but again, no specifics are given. It was difficult to understand Peter's fears about turning into his father without really knowing what his father was doing to him. Towards the end of the novel, Peter runs into his father on a battlefield. A tearful reunion ensues, but I found it difficult to be invested in their relationship without fully understanding the dynamics between them.

While I found the persistent vagueness running through Pax to be a distraction, I do understand its purpose. Pax is a true middle grades novel. It deals with difficult topics in a guarded way. I have the feeling that a lot of younger readers would find the story to be very moving. As a more mature reader, I missed the depth. I wish Pennypacker had fleshed out the details of the story a bit more so that I could have formed a stronger connection with it. This is a solid read for younger audiences that like realistic fiction. For me, it was good, but not great.

Challenge Tally 
TBR Challenge: (previously owned) 42/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 54

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

“Power is given only to him who dares to stoop and take it ... one must have the courage to dare.” 

It's been a while since I've written a blog entry, and it's because I've been working my way through a long Russian classic. I wasn't planning to read Crime and Punishment this year, but my mishap with accidentally reading an abridged version of War and Peace last month made me decide to choose another Russian novel for my Back to the Classics Challenge. It took me a total of twenty days to make it through this Dostoyevsky tome, which is longer than it usually takes me to finish a book. However, I had the start of a new school year to deal with, which meant that I had less time to read than usual. Add that to the fact that this wasn't exactly a page turner for me and you have the explanation for why things have been quiet on the blog.

Crime and Punishment is the story of Rodion Raskolnikov, a university student living in Saint Petersburg, Russia. At the beginning of the novel, his money has run out and he is living in poverty. He has had to drop out of school temporarily until he can find a way to pay for more classes. This turn of events has driven him into an anxious and depressed state. He decides that his best way forward is to murder an old pawnbroker that he frequents and steal the money and pledges she has in her apartment. He reasons that no one will miss the pawnbroker; she is greedy and profits off the misery and desperation of others. It makes more sense to sacrifice her life for the good of his own and the good he will eventually spread to mankind after he is able to finish his education.    

Convinced that he is smart enough to plan the perfect crime, Raskolnikov murders the woman. Immediately, he is surprised at the visceral reaction he has to the crime. He becomes emotional, makes foolish mistakes, ends up hurting more people than he had intended, and feels an inescapable sense of dread afterwards. He constantly fears that he will be caught and falls into a state of feverish delirium. To make matters worse, his mother and sister arrive in town expecting a joyful family reunion. Raskolnikov is unable to keep up appearances for them and they begin to worry for his sanity. Everyone around him can sense that something is wrong and he begins to descend into a nervous breakdown. The police even end up on his trail after noticing his suspicious behavior. As he inches closer and closer to his breaking point, he must decide to either flee the country, commit suicide, or confess to the crime.

Crime and Punishment is a psychological journey. After the initial crime is committed, which happens in the first 100 pages, much of the rest of the novel (which is an additional 400 pages) is spent inside Raskolnikov's mind as he agonizes over what he has done. He doesn't feel remorse for the crime. Instead, he feels a complicated mix of emotions including anger at his current emotional state, sadness at his new isolation from the rest of the law-abiding world, and offense at the idea that someone as intelligent as him has to be restricted by the laws of man. He believes himself to belong to a higher class of human. Extraordinary beings such as himself weren't meant to be restricted by the laws designed to keeps the lesser members of the species under control. He compares himself to historical figures such as Napoleon, and laments the fact that many successful men committed crimes on their way to greatness and never had to suffer consequences for them. He is outraged that he failed in his goals and deeply depressed at the revelation that he does not belong to the higher class of man that he thought he did. He is an impossible character to like but an interesting one to analyze. The sections that focused on him were brilliant. Heavy and joyless, but brilliant.

Where the novel fell short for me was in the endless subplots involving minor characters that ran throughout the novel. Pages and pages are spent on Raskolnikov's mother and sister, his friend, members of the police force, a virtuous prostitute, and his sister's former boss. The stories surrounding these figures were boring, long, and confusing to try and relate to the main plot of the novel. I found myself struggling to get excited about reading this book because so much of it meandered from minor character to minor character. I was interested in Raskolnikov, but the parts focusing exclusively on him were scattered almost randomly throughout what seemed like a lot of unnecessary filler.

Crime and Punishment is regarded as one of the finest works of world literature. While I agree that it is an important and intriguing work, I found it to be a largely boring novel with flashes of greatness. This won't be a favorite for me, but I am still glad that I experienced it. Raskolnikov's psychological struggle was unlike anything else I have read and the novel is most definitely noteworthy for that. I am just disappointed that I found the rest of the story so dull.

Honestly, I am relieved right now that I can finally move on and read something else. I wish I didn't feel like that, but it's my truth. I'm glad that my time with this novel is at an end.

Challenge Tally 
Back to the Classics (a Russian Classic): 11/12
TBR Challenge: (previously owned) 41/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 53

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

August 2017 Reading Plan

August is here and with it comes the start of the new school year. As I will be returning to work, my reading time will be a little reduced, but I'm still hoping to read my usual amount.

This month I have a mix of shorter works and classic novels for my challenges. I'm going to make up for my accidental reading of the abridged War and Peace by taking on another Russian classic, Crime and Punishment. Don't worry, I made sure to check and see if I had the complete novel this time.

Here's the plan:

1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Back to the Classics: A Russian classic
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

2. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  • Classics Club: #59 on my list
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book that takes place over a character's lifespan
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

3. The Suicide Club by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Classics Club: #93 on my list
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

4. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book about an immigrant or a refugee
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

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


6. Pax by Sara Pennypacker
  • Mount TBR: previously owned 

I'm ready to start off the month and dig into these novels. I even feel ready to go back to work! Let's hope that my students are great enough this year to keep me in this positive mood.