Monday, December 31, 2018

Reading Reflection: 2018

2018 is at an end, and I can honestly say that this has been a difficult year for me. I left a job I was quite comfortable in and all of my family and friends to move across the country. The goodbyes were intensely painful and my new home, while fine, has been an adjustment to get used to. All of these changes has meant that my reading this year wasn't as prolific as I'd hoped. I fell short of many of my goals. However, with everything I've had to navigate through, I think I did okay overall. Here's the breakdown:

My Goodreads challenge was to read 50 books this year. I only made it to 44. This is the lowest amount of books read in a year for me since 2012. I attribute this to all of the stress of moving and I hope to get to a better number in 2019.

I was supposed to read 20 more books off my Classics Club list this year. I only read 13. I still have three years to finish my list. I need to use this coming year to catch up!

I did actually finish my Back to the Classics Challenge in 2018! I read a total of 12 classic novels from different categories. My wrap up post for that is here.

I wanted to donate some of the books off my shelves this year. I ended up donating a total of 21 books to either book donation boxes or to my classroom library. Not too bad!

I had a goal to read more nonfiction books this year. I didn't end up reading all of the ones I owned (which was my initial goal), but I did read 10 of them, which is definitely the most nonfiction I've ever read in a calendar year. So I partially accomplished my mission. I want to continue reading more nonfiction in the future, as several of these books became new favorites!

I have to admit that I'm a bit sad I didn't get through all of the books I planned to in 2018, but as I said, it was a difficult year. The times when I let stress get the better of me and I wasn't reading were very hard. If I have learned anything through this experience, it is that I need to read more when things get rough, not less! I'm hoping that 2019 brings with it more books, more fun, and the discovery of my new normal.

The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan

The Bitter Side of Sweet was the last book from my school's book fair that I read while home for the holidays in Florida. I picked it up based on the summary on the back, which showed it was about modern day slavery in Africa. Later on, I realized that one of my students had been reading it too and showed it to me once, so it's been getting a bit of traction among my kids. It ended up being excellent, so I'm glad I chose it!

The story follows two Malawian children, Amadou and his younger brother, Seydou. Both were unwittingly sold into slavery in the Ivory Coast when they left their drought-stricken home to look for work to support their family. They were sold to a cacao plantation and spend their days harvesting cacao pods for the farmers. They are beaten regularly, work under extremely dangerous conditions, and given barely enough food and water to stay alive. The brothers have been working on the farm for two miserable years when the story begins. After an early, failed escape attempt. both are broken and resigned to their fate. The best Amadou can do each day is try to protect Seydou and keep him alive.

Their story changes, however, when a young girl named Khadija is brought to the farm to work. She has the spirit of a wildcat, and constantly tries to escape the farm. She is continually caught and beaten, but she refuses to give in. Before long, she befriends Amadou and begins to make him think about trying to escape again. When Seydou is grievously injured one afternoon, he decides that the time is right to take his brother and attempt an escape once more. With Khadija there to help, the three embark on a terrifying and dangerous journey to freedom.

This novel was amazingly compelling. The writing was smooth and the action was well-paced. I was completely engaged in Amadou's journey and raced through the pages to see how everything turned out. What made the reading experience even more powerful was the fact that the story is based on the truth of what happens on cacao farms in Africa. I had no idea that child slave labor was regularly used to make chocolate. The author, Tara Sullivan, includes some information in the back of the book about this issue and it was equal parts disturbing and educational to read about. The fact that child slaves are used to produce a sweet for more privileged children across the world is awful to contemplate. It made me think a lot harder about all that Christmas candy I got over the holidays. Buying those fancy chocolate bars labeled "fair trade chocolate" is something I will try to do from now on.

This was my favorite book out of the three I read during my trip. It was well-written and alerted me to an issue that I didn't know anything about. This is definitely a high-interest book that I will place in my classroom library and recommend to my kiddos.

Challenge Tally
Clear the Shelves 2018: 21 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018: 44

That's Not What Happened by Kody Keplinger

That's Not What Happened was the second young adult book that I read while I was home in Florida for the holidays. I found this one at my school's book fair and was intrigued by the description on the back, so I picked it up.

The story follows a high school senior named Lee, who is dealing with some significant emotional trauma. When she was a freshman, she was involved in a school shooting. During the shooting, she was hiding in a bathroom stall with her best friend Sarah. Both girls were shot at, but the gunman missed Lee. Sarah was killed instantly. In the days after the shooting happened, a lot of stories about the victims began circulating in the inevitable media frenzy that followed. One of the stories was that Sarah died bravely defending her Christian faith to the shooter. This story, circulated by another surviving student listening from outside the bathroom, has become a legend in Lee's small town. Sarah is regarded as a hero and her story is an inspiration to the community.

The problem with this is, that the story is completely untrue. Lee knows that Sarah didn't say anything before she died. They were huddled together silently in that bathroom stall, scared out of their minds. Lee doesn't know what anyone else may have said to the shooter, but she knows for sure that Sarah did not speak to him at all. When the story was first circulating, Lee didn't say anything to stop it. She believed it was more helpful to Sarah's parents to let them believe the lie. However, now it's three years later, and Sarah's parents are now going to write a book about the incident. Lee can't stand the misinformation that will result when the book is published and believes that it's time for all the survivors of that terrible day to share their stories about what it was really like. Dismantling the myth around Sarah's death won't be easy though, and could turn the whole town against Lee. Many people have made significant life changes around this story and won't let it go easily. She must decide if it will be worth it to speak up or if she should just stay silent.

I found this story to be very interesting, and, sadly, very timely. School shootings are a disturbing reality that kids have to think about today and it was interesting to explore the fallout and trauma of such a terrible event. Lee and her friends struggle with survivor's guilt and PTSD, as well as a lot of the modern difficulties of being involved in a high-profile crime, including the agony of being accused of being "crisis actors," becoming figures in a political debate about gun control, and being hounded by the press for details of what happened. Lee's struggle with what to do in the aftermath was compelling and multifaceted. I could see reasons for her to stay silent and reasons for her to speak out. Her struggle was portrayed sensitively and realistically in a way that younger readers will be able to understand.

Mixed in with the sections about Lee's story are letters written about the students and teachers that died in the shooting. These letters help to give readers a sense of all those who lost their lives in the event. The point is stressed that even if someone wasn't particularly heroic during the incident or if they weren't a particularly good person before the incident happened, they still deserve to be remembered and mourned. No attention is paid to the shooter himself or his possible motives for his crime. He isn't even named in the book. All of the focus is saved for those impacted by what he did, and how the ripples of his crime spread across an entire town. No gory details or graphic descriptions are given; the focus here is on how people tried to pick up the pieces in the wake of the tragedy. In this way, the story is able to deal with a difficult topic without being exploitative or disrespectful.

I definitely enjoyed this novel and thought it portrayed school shootings in a realistic and sensitive way. I think young adult readers will be completely engaged in the story and come away from the novel with a better understanding of the power of stories and the impact of violence on students and communities. While the serious subject matter may not be appropriate for all readers, for the right kids, That's Not What Happened will be a deeply moving read.

Challenge Tally
Clear the Shelves 2018: 20 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018: 43

Screenshot by Donna Cooner

I traveled home to Florida during my winter break and I brought a bunch of young adult books with me. I managed to finish three of them during my trip, and they were all surprisingly solid picks. All three came from my school's book fair, so my main reason for picking them up was to preview them for my students; it was an added bonus that I legitimately enjoyed them myself as well.

Screenshot was probably the book my students were most excited to pick up this year, thanks to an intriguing trailer in the preview video Scholastic put out for the kids. The story follows a sixteen-year-old high school student named Skye. She's an ambitious young woman who dreams of a future career in politics. She's been working hard to win an internship with her state senator for the summer, so maintaining a clean and professional public image is very important to her. She's been very successful so far and has earned good grades, held down a part time job, and served on her school's student council.

However, all of Skye's careful planning is thrown into jeopardy when her friend uploads an embarrassing video from a slumber party to a social media platform. Although her friend takes the video down a few minutes later, the damage is done. Someone online takes a screenshot from it and begins using it to anonymously blackmail Skye into doing embarrassing things. At first, the blackmail requests are small, like telling her to paint her nails a certain color. The demands quickly ramp up though, and the tasks Skye are asked to do threaten her friendships and her future. If she refuses to comply with the demands, the person will post the screenshot online, and her family, classmates, and, potentially, the senator's office, will see it. Skye must decide how far she's willing to go to protect the public image she's so carefully crafted and figure out who is trying to ruin her life.

This plot summary definitely sounds a bit silly, and it is, but the book as a whole was surprisingly enjoyable, very timely, and full of excellent points about social media, the cost of maintaining a public image, and self-confidence. Skye's character felt realistic, and her worries and anxieties over her reputation were spot-on to how teenagers think.The story was interesting and fast-paced enough to keep me reading. I was engaged the whole time and I believe that younger readers will be as well. I really wanted to know who it was that was blackmailing Skye and why they were doing it, and I wasn't able to guess the ending ahead of time.

The narration in the novel is primarily from Skye's point of view, but each chapter ends with a few pages written from the perspective of one of her friends. These short sections contain bits of information that Skye doesn't know, and serve to show how the pieces of ourselves that we share with others or post online are only a small part of our lives. For example, Skye views her friend Asha's near-constant status updates as being annoying and self-centered, but when the narration hops over to this friend, we learn that she is in deep pain over a significant health issue her mother is dealing with. The online posting is a way for her to deal with the hurt and turmoil in her home life. Skye and Asha have been best friends since they were little kids, and Skye has no idea what Asha is going through. It really makes readers consider how much we truly know about the people closest to us, and wonder about how much of what we see online from them is genuine.

Screenshot is an excellent choice for teen readers. While it is definitely a young adult book, I manged to get a lot of enjoyment out of its story and the questions about social media that it raised. Any story that can remain interesting, feel relevant, and encourage kids to show empathy and kindness to others is an extremely valuable resource. I will be placing this in my classroom library and I can see myself recommending it quite frequently to my seventh graders.

Challenge Tally
Clear the Shelves 2018: 19 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018: 42

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Quiet Girl in a Noisy World by Debbie Tung

After reading and loving everyone's a aliebn when ur a aliebn too, I decided to read another graphic novel next. I found Quiet Girl in a Noisy World through one of those Amazon recommendations that appear when you add items to your cart (I fell prey to those all the time). As an introvert, I was instantly intrigued by the title and cover image, so I decided to give it a try.

The novel is about the coming of age of the author and artist, Debbie Tung. It follows her from college to marriage to career as she tries to manage social situations and handle the anxiety that comes from having an introverted personality. Rather than tell one detailed story, the narrative hops around from moment to moment, showing her struggle to be at peace with herself and to feel comfortable in the world around her. Initially, she struggles a lot with feelings of inadequacy and depression. She feels awkward when interacting with others and is usually pretty quiet in public places. This leads to people asking her if anything is wrong, which only serves to add to her negative feelings. It's a vicious (and very real) cycle. As the novel goes on, Tung starts to learn more about her personality and feel comfortable in her own skin.

For introverted readers, this is a satisfying reading experience. It validates their feelings and encourages self-acceptance. For extroverted readers, this is like a guide for how to understand introverts. So much of this novel rang true to me that the title might as well have been "Quiet Girl in a Noisy World: The Kristina Story." Nearly every page showed something I have felt, said, or done during my life. It was really nice to see that there are other people in the world who feel like I do about things.

The illustrations are all black and white and are very cute. You can't help but root for the cartoon version of Tung, as she loafs around the house in sweatpants with a mug of tea.I even thought the font choices looked friendly and comforting. It was a visual treat to flip through the pages.

I would highly recommend Quiet Girl in a Noisy World to anyone. You will either be comforted by it or learn from it (or maybe both). It also takes less than an hour to read, so there are literally no downsides to picking it up. It's a nice, artistic, and realistic reading experience that I am so happy I got to have. This is joining Susan Cain's Quiet for me as one of my favorite books about introverts.

Challenge Tally

Total Books Read in 2018: 41

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Back to the Classics 2019 - Sign Up Post

It's that time again! The new categories for the Back to the Classics Challenge have been announced for 2019. It's a great mix of old and new prompts, and I'm extremely excited to get started. My picks for next year are listed below.

1. 19th Century Classic: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1837-1839) Completed February 2019

 I have been a big fan of Charles Dickens since I read Bleak House in college. It's been way too long since I last picked one of his books up, so I wanted to set aside some time in the upcoming year to revisit him.

2. 20th Century Classic: Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (1962) Completed in February 2019

 I read Lolita years ago and was simultaneously impressed and disgusted. I've always wanted to try another work from Nabokov and this one has been sitting on my shelf for ages. Time to give it a shot.

3. Classic by a Female Author: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)

 I was supposed to read this novel for my American Literature class in college and I never ended up doing it. I left my reading to the last minute and resorted to looking up chapter summaries to get through the assignments (which worked, by the way, but is not something I'm proud of). I've always regretted flaking out on it, so I put it on my Classics Club list. I think this upcoming year will be a great time to give it another try.

4. Classic in Translation: The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne (1874) Completed in January 2019 

For the past three years, I have started off my reading with a Jules Verne novel. I've burned through his three most famous works (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Around the World in 80 Days), so now I'm starting in on one of his lesser-known novels to kick off 2019.

5. Classic Comedy: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) Completed in June 2019 

 Every year when I pick out books for this challenge, I try to pick selections that are also on my Classics Club list. In this way, I am able to chip away at both challenges at the same time. I think this is the only comedy book I have on my Classic Club list, so now's the time to read it!

6. Classic Tragedy: Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1895) Completed in May 2019

 I took a course on Realism and Naturalism in college, and the grad student who taught the class told us that this was her favorite book of all time. I've been interested in reading it ever since then. I heard it has a pretty sad ending, making it a good fit for this category.

7. Very Long Classic: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605-1615) Completed June 2019

 At almost 1,000 pages, this novel definitely fits this category. It's considered by many to be one of the very first novels ever, and it has been on my to-read list for ages. I'm afraid it will take forever to finish, but I'm going to give it a shot.

8. Classic Novella: Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (1961) Completed January 2019

I read The Catcher in the Rye when I was in high school and have been interested in reading more from Salinger ever since. I bought this novella in order to do just that, then never got around to actually picking it up. It's a good fit for this category, so I'm going to read it this year.

9. Classic From the Americas (includes the Caribbean): Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (1945)  Completed April 2019

John Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors, so I was excited to pick one of his novels for this category. I have no idea what this one is about. Hopefully I will find a new favorite.

10. Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania (includes Australia): The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing (1950)  Completed November 2019

Sadly, I had no novels on my Classics Club list or on my shelves that fit this category. I did a little research online and was intrigued by the summary of this classic novel set in Africa. I'm going to try it.

11. Classic From a Place You've Lived: The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1851)  Completed September 2019

This novel is set in Massachusetts, the state where I was born. The actual house that it's based on is pretty close to where I live now. I'm sensing another literary field trip coming up at the end of this one.

12. Classic Play: The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare (c. 1590) Completed February 2019

I'm interested in this play because I'm a big fan of the musical Kiss Me Kate. I'm interested to see its source material.

I've got quite a few picks on here that will be difficult to read, quite long, or both! I am still up for the challenge though. I read Ulysses this year. That means I can read literally anything else if I put my mind to it. I can't wait to say goodbye to 2018 (not a great year for me) and start in on my fresh, new year of reading.

everyone's a aliebn when ur a aliebn too by Jomny Sun

After the intense, difficult experience that was Ulysses, I really wanted to read something light. I decided on a graphic novel that I bought a few months ago and never got around to reading, the curiously named everyone's a aliebn when ur a aliebn too by Jomny Sun. I first heard about it through a YouTube review and it sounded really interesting and heartwarming. Excited to read something that didn't require a Ph.D. in literature to understand, I dove in.

everyone's a aliebn when ur a aliebn too follows a cute little alien who is sent to earth on a mission to learn all he can about humans. He wanders around and talks to every creature he sees, including a tree, a bird, a bear, and a swarm of bees. He assumes all of them are different kinds of humans and he asks them all sorts of questions about their lives. Their answers are simple and surprisingly deep. They talk about happiness, sadness, self-discovery and achieving your goals. The alien stays on earth for quite a long time learning about these "humans" until he is called back home.

I really, truly enjoyed this novel. The simple, black and white illustrations were charming, the little typos and grammatical mistakes added character, and the themes of acceptance and positivity were a joy to explore. It was sweet and uplifting and exactly the little bit of happiness I needed. This is the kind of book that makes you feel good when you read it, and I can definitely see myself returning to it whenever I need a pick-me-up in the future.

Aliebn is an extremely quick read. I finished in less than an hour, but it was time very well spent. What's better than a whole story about kindness and encouragement? It has definitely become a new favorite for me and I can already see myself recommending it to all my friends. This was such a nice story to read after Ulysses!

Challenge Tally

Total Books Read in 2018: 40

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Back to the Classics 2018- Wrap Up Post

I'm cutting it close to the deadline this year, but I finally finished my Back to the Classics challenge! I finished all 12 categories, meaning that I get three entries into the drawing for the prize.

Here are the links to what I read for each category:

1. A 19th century classic: The American by Henry James (1877) - Completed March 2018  
2. A 20th century classic: The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1922) - Completed April 2018 
3. A classic by a woman author: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814) - Completed September 2018 
4. A classic in translation: Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rølvaag (1924-1925) - Completed June 2018 
5. A children's classic: Heidi by Johanna Spyri (1881) - Completed February 2018 
6. A classic crime story: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (1939) - Completed November 2018 
7. A classic travel or journey narrative: Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (1873) - Completed January 2018
8. A classic with a single-word title: Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854) - Completed October 2018 
9. A classic with a color in the title: The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes (1934) Completed February 2018 
10. A classic by an author that's new to you: Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (1959) Completed March 2018 
11. A classic that scares you: Ulysses by James Joyce (1922) Completed December 2018 
12. Re-read a favorite classic: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) Completed November 2018 

In case I win the big prize, my email address is: quiet.kristina [at] gmail [dot] com

I am very happy with what I read this year. I found a lot of new favorites, blogged about my all-time favorite novel, and visited a place inspired by one of my reads. As usual, I'm excited to do it all again in 2019!

Ulysses by James Joyce

Well, here we are. It's finally time to read Ulysses.

I've always known that I wanted to take this monster on one day, and the Back to the Classics Challenge prompt to "read a classic that scares you" was the push of encouragement I needed to give it a try. Ulysses is a legendary novel--it's considered to be one of the best modern classics of all time. It's also considered to be an extremely difficult read. In it, Joyce describes a day in the life of a man named Leopold Bloom as he travels through Dublin. Utilizing many different literary styles from chapter to chapter, stream of consciousness writing, and multi-layered allusions to other works and time periods, this 783-page tome is a challenge for readers to understand and appreciate. The rewards, however, are said to be worth the time and struggle.

Modern literature is not my favorite genre. While I can appreciate its importance to the literary cannon, I tend to not enjoy the experience of reading it. Accordingly, I've only read a small handful of modern classics. Ulysses is everything that frustrates me about books to the nth degree, so I was very reluctant to start in on it. I had serious concerns about my ability to understand the text, so I sat down and made a reading plan. I thought that might make it easier.

The first thing I did was determine where the chapters were. Ulysses is based on The Odyssey, and contains 18 chapters that roughly correspond to The Odyssey's 24 books. However, Joyce chose not to label any of them in the actual text, so I had to find a website that listed where the chapters started and stopped so I could break up the novel into sections. Once I accomplished that, I decided to read the novel a section at a time, alongside a study guide with chapter summaries, so I could hopefully keep track of what was going on. What follows are my impressions as I read, three chapters at a time.

Fair warning - this is probably going to be super-boring. For my overall impression of the entire book, just skip to the end of my review.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Literary Field Trip - Walden Pond

A month or so ago, I read Walden for my Back to the Classics reading challenge. After I was finished, I really wanted to go see the place for myself. Thoreau wrote about Walden Pond with such reverence that I was convinced it had to be really special. Luckily for me, moving across the country to Connecticut meant that I was only a few hours away from it. After only a little bit of convincing my husband (because it was pretty cold at the time) we packed up the car and set off for Concord, Massachusetts.

Let me start off by saying that I am not exactly a seasoned traveler. I have been nowhere more interesting than Disney World in my entire life. I struggle with pretty serious anxiety, which is triggered by going to unfamiliar places, so vacations aren't necessarily the most fun prospect for me. However, I felt like I had to see Walden, so I pushed through my worries.

The parking lot for Walden Pond State Reserve is across the street from the pond itself. It's near the welcome center, gift shop, and the recreation of Thoreau's cabin, so we started our exploring there.

Thoreau's actual cabin is long gone, which is not surprising, considering that he built it himself out of secondhand materials in the 1800s. Visitors can look at this recreation though, to get a sense of what it looked like. It is tiny. Thoreau describes the measurements in Walden, but actually seeing it in front of you puts things in perspective. Furniture similar to what Thoreau had is inside the cabin, but when we visited, the door was locked. We had to settle for peeking in the windows.

  A neat statue of Thoreau stands outside the cabin.

 The welcome center houses a lot of little artifacts from Thoreau's life, as well as information about Walden. There's even a little activity for kids to use a set of ropes and weights to test the depth of a wooden model of the pond, just like Thoreau described in the book. The gift shop next door is run by the Thoreau Society, and contains a lot of nice souvenirs. It is honestly the best gift shop I have ever been in. It's full of literary things. My poor heart could barely stand the excitement. I bought a new copy of Walden (I couldn't resist), and a shirt. I regret not taking more pictures of these spots, but like I said, I am not a seasoned traveler, so I didn't think to take all the pictures I should have.

 After exploring those areas, we headed across the street to look at the pond itself. The walk there was gorgeous. It was fall, and the bright New England foliage was in full effect. Having lived in Florida so long, I am not used to seeing visual changes in the seasons. These kinds of sights are so cool and different to me.

 We turned a corner, and suddenly, all of Walden Pond stretched out before us. When I got my first real look at it, it honestly took my breath away. It was so calm and beautiful. Instantly, I understood the appeal of the place. It's quite a small pond and it's not fancy, but there's a quiet majesty to it. It feels important.

I couldn't believe I was standing on the same shores that Thoreau stood on. I have read so many books, about so many places. I've never traveled to one before.

There is a trail from the shore of the pond to the location of Thoreau's cabin. It's not too long of a walk, but it is a bit hilly. Everything is clearly marked and the cabin site is easy to find. After admiring the pond for a bit, we made our way over. It was a beautiful walk.

 The cabin site is decorated with a lovely quote from Walden, and the area where the cabin actually stood is roped off. People leave stones on the signs and surrounding area as a tribute to Thoreau. Some of the stones have encouraging words written on them. Some have personal goals. Some are just blank. 

Looking at all the stones made me feel some things I wasn't quite prepared for. There is a spiritual atmosphere hanging about the place. So many people with so many different hopes and dreams have traveled there. So many people have found peace in Thoreau's words. The idea that one man, living alone in the woods hundreds of years ago, could inspire all that is incredible.

This is the magic of reading. 

This is why literature is so important. 

This is why we must not forget the classics.

 I stood outside where Thoreau's door would have been and looked out at the pond. It was felt completely unreal that I was looking at the same view he looked at all those years ago. I felt like I understood Walden more now. I know why he spent chapters on ice melting and depth sounding. How could you not be endlessly fascinated by this?

 After exploring the cabin site, we set off to find his bean fields. It was another short walk, and it wasn't as well marked as other locations, but we eventually found it. This is where Thoreau planted the vegetables that he would primarily live off of during his stay.

We headed back down to the pond for a few more pictures before heading home. The sun was setting and made for an even more beautiful view. As I was standing there, soaking it all in, I knew that this trip would be one I remembered forever. It's hard to describe how much being at Walden meant to me. It left an impression on my heart. In that moment, I didn't feel anxious, or sad, or worried about anything. I was at peace. I felt connected to what I had read in Walden. I was so happy.

One thing is definitely clear to me now. I need to take more literary field trips.  

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Whenever anyone asks me what my favorite book is, the answer is always the same. The Great Gatsby. Throughout my  life, I have read hundreds and hundreds of books, but something about this one sticks with me. I've read it several times since being introduced to it in my high school English class, and my fondness for it has only grown over time. It's been a few years since I last visited it, so when I saw that one of the Back to the Classics categories this year was to reread a favorite classic, I knew exactly what I wanted to choose.

The Great Gatsby is about the elusive and shady millionaire Jay Gatsby and his tragic attempt to recapture the heart of a girl from his past. The book is narrated by a friendly and semi-involved neighbor named Nick Carraway, who watches the events of the plot unfold from his little rental house next door to Gatsby's mansion one summer in 1922. Nick happens to be the cousin of Daisy Buchanan, the woman that Gatsby is in love with. Accordingly, once Gatsby figures this out, he enlists Nick to help in his quest to steal Daisy away from her current husband and rekindle their past romance.

The problem with Gatsby's grand plans are that he is chasing after a girl who no longer exists. Too much time has passed since they were first together, and although Gatsby has spent a lifetime building a fortune to impress Daisy, she is a different person now. She embodies the shallow, spoiled attitude of rich people from the Jazz Age, and while she still feels a bit of a spark for her old, lost love, she isn't about to break apart her easy, convenient life to go back to him. Gatsby, however, is oblivious to these facts and continues to pursue her with reckless abandon. The Great Gatsby is the story of how his ambitions come apart at the seams in the face of a careless, superficial society and how everyone is ultimately helpless before the unrelenting passage of time.

What I have appreciated about this novel has changed over time. When I was a high school student, it was all about Gatsby himself. I thought he represented the very height of tragedy. He was a victim of Daisy's carelessness--a true romantic that loved in a deep and meaningful way. His love drove him to great achievements, and persevered against all odds. For him to be rebuffed after all that effort seemed criminal. I couldn't understand Daisy. I was desperate for someone to love me the way he loved her. The sadness was in the lost romance, the broken hearts.

When I got a little older, and reread Gatsby in college, it was all about the writing. Gatsby was still a tragic figure, yes, but now I could appreciate the way Fitzgerald told the story. This was the first novel I can ever recall thinking was beautiful. The structure, the word choice, and the perfect brevity of the plot blew me away. Fitzgerald was writing in a way that I viscerally responded to--I could hear Daisy's voice "full of money" and feel Myrtle's "perceptible vitality." I could see Gatsby's shirts in a "many-colored disarray" as he threw them before Nick and Daisy and taste his champagne that was "served in glasses bigger than finger bowls." The prose moved me in a way I hadn't experienced before and put a stamp on my heart forever. The sadness of the novel was now in the language, the skillful weaving of a tragic story.

As time moved on and I revisited this story as an adult in my late 20s, it was all about the theme. Having lived a bit more of my life, I was able to understand the novel's message on a deeper level. That idea of reaching back for the good times of the past and never quite being able to recapture those feelings and experiences rang true to me now. The tragedy Gatsby experienced was not a failure of Daisy's love. It was the inevitable march of time. People change, places change, and circumstances change as we get older, and no amount of effort can ever bring back things exactly as they were. Gatsby's confident assertion that one can repeat the past took on a different, and much sadder tone now. For all his enthusiasm and single-mindedness towards his goal, he was destined to fail. His intentions were sweet and romantic, but he was blinded by his past feelings, lost in them, and that was his tragedy. The sadness was in the delusion, the mistaken belief that one can ever recapture the feelings of the "good old days."

Now that I've read the book again in my 30s, my appreciation for it has deepened further. All of the meanings I've taken from this novel over the years are still true. The Great Gatsby is a mix of all my feelings. It's a well-written story with a tragically romantic protagonist that explores a deeply relatable theme. It will always be my favorite novel because something about it speaks to me in a way that other books don't. It's hard to explain to others why certain stories appeal to certain people. The best I can do is say that I feel a kinship with these words, these characters, and these ideas. This book is one of my literary rocks--a safe place I can come back to again and again to find beauty and inspiration.

It's times like these that I feel very sorry for people who don't read. 

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics (re-read a favorite classic): 11/12 

Total Books Read in 2018: 38

Sunday, November 4, 2018

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Somehow, I've managed to make it this far into my life without ever having read a novel by Agatha Christie. I know. I can't believe it either. I like mysteries, I like suspense, I like classics, and yet, I have never managed to pick up one of these up. The "classic crime story" category in my Back to the Classics Challenge for this year was the perfect encouragement to finally give a Christie novel a try. I had already purchased And Then There Were None at a deep discount on my Kindle ages ago, so I decided to start with that one and see if I agreed with all the hype.

The plot of the novel concerns ten different characters who, at the beginning of the story, are all called to come visit a mansion located on a private island. The ten people don't know each other and each one has been invited to the island under different pretenses. For example, one is supposed to be a secretary for the homeowner, another thinks he's catching up with old friends, etc. Everyone arrives at the home around the same time and learns that the mysterious person who called them together is unavoidably detained somewhere. They are instructed to make themselves at home until that person arrives. Shortly after that, everything goes to pieces.

A mysterious recording begins to play, and it accuses each of the ten guests of murdering someone. Shocked and outraged, the guests attempt to leave the island, only to realize that they are trapped. No boats are around to take them back to the mainland, and some rain clouds in the distance suggest that they won't be able to leave anytime soon. As they try to piece together what is happening and decide what to do, one of the guests is mysteriously murdered. No one knows who the culprit is, but they quickly arrive at the conclusion that it must be one of the remaining nine guests. No one else is on the island. Throughout the rest of the novel, the characters continue to die off one by one as the survivors frantically try to figure out who the killer among them is until they can find a way back to safety.

I loved this novel. Everything about it was pitch perfect--the creepy atmosphere, the suspicious cast of characters, and the intricate, fast-paced plot had me completely engaged from page one. Christie shifts the narration around from character to character in quick bursts, so that the reader is fed little crumbs of information about everyone on the island as the plot progresses. This has the effect of causing the reader's suspicion of who the culprit might be to hop around from character to character in turn. Just enough is revealed about each person to keep the plot exciting and leave the reader wanting more. I finished reading this in just a few days, as I was anxious to see who the killer would turn out to be. The ending was satisfying and was not easy to guess.

The title of the story, And Then There Were None, is taken from a derivative of a children's counting rhyme, "Ten Little Soldier Boys." This particular rhyme has had an unpleasant racial history, and the original title of this novel was something very different and very offensive. However American publishers had the foresight to change up the title and some of the words in the poem for the American release of the novel. It's a good thing too, because this little poem is mentioned a lot in the story. It is hung up in every room of the house and serves as the handbook for the murderer, who commits his crimes according to the events of the rhyme. It was a neat little framing device that added to the creepiness of the plot.

This is a fun read if for no other reason than to see a bit of mystery novel history. Christie invented the idea of a group of strangers being called to a mysterious location and being trapped together with a murderer. This setup has been used in so many other books, movies, and TV shows that it has become a cliche. And Then There Were None is where it all started, which makes it worth the read all on its own. I didn't know anything about the plot of the novel prior to reading it, so it was a fun discovery to see how this idea played out for the first time. I was strongly reminded of the movie Clue, which I had recently watched with my husband, which presents a comedic twist on this same structure.

Sometimes the classic novels that I read are a bit of a slog. The more challenging ones are like eating your vegetables--not always fun to get through, but good for your reading-health. And Then There Were None was nothing like that. This was a literary dessert, an easy read that was entertaining and interesting all the way through. It might have been a bit lacking in deeper meanings and themes, but it was creepy fun. Sometimes, that's all you need. I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys a good puzzle and some intrigue in their stories. It was a nice surprise for me and I'm very interested in reading more of Christie's novels in the future. I waited a long time to discover this author, and now I have to make up for lost time!  

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics (a classic crime story): 10/12

Total Books Read in 2018: 37

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Walden is one of those serious American novels that I always knew I wanted to read eventually, but half-dreaded actually starting. Although I am a seasoned reader of the classics, the philosophical leanings of this one intimidated me. Walden isn't a story in the traditional sense; it's a collection of the thoughts and feelings of Henry David Thoreau. I was concerned that I wouldn't understand a lot of it, or that it would be too boring to get through. Moving to Connecticut, however, finally motivated me to pick this novel up. I live only a few hours from Walden Pond now, and I thought it would be fun to read the book and then go see the place for myself. Apprehensively, I buckled down and gave it a try.

Walden is Thoreau's true account of the two years he spent living alone in a tiny cabin on Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts in the 1840s. This was a grand experiment for him, and a deep test of his beliefs as a transcendentalist. Transcendentalists believed in the purity of people and nature. They valued man's ability to be independent and self-reliant, and had a decided distaste for modern practices that removed man from the natural world and caused him to rely on others to fulfill his needs. Capitalism and new technology were viewed as corrupting influences while solitude and simplicity were viewed as the ideal ways of life.  In moving to the woods for a time, Thoreau aimed to live this ideal life and see if it was possible and fulfilling.

The opening sections of the novel detail how Thoreau established himself on the pond. He describes how he built his own tiny cabin and planted a small garden of beans and other vegetables to live on. He provides detailed records of his possessions and expenses throughout this time, proving that he was able to accomplish setting up his home for very little money. He is able to salvage things like tools and furniture in order to keep costs down, and forgoes any items that aren't absolutely necessary to living. He forages in the woods to supplement his food and drinks only water that he is able to obtain freely from a nearby well. In this way, he is able to provide entirely for himself without needing to have an outside job. He is at liberty to do whatever he likes most days and he glories in the freedom.

As the novel progresses, Thoreau moves onto describing the different sights and sounds he experienced as he lived through the different seasons on the pond. He details the changes in plant life, animal life, and the weather over the course of his residence, often stopping to reflect on the benefits of living so close to nature and taking care of one's own needs. Sprinkled throughout are passages on topics ranging from the importance of reading to the best dietary choices. Thoreau's thoughts are deep and his philosophy is clear. His love and respect for nature are evident on every page and his deep belief in the transcendentalist lifestyle is unwavering.

Eventually, Thoreau ends his experiment, saying, quite poetically, that, "[he] had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one." His experiment of independence and self-reliance was a complete success, and his experience at Walden was life-affirming. His concluding chapter is a beautiful encouragement to readers to enjoy their lives and seek greater happiness, no matter what their situation. 

Now that I'm at the end of my reading experience, I can honestly say that I enjoyed Walden. I can also say that it was not an easy read. It turns out that both of these things can be true at the same time. I was consistently blown away by thoughtful and inspiring passages. However, I was just as often bored or confused by sections that I struggled to understand. Thoreau's writing is complex; his sentences are long and are often peppered with allusions to things a modern reader wouldn't be familiar with. This made comprehension a challenge at times. Also, some of the more descriptive sections were a bit dry and difficult to get through. For example, much of one chapter is devoted to how ice forms and melts in the pond during the winter, which wasn't exactly riveting material. Despite the difficulty level though, there is enough wisdom and beauty going on in the pages to make the journey worth it, and it's understandable enough for a determined reader to make it through okay. 

As I read, I found myself wondering how I would do living out on my own in the woods like Thoreau did. I've never even gone on so much as a camping trip, so probably not very well. Even so, it's always been an idle fantasy of mine to have a little farm out in the middle of nowhere, so his transcendental philosophy was very attractive to me. I do think there's a lot of wisdom in the idea of people living quiet, simple lives. Getting closer to nature, providing for yourself, and making time for reflection and observation sounds quite nice. I think that's one of the reasons why Walden has endured all these years. Thoreau touches on a longing that a lot of people still have. That urge to get away from the cruel machine of modern society and just be alone for a while. I admire him for actually going out an trying it instead of just thinking about it. 

Now that I've finished reading, my desire to visit the real Walden Pond has only increased. I'm hoping to travel there in a few weeks to see what standing on that shore feels like. It will be my first ever literary vacation and I can't wait. I'm glad that I finally picked this novel up. It was a very unique reading experience, even with all its difficulties along the way. I know that I will be thinking about many of Thoreau's words and opinions for a long time to come.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics (a classic with a single word title): 9/12
Classics Club (#65 on my list): 32/100

Total Books Read in 2018: 36