Monday, May 28, 2018

Gemini by Sonya Mukherjee

After exploring some pretty heavy nonfiction last week, I decided to pick something on the lighter side for my next read. Gemini by Sonya Mukherjee fit the bill nicely. This was one of my young adult impulse purchases from Barnes and Noble that has sat on my shelf for ages. I picked it more or less at random from a big stack of others just like it and dove in.

The plot concerns Hailey and Clara, two seventeen year old conjoined twins. As the story starts, they are beginning their senior year of high school in Bear Pass, the tiny California town where they live with their parents. They are joined together back-to-back, at the base of their spines. Growing up attached to each other hasn't always been easy, but thanks to the efforts of their mother, who makes sure accommodations are taken care of at home and at school, the girls have been able to live reasonably normal lives.

However, as they approach the end of their high school careers and college application deadlines loom closer and closer, the girls find themselves at a bit of a crossroads. Hailey, who favors pink hair and a punk rock aesthetic, longs to attend an art school, where she can continue to hone her painting skills. Clara, who is timid and always trying to minimize the amount of attention she draws to herself, secretly dreams of studying astronomy and physics. She longs to go to space and see Earth through the window of a shuttle. While the girls are extremely close to each other and love each other deeply, their differing desires are starting to bother them both. To pursue the dreams of one sister means that the other sister will have to give up what she wants. In addition, their over-protective mother is putting constant pressure on them to conform to her vision for their future - staying at home and attending a local community college that does not have an astronomy program and has a very weak art program. It's a near-impossible situation for them to navigate.

To add to the difficulty they are experiencing as they try to make plans for their future, they begin to have a little boy drama as well. Both Hailey and Clara have crushes on different boys, but they are afraid to pursue any relationships. How can you have a boyfriend when your sister is attached to your back? As they watch other students in their classes pair off, they despair of ever being in a romantic relationship themselves. Feelings of self doubt and intense sadness creep into their minds, especially for Clara, who is always very hard on herself.

As their school year moves forward, both girls must begin making tough decisions and pushing themselves out of their comfort zones. They consider everything from one twin sacrificing her own happiness for her sister's dreams to risking a highly-dangerous separation surgery. Together, they work through this painful process of figuring out who they are and what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Gemini is a novel about a bond between two sisters who are closer than most, and how that bond pulls them through the uncertainty of growing up.

I thought the novel was pretty enjoyable overall. The plot was intriguing and caused me to think a lot about what choices I would make if I were in Hailey or Clara's (or their mother's) position. I thought Mukherjee did a nice job of characterizing the twins differently. She shifts the narration between the girls from chapter to chapter and each voice felt distinctive. I identified hard with Clara, the more reticent and anxious sister, and I enjoyed pulling for her throughout the novel. This was a quick read for me; I was able to finish over the course of two days. It was the perfect book for the mood I was in. I wanted something interesting and on the lighter side, which this was, despite tackling some emotional topics.

There were only two elements of the novel that I wasn't a fan of. The first was the girls' mother. I found her to be unreasonably over-protective and annoying. In my mind, if you make the highly unorthodox decision not to separate conjoined twins, then you must move mountains to help them live normal lives. The mother in this story did that, but only to a point. She got special desks in the girls' school and became a great tailor to alter their clothes, but then she refuses to let them do things like date boys, go to school dances, or attend the colleges they want without massive, emotional arguments. I get that she was trying to shield them from the judgements and rudeness of others, but it got old. She felt less like a real person and more like a plot devise designed to consistently stand in the way of her daughters' happiness.

The other element that I wasn't a fan of was the ending, which felt cheesy, forced, and unrealistic. It was a bit too happy for me. I felt like Mukherjee glossed over a lot of the difficult questions she raised in her previous chapters and just ended things with a shrug. I wish she had dug deeper into the implications of the decision that the girls ultimately ended up making.

Despite those things, Gemini was still a very entertaining read. It's not destined to be a favorite of mine, but I did enjoy it and I think young adult readers will find a lot to like in its pages. This one will end up on my donate pile. I hope it finds its way to someone who will fall in love with Hailey and Clara's unusual and engaging story. 

Challenge Tally:
Clear the Shelves 2018: 12 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018: 22

Sunday, May 27, 2018

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

It seems that I've hit a bit of a reading roadblock lately. As my husband and I prepare to move across the country, I'm finding it hard to keep my mind on a book and stick to a reading schedule. Resigning from my current job, working on obtaining certification in Connecticut, and saying goodbye to all my friends and family is weighing on me right now. I usually find comfort in reading, but my mind has been racing a mile and minute this month and I'm struggling to focus.

Despite my worries, I've finally managed to finish something this week. I'd been wanting to read In the Garden of Beasts for a while now, and with my push to read more nonfiction this year, I thought it was the right time. I read The Devil in the White City, another of Larson's nonfiction novels, a few months ago and enjoyed it, so I went into this one expecting a similar experience - nonfiction that reads like fiction. In this, I'm happy to say that I wasn't disappointed.

The plot concerns William E. Dodd, the American ambassador to Berlin in 1933. As the first United States ambassador to Hitler's Germany, he was in a unique position to watch the evolution of the Nazi regime - a government that many people hoped would help pull Germany out of an economic depression and get them back on the right track after WWI. He brought his family along to Berlin with him, and his own recorded experiences, along with those of his daughter Martha, form the basis of the story.

Initially, the family expected to enjoy a grand adventure. Germany at this time was an optimistic and stylish place, and most people assumed that Hitler's government would either fall apart in short order or become more moderate over time. As the Dodd family settled into their new home, their experiences seemed to support this view. Berlin felt like a normal city. However, as Hitler began to consolidate his power, things started to change. Dodd and his daughter became increasingly uncomfortable as they witnessed the growing brutality of the Nazis. Beatings, arrests, suppression of the press, and executions became the order of the day. Despite his best efforts, Dodd was never able to use his position as a diplomat to temper Hitler's government, and his reports back to the United States contained dire warnings about Germany's intentions. President Roosevelt, however, refused to act on this information. He was under intense political pressure to stay out of the affairs of foreign nations and to avoid taking any actions that might cause Germany to default on their loans from the U.S. Eventually, Dodd was removed from his position as ambassador for refusing to be more conciliatory towards Nazi officials, whom he came to view as murderers. He returned with his family to the United States, where he worked steadily to educate the population about what Nazi Germany was really like.

This novel was fascinating and a little infuriating. Its fascination came from the treasure trove of interesting information about how the Nazis were able to rise to power. I didn't know much about this time period beyond the basics you learn about WWII in high school, so I learned a lot while reading. It's clear that Larson did quality, meticulous research in putting this book together, with diary entries and letters from many different people filling out authentic details about the time period. The chapters shift between Dodd's perspective and his daughter Martha's perspective, which provides a nice blend of official, government-style information with more casual, personal-style observations. The story was consistently interesting, which made the reading go relatively quickly.

The infuriating aspect of the book lay in watching so many world leaders stand by doing nothing while Hitler rose to power. What this story proves is that Hitler's government was anything but solid. Paranoia, lies, disorganization, confusion, and sabotage were commonplace. These were not people who had a clear vision and a strategic plan in place from the beginning. The intervention of the United States, or another European nation, could have easily changed the course of history had it come early enough. It was frustrating to see the inaction of other countries, who favored a "let's just cross our fingers and hope its okay" approach rather than standing up for the rights of the oppressed in Germany. Obviously, hindsight is 20/20, but leaders were given warnings from figures like Dodd while the Nazis were gaining strength, and those warnings were brushed aside. It's a shame. I look at history a little differently now after reading this.

Of course, the parallels between what was going on in Germany and what is going on politically in the U.S. right now were impossible to ignore. We too have a leader who is actively trying to suppress the press and is prone to emotional outbursts. We too have a leader who inspires a fanatical following that believes everything he says, no matter how obviously untrue. We too have a leader that is obsessed with keeping "undesirables" out of his country. While it seems outrageous to suggest anything close to the Holocaust could happen here, we must remember that no one in Germany thought that about Hitler either, and the inaction of those people led to tragedy on an unfathomable scale. It's kind of scary to think about what could come next.

I very much enjoyed In the Garden of Beasts, and would encourage anyone interested in the history of WWII to pick it up. It focuses in on a part of the war that isn't often talked about and answers questions about how someone like Hitler was able to rise to power in a modern, civilized country. This one made a deep impression on me and any book that helps to challenge the way you think about the world is worth a read.

Challenge Tally:
True Books 2018: 8/18 + 2 bonus books
Clear the Shelves 2018: 11 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018: 21

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma

I love reading books about other books. Of course, those types of novels only cause my to-be-read pile to grow, but I really like seeing the magic that books work on other people. I don't know a lot of people that enjoy reading in my own, day-to-day life, so seeing others describe which books have influenced them makes me feel less alone. They let me know that somewhere out there in the universe, people like me exist. I own lots of "best of" type books that exist purely to list reading recommendations. I also have lots of online lists of recommendations saved to try and read from later. It's basically an obsession at this point. My life mainly consists of reading books, reading articles about books, reading books about books, talking about books, shopping for books, and (occasionally) eating and sleeping.

So, when I spotted Alice Ozma's The Reading Promise at my school's book fair a few years ago, I was instantly intrigued. This memoir promised to be about Ozma's impressive feat of  reading out loud every night with her father from the ages of 9 to 18. I was interested to see what her favorite novels were, compare them with the books I loved as a kid, and see how the stories she shared with her dad strengthened the bond between them. I bought the book and stuck it on my shelf, then ended up never getting around to reading it. With my Clear the Shelves and True Books challenges underway, I decided it was finally time to give The Reading Promise a shot.

The novel begins with Ozma recounting a bit of her childhood and explaining how she started her reading project. Her father was an elementary school librarian and they would read together already on most nights, but one evening, the idea of a reading streak entered Ozma's head. She proposed reading out loud together for 100 night in a row to her dad, and he readily agreed. Once that milestone was reached, Ozma extended the challenge to be 1,000 nights of reading in a row. Once that milestone was reached, the pair just kept on going all the way until she graduated from high school and left for college. The pair never missed a night and ended up reading all sorts of novels together, from old favorites like The Wizard of Oz, to newer selections like The Harry Potter series.

All of this reading forms the background to a series of vignettes about Ozma's life, with events such as her parents' divorce, her grandparents' deaths, her sister leaving for college, and other typical family milestones taking center stage. Her writing flows nicely and is easy to read, and her humorous anecdotes make the pages go by quickly. This is a relatively short read, and an enjoyable way to spend a few afternoons.

What this novel is not, unfortunately, is a book about books. The reading streak is consistently pushed to the background in favor of other family stories that have very little connection to the novels Ozma and her father make their way through. While the books and reading are always there, they aren't a significant part of the story. Few actual titles or opinions about books are even mentioned. What The Reading Promise truly is is a memoir about the life of a very young woman who hasn't undergone anything especially interesting in her life aside from achieving an unusually close relationship with her father. While her writing is nice and her stories are sweet and sometimes touching, this book isn't at all what the cover suggests it will be.

At the end of the novel, Ozma includes a partial list of the novels she read with her father during their streak. I was glad to see this element, but disappointed that it was so incomplete. Ozma explains that they has no idea while they were reading that their project would stretch on so long, so they didn't write down all of the books as they were going. That's completely understandable, but what we're left with is a rather short list that is composed of mostly Judy Blume, J.K. Rowling, L. Frank Baum, Beverly Cleary, and Donald J. Sobol (of Encyclopedia Brown fame). I was hoping for some lesser-known recommendations.

Unfortunately, The Reading Promise just wasn't what I wanted it to be. Based on the cover and summary on the back, I don't feel like I had unreasonable expectations for it. This was described as "the heartwarming, true story of a young woman, her single father, and the power of books." Most of that is true--just not the part of about the books. Books were there, but they did not hold as prominent a place in the story as I was expecting. Ozma's vignettes about her childhood and her dad are undoubtedly charming, but this is not really about reading. Ultimately, I was left wanting more from this one.

Challenge Tally:
True Books 2018: 7/18 + 2 bonus books
Clear the Shelves 2018: 10 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018: 20


Monday, May 7, 2018

The Reef by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors. My first exposure to her work was in high school, when I was required to read Ethan Frome. I liked it, but I hadn't really developed the taste for literature that I have now when I read it, so it didn't stand out too much to me at the time. I started to really appreciate her when I read The House of Mirth in college. That novel has the distinction of being the first book I ever shed a tear reading. From that moment on, I was hooked. In the years since then, I have read The Age of Innocence and Roman Fever and Other Storiesboth of which I really liked. I love Wharton's cutting sense of humor and long, intricate sentences. I also appreciate the fact that she writes about issues that affect women of her time period, like divorce, motherhood, oppressive societal expectations, and money issues. She's one of those authors that I want to read everything from, so I decided to give one of her novels that has been sitting on my shelf for years now, The Reef, a shot next.

The story begins with George Darrow, an American diplomat in London, traveling to France meet up with a woman named Anna Leath. Anna is an old flame from his past that he has very recently reconnected with. Things have been going quite well between the pair; he is in love and plans to propose marriage at their next meeting. Darrow is disappointed however, to receive a note from Anna just as he arrives in Paris urging him to postpone his visit by a month. The note doesn't offer an explanation for the delay, and Darrow becomes convinced that Anna intends to put an end to their renewed relationship.

In his frustration, he engages in a fling with a woman he runs into at the train station. Sophy Viner is spirited, beautiful, and down on her luck, a combination that proves to be irresistible to Darrow. He swoops in like a knight in shining armor, puts her up in a fancy hotel, and takes her to several popular theater shows. They spend a week or so puttering around in Paris, seeing the sights and fooling around. Eventually, Sophy heads off on her own to pursue a career as an actress. Darrow returns to his work as a diplomat, and life goes on.

Months later, Darrow and Anna patch things up and their relationship picks back up where it left off. Marriage is once again Darrow's intention and this time there are no delays or misunderstandings between the pair. They meet up at Anna's home and begin to make solid plans for their future together. Anna truly loves Darrow, but she is cautious in everything she decides with him because she has a young daughter, Effie, and an older stepson, Owen, to think about. She wants to ensure their happiness before her own. As Darrow is a diplomat, marrying him will involve traveling and living in different countries. Her aim is to make sure her children are provided for and settled before making any major changes. Luckily, her mother-in-law will look after Effie during the times she is away and Owen has fallen in love and is on the brink of getting married himself.

Everything seems to be lining up perfectly for Darrow and Anna to finally be together, but complications arise when Owen introduces the woman he loves and intends to propose marriage to. To Darrow's immediate horror, the woman is Sophy Viner. This leaves Darrow in quite the delicate predicament. He doesn't want Owen to marry the sort of woman that would have relations outside of marriage, but he can't reveal how he knows this about Sophy without exposing his own affair with her and spoiling his relationship with Anna. To make matters worse, Sophy reveals that she still has feelings for Darrow and questions whether she can go through with a marriage to Owen at all. The situation steadily declines as awkward behavior, a steady stream of lies, and jealous suspicions threaten to derail the happiness of the entire family.

While The Reef was by no means a bad novel, I struggled with reading this one. I wasn't excited to pick it up, so I began to push my reading off to the side in favor of other things. As a result, it took me a month to finish it. It's a short book. At my normal speed, it should have taken no more than a week. I'm not entirely sure why I didn't click with it. The prose was written in Wharton's beautiful, distinctive style, the story was interesting and scandalous, and there were plenty of female characters and concerns to analyze. It just didn't grab me.

Part of the problem is that I don't think I completely understood the message of the novel. I wasn't sure who or what was being criticized. Wharton seems to lampoon conservative society, "loose" women, and dishonest men in turns. Were Sophy and Darrow meant to be victims of oppressive societal rules, or were they villains behaving badly? Wharton's writing leaves it vague, with different scenes seeming to send different messages. The ending, which didn't feel like an ending at all, only created further questions. In the novel's final chapter, Anna attempts to visit with Sophy. She searches for her at her sister's house, and discovers that Sophy's sister is some sort of weird quasi-prostitute (or something else disreputable). Disappointed, she leaves, and the novel abruptly ends. I'm not sure if that was meant to show that Sophy was ultimately trashy, like the rest of her family, or if it was meant to show that Sophy was downright virtuous when compared with a real fallen woman. Even the title had me confused. There wasn't a reef, or any water at all for that matter, in the entire novel. I'm sure this means that I missed some symbolism somewhere, but for the life of me, I can't figure it out.

The main characters grew tiresome as the novel went on as well. Darrow, who reveals himself to be quite an accomplished liar, never seemed upset enough at himself or at the prospect of ruining his relationship for my taste and his seemingly cavalier attitude grated on me. He didn’t show enough positive traits in the novel for me to understand why he was desirable enough to be at the center of a love triangle. Sophy, who at first proclaims to not believe in traditional marriage, throws away more security and wealth than she could have ever dreamed of having because she suddenly “loves” Darrow again. Her reignited passion seemed so false and unrealistic that I’m not sure if Wharton was having her act on ulterior motives or not, and it is never explained to the reader. She simply disappears by the end of the story. Anna, who is torn between staying with Darrow and breaking off her engagement to him, changes her mind about what to do several times a chapter throughout the end of the book, and while I can understand her indecision and anguish, the execution of it became painfully annoying to read. I didn’t fully dislike the novel, but I was so ready for it to end by the time that I got to the last chapters that it was a relief to turn the final page.

Despite my struggle to engage with this one, I did enjoy some aspects of it. The feelings of betrayal, jealousy, and insecurity one experiences when they discover their partner has lied to them were clear and quite timely. Those are ideas that stretch across generations, and they were very relatable. I also liked the exploration of the double standard for behavior between men and women. Darrow’s liaison with Sophy, while unseemly, wasn’t ruinous to his reputation. No one would prevent him from marrying a society lady on the basis of it. It bothered Anna, but that was for personal reasons. If she broke their engagement, he would simply marry someone else. For Sophy, however, the affair meant the end of her marriageability. To reveal her participation in it would be to doom herself to spinsterhood. Anna comments on this imbalance in the story, and I found the acknowledgement to be interesting. I wish Wharton had gone further with it.

 Ultimately, I feel like The Reef was a confused novel. Its characters and message weren’t clear and too many questions went unresolved at the end. While I enjoyed the plot and social commentary, I was left wanting more from it. Perhaps the fault is mine, and I missed some clues that would have made the story make more sense to me. Regardless, I struggled with it. Obviously this isn’t going to be one of my personal favorites, but I’m still happy to have experienced more of Wharton’s writing. I look forward to trying more of her works (and hopefully discovering some more favorites) in the future.

Challenge Tally:
Classics Club (#74 on my list): 28/100

Total Books Read in 2018:19