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

Sunday, October 14, 2018

My Life with the Liars by Caela Carter

My Life with the Liars is another novel brought to me by a student this month. This particular student is the type of kid every teacher loves. She is cute as a button and very eager to please. She shows up early every day to pass out student notebooks and gives me unsolicited hugs on a daily basis. She is a little island of goodness and light in the chaotic vortex of pain that is my seventh period. Basically, she'd do anything to help me and I'd do anything to help her at this point. She was the very picture of enthusiasm when she brought this book up to me, with her eyes all wide and her little body practically vibrating with excitement. "You have to read this book," she told me. "It's SO good!" With an endorsement like that, I could hardly say no. As soon as I finished up with Wool, I started this one right away.

The novel is told from the perspective of Zylynn, a twelve year old girl that has been raised in a religious group called "The Children of the Light." She has always lived inside the group's compound in the desert and followed the teachings of their enigmatic leader, Father Prophet. Her entire life is ruled by his edicts, which include things like considering anyone outside the compound to be an evil liar, enduring entire days with no food as punishment, and believing that God is her literal mother and Father Prophet is her literal father. Everything she sees and does is filtered through this set of beliefs, but she still can't help but feel a little curious about the outside world. She tries her hardest to suppress these feelings, as she considers them to be "abominations." 

The plot begins with Zylynn in great turmoil. A man calling himself her father arrives at the compound and takes her away from everything she has ever known. He brings her to a house full of people he calls her stepmother and three step-siblings and puts her in a pink bedroom that he says belongs only to her. For Zylynn, who has been raised to believe her parents are God and Father Prophet, and who has been taught that no one should ever own any possessions, her immediate reaction is terror. She can think of only one thing--getting back to the compound as quickly as possible. She is desperate to go home and begins to try and plan her escape.

As a few days go by, Zylynn's struggles continue. She knows from her upbringing that she is supposed to consider everything she hears an outsider say as a lie. However, she doesn't understand how things like delicious foods, soft clothing, and hugs could be bad things. She's also coming to develop loving feelings towards the people she's living with. Confused, she believes that any enjoyment she gets out of life with her so-called family must be a test of her faith and redoubles her efforts to run away. Throughout the rest of the novel, Zylynn continues to try and sort out her complicated feelings towards The Children of the Light and her new home and figure out where she really belongs.

I never thought I'd read a middle grades novel about a cult, but here we are. An even bigger surprise was how well that concept worked. My Life with the Liars was a very good novel. Zylynn's narration was realistically unreliable, and her confusion over normal life events like shopping and bathing were written in a way that middle grade readers would be able to interpret and understand. Mixed in with her bewilderment over "normal" life were flashback sections that explained more about what her life in Children of the Light was like. The amount of information revealed in these sections was portioned out well, allowing readers to piece together the reasoning behind why Zylynn makes the decisions she does as the story goes on. I felt for her character and wanted so badly for her to figure everything out. I was pulled in from page one and stayed engaged with the story until the very end.

At around 280 pages, this is a relatively quick read. I moved through it in a few days and I believe middle grade readers would move through it fairly quickly as well. My little kiddo that recommended it to me certainly did. I think this is an easy one to pull in a kid that likes realistic fiction, and I can definitely see myself recommending this to future students. Caela Carter did a nice job walking a fine line with this one. It feels somewhat "dangerous" because of the subject matter (which kids love), but it remains totally appropriate for young readers. This was a surprising find, and is just one more reason to love the little one that brought it to my attention.

Challenge Tally
Total Books Read in 2018: 35

Wool by Hugh Howey

Whenever a student brings in a book they want me to read, I take up the challenge immediately. This year, I happened to get two right in a row from kids. The first, Wool, was brought to me by a student that's difficult to describe in a few sentences. She is friendly, kind, dramatic, enthusiastic, and gloomy in turns. Her moods change with the wind. One minute she will be bopping along to K-pop on her headphones, and the next she will be on the verge of tears, all wrapped up in one of the many dramas that seem to spring up around her constantly. One thing that is consistent about her, however, is her enthusiasm for a great story. She is a reader, and as such, I believed that this book she brought in for me would be entertaining.

Wool is set in a post-apocalyptic United States where some vague disaster has rendered the planet unlivable. The air and soil are completely toxic and standing outside for just a few minutes is enough to kill a person. As a result, humans had to move beneath the surface of the earth. Survivors packed themselves into a massive underground silo and established a new kind of community where they would raise their children, study science, and attempt to make enough technological advancements to come out of the silo and live outside again one day.

All of these events happened hundreds of years before the plot of Wool picks up, and the story focuses on the current generation of people living in the silo. Various political uprisings and data losses over the course of the silo's long history have resulted in many details of their history being completely lost, and the result of that loss of knowledge is the development of a ritualistic and strict set of beliefs and laws. People are not allowed to mention the Outside or express any kind of desire to explore it. They are not to question authority in the silo and must stay in the jobs they are assigned. Relationships between men and women are strictly regulated and reproduction is controlled by a lottery system to keep the population manageable. Anyone found in violation of these norms is punished by being sent to a "cleaning," which consists of the convicted person donning a sealed environmental suit and heading outside to scrub off the camera lenses that provide the silo with its only view of the outside world. The suits will only give the person protection for a few minutes-- just long enough to clean--  before they succumb to the toxins in the air and perish. The silo residents live in fear of being sent to a cleaning, so they obey the strict rules of their community. 

The plot of the novel kicks off with the sheriff of the silo, a man named Holston, purposefully sending himself to a cleaning. It's essentially committing suicide, and this choice baffles many residents of the silo, but everyone knows that asking questions is a sure way to get into trouble so they stay silent. The incident passes without much investigation or discussion. After Holston cleans the cameras and dies on the Outside, a new sheriff is selected. This new sheriff is a young woman named Jules. She comes from a section of the silo known as the "Down Deep." It's one of the deepest levels underground, and it's where important electrical equipment like the power generator and water pumping systems are located. She is a skilled mechanic with no law enforcement experience, but her work ethic and assistance on a previous case caught enough notice for her to be selected for the job. From the moment she takes the position, she notices several things about life in the silo that don't exactly add up. She quietly begins to investigate what she notices, and eventually takes a special interest in Holston's death. Her innate persistence and curiosity begin to lead her down a path of secrets, violence, and conspiracies that prove too irresistible to ignore. Wool is the story of Jules' quest for the truth of the silo, which she is determined to uncover despite the grave risks to her life.

This novel was extremely engaging. It's one of those classic dystopian adventure stories full of mysteries and plot twists that keep you guessing. The story was consistently interesting and the world of the silo was incredibly detailed and imaginative. I enjoyed trying to guess what was coming up next and theorizing about what was really going on behind the scenes. Happily, I wasn't able to figure out most of the plot points ahead of time, and was very entertained with each new revelation. Wool is, to put it simply, a very fun story. It's the kind of novel that you could use to pass the time on a plane or in a waiting room - it's easy to read and action-packed.

That being said, Wool did have a few weak points. Some of the supporting characters were a bit bland, and some sections of the novel dragged because of it. I liked Jules the most out of all the characters by far, but the narrative perspective hops around to different people quite a bit, and none of the others are as interesting as her. When the narration would shift to someone else, I found myself wishing to just get back to Jules already. At just over 500 pages, this is a lengthy read, and the less interesting sections made the pace feel overly slow sometimes. I also felt like some of the writing was a bit clumsy, with the romantic elements falling especially flat.

Despite those issues however, I still enjoyed my time with this novel. It reminded me of books like Divergent and The Hunger Games, but for a more mature audience. Any fans of dystopian fiction will find a lot to like in Wool. Beyond my personal enjoyment, I'm thankful to have a new topic to discuss with my student. Even better, now that I know which kinds of books she prefers, I can point her towards other stories she might like too. Sharing book recommendation and discussing stories with someone is a great way to develop a relationship, so I will most definitely continue to read what my students bring me in the future. Like this novel, they are usually winners. 

Challenge Tally
Total Books Read in 2018: 34