Friday, February 22, 2019

Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart

Years ago, I read E. Lockhart's We Were Liars and fell in love. With its perfect blend of mystery and suspense, not to mention its shocking twist ending, it promptly became one of my favorite young adult books. Naturally, when Lockhart published Genuine Fraud, I had to check it out. Even though I was extremely excited to read it, I ended up falling into my old pattern of buying the book and then never getting around to it. I put it on my Finally in 2019 list so that I could see if it would end up being another favorite for me.

Genuine Fraud starts off under unusual circumstances. It begins on chapter 18, in which we are first introduced to our protagonist, Jule. The usual exposition you would get at the start of a novel is not included here; the reader is just dropped into a story-in-progress. From context clues, we can infer that Jule is living in a luxury hotel under a different name. She has disguised her appearance, is using a fake accent, and is in some sort of trouble with the law. A police officer is hot on her trail, and as chapter 18 comes to a close, the officer finally catches up with her--then the story starts moving backwards.

The chapters start counting down from this point, with the reader learning all about how Jule came to be living in this situation bit by bit. We discover that she is a talented con artist with a penchant for stealing identities. We also learn that she comes from a troubled past and is likely dealing with mental health issues. As time flows backwards, the mystery surrounding her situation begins to unravel and it becomes possible to piece together her story and start understanding her motivations. Eventually, the last chapter of the novel returns us to the present time where one final twist remains to surprise readers and end the story.

Sadly, this novel was only okay for me. I did appreciate the unusual design structure, which kept things mysterious and interesting. I've never read a book that goes backwards before, so I enjoyed having that new reading experience. One drawback of this format, however, was that it made me feel like I never properly got to know or understand Jule as a character. Lockhart didn't provide enough detail throughout to give me a strong sense of who this character was. I understand that part of the plot was her dissatisfaction with her own life and her compulsion to step into the lives of others, but the quick bursts of information each chapter presented to me weren't enough to make her feel real. The story was very fast paced, with each chapter bringing with it a new revelation, but the pace came at the cost of character development. This made the backwards structure feel gimmicky at times, rather than essential or important to the story.

Without a well-developed character to focus on, the point of reading became trying to figure out the mystery. The plot was definitely interesting and a challenge to try and "solve," but it did make the experience more like a logic puzzle than a story to escape into. I was engaged, but not enthralled. Interested, but not fascinated. I'm not sure everything lined up and made sense at the end, either. Compared to We Were Liars, a novel that had me utterly captivated from page one, this novel is definitely inferior. This is a fun read to consume if you want something quick and entertaining, but it is shallow. It's so shallow that I don't have much more to say about it.

Genuine Fraud was the last novel on my original Finally in 2019 list, and it was also the weakest novel on it. I still enjoyed reading it overall, and I rated it three stars, but knowing the kind of storytelling that E. Lockhart is capable of made this feel like a weak effort. Younger readers will definitely like it, however, and I can see myself recommending it to some of my more mature students.

On a happy side note, I have now officially completed my Finally in 2019 Challenge! I finished it much earlier than I was expecting--I set my goals low so that I didn't feel too pressured throughout the year. Now that I polished off my original list, I will continue to add on books that I just really feel like reading at the moment that I haven't gotten around to yet. I do so many reading challenges that I sometimes feel like I don't have the freedom to just pick up whatever book I want, so I'm excited to see where my whims take me!

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 6/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 13

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

“We give all we have, lives, property, safety, skill...we fight, we die, for a simple thing. Only that a man can stand up.” 

Johnny Tremain holds a special place in my heart because it is one of the first books I can recall pushing myself to finish reading. It was assigned to me in my seventh grade English class, and I remember not feeling too impressed with the story in the beginning. The temptation to put it aside and read something else was high, but I made myself stick with it and ended up really enjoying it. Of course, at this point, I barely remember anything about the plot. All I really remember is being glad I made myself finish it. That was really the start of my feelings on sticking with books today. I always finish the books I start now, and this little book was the origin of that.

When I was designing my Classics Club list a few years ago, I knew that I wanted a selection of classic children's books on it. In my search for titles I wanted to try, I came across Johnny Tremain again. I decided to put it on my list to see if I still would feel the same way about the story when I revisited it--bored, but eventually entertained. I don't count something I read when I was twelve as a re-read for these purposes, so I felt fine including it. A short trip to Boston a few months ago, in which I visited Paul Revere's house, sparked my interest in reading this novel again, so I decided now was the time to pick it back up.

The plot of the story follows a young orphan boy named Johnny Tremain who is growing up in Boston in 1773. Johnny is working as an apprentice silversmith for the Latham family, a position that his mother was able to secure for him before she died. He shows such skill and promise in his craft that every other silversmith in town, including the famous Paul Revere, is interested in him. Unfortunately for Johnny, he knows how skilled he is and he delights in lording his talents over the other apprentice boys he lives with. He has a good heart, but he is also bossy, mean, and quick to anger. His pays a heavy price for this pride at the beginning of the novel when he burns his hand with molten silver in a tragic accident.

His injury is severe enough that he can no longer work as a silversmith, and the loss of his future career is a devastating blow to the young boy. With no real family to rely on, he is forced to find another way of earning a living that he can do one-handed. After a long and agonizing search, he winds up delivering newspapers for The Boston Observer, a local Whig newspaper. His new job thrusts Johnny into a world he previously ignored - the world of politics. The Observer happens to be the headquarters for the Sons of Liberty, a secret Whig group that desires freedom from England. Once Johnny has proven himself to be a trustworthy ally to their cause, he is running errands for Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, James Otis, and many other major American patriots in addition to his newspaper duties. With tensions between England and the American Colonies rising, Johnny gets a front row seat to the events leading up to the American Revolution, including the Boston Tea Party and the "Shot Heard Round the World." Along the way, he grows up a bit, learns to control his temper and understands what it means to become a part of a movement that's larger than himself.

Coming back to read this as an adult turned out to be an excellent idea, because I don't think that a twelve-year-old reader is capable of appreciating everything Johnny Tremain has to offer. The first time I read this, in middle school, I had to push through boredom to make it all the way to the end. I ended up recognizing it was a good book, but I didn't enjoy the whole journey. Reading it now, I understand what a little gem it is.

One reason for this is Johnny's character development. Many of the young boys in children's adventure novels are a bit flat. Jim Hawkins and Tom Sawyer, for example, have a great deal happen around them, but they ultimately change little in their respective adventures. Johnny, however, experiences quite a lot of growth throughout his journey. He begins the story as a prideful, snobby boy who likes to bully others. After his accident, however, he needs to find new ways to interact with people in order to survive. He slowly learns to hold his temper, be kinder to others, and take responsibility for his actions. He also learns to grapple with jealousy and fear as he discovers how to live with his injury. He realizes that there are some things he can't do and other things he can, if he has enough heart to work hard for them. He even manages to maintain a fragile peace with Dove, the selfish and petty boy that caused his accident. By the end of the novel, Johnny is brave, respectful, and admirable. Realistically, he does not attain perfection, but he comes out of his ordeal a better person than when he went in, which makes him a character that is easy to root for.

Another strength of the novel is the wealth of historical information it contains. Johnny Tremain is historical fiction, but it is absolutely stuffed with facts about the colonial time period in the U.S. and the early days of the Revolutionary War. I felt like I learned more from reading this novel than I learned in my actual history classes. Home life, different professions, politics of the day, and the factors that led the colonies to war are all explored in a way that doesn't feel intrusive to the overall story about Johnny's life. Esther Forbes masterfully weaves in her history lessons with the fictional plot points, creating a read that is engaging and educational. Obviously, one shouldn't take everything in the novel as an absolute fact, but it is obvious that great efforts were made to keep the story as true as possible for the time period.

One last element of the story that stood out to me was how successful this book was at inspiring a feeling of patriotism in me. I'm not the kind of person that's easily moved by U.S. history stories. That's not to say that I don't appreciate my country, because I certainly do, I'm just not the type to feel particularly patriotic. Reading Johnny Tremain, however, made me feel some twinges of pride for our forefathers that stood up for what they believed in and fought for freedom from tyranny. It probably helped that I'm originally from Massachusetts and love Boston in particular, but I was surprised at how moved and interested I was by this story. John Otis's speech to the Sons of Liberty, which gives us the novel's most famous lines, was particularly inspiring. His assertion that, "We give all we have, lives, property, safety, skills...we fight, we die, for a simple thing. Only that a man can stand up," had me practically cheering. The story wasn't perfect. There were still some spots that moved a bit slowly. Overall, however I was engaged in and inspired by what I was reading and cheering on Johnny and his Whig buddies.

I went into reading Johnny Tremain not expecting too much. I was interested to see if I would still find it boring, and figured that I probably would, at least in part. What I discovered instead was an exciting adventure that brought the Revolutionary War to life for me. I teach seventh grade right now. My students are the same age as I was when I first read this novel. There is a push in modern education to read books that are "relevant" to our students' lives, so stories like this don't make the cut anymore. It's a shame, but I do not think that this novel can be a hit with most young kids at this point anyway. They've been fed on a diet of instant-gratification entertainment for too long. However, for patient and thoughtful readers of any age that enjoy history, Johnny Tremain remains a treasure.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#27 on my list): 39/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 12

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Power by Naomi Alderman

"Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn't. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it's hollow. Look under the shells; it's not there."

I first came across Naomi Alderman's, The Power on a few different "best of 2017" lists. The synopsis of the book immediately intrigued me, and when President Obama named it one of his personal favorite reads of the year, that clinched it. I had to read this novel. I got it as a Christmas present from my mom, and then, like so many other books I am excited to read, I stuck it on my shelf and never got around to picking it up. It was a very easy decision to include it in my Finally in 2019 challenge this year, as this title has never really left my mind. Since I've been in the zone lately with making my way down my Finally list, I decided to sate my curiosity about The Power and give it a try.

The plot of the novel explores a world in which women suddenly develop the power to deliver powerful electric shocks through their hands. Their new abilities are biological; they are the result of exposure to a chemical put into the water during WWII and somewhat mirror the abilities of an electric eel. At first, these powers emerge in uncontrolled bursts; women end up shocking others (usually men) in moments of extreme stress. Eventually, however, women learn to harness and control their electricity. They are no longer the weaker sex, and the men of the world start to get very nervous. Told from a variety of different perspectives the eventually weave together, the story examines what happens when the balance of power between men and women is completely flipped on its head.

This novel was very enjoyable, and a big part of my enjoyment was the multiple perspectives approach. Most of the chapters alternate between four different characters, each offering a unique perspective on how the emergence of the power affects them. The first character we meet is Roxy, the daughter of a powerful crime boss. She uses her abilities to settle scores with other gangsters and cement her role in the family business. She works on the development of drugs that can be used to enhance women's powers, and takes the lead on manufacturing and importing the drug into countries around the world. Her rise shows the potential for illegal activities in this new reality, but navigating the criminal underworld doesn't come without its share of danger and heartbreak.

The next character, Tunde, is a young, male reporter. He catches some of the early instances of women using their powers on his phone and is vaulted to prominence when he starts uploading his videos onto YouTube. Soon, he is following the development of the power all around the world, and capturing the conflicts that occur as women start rising up in countries where they had limited, or no rights at all. He offers us the perspective of a man in a woman's world, and his growing fear of the opposite sex mirrors women's general fear and caution of men in our world today. Before long, he is afraid to be outside alone, and is always on the lookout for women looking to commit sexual violence against him, as that is now possible with the use of their electricity applied to the right places. As one of the women he captures on film shouts out, "Now [men] will know...that they are the ones who should not walk out of their houses at night. They are the ones who should be afraid."

Another character, Margot, is a small town politician. She uses her powers to climb the political ladder and become a powerful world leader.Out of all the characters that the novel follows, I found her to be the least compelling, but her story was still interesting to read. One part of the novel that struck me in particular was a conversation Margot was having with another politician in her city. She realizes, while listening to him arrogantly yammer on about something, that nothing he has to say is very important because she could kill him easily at any moment if she wanted to. She thinks that, "it doesn't matter that she shouldn't, that she never would [hurt him]. What matters is that she could if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth." It made me wonder if a man's confidence now actually springs from this knowledge that they are physically more powerful than most women. Maybe. I'd probably feel more confident too if I knew I was the strongest person in a conversation.

The last major character, Allie, starts out as an orphan in the foster system. She first uses her power to escape an abusive foster home. Then, following the instructions of a mysterious voice in her head, she goes on to form a religious cult around the power. She becomes a living goddess among her followers and founds a powerful church that spreads around the world. She figures out how to use her electricity to cure certain maladies and becomes a faith healer to promote her vision. Eventually, she is able to use her influence to rewrite Christianity, changing parts of the scripture and editing religious iconography to reflect a woman-centered view.

As these women's stories eventually cross paths, a powerful narrative is formed around the corrupting influence of an unbalanced power structure. The strong come to dominate the weak, in ways both big and small. The comparisons to modern day gender relations are obvious, and it was very illuminating to consider how close the fictional events in The Power resembled the real-life injustices women have had to endure at the hands of men over the years. It was very engaging to see these concepts flipped around with women as the aggressors and men as the victims.

I was really into this story throughout the entire text, but the cleverness of the ending was what really made this a five star read for me. I had seen a couple of reviewers say that they were disappointed with the ending, so I was curious to see how I would feel. This isn't a happy story, and I didn't expect the ending to be light and fluffy. It wasn't, and I was fine with that. What I really did enjoy though, was the way the author ended the framing of the novel. At the start of the story, we get a series of letters between a male writer and a female publisher. The writer, Adam, is submitting the text of The Power in the hopes of getting it published as a historical novel, to explain the events leading up to an event called The Cataclysm that happened 5,000 years ago. At the end of the novel, the letters between these two return, and the way they discuss the story's believability and publication was just so smart and satisfying. I absolutely loved the last few paragraphs.

So, The Power was definitely a winner for me. I really enjoyed spotting the parallels to our present day culture and exploring the possibilities of what could happen in a world where gender roles were suddenly reversed. There is a lot of smart, clever writing in this novel and it feels like an important read for women, along the lines of The Handmaid's Tale. This is one of those books that earns the time you put in to read it. It's not a story for idle enjoyment--it's one that will stick with you for a while and make you think of the world differently. Anyone in the mood for a thought-provoking read should give The Power a try.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 5/6 Books Read

Total Books Read in 2019: 11

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

I have a selection of Shakespeare plays on my Classics Club list, so when "Classic Play" was a category in my Back to the Classics challenge, I knew right away which texts I would be picking from. I already happened to have The Taming of the Shrew on my shelf, so I went with that one for this year. I was interested in it for two reasons. First, I am a big fan of the musical Kiss Me, Kate. This Broadway show is based on The Taming of the Shrew, and I spent a lot of time when I was younger memorizing its soundtrack. Second, I am also a big fan of 10 Things I Hate About You, which was a teen movie based on this play from the 90s. Since those two things were a big part of my childhood, I was interested to check out their original source material.

The play centers around two Italian sisters from a noble family, Katherine and Bianca Minola. The sisters are completely different from other another in personality. Katherine, the older sister, is bad-tempered and prone to violence. She is rude to everyone she comes across and fights with her sister constantly. Her anger is legendary around their hometown of Padua. Bianca, the younger sister, is gentle and compliant. She is kind to everyone and acts with much more decorum in her social life. As a result of her easy temper, Bianca has several suitors vying for her hand in marriage. Katherine, predictably, has no suitors, as most men don't want to deal with her caustic personality. Their father, Baptista, despairs of ever finding a man to marry Katherine off to. In the hopes of encouraging suitors to take her on, he decides that he won't allow anyone to pursue Bianca until Katherine is safely married off.

Bianca's suitors are horrified at this resolution. They resolve to join forces and come up with a plan to get Katherine married. Luckily for them, an eligible bachelor named Petruchio arrives on the scene. He is looking for a wife, and he claims that obtaining a large dowry is his sole deciding factor for securing a marriage. Delighted, the suitors pay him to court Katherine. They warn him of her temper, but he claims to be able to tame any shrew in short order. He moves quickly to secure her hand in marriage. As he has no competition, he succeeds in marrying her in short order (completely against her will), and takes her away to his home.

Petruchio begins his campaign to tame Katherine by behaving towards her exactly as she has been behaving towards everyone else. He fights, complains,and is intensely disagreeable to those around him. His strategy is to show her what her own behavior looks like to others. In addition to this approach, he won't let her eat or sleep until she becomes more agreeable. Eventually, she breaks and becomes compliant to the point where she mindlessly goes along with everything Petruchio says. 

Meanwhile, Bianca's suitors have been engaging in some clever deceptions in order to win her heart. One of these men, Lucentio, pulls off an elaborate scheme which involves swapping identities with one of his servants and pretending to be a Latin tutor in order to gain access to her. Eventually, his plan works and Bianca falls in  love with him. They elope shortly after Petruchio and Katherine get married, disappointing the other men who had hoped to try for her hand.

Eventually, all of the characters come together for a wedding feast at the end of the play. Petruchio shows off how obedient Katherine has become, which impresses everyone present. Her wifely devotion is now even more admirable than Bianca's, and she winds up lecturing her sister on how their duty as wives is to "place their hands under their husbands' feet" and serve them in everything.

I knew going into my reading that this play was going to contain a lot of problematic elements. It's unfair to judge a play written in the 1500s using modern standards, so I will refrain from criticizing its obviously sexist and abusive elements. Simply put, this work has not aged well and it's not funny in this century. It still contains Shakespeare's characteristic wit and charm, and there are great lines and speeches throughout the play, but its objectionable plot points are a major distraction for a modern reader. It's tough to sit and enjoy Shakespeare's wordplay while you are reading about a women being starved and tortured until she agrees to call the moon the sun.

Some interpret the plot as being an ironic take on marriage and relationships and claim that Shakespeare was being purposely ridiculous here--that he was in on the joke, as it were. I strongly doubt that, but I also don't hold his views against him. He was living in a different time where very different attitudes and traditions prevailed. The modern versions of this play that I enjoyed as a kid definitely softened the sexism and rendered the story much more palatable. It was still interesting to see the origin of this story, but The Taming of the Shrew does not hold up to the other Shakespearean works I have read and loved and as a result, I don't have much to say about it. I'm ready to move past this one and get into some plays that explore more universal and relevant themes.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2019 (a classic play) 3/12 Books Read
Classics Club (#1 on my list): 38/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 10

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I have been interested in reading The Goldfinch since it won the Pulitzer back in 2014. There was just something about the plucky little bird peeking out on the cover that drew me in and made me curious to pick the book up each time I saw it in the bookstore. I've actually owned it for ages, but its length, plus my participation in other challenges, have prevented me from actually reading it. It's one of those ones that stuck out in my mind as a book I really wanted to get to one day, so I put it on my Finally in 2019 list. This month, I decided that it was time to give it a shot.

The story follows a boy named Theo, who is 13 at the start of the novel. His life takes a dramatic turn when his mother is killed during a terrorist attack at an art museum, an attack which he miraculously survives. In the chaos that unfolds immediately after the incident, Theo takes possession of a priceless painting that his mother admired, named "The Goldfinch." Once the dust settles and he comes back into his right mind, he hesitates to bring the painting back to the museum. It was something that his mother had loved, and its beauty captivates him. Before long, it's too late to return it without fear of legal consequences, so Theo carefully hides it among his other possessions and brings it with him through the string of homes he floats through in the wake of his mother's death.

Throughout the rest of his adolescent and teenage years, Theo floats from home to home. He spends time with the wealthy family of a friend in New York City, with his estranged father and his girlfriend in Las Vegas, and, strangest of all, with an antique shop owner he meets through a very unlikely chain of events. The grief he feels from losing his mother is intense, and most of the people he is forced to rely on in her absence do not provide a safe or loving space for him to heal in. Before long, he turns to alcohol and drugs to dull his pain and begins taking part in some shady dealings. "The Goldfinch" is with him throughout it all; it's his blessing and his curse. The stress of having it is leading him down a path of ruin, but he can't bring himself to let it go. It's an irreplaceable work of art, and he is its caretaker now.

Eventually, Theo's self-destructive habits begin to catch up with him and he is drawn into a dangerous scheme in which the safety of his precious painting hangs in the balance. The Goldfinch is the story of his journey, from grief-stricken kid to damaged adult, and how he tries to wade through his emotional pain to turn things back around.

This novel won the Pulitzer, so I knew it was going to be good, but I was absolutely blown away with this one. The Goldfinch is a masterpiece. Donna Tartt's skill is obvious from page one; she is certainly one of the best authors that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. The book is nearly perfect; the writing is beautiful, the story is heart wrenching, and the characters are intensely real. Theo is a sympathetic and complex protagonist. His pain and grief over his mother's death are palpable and his fall is difficult to watch. As a reader, you root for him to finally be at peace, and you mourn the loss of the person he might have been if he hadn't been in the museum that day. The story is heavy and it makes you feel heavy right alongside the characters, but it is also full of enough hope and thoughtful observations that you learn something from the reading experience.

The novel deals with several themes including family relationships, grief, addiction, and friendship. Most interesting to me though, was the discussion of how people relate to art. I don't know much about art myself, and haven't really thought about the effect it has on anyone. In this novel, it functions as a kind of balm to the soul. It's a source of hope and inspiration that those who appreciate it can share. When Theo looks at "The Goldfinch," it connects him to his mother, its artist, and to all of the people who have admired it over the years. He feels less alone having it in his possession, even though it brings him a lot of pain. I enjoyed considering how art might influence and comfort someone. It was a new way to think about something I hadn't paid much attention to before, and it made me feel like I should learn more about paintings. 

The Goldfinch is Tartt's third novel, and I definitely plan on reading more of her work in the future. Her writing is a cut above most of what I read, and I'm excited to see if I end up loving the rest of her books. I do wish that I had gotten to this novel earlier; it's definitely a new favorite for me. While I've tried to detail here why I enjoyed it so much, I'm finding that it's difficult to put my feelings into words. This story is special. It has that indescribable magic that great literature has. This is most definitely a book worth reading, and I am very happy to have put it in my Finally in 2019 Challenge.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 4/6 Books Read

Total Books Read in 2019: 9