Thursday, September 19, 2019

Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

Rainbow Rowell wrote one of my favorite young adult books of all time, Eleanor and Park, so when I saw she was coming out with a graphic novel, I had to pick it up. After slogging my way through The House of the Seven Gables for the past few weeks, I was ready to read something a bit lighter, and this was the perfect little treat.

The plot of Pumpkinheads follows two high school seniors, Josiah and Deja. All throughout high school, they have worked together at a pumpkin patch in their hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. The story begins on Halloween, the last night that the patch will be open for the season, and thus, the last night that the pair will ever work together. As a last hurrah, Josiah and Deja decide to make this their best night ever. Ditching their usual responsibilities, they set out on a quest to experience the pumpkin patch as if they were guests instead of employees. Deja also puts a plan in motion to set Josiah up with the girl that works at the fudge stand, whom he has had a crush on for years, but has never spoken to. As they wander around together, they get into all kinds of adventures, see new sides of each other, and discover the true nature of their feelings for one another.

Pumpkinheads is an extremely cute little story, and is a perfect, quick, feel-good read for fall. Josiah and Deja are both quite well developed for graphic novel characters; even though their story is short, they feel like real teens with defined personalities. As they move throughout the story, they do grow and change a little, with themes of honesty, bravery, and appreciating friendship at the forefront. The art style is adorable as well, with the illustrations of the pumpkin patch in particular feeling welcoming and friendly.

The first word that comes to my mind when I think about this novel is nice. Pumpkinheads is a nice reading experience about nice characters accompanied by nice illustrations. Anyone in search of a light read that will lift your spirits should definitely pick this one up. This was a wonderful way to clear my mind after my last (and much more dense) read. 

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 40/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 63

Monday, September 16, 2019

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I've always been intrigued by Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables. First, I really loved The Scarlet Letter in high school (and still loved it when I reread it  in 2016). Second, I knew it was a creepy New England story, and I love that whole vibe. Third, the title is just so cool. I knew I wanted to read it one day, so I stuck it on my Classics Club list. When one of the Back to the Classics prompts this year was to "read a classic set in a place you've lived," this novel, set in Massachusetts, was one of the only classics I had that qualified. I was born in Massachusetts and lived there for a whopping two years before moving to Florida. With fall setting in and Halloween just around the corner, I decided that now was the time to finally pick this novel up.

The plot of The House of the Seven Gables starts with a history lesson. An unnamed narrator describes the history of the Pyncheons, a wealthy family living in Massachusetts for generations stretching back to the 1600s. He describes how the family obtained a piece of their vast property through deceitful means, and have suffered a series of misfortunes ever since. Mysterious deaths, thwarted ambitions, and dwindling fortunes have consistently plagued the Pyncheons, and it is widely believed that the whole family is cursed for the sins of their ancestors.

After this explanation, the story flashes forward to the present, which is sometime in the 1800s. The Pyncheon family only has four living members left, and three of them live in the crumbling, gloomy family home, the House of the Seven Gables. The trio in the house are an odd bunch. Hepzibah is a dour, elderly woman who hasn't left the property in years. Her brother, Clifford, who has been recently released from a lengthy prison sentence, has regressed to a child-like state. Phoebe, their young relative, helps the brighten up the house and takes care of both of them. They are getting along fine together until their fourth relative, the honorable Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, begins to pressure Clifford to divulge a secret he believes he has been carrying in his head since his childhood: the location of a lost deed proving the ownership of a huge tract of land that would completely replenish the family's fortunes. He threatens to institutionalize him unless he reveals the secret, which throws the family into chaos. As the drama plays out, a story about family secrets and the power of sin to travel down through generations emerges.

This novel was quite different than I was expecting it to be, and not in a very good way. I was thinking that this might be a ghost story, or at least something with a lot of really creepy, bizarre things going on. Instead, I got a whole lot of long-winded, meandering descriptions of various people and places, and a plot that was equal parts confusing and boring. The pacing of the story was glacial, with tiny sections of plot advancement sandwiched in between long sections of descriptive imagery and philosophizing. I had a terrible time trying to stay awake while reading. I wanted to know how the story would end up, but I was not engaged in the journey at all. Hawthorne's writing, which is challenging to follow at the best of times, was not fun to decipher here, because nothing was happening on so many pages. It was a long, depressing slog.

Aside from the pacing, I was disappointed in the lack of anything truly scary in the story. The House of the Seven Gables is known for being a creepy book, so I was expecting a good amount of unsettling plot points. While I do acknowledge that Hawthorne did a good job creating a foreboding atmosphere, the plot of the story is surprisingly mundane. There are some slight hints of the supernatural, but most of the story deals with the all too human concepts of deception, blackmail, and greed. The end of the story is particularly toothless, as any interesting possible plot twists are passed up in favor of convenient coincidences and a hastily constructed romance.

Usually, when I don't particularly like a classic, I feel bad about it. Also, I can generally recognize why a work is considered to be great or important even when I didn't personally enjoy it. In the case of this novel, however, I'm at a loss. I'm not sure why The House of the Seven Gables has endured. It is vastly inferior to The Scarlet Letter, is quite tough to get through, and is unexpectedly boring. While I appreciated the oppressive, dark atmosphere Hawthorne created, the story itself wasn't enjoyable for me. That being said, the old house that he based this story on is about two and a half hours away from where I live now, and I fully intend on visiting it soon. What can I say? I'm a sucker for nerdy excursions to historical homes.   

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#82 on my list): 54/100 
Back to the Classics 2019 (A Classic From a Place You've Lived) 11/12 Books Read 

Total Books Read in 2019: 62

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

I don't pick up a lot of middle grades fiction when I'm out and about browsing bookstores. I mostly prefer to stick with young adult and up. Every once in awhile though, a middle grades book will catch my eye. I heard some positive reviews of Ali Benjamin's The Thing About Jellyfish, so when I saw it sitting on a table of featured books at Barnes and Noble last month, I decided to pick it up. I was hoping that it would be a good fit for my classroom library once I finished it, so I started reading it a few weeks ago. Based on the cover design and summary on the back, I was expecting an emotional, sweet read. What I ended up getting was so much more brilliant.

The plot follows a seventh grader named Suzy Swanson who receives some tragic news right as the school year is about to begin: her best friend Franny Jackson has drowned in a terrible accident while on her summer vacation. Suzy is completely devastated. She stops talking and becomes obsessed with trying to figure out exactly what happened to her friend. She knows Franny was a strong swimmer, and is unable to accept that her drowning was a random accident; in her mind, there had to be a bigger reason behind it. After a field trip to an aquarium with her classmates, she settles on the idea that her friend must have been stung by a rare jellyfish, and begins researching the species in order to prove it.

As the story moves forward, it becomes clear that the friendship between Suzy and Franny was more complicated than readers were initially led to believe. The girls had been drifting further and further apart for months, some bullying was going on, and Suzy keeps alluding to a major, bad thing she did to Franny at the end of the last school year. Guilt and hurt feelings are fueling her jellyfish research, as well as a deep sense of loss for what she had shared with Franny back when they were inseparable little kids. The narration switches back and forth between Suzy's current life and her memories of Franny, with each memory revealing a little bit more of the story of their friendship, and what went wrong between them. The Thing About Jellyfish is a story about the finicky nature of childhood friendships, the ways we change as we grow up, and crushing weight of the grief that descends on us when we lose people that we love.

This book was truly, shockingly good. I was completely engaged from page one and I raced through it in just a few days. This would have been a one day read for me if I wasn't so busy with school things and I had some uninterrupted hours to devote to it. Part of the reason for this was the excellent pacing Ali Benjamin did an amazing job releasing little bits of information slowly to gradually build a picture of what was really going on between Suzy and Franny. Her narrative decisions in how to spread everything out kept me turning the pages, anxious to get a clear view of the situation. Another part of the reason I fell in love with this book was the language itself. The imagery it contains is emotional and poignant. Suzy's grief felt palpable, and the descriptions of her family and classmates felt genuine as well.

Suzy's character in particular deserves special mention, because this was one of the best unreliable narrators I've encountered in a middle grades novel. As Suzy tells her story, it becomes clear that her pain, guilt, immaturity, and quirky personality are skewing the narration. For the first few chapters, readers believe her to be an average kid grieving for her friend, but as time goes on, it becomes clear that Suzy doesn't see the world the same way other kids do. Her friendship with Franny deteriorated for reasons both understandable and unfair, and her perceptions of what exactly went wrong are not always accurate. Slowly, readers learn to dig a bit deeper into what she is saying, look more closely at what was actually happening in her life, and consider what her actions would look like to an outsider.

Another small aspect of the novel I enjoyed was the inclusion of a gay relationship. Suzy's older brother is gay and lives at his college with his boyfriend. There is no negativity or stress associated with this relationship in the story. It is a simple fact and everyone regards it as such. I think it's a wonderful thing for children's fiction to include this type of representation without making it a key plot point. It goes a long way towards normalizing what should already be considered normal.

The Thing About Jellyfish is a rare treasure in the world of middle grades fiction. It doesn't feel like it's "talking down" to young readers, it has a compelling plot, it and stirs genuine emotion as you read it. I think that both adults and kids will enjoy this novel, and I will definitely be recommending it to all sorts of readers. In fact, I have already started talking about it. After I finished my reading, I brought it into school and gave a little book talk to my eighth graders. Later on that night, one of my kids emailed me asking to borrow it. This student, who says she struggles to find books that she enjoys, read the whole thing in a few days and bought her own copy. If that's not proof of how special this book is, I don't know what else would be.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 39/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 61

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

In continuing to work on my Classics Club novels, I picked up James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain a few weeks ago. There wasn't a special reason behind me placing this book on my list, it's just one of those books that is so well known and well regarded that I knew I wanted to get to it eventually. As it's on the shorter side, I figured it might be a good one to pick up and read now; school was just about to start for the year, so I didn't have the time or emotional energy to dedicate to a long, dense classic.

The plot centers around John Grimes, a fourteen-year-old African American boy living in Harlem in the 1930s. His father, Gabriel Grimes, is a Pentecostal minister in a storefront church there, and his upbringing, accordingly, has been intensely religious. While he goes through the motions of attending church and participating in its rituals, John feels a lot of inner conflict towards his religion. He is grappling with some unnamed sins he feels like he has committed and is troubled by the hypocrisies he sees within his church, especially where his father is concerned. As a religious leader in the community, Gabriel Grimes is revered by the churchgoing public. At home however, his behavior is monstrous and violent towards his family. John seems to be the special focus of much of his father's hatred. He isn't exactly sure why, but he supposes it's due to his lack of "manliness."

The entire novel consists of a single Saturday night in Gabriel's Harlem church. Several members of the Grimes family are present to pray and sing, and each chapter focuses on a different person as they mull over their lives. Their stories focus on the sins of their pasts and their complicated relationships with their religion. Some, like Gabriel, are tortured by the past mistakes of his wayward youth, while others, like John's aunt Florence, muse on past tragedies, regrets, and injustices. Throughout all of these extended recollections, deep family secrets are revealed, and a picture begins to emerge of why John suffers so much conflict and uncertainty in his life.

Go Tell It on the Mountain is a semi-autobiographical novel. James Baldwin experienced quite a similar childhood to John Grimes, and his emotional connection to the subject matter is clear throughout the text. The story is masterfully constructed, and I was consistently impressed with the beauty of Baldwin's writing. The characters' questions and doubts about their religion, their relationships, and themselves felt realistic and genuine. This novel clearly deserves it's status as a classic of American literature.

That being said, however, I didn't particularly enjoy my reading experience. Go Tell It on the Mountain is a deeply religious work. Much of the language is pulled directly from the Bible, and several of the characters' experiences within it are meant to mirror different biblical events. As a non-religious person, I was unable to catch most of these references, and wasn't emotionally invested in the characters' struggles. I think that people with an interest in Christianity and a background of attending church will deeply appreciate this story. I was unable to connect with it.

This issue was the most prevalent in the final section of the book, when John undergoes a hallucinatory religious experience that leads to a kind of spiritual awakening. This part of the story felt long and confusing to me. Hallucination sequences in books aren't something I particularly enjoy at the best of times, and I wasn't able to sort out the religious symbolism that this one heavily relied upon. The novel ends soon after this experience, without much satisfying resolution for the characters (at least in my mind). I was looking for more of a narrative in this novel, and that's not what Go Tell It on the Mountain is. This is more of a mental journey for several characters, rather than a typical novel with one single story.

This is another one of those cases when I feel bad for disliking what is clearly an important and celebrated classic in the literary cannon. I do appreciate it for what it is, and I acknowledge that James Baldwin is a phenomenal writer, but I also recognize that this isn't the kind of novel that I personally enjoy. I am glad that I experienced it once, as every classic I read builds up my knowledge of literature a little bit more, but this isn't book I will be remembering as a favorite.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#14 on my list): 53/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 60

Monday, September 9, 2019

I Am Still Alive by Kate Alice Marshall

I picked up I Am Still Alive a few weeks ago on a whim at Barnes and Noble. I'm always on the lookout for young adult books that I think will be a good fit for my classroom library, and this one seemed like a likely option. The summary on the back of the book promised an exciting, suspenseful survival story, and as I have an inordinate fondness for Gary Paulson's Hatchet, I thought I might end up liking this one too. Hoping to find something both interesting for myself and for a finicky pack of eighth graders, I dove in.

The story follows a teenager named Jess who is sent to live with her father in the remote Canadian wilderness after her mother dies in a tragic car accident. Jess has never really known her father; he walked out on her and her mother when she was just a baby, and she is nursing a large amount of resentment towards him. Their reunion in his forest cabin is unavoidably tense, but they begin to form a fragile understanding with each other during Jess' first few weeks there. He begins teaching her some basic survival skills and she starts getting used to living without modern conveniences.

Before very long though, Jess' life is thrown into chaos once again when some men from her father's mysterious past arrive at the cabin. They murder her father and burn the cabin to the ground, leaving Jess alone in the woods with only a dog for a companion. With winter quickly approaching and no way to contact anyone for help, she must figure out how to stay alive in the most inhospitable environment imaginable and find a way back to civilization.

I am pleased to say that I truly enjoyed this novel. It was action-packed, very suspenseful, and full of dangerous twists and turns. There were a few truly shocking moments in there too, which had me cringing (in a good way) while I read. The mystery surrounding Jess' father and his shady background was well done, with information being released at a good pace. Jess' character was similarly well written, with her growth over the course of the novel clear to see. I was very pleased with how tough she became throughout the story; I was definitely getting a "girl power" vibe as I read, which I think is a fantastic thing for young adult readers.

I moved through this novel very quickly, and when I finished reading it, I brought it into my classroom library. In plugging it to my students, I described it as, Hatchet...but with murder! That's really the perfect description too - the blend of survival and criminal intrigue makes for an exciting page-turner that will hook just about anyone. I Am Still Alive is a fun, addictive read featuring a tough-as-nails heroine and a fast-paced plot. I'm happy to have picked it up and even happier to be able to bring it to my classroom. 

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 38/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 59