Friday, November 29, 2019

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

The Secret Commonwealth is the second book in Philip Pullman's The Book of Dust, a companion series to His Dark Materials.  After reading (and loving) the first book in this series a few weeks ago, I was excited to continue on with it. I've been reading in a pattern lately; I alternate one novel from my Classics Club list with a novel of my choice. So, after taking about a week to read The Octopus by Frank Norris, I picked this one up next.

The plot of the novel is difficult to describe, as this is the middle book of a trilogy and it follows a few different characters on very different missions. Most of the focus is placed on Lyra, who is now an adult attending college. Her whole demeanor has changed from the girl she was in the previous books. Her feisty, courageous nature has been replaced with a melancholy, subdued one, and her relationship with her daemon Pan is very strained. Her previous adventures in the North feel like they happened in another lifetime, and her days have become normal and lonely. She is thrust into the thick of an adventure again, however, when Pan witnesses a brutal murder one night and comes into possession of some curious information about a mysterious breed of rose that can only be grown in a desert in the Middle East. It has some sort of connection to Dust, but the exact details of what it can do are vague. Reading about the rose sparks some sort of memory in Lyra, and she feels drawn to try and find the place where it grows. Before she can set out, however, she has a massive falling out with Pan and her focus shifts to healing the rift between them.

At the same time the Magisterium has been quietly consolidating their power. They are on the hunt for roses too, but their objective seems to be to destroy them. A new leader has emerged and he is also searching for Lyra, for reasons that start off unclear. Malcolm Polstead and Alice, the duo that rescued Lyra as a baby in La Belle Sauvage, are involved in the story as well. They are adults now too, with Alice working as a housekeeper at Oxford College and Malcolm working as a professor at a different university. A large portion of the story is told from Malcolm's perspective, as he is also working for a secret spy group and is tasked with investigating the roses. He is also trying to help keep Lyra safe, and finds himself starting to develop romantic feelings for her as the story goes on.

The novel follows the paths of these different characters as they embark on their separate adventures. The threads of each story slowly wind towards each other, with the novel ending on a cliffhanger. It is clear that everything will eventually come together, but The Secret Commonwealth offers little resolution to any of the storylines. Readers will have to wait for the last book in the trilogy to discover how Lyra's relationships with Pan and Malcolm, the business with the roses, and the Magisterium's plots turn out.

I did like this novel, but it definitely felt like a middle book to me. Unlike La Belle Sauvage, this is not a self-contained adventure at all. It's half of a story, and at over 600 pages, it felt like a lot of buildup to wade through for no resolution at the end. There wasn't anything wrong with the buildup itself though. As always, it was a treat to explore Pullman's alternate version of the universe. This story takes place entirely inside Lyra's world, but her travels in search of the roses bring her to Middle Eastern-inspired corners of it that we haven't visited before. It was interesting to see new pieces of it and learn about the different cultures there. The daemon system is developed more thoroughly here too, with additional information being given about how separation between humans and daemons works and how the relationships between these groups don't always function the way they are meant to. Pullman's world building continues to be exceptional, and I definitely felt transported away to another place while reading.

The characters were similarly well developed across the story, with the new characters being intriguing and the old characters revealing new sides of themselves. As this novel jumps forward quite far in time from the first book in the series, everyone is much older and views the world differently now. It was interesting to be able to compare the personalities of the characters across the intervening years. There were some characters that grew in strength and became better versions of themselves, like Malcolm and Alice, for example, and some characters that felt diminished, like Lyra and Pan. While I didn't always love everyone's personality or choices, there were no parts of their development that I would judge to be unrealistic. For example, I was disappointed that Lyra had grown to be so practical and gloomy, but I also realize that this is a logical outcome for her character. Anyone who had been through the struggles she had at the end of her adventure in The Amber Spyglass would probably go to a melancholy place readjusting to normal life. This humanizes her, although I do hope that her growth will continue into the third book and she will gain a little bit of her magic back.

In general, the plot of the novel was interesting and engaging, but it did feel a bit slow in parts. As I mentioned before, there is a cliffhanger ending here and almost no resolution to any of the storylines. Pullman is obviously gearing up for an action-packed second half to this story, and hopefully I will feel like all of this buildup will be worth it in the end. One small issue I had while reading was trying to remember all the characters and place names. There was a lot going on at once, and it was difficult to keep everything straight in my mind. As the last book in the series is almost certainly years away, I will have to reread this before diving into the conclusion. I already am having trouble remembering all the details, so there is no hope that I will be ready to read the new one without revisiting this.

As usual, I can't write a review without discussing some of the things that I didn't think worked well in the novel. There were definitely a few elements throughout the story that I was uncomfortable with. It pains me to say it, since I love this world and these characters so much, but there was some creepy sexual stuff going on that I didn't like. One of these elements was Malcolm's growing romantic interest in Lyra. He is ten years older than her and first met her when she was a baby. He was her teacher for a brief time when she was a young teenager too. While ten years isn't that uncommon of an age gap between romantic partners, these particular characters' past interactions all involve Malcolm taking on a parental or authoritative-type role with Lyra, which makes the idea of a romance between them distasteful to me. Throughout the story, Lyra starts to feel a growing attachment to him as well, so I'm pretty certain that this relationship is a thing that will happen. This will probably form a large part of the final book, so that's disappointing to me because I find it unsettling.

There is another moment in the novel when Lyra is sexually assaulted on a train by a group of soldiers. She fights back and is terribly injured. I dislike seeing sexual violence used as a plot device in general, but in a series for young adults, in which we have followed a character since infancy, this felt too brutal. At this point in the story, Lyra was already in danger, already suffering, already alone. This was gratuitous and unnecessary.

I have to mention another odd sexual moment, less serious than the rest, that irked me. At one point, Alice is called into an obviously ominous meeting with some Magisterium officials. Pullman describes her entrance into the room like this:
She sat down in the third chair in front of the desk, between the two strangers. Alice was slim, she could move with great elegance, she was not beautiful--she would never be that, nor pretty, nor conventionally attractive--but she could embody an intense sexuality...She let it show now, just to disconcert them.
Ah yes, the old "switch on my intense sexuality at will" trick to make people uncomfortable. A club every woman has in their bag, right?

Only a man would think to describe a woman in this way.

These moments didn't stop me from enjoying the novel as a whole though, and I am still a big fan of this series. I can forgive some less than ideal moments. The Secret Commonwealth just released about a month or so ago, so the final installment in the trilogy is very far away. I'm still not clear on what the ultimate themes of the story will be, or how the characters will end up. What I do know is that this novel was engaging enough for me to be excited to find out.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 47/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 75

Thursday, November 28, 2019

The Octopus by Frank Norris

As 2019 winds down, I'm continuing to chip away at my Classics Club list. This is my third year of working on it, and I'm almost completely caught up to where I'm supposed to be. After falling behind last year, I've made up a lot of ground in this one. This is book number 58 for me, and if I can make it to 60 books read by the end of the year, I will be right back on track.

For my next read, I picked up The Octopus by Frank Norris. I had this one on my list because I read Norris' McTeague in college and I really enjoyed it. I had always wanted to try another novel by him, and The Octopus is regarded as one of his most notable works, so I decided to give it a try.

The plot tells the story of an epic battle between several wheat farmers in the San Joaquin Valley in California and the Pacific and Southwestern Railroad (P&SW) in the late 1800s. As the novel begins, the farmers and the railroad are locked in a struggle regarding how much the P&SW charges for shipping wheat across the country. The farmers believe that the railroad's grain rates are predatory and attempt to take legal action against them, but the railroad has so many judges and lawyers in their pocket that their efforts are fruitless. Intense anger continues to simmer between the two groups as the farmers continually try and fail to push back against the railroad's financial abuses. Eventually, all of this hostility boils over when the P&SW tries to take direct ownership of the largest ranches in the area using some shady legal maneuvering. Enraged, the farmers prepare to do battle against this impossibly large enemy with an endless reserve of resources. The Octopus is a novel about corruption, big business, corporate greed, and what happens when people try to stand up against these seemingly unstoppable forces.

On it's face, a book about a conflict between old-timey wheat farmers and railroad tycoons does not exactly seem like thrilling reading, but this was actually an engaging story. The California setting felt very quintessentially American, almost like a Steinbeck novel. The vast wheat ranches were lovingly written, with a clear appreciation for both nature's bounty and for the hardworking men who pull sustenance from it. Interestingly, Norris' description of the farming process frequently drifted into the sexual, with passages like this appearing regularly:

It was the long stroking caress, vigorous, male, powerful, for which the earth seemed panting. The heroic embrace of a multitude of iron hands, gripping deep into the brown, warm flesh of the land that quivered responsive and passionate under this rude advance, so robust as to be almost an assault, so violent as to be veritably brutal. There, under the sun and under the speckless sheen of the sky, the wooing of the Titan began, the vast, primal passion, the two world-forces, the elemental Male and Female, locked in a colossal embrace, at grapples in the throes of an infinite desire, at once terrible and divine, knowing no law, untamed, savage, natural, sublime.

I bet you never knew plowing could be so...stimulating.

The railroad itself is described in far more vicious terms. While it is clear that Norris wanted the farmers and their wheat to be seen as a natural, right, and almost holy partnership, the railroad is a crass invader, the eponymous octopus whose tentacles reach out and strangle everything in its path. As one character describes it, it is a "...galloping monster, [a] terror of steel and steam, with its single eye, cyclopean, red, shooting from horizon to horizon...the symbol of a vast power, huge, terrible, flinging with the echo of its thunder over all the reaches of the valley, leaving blood and destruction in its path; the leviathan, with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil." Just as the ranchers are likened to lovers of the earth, the railroad is likened to a rapist, invading the soil and leaving fear and destruction in its wake.

What makes all of this artistic hyperbole especially intriguing is the fact that both elements can't really survive without the other. The farmers need a way to ship their crops over large distances, and the railroad needs freight to ship. It's an interesting relationship to analyze, as both sides are big industries trying to make a profit that have to work together. While the farmers are undoubtedly supposed to be the sympathetic characters, they are far from perfect. Norris describes how they farm recklessly, ignoring good practices like allowing the land to rest between planting seasons in the interest of earning as big of a payout as possible each year. Their way of work will eventually deplete the land they so claim to love and revere. In many ways, they are the same in their ruthless ambitions as the railroad, it's just that they have less power, less money, and they take advantage of a resource that can't fight back - the soil. It's not so much a battle of good versus evil going on here as it is a battle of light evil versus heavy evil, and this idea was really thought-provoking.

The narration of the novel shifts around between several characters involved in the conflict, giving you the perspectives of people at many different levels of power. This is why I haven't mentioned specific character names up to this point. There is no one main character here. Everyone, from the rich to the poor and the loved to the reviled, get a turn in the spotlight. All of the characters have distinct personalities and concerns too, which kept the story moving and interesting. One of my favorites was definitely Annixter, one of the irascible, eccentric ranch owners. He had a secondary storyline in which he reformed himself through love that was rather sweet. Another favorite was Dyke. an railroad engineer that was fired after refusing to accept a pay cut from the P&SW after ten years of faultless service. His love for his young daughter Sydney, who he calls "the little tad" was charming. 

The sheer volume of different people involved in the story did get a bit confusing at times, so I ended up keeping a page of notes while I read. I jotted down the main characters and a few key personality traits for each as I went along, and this really helped me keep everything straight in my mind. I ended up keeping track of 18 different people, and I could have added a few more as the novel progressed, but I stopped once I got most of the way through. While the novel isn't difficult to read, and taking notes certainly isn't necessary to understanding it, if you are the kind of reader who struggles to remember character names, I recommend doing it.

Another element of the story that I ended up taking a few notes on were the various schemes and plans going on between the farmers and the railroad. The P&SW is a corrupt organization, and making a little chart keeping track of the legal gymnastics they did to cheat the farmers was very helpful. Similarly, when the farmers dabbled in some bribery themselves, keeping track of who was paying off who and what the results were supposed to be kept me engaged with the story. Norris does a good job of explaining everyone's plans (and repeating the details enough to clear up confusion), but I liked having key points written down. At 652 pages, there was a lot going on in The Octopus, so notes helped.

Overall, I thought the novel was interesting and epic, but there were definitely some parts of it that I didn't think worked very well. Norris' female characters leave a lot to be desired. Most of them are submissive and weak, and defined mostly by their physical traits, like "oriental eyes" or "milk white arms." There's also a character named Vanamee who inexplicably has a supernatural power to call people to him telepathically. His inclusion in the story feels random and odd, like he belongs in a different book. Even worse, all his powers end up yielding him is an unsettling sexual relationship with a young girl. The symbolism was also very heavy-handed. Norris really spelled out his metaphors across the text, frequently leaving little to the imagination.

I was somewhat disappointed in the end of the novel as well. The Octopus is from the Naturalism period. These types of novels are characterized by realistic depictions of the tough parts of society. One expects brutal realism, many failures, and lots of death while reading one of these novels. While The Octopus had all of those elements (including some scenes that were so depressing they were difficult to read), Norris takes a strange turn in the novel's closing pages. After 650 pages of the railroad delivering blow after blow to the farmers, the last two pages of the book assert that readers shouldn't give up hope, because although things may be tough now, life goes on and everything will turn out right in the end. This theme is a complete mismatch to all of the events that came before it and was a strange way to end the story.

Despite those issues, however, The Octopus was an interesting and memorable read. It reminded me a lot of other novels dealing with the abuses of big business, like The Jungle and Germinal. This felt like one of those novels so rich in symbolism and historical significance that it should be taught in schools. In truth, it's way too long for that, but there is a lot of material in it that is easy to analyze and would sound great in a term paper. I felt like I was back in English class while reading it and taking my little notes, in a good way.

This book was meant to be the first in a trilogy all centered around wheat. The second book, The Pit, deals with Chicago wheat speculation, and the third book The Wolf, was meant to be about introducing wheat to Europe or Asia after a famine. Sadly, Norris died before he could write The Wolf, but I have The Pit sitting on my bookshelf, and I will definitely get around to it one day. I just can't get enough of wheat, I guess. In any case, I am quite happy with The Octopus, and I am very glad to have chosen it for my Classics Club list.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#34 on my list): 58/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 74

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

After taking a little break from His Dark Materials after I finished the original trilogy of books last month, I decided I was ready to give Philip Pullman's companion series a try. La Belle Sauvage is the first volume in The Book of Dust, a new trilogy set in Lyra's world. I watched (and loved) the first episode of the new Dark Materials HBO series a few weeks ago, so I was extra excited to get back into this universe and see what other secrets there were to uncover.

The plot of the novel follows a young boy named Malcolm Polstead. As the story begins, Malcolm is living a quiet life, helping his parents run The Trout, their tavern and inn. He is a smart, kind boy that enjoys learning, asking questions, and puttering around the river in his small canoe, La Belle Sauvage. His peaceful existence is upended, however, with the arrival of a little baby named Lyra at a neighboring priory. There is an unusual amount of attention surrounding the baby, and soon, all kinds of odd strangers are turning up at his inn, staring across the river at the priory and asking questions.

Malcolm himself is curious about the infant, so he goes to visit the nuns at the priory in the hopes of meeting her. He falls in love with Lyra at first sight, and starts visiting there quite a bit. He also starts paying more attention to the different groups asking about the child, which include various agencies of the all-powerful Magisterium, some powerful government figures, and a mysterious and sinister stranger with a horrifying hyena daemon named Gerard Bonneville. It is obvious that the baby is in danger, and Malcolm takes it upon himself to protect her as much as he can.

Things finally reach their breaking point on a stormy night when the river floods its banks, unleashing a torrent of water into the town. Malcolm is forced to rescue Lyra from a kidnapping attempt and take her away in La Belle Sauvage. Alice, a rather prickly and taciturn girl that works with him at the inn, is also caught up in the escape and joins Malcolm and Lyra on their journey. Together, they must fight off the elements, multiple pursuers, and even some supernatural obstacles to try and save Lyra's life.

This summary is woefully inadequate in describing just how epic and beautiful this book was. This is a true adventure story, complete with lovable characters, narrow escapes, ideas worth fighting for, and some truly chilling moments. I was consistently engaged in the story and never found myself feeling bored, despite it being 450 pages long. A big part of this was my love for the protagonist, Malcolm. He is a quiet kind of hero - one who believes in politeness and helping others. He is thoughtful and sensitive, but not cowardly. He is smart and curious, but not weak. He approaches every task before him with good humor and honest effort. He's not an invincible sort of hero. He's a human one that's easy to root for. Compared with Will, the protagonist from the original Dark Materials trilogy, Malcolm was much more interesting and likable for me.

The plot of the novel was nicely structured as well.  A little bit over half of the story takes place before the flood, which provides a rich background for the survival adventure that follows once Malcolm, Lyra, and Alice set off in La Belle Sauvage. Once their journey starts, the action increases considerably as they have to evade the Magisterium, find enough provisions to keep themselves alive, and escape the mysterious and deranged Gerard Bonneville. The ending is satisfying and heartwarming, and provides a sweet bridge to the The Golden Compass. Simply put, I had a great time reading this novel. I actually ended up being surprised by how much I liked it, which is one of the best things a reader can ask for.

In comparison to the original series, I would place La Belle Sauvage as my second favorite, right after The Golden Compass. When authors return to an older work after a long time has passed, there is always that little bit of apprehension that the new stories won't be as good, or won't feel the same. I didn't feel that at all here, and I even ended up enjoying it more than most of the original series. This was a wonderful addition to the world of His Dark Materials, and I look forward to exploring the rest of the books that will be in this companion trilogy.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 46/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 73

Monday, November 11, 2019

Back to the Classics 2019 - Wrap Up Post

We're almost halfway through November and another year of the Back to the Classics Challenge is complete! I finished all twelve of the prompts a little bit early and am very pleased with my year of exploring some classic novels. I spent 2019 with monkey butlers, toothpaste-selling knights, ragamuffin pickpockets, extremely boring ghosts, and more than one completely delusional protagonist. I read about serious issues like slavery, racism, poverty, and mental health, and not-so-serious issues, like the consequences of time travel, the hazards of allowing Mack and his boys to throw a party for you, and the dangers of addling your brains by reading too many romance novels. I even got to enjoy some outrageous Shakespearean sexism. It was quite the journey, to say the least.

I completed all of the categories, meaning I get three entries in final drawing. If (by some crazy chance) I win, I can be reached at quiet.kristina [at] gmail [dot] com. Here's the breakdown of what I read, with links to my reviews:

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

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

3. Classic by a Female Author: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) Completed August 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that I have finished for the year, I'm a bit sad that it's all over. I want to participate again in 2020, but I feel like this might be the last year for it. If so, this post is bittersweet for me. I'll never stop reading classics, of course, but I will miss this particular challenge if it doesn't return. It's been one of the main elements I structure my yearly reading plans around. I'm still holding out hope that it will come back, but if not, it's been a wonderful five years. Thank you Karen!

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

The very last prompt I had left to finish in my 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge was to read a classic from Africa, Asia, or Oceania. In looking over my Classics Club list of books, I was disappointed to see that there was nothing left on it I could read that qualified, so I did some research. After a bit of Googling, I came across The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing. This novel, set in South Africa and dealing with racial issues between black and white citizens, was a big success upon its publication in the 1950s. This was Lessing's first novel, and she went on after it to write many more, eventually winning the Nobel Prize for Literature for her body of work. Intrigued, I decided to choose this one for my challenge and got started reading it last week.

The novel starts off with a newspaper clipping describing the death of a white South African woman named Mary Turner. The article explains that she was murdered by her servant, a black man named Moses, in a robbery attempt. The action then flashes back to Mary's early life, with the rest of the novel describing the series of events that lead up to her death.

Mary struggles through a poverty-stricken childhood and finds some success after moving to Rhodesia and working as a secretary. She's happy living the carefree life of an unmarried woman with her own salary until she overhears some offhand comments from her friends criticizing her for not settling down. Greatly bothered by the perceptions of those around her, Mary decides to marry Dick Turner, a struggling farmer from rural Southern Rhodesia. After they exchange vows, Mary leaves her city job and moves with Dick to his farm. It doesn't take long for her to realize that she has made a terrible mistake.

Dick, while a nice man, is almost completely inept at farming and plagued with bad luck. He barely turns any profit on his crops, and is prone to starting big, expensive projects without thinking them completely through. The home he takes Mary to is hardly a home at all; it's a two room shack lacking in almost every modern convenience. At first, Mary makes the best of her situation, and works to improve the house and perform her wifely duties. However, she quickly becomes bored and miserable and sinks into a deep depression.

Contributing to her depression is her forced interaction with the black servants that work on the farm. Mary, like most of the white South Africans around her, is deeply racist. She doesn't trust the servants in her employ, believes them to be animal-like and ignorant, and is verbally abusive to them. Her attitude towards them is so poor, in fact, that she develops a reputation for cruelty which affects Dick's ability to keep and acquire workers. After running through several house servants that quit under her tyranny, Dick hires a young man named Moses for the job, and tells Mary, in no uncertain terms, not to drive this one away.

As time moves forward, and Mary's depression worsens, she finds herself developing friendly feelings towards Moses. She comes to rely on him for more and more tasks, eventually needing him to feed her and dress her, both jobs that are entirely unacceptable for the times. This intimacy frightens her and disgusts her, but underneath her revulsion, she has some sort of strange affection for Moses, and this combination of fear and dependence prevents her from sending him away. Dick, who has been willfully ignoring the taboo closeness of the pair, eventually comes to the conclusion that Mary is too mentally ill to continue living at the farm. He dismisses Moses from his post and makes preparations to leave, but before they can depart, Moses returns to their home in the middle of the night and commits the crime that the novel starts off with.

The Grass is Singing was a striking novel. Lessing's prose was deeply emotional and had a strong impact on my mood while reading. Mary is not a lovable character (her naked racism prevents that), but as her depression spiraled out of control, I felt my own feelings spiraling downward too. This is one of those books that carries a cloud of gloom with it. Everything had a weight to it that felt real and very bleak. Similarly, Lessing's description of the South African setting was oppressive, with the incredible heat and wildfires mirroring the tense situations Mary faced at home. Her failing marriage, her mental health, and her relationships with the servants were all unbearable to her, and there was a constant feeling of approaching doom lurking in the background.

Lessing's exploration of the racial politics of the area forms the main theme of the novel, although I did find myself a bit confused about what her ultimate message was. She is undoubtedly anti-racist, and the novel is peppered with comments and plot events that point to the cruelty and hypocrisy of the social structure of the times. Mary's story shows the tragedy that results when human feelings clash with deeply ingrained racial beliefs. Moses is kind to Mary, and this simultaneously repulses and attracts her. These conflicting feelings, plus her fragile mental state, lead her down a path to destruction. What was missing here, however, was the black perspective. While the narration hops around to focus on several different white characters, Lessing doesn't spend much time on any of the natives. I would have really appreciated more information about Moses's feelings for Mary, and how those feelings led him to commit murder. I assume he had an inner battle raging between his anger over his treatment at the hands of the whites and his affection for Mary, but without any passages explaining his thoughts, the ending felt rather nebulous. It was an obvious missing piece in the narrative.

It is this lack of black perspective that lowered my overall rating for The Grass is Singing, but it was still a very interesting and worthwhile experience. In a literal sense, it was an easy read. In an emotional sense, not so much. It left me feeling drained, but in a good, book hangover kind of way. I am glad that my Back to the Classics Challenge led me to explore this author and this part of the world. I would probably have never heard of this novel otherwise, so, as usual, participating in reading challenges has pushed me to make new literary discoveries.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2019 (A Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania) 12/12 Books Read - Complete

Total Books Read in 2019: 72

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor

I first came across The Women of Brewster Place when I was researching books to put on my Classics Club list by authors of color. I had never heard of the novel before and had no idea what it was about, but Gloria Naylor won a National Book Award for it back in the 80s, so it sounded like a safe bet to me. I didn't own a copy of it at the time I was putting my list together, but I happened to come across one at a used bookstore a few weeks ago and picked it up for a couple of bucks. Since I'm still trying to catch up to where I should be with my Classic Club books this year, I decided to give it a shot next.

The plot of the novel follows several African American women living at Brewster Place, a cheap block of apartments on a dead end street in an inner city. Each chapter focuses on a different woman, describing the personal experiences and struggles that have brought them to the apartment block. Their stories are loosely connected to each other; some appear in each other's chapters and others have known each other prior to moving into the building, and these relationships provide some structure and continuity to the collection. However, each woman's story is unique and could be read as its own short story. 

The issues each of the women are dealing with are quite heavy and range from abusive relationships to homophobia to mental illness. Their stories explore many of the struggles that Black women face today, shedding a light on some of the many difficulties women of color have had to face over the years in America. Without exception, each of the chapters is extremely well-written and emotional. The women shown are not all blameless figures, but Naylor weaves their stories together in a way that helps readers understand the decisions they make and feel sympathy for them. Out of the women depicted, I probably enjoyed Mattie Michael's story the best. Her life takes a turn when she has a baby out of wedlock and is forced to leave her house at a young age. She spends the next thirty years of her life making sacrifices for her son, and ends up losing most of what she had built for him after he makes some extraordinarily poor choices. Finding herself out of a home once again, she moves into Brewster Place and becomes a mother figure for several of the women there. She appears in many of the stories as a nurturing and level-headed force and is an all-around wonderful character. 

This is one of those classics that is an absolute joy to read. Naylor's prose is easy to understand, yet very emotionally resonant. The characters are interesting to learn about and their stories definitely tug on your heartstrings. It's length is also quite manageable at just a few hundred pages. The ending of the collection was a bit disappointing for me, as it left me a bit unclear about the ultimate message of the novel, but aside from that, this was an excellent read and I'm very glad to have experienced it.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#18 on my list): 57/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 71

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

I first came across Pet on a list of top YA dystopian novels. The summary sounded intriguingly odd, and it promised to have a strong social justice focus, so I picked it up on one of my Barnes and Noble runs last month. As I'm currently teaching a unit on dystopian fiction to my eighth graders, I thought this would be a good story to try now, so I could maybe talk about it in class as we discuss the elements of the genre.

The plot of the novel follows a young teenager named Jam. She lives in the town of Lucille, a place that has recently been through a revolution. The revolution was focused on ridding the world of all its evil. Social ills like racism, discrimination, police brutality, child abuse, gun violence, and sexual assault were eliminated, and all the "monsters" that perpetuated these acts were placed in rehabilitation centers. No one has to worry about these problems anymore, and acceptance, kindness, and community spirit are the new orders of the day.

Jam's idyllic little world is shattered, however, when she unwittingly brings a monstrous creature out of a painting to life. This creature, named Pet, tells Jam that monsters are still alive and well in Lucille, and he needs her help to hunt one of them down. Even worse, this monster, Pet explains, is in the home of Jam's best friend, Redemption. Worried for her friend, Jam embarks on an investigation to determine who the monster is, find out what he has done, and make sure Redemption is safe. Pet is a novel about the dangers of complaisance, and the importance of keeping our eyes open when it comes to protecting our friends and our communities.

This was an odd little story, and I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it. Emezi did many things right, but there was quite a bit about Pet that I didn't love. On the positive side, its message about the importance of paying attention and staying alert to potential dangers in our communities was a good one. Jam's story teaches the lesson that monsters can be hiding anywhere and wear any face. Even when we believe problems to be solved or to be things of the past, we must stay vigilant for signs of that they could be returning. The connections to modern day issues was clear, and it will be easy for young readers to draw parallels to their own world.

The representation in the novel was also very strong. Jam is a trans character, Redemption has three parents, there are many people of color, and there is a character that uses they/them pronouns. The plot does not center around any of these aspects. The characters simply were these things, it was accepted by everyone, and it wasn't a part of the main story. This kind of diversity is nice to see, and we need more of it in young adult literature.

The magical realism aspects of the novel were nicely done as well. Lucille is similar to a typical American small town, but Emezi imbues it with a wonderfully weird sense of fantasy. Life is mostly normal there, but there are little touches of wonder sprinkled throughout. The most obvious example of this is Pet, a creature called into being from a painting, but the world buzzes with a quirky spirituality in other ways too. Speaking of Pet, it is a beautiful creation; it's scary, comforting, disturbing, wise, violent, and gentle all at once. It is both a danger and a guardian to Jam. I've never read a character quite like it, and I really enjoyed how it was woven into the story.

However, while there was clearly a lot to appreciate in this novel, there were some elements of it that I didn't enjoy. One of my issues was with the writing style. This is clearly a matter of personal taste, but I found Emezi's storytelling to be arrogant or self-important in many places. She conveyed her message almost aggressively, like she was trying too hard to impress readers with her intelligence and her woke-ness. Some of her vocabulary choices were odd as well, and I found myself rolling my eyes quite a bit at some of the turns of phrase she employed, like saying "voiced" instead of "talked," or "vex" instead of "angry." In addition to the wording, Jam's voice felt inconsistent throughout the story. Sometimes she spoke like an innocent child, and other times her dialogue was peppered with profanity that felt unnatural in her mouth. I consistently felt irked by the language for one reason or another all throughout my reading.

Also, there were some thematic issues in the novel that bothered me. The story has a directly-stated, straightforward theme about how evil can wear any face. It could be anywhere and we must always be alert for it and never forget about it. It could even be hiding in our own families. While this is technically true, it's also very paranoid and unsettling, especially for a young adult audience. Are kids supposed to walk away from this story feeling like they need to look for evil around every corner? Maybe that's smart, I don't know. Something about it didn't feel quite right for me.

Another thematic inconsistency popped up at the end of the novel, when Jam and Redemption uncover who the monster is. To get the monster to confess, Pet essentially maims and tortures this person. While the monster is undoubtedly evil and deserving of punishment, I couldn't help but remember how in the post-revolution setting Emezi created, offenders are rehabilitated and helped. Torture is definitely not part of their justice system, and aside from begging Pet not to kill this person, Jam never comments on the other, extremely brutal events that happen. It also felt off to me that Pet played so large a role in the final confrontation in the first place. I thought for sure that Jam and Redemption would bring this person to justice through their own bravery and intelligence, working within the rules of their society, but they take a backseat to Pet's violent tactics and literally turn their backs and cower while Pet handles business. I'm not sure what kind of lesson that ultimately teaches. I'm used to seeing young adult protagonists find their courage and solve their own problems in the end. Everyone doesn't have their own creature to fight evil on their behalf, after all. 

In the end, I felt quite mixed on this one. There was a lot about Pet that was admirable, but a lot that bugged me too. If nothing else, this book is a great one to analyze and start conversations about. The symbolism, theme, and connections to modern society provide ample food for thought, and even though there are criticisms to be made, there are a lot of great things to think through as well. I started reading this because I was hoping to use it in my classroom. Sadly, I do not think I could use it there. The language is too confusing for my lower readers and the content is inappropriate for a middle school audience. This is definitely for higher level readers on the older end of the young adult range. Adults will probably enjoy reading this as well, especially if they aren't bothered Emezi's writing style. Pet is a unique read about important topics. I wish I could have fallen in love with it, but even though it wasn't the perfect book for me, I'm still happy to have experienced it.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 45/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 70