Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Reading Reflection: 2019

2019 is over and I'm happy to say that I had quite a good year in reading. I'm finally starting to settle into my new home and I'm getting more comfortable with my job. It's been a long journey to get to this point, and my books have been a great comfort to me throughout it. Here is what I managed to accomplish.

My goal this year was to read a total of 50 books. I far surpassed that with a total of 81, and this included some monsters like Don Quixote (940 pages), Shirley (624 pages), The Goldfinch (771 pages) and The Pickwick Papers (756 pages). The only thing that bugs me about my Goodreads year in reading is that it only gives me credit for 79 books, because I read the three books in the His Dark Materials series in one volume. Goodreads counts that as one book, but it was really three!

I made a crazy amount of progress in my Classics Club Challenge this year. I fell behind on this in 2018, and needed to read a total of 27 books from it to catch up to where I should have been by the end of this year. I managed to read 29, meaning that I not only caught up, but pushed a tiny bit ahead. I've got two years left to finish the 38 remaining books.

I finished the Back to the Classics Challenge for the fourth year in a row this year, reading 12 classic novels to fit various prompts.

My Finally in 2019 Challenge really morphed into something else this year. It started out as a small challenge to encourage myself to read six books that I had been meaning to get to for ages. I got into a good reading groove and ended up finishing those six books by the end of February. After that, I just kept adding on books to the list that I picked up solely because I wanted to. I ended up reading a total of 49 books by the end of the year.

The Book Junkie Trials were a sweet summer surprise this year. This challenge had readers take a personality quiz to determine their team and then set off on a quest across a magical realm. I finished a total of 17 books throughout the month of July to fit the reading prompts.

I am very satisfied with the amount that I managed to read in 2019. I'm so glad that I got myself back on track from the reading disaster that was 2018. I'm hoping to do even better in 2020, and I have a whole bunch of goals in mind. This year has affirmed that reading is the best thing I do, and I'm excited to see what new stories I discover next year.

Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

With 2019 winding down, I decided to tackle one more classic before the new year arrived. Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell was the next on my list. Unlike most of the other classics I have read this year, I literally do not remember how I ended up purchasing this book or why I put it on my list. The price sticker on my copy was from Borders though, so I presumably purchased it there before the chain closed. I still miss that place so much. I remember then having a lot of classics that I couldn't find in other stores and a fun assortment of junk to look at too. I'm drifting off topic though. Let's get back to Ruth.

This novel was published in 1853 and is classified as a social novel. The social issue it deals with is the stigma suffered by women who have a child out of wedlock. The plot follows Ruth Hilton, a young woman who is about to turn 16. As the novel begins, Ruth is working as an apprentice for a seamstress. She is an orphan without any friends or family to help support her, and this loneliness makes an easy target for Henry Bellingham, an upper class 23-year-old man with an eye for pleasure. At the beginning of the story, Henry seduces Ruth and lures her away from her apprenticeship to a small inn in Wales, where they live together for a few months. Eventually, he abandons her there without a word and returns to his normal life. Ruth is left on her own, devastated, friendless, and pregnant.

Fortunately, for her, a kindly pastor and his sister take pity on her and offer to let her live in their home under an assumed identity. As she is out of options, Ruth agrees to pretend to be a young widow distantly related to the pair. She lives with them for several years, repenting for her past choices and trying to raise her child to be a good Christian. Eventually, however, Bellingham comes back into her life and her secret is revealed. Shut out of society and afraid for her child's future prospects, Ruth must find a way to support her family and move on with her life.

I did not enjoy Ruth very much, for a lot of reasons. However, there were some elements of it that were interesting. One of those things is Gaskell's advocacy for unwed mothers. Having a child out of wedlock in the Victorian period essentially ruined a woman's life. Once their situation was known publicly, they would be shunned from respectable society and denied employment. Even their child, once born, would suffer these same consequences. Through Ruth's example, Gaskell advocates for these women to be forgiven and allowed to redeem themselves. While I don't necessarily love Ruth as an example of a "fallen woman," I do like that Gaskell was using her work to support women and was unafraid to advance a view that was quite controversial in its time.

I also like the juxtaposition of Ruth's story with that of Richard Bradshaw's. Towards the end of the story, Richard, a man thus far characterized by his irresponsibility, steals a significant amount of money from another character. His actions are completely illegal and wrong. There is no ambiguity or mitigating circumstances to confuse the issue. However, instead of being arrested, his friends, family, and even the man he stole from bend over backwards to help him out of his difficulties and hide his crimes. He faces no legal consequences and his friends find him another job in a new city so he can have a fresh start. His former business partner even starts to set aside money for him for when he proves himself worthy of it again.

This stands in stark contrast to Ruth's position. For the social crime of allowing herself to be seduced by an older man, she is made to suffer tremendously. Once her secret is revealed, she is immediately fired from her job, insulted, shamed, and rejected from polite society. While the family that took her in stands by her, there is little they can do to help her situation. She essentially becomes a depressed hermit for years before eventually being hired to do some nursing work that no one else is willing to do. Her eventual redemption is only partial and comes at great personal cost. These contrasting stories do an excellent job showing the double standard that existed between men and women who violated rules in this time period. Gaskell never comments on this inequality directly in her narration, but the difference in the two characters' experiences speaks clearly to the reader. This gross injustice is what I think I will remember the most about this novel.
Unfortunately, this is where the enjoyment of this classic ended for me. I had a lot of issues with the pacing, characters, and ending of the novel. The story moved slowly, Gaskell's paragraphs were over-long, and the plot got bogged down with too many characters suffering from fainting spells and vague illnesses that all required a lot of nursing and hand-wringing to get through. The combination of these factors meant that the book acted like a sleeping pill on me. I started nodding off almost immediately every time I picked it up. I had to rely on large amounts of coffee and reading sections out loud to keep myself engaged and awake. I read old novels all the time, and I don't usually have this much of an issue making my way through them. Something about this story just didn't work for me.

Part of the problem was that I never really connected with Ruth. She is a good character with extremely admirable qualities, and that's actually a problem here. She's not a convincing example of a "fallen woman" working towards redemption. At the start of the story, Ruth is an extremely naive 15-year-old orphan girl. She is seduced by a wealthy 23-year-old man who engages in a focused campaign to sleep with her. She is more of a victim than anything else. In an effort to create a sympathetic protagonist, Gaskell made her too blameless. This weakened her point that women in these situations are deserving of forgiveness--there's simply not enough to forgive Ruth for.

The ending of the story was also very disappointing. Without spoiling anything specific, it causes Ruth to revert back to some feelings that I hoped she had left behind forever, and paying dearly for it. It was a shame to see her go backwards right at the end and it clouded Gaskell's overall message. I'm not sure what the theme of the story was meant to be now that I've finished reading. Obviously, there are some lessons presented regarding forgiveness, hypocrisy, and sexism, but I could not detect one unifying idea that I was supposed to take away from the novel.

So, as it turns out, Ruth was definitely not the book for me. While it raised some worthy points and taught me about the plight of unwed mothers in the 19th century, its style, pacing, and especially its ending all took away from my reading experience. This was a big surprise to me, as I read Mary Barton in college and really enjoyed it. I'm  not giving up on Gaskell though; I'm still interested in reading some of her other work. Wives and Daughters is on my Classics Club list, and I want to get around to North and South one day too. It's a bummer to end my 2019 reading on a book I didn't like all that much, but hopefully I'll enjoy the rest of her work more in the future.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#73 on my list): 62/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 81

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake

After spending most of December reading very long classics, I found myself wanting something a little bit quicker to read. While perusing my shelves, Girl Made of Stars caught my eye first. I heard about this book through a YouTube review a while back, and it sounded very sad and very intriguing. Young adult books tackling social issues are my guilty pleasure, so I decided to spend a few blissfully lazy mornings of my winter break making my way through it.

The plot of the novel centers around Mara McHale, a high school student in Tennessee. At the beginning of the story, her twin brother Owen is accused of raping a girl named Hannah at a party. Mara, who has always been very close with her brother, has an extremely difficult time processing this event. She can't believe that her sweet, caring brother would assault anyone. At the same time, Hannah is one of Mara's best friends, and she can't imagine that Hannah would make something like this up either. Her inner conflict over the situation begins to take a serious toll on her relationship with her brother and her parents, who believe Owen's version of events unequivocally.

The accusation also stirs up some past trauma in Mara's life that she has been keeping secret. Watching Hannah struggle through the ensuing investigation, and then suffer the shame of not being believed, start to bring her own repressed emotions bubbling up to the surface. Somehow, she must find a way to support her friend, deal with her brother, and take care of herself. Girl Made of Stars is a gut-wrenching story about surviving trauma, supporting victims of assaults, and finding the courage to ask for help when you need it. 

I very much enjoyed this novel, It's a quick read that packs an emotional punch. The writing was pretty and the plot was well-paced. Obviously, it deals with sensitive topics, and I felt like the author handled them in a realistic and thoughtful way. The pain of the characters is palpable and unsettling; their struggles leap off the page as they attempt to renegotiate relationships with people they thought they knew. This is especially true of Mara, who must grapple with a complex knot of emotions arising from both past and current events in her life. As the novel progresses, interesting questions emerge about how you can come to doubt people you have adored and trusted for your whole life, and how you can reconcile yourself to living beside someone that might have done something unforgivable. The novel places its characters in impossibly painful situations, and watching them try to sort out how to move on and heal made for extremely engaging reading. I wanted to see what would happen next, and if the real truth of the situation would ever come out. 

The novel does a good job of discussing several social issues as well. Of course, ideas related to feminism and rape culture are explored, but LGBTIQA+ topics are well-represented too. Mara is bisexual and has relationships with male and female characters throughout the story. Another major character is genderqueer, which allows for helpful discussions of what that identity actually means and how a young person that identifies that way might struggle with it. It's so important for diverse characters to be present in young adult literature. It helps normalize different kinds of people for readers who may be unfamiliar with them, and it also allows readers of varying identifications to feel seen. I appreciated the inclusion of these topics alongside the main story.

Where the novel is a bit weak is in the interaction of the teen characters with their parents. Simply put, these kids have too much independence. They move around their neighborhoods like adults, going wherever they want at any time they want without any authority figures asking them any questions or setting any real limits for them. As they are older teens, you would expect them to be somewhat self-sufficient, but the ability they had to just roam wherever they pleased was not realistic. They even skipped school multiple times throughout the text without anyone knowing or caring. From time to time, a parent would pop up and make a comment or ask a question, but for the most part, the teen characters had way too much freedom. This issue gives the whole story a vibe of being unbelievable, even though most other aspects of the story are fine in this regard.

Overall, Girl Made of Stars was an emotional and thought-provoking read. It dealt with tough issues in a realistic and respectful way. This is the kind of novel that is very beneficial for young people to read. It contains a nice diversity of characters and competently educates readers about the important issues associated with consent and sexual assault. This is definitely not a fun read, but it is an important and engaging one, and one that I will be remembering for a long time to come.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 49/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 80

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

One of the sections on my Classics Club Challenge list is called "Intimidating Novels." The ten titles in that section are all books that I am interested in reading, but apprehensive about in some way. Some of the selections, like War and Peace and Les Misѐrables, are there because of length. Others, like Ulysses and Gravity's Rainbow are there because I fear that I won't understand them. Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers is there for a less respectable reason. It's there because I was afraid it would be unbearably boring.

The obvious question one would ask in response to this is, "Why put the book on there at all then?" The answer is my tendency to overdo things. It's not enough that I enjoy Charles Dickens and have read several of his books. I feel a nonsensical urge to read ALL of his books, even the ones that don't sound all that interesting to me. The Pickwick Papers is Dickens' first novel, and it's basically a take on Don Quixote (because I didn't get enough of Don Quixote this year). It doesn't have a real plot, it features a group old men wandering around and getting into scrapes, and it's full of nineteenth century humor, much of which I was guaranteed to not understand. It's also 756 pages long. All of these factors made me feel less than excited about reading it, so it went into my "intimidating" category and I didn't think about it much until now, when it was time to actually pick it up and give it a try. It ended up being quite the experience.

The Pickwick Papers is set up to be the recorded adventures of four gentlemen from the Pickwick Club, a social group based in London. Their mission is to travel around the English countryside, observe interesting people and places, and report their findings back to the rest of the club. Leading this group of adventurers is the venerable Samuel Pickwick, general chairman and all-around nice guy. Mr. Pickwick is beloved by everyone who knows him, is knowledgeable about a wide variety of topics, and is considered to be a very fine gentleman indeed. He is joined on his journey by his three good friends, Tracy Tupman, Augustus Snodgrass, and Nathaniel Winkle. His buddies aren't quite as accomplished or respected as he is, but they each have their areas of expertise. Mr. Tupman is a romantic and sentimental man, prone to falling in and out of love with alarmingly unavailable women, Mr. Snodgrass is the poet of the group, despite not having written anything of note yet, and Mr. Winkle is their authority on all things athletic, even though he has never actually participated in a sport.

As the story begins, the group sets out on their first jaunt and immediately run into all manner of ridiculous situations. Mistaken identities, hilarious misunderstandings, and run ins with despicable villains characterize their travels as they go from place to place. The characters all take turns getting into scrapes and wiggling out of them again. Occasionally, they run into strangers that tell them an entertaining story, and these random little tales are also sprinkled throughout the text. Around page 165, Mr. Pickwick hires a young man named Samuel Weller to be his servant, and his Sancho Panza-like antics further add to the fun. There are too many different adventures to give a summary of each, but my favorites were definitely the episodes in which Mr. Winkle was called upon to display any form of athletic ability. He simply cannot do anything he is called to do. He tries to ice skate and immediately falls. He tries to ride a horse and immediately loses control of it. He tries to hunt and immediately shoots his friend. The poor man can't even walk and carry a rifle at the same time without putting everyone around him in imminent danger. Those parts were genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny. Also funny were the sections featuring Joe, a servant boy characterized entirely by his prodigious weight, gluttonous eating habits, and propensity to fall asleep at every opportunity.

As I mentioned previously, The Pickwick Papers was Dickens' first novel and it was a hugely successful endeavor for him. It became wildly popular almost immediately and catapulted him to literary fame. It was originally published serially in nineteen little volumes over the course of twenty months. The adventures in each volume are episodic in nature and only loosely connected to each other. There isn't one overarching narrative to follow, just a lot of little, funny stories to enjoy. When the text was first published as a single novel, Dickens himself wrote an introduction explaining that the story was originally meant to be enjoyed in pieces, and acknowledging that the connections between the different episodes weren't particularly strong.

He was right to include this note, because it helps put this novel in the proper context for readers. Without knowing about the original format of the story and the reason for the lack of flow across the sections, The Pickwick Papers would be an incredibly frustrating reading experience. As it was, this felt extremely long and repetitive. Reading one silly episode after another for over 750 pages was difficult. By the time I got around halfway through, I felt like I would be reading this book forever. To make matters worse, some of the episodes relied on topical humor of the Victorian period, which I obviously couldn't fully understand. I went into my reading concerned that this would be boring, and a lot of it really was.

That's not to say things were all bad though. Many of the chapters were genuinely funny, and almost all of the characters were distinctive and lovable. It was interesting to see the start of Dickens' writing career too. The beginnings of his characteristic humor and style were plainly visible throughout the pages. I liked much of what I read, there was just an awful lot of it--too much to read straight through and continually stay engaged with. It would be much better to read this in chunks, in imitation of the way it originally was published.

As this is a comic novel, there aren't too many themes to dive into in this review. Of course, Dickens comments on several issues of the day through his jokes, and he lampoons the court system, lawyers, religion, and politics throughout the story. The sections about debtor's prisons in particular contain the saddest scenes in the book. It's clear that Dickens considered these places cruel. Most of his social commentary isn't too serious or deep though, and the tone remains light and silly for most of the book. The primary purpose of the work is entertainment, and it generally stays in its lane.

When I have preconceived notions about a book, I usually find out that I was wrong when I actually read it. In this case, however, my instincts were correct. The Pickwick Papers is a difficult read. It is not too hard to understand, but it is very, very long and its repetitive structure makes it pretty boring for a modern audience. As a fan of Charles Dickens, however, I'm glad that I got through it. The slow parts weren't fun, but it was worth struggling through them to experience the first work of one of my favorite authors. Plus, I can cross one of the most difficult remaining classics off my list, so, all in all, I'm counting this one as a success.      

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#63 on my list): 61/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 79

Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

For my next read, I picked another book off my Classics Club list. I decided to try Charlotte Brontё's Shirley. I have read a few of Brontё's other novels over the years, and always enjoyed them, so I figured that this would be the same. I didn't know anything about the plot ahead of time, so I went into my reading hoping for another darkly romantic tale, similar to Jane Eyre. As it turned out, I really couldn't have been further off.

The story is set during the early 1800s in Yorkshire. The Napoleonic Wars are raging, and the effects are taking a heavy toll on local business owners. Laws have been enacted that limit where they can export their goods, which means that warehouses are piling up with unsold products and manufacturers are struggling to keep afloat. Robert Moore, a cloth producer, has opted to introduce new machinery into his mill in order to cut down on labor costs. The workers of the region are incensed at this loss of jobs and are threatening to destroy his machinery in order to force Moore to start hiring people again. Moore, never one to be intimidated by anyone, refuses to acquiesce to the workers' demands. He installs the machines and defends his property. Even with these measures, however, his business is still struggling to turn a profit.

In an effort to generate more capital for himself, Moore considers marrying the wealthy Shirley Keeldar. She has recently come of age and inherited the property his mill sits on, along with a healthy amount of money and other investments as well. Shirley is unlike the other women of the time period, owing to the power and wealth her inheritance has brought her. She is beautiful, outgoing, and fiercely independent. She very much enjoys her unusual position as a female landowner, and acts like a man in the way she takes control of her household. Robert gets along well with her, and marrying her would bring him many financial benefits, but he is hesitant to commit. His heart already belongs to his distant relative, Caroline Helstone, although he has never made any formal advances towards her.

Caroline lives nearby with her uncle and is a frequent guest in the Moore's household. She is also hopelessly in love with Robert, but she is far too shy and proper to reveal her feelings. She is timid, lacks self-confidence, and is very conventional. However, despite these differences, she becomes fast friends with Shirley. It is quite difficult for her to watch Robert and Shirley grow closer, but she tries to accept Robert's feelings and enjoy her new friendship. Meanwhile, Shirley finds herself developing feelings for a man from her past, who is much lower in status than her, and therefore, an unsuitable choice for marriage.

The novel follows all of these characters as they try to sort out their relationships, their financial situations, and their places in society. Shirley is a novel about expectations - about those who choose to follow them and about those who choose to defy them, and how those choices influence their future happiness.

I knew that I was in for a rather slow reading experience with this one from the start, because Charlotte Brontё was kind enough to tell her audience so on the first page. She explains that, "something real, cool, and solid, lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning." She wasn't kidding either. Shirley is a long, rambling journey of a novel that hops around between many different themes and ideas. The backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars forms an important part of this, as its economic effects on the region are intense. Robert's choice to start mechanizing his mill sets off riots, sabotage attempts, and physical violence. He regrets that he can't afford to keep employing people, but he feels like the politics of the day put him in an impossible position. His situation raises interesting questions about the relationship between politics and industry, the impact of new technology on the workforce, and how much responsibility the wealthy should have for the poor.

Unlike in most of the other novels I have read that involve industrial unrest, Brontё is sympathetic to the business owners of the story, and shows how they suffer and struggle during difficult economic times. She does not imply that they suffer in the same ways or to the same degree as the working poor, but she does show their perspective and portrays them as generally good people that are desperately trying to keep their various enterprises afloat. It is clear that Robert, though he has his flaws, is meant to be seen as one of the most intelligent and respectable characters. It actually felt a bit odd to see the characters on the richer end of the social scale portrayed so positively, especially when their actions directly cause the poorer characters to suffer. It was a more balanced portrayal than I was used to.

While Robert's business difficulties form the background for the events of the story, the main characters of the novel are undoubtedly the outgoing, charismatic Shirley and quiet, proper Caroline. Watching how these very different friends function within the plot was quite interesting. Shirley frequently operates outside the rules of society, relishing her independence and approaching each of her interactions with more than a little spunk. Her inheritance gives her power, and she isn't shy about using it. Conversely, Caroline is a rules-follower and a conventional woman of the time period in most respects. She is shy, submissive, and does not try to act outside of her expected role. In addition to her more quiet characteristics, she is kind, intelligent, and level-headed, which stands in contrast to Shirley's more volatile personality. She is desperately in love with Robert, but doesn't speak up for what she wants, so she is continually disappointed in her romantic hopes. Without a husband or family to take care of, she has trouble filling her hours. At one point, she attempts to seek out a governess job, but is forbidden from this endeavor by her uncle. So, she remains lonely and bored while Shirley keeps busy with the various duties of taking care of her inheritance.

Watching Shirley and Caroline strive towards their personal goals from such opposite perspectives form the bulk of the novel's 600 pages. The plot is very character-driven, and explores the economics, politics, and gender roles of the time period, with a heavy emphasis on how different sorts of people set out to create their own futures, whether that be through business, strategic social-climbing, or romance. While these topics were certainly interesting to analyze, I have to admit that this novel felt over-long. There were several sections that didn't advance the plot at all, and the pacing was very slow. Shirley doesn't come into the novel until page 200. Another major character doesn't enter into the story until page 400. Upon reflection, there wasn't much story to this novel at all; it was mostly a long, thoughtful meander towards two marriages.

That being said, I didn't dislike this novel. However, it's not destined to become a favorite of mine either. I liked the exploration of the issues of the time period and the feminist themes that ran throughout the story. I wasn't a fan of the slow plot and lack of a strong narrative. I was also somewhat disappointed with the ending, as it fell back on tired tropes of the time period. For a book that centered around an unconventional, independent woman, the conclusion was extremely conventional, with both Shirley and Caroline receiving more or less the same (socially acceptable) ending to their stories.

Shirley is a novel that is exactly interesting enough for one reading. I'm glad I experienced it, but I don't see myself ever wanting to do it again. In finishing it, I have now read all of Charlotte Brontë's novels, and I have to say that this is my least favorite out of the four. As always though, I appreciate the journey of reading these classic works and I continue to learn and grow from each one I finish. I am happy to be able to cross Shirley off my Classics Club list and move on to my next adventure.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#53 on my list): 60/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 78

Monday, December 2, 2019

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

For my next read, I found myself craving a fast-paced mystery story. I don't often pick up books from that genre, but when I do, I generally have a good time with them. I decided to try Alex Michaelides' The Silent Patient after seeing it nominated in both the "Best Mystery & Thriller" and "Best Debut Novel" categories of the Goodreads Choice Awards this year. I started my reading hoping to be swept away in an engaging story, and happily, I wasn't disappointed.

The plot follows Dr. Theo Faber, a criminal psychotherapist. At the start of the novel, he accepts a new job in the psychiatric ward of a hospital. Among his new patients is the infamous Alicia Berenson, a famous artist convicted of the gruesome murder of her husband. She shot him five times in the face one night six years ago and then went silent. She hasn't spoken a single word since, and no one has been able to determine why she did it. Her silence intrigues Theo, and he immediately sets out to try and get her talking. He quickly become infatuated with Alicia's case, and, unable to help himself, he begins to go beyond the bounds of normal therapy. He starts seeking out friends and family members from Alicia's past and asking questions. He soon discovers that there is more going on with his silent patient than mental illness, and solving the mystery of her crime reveals many secrets that others would prefer to stay buried.

This novel was definitely a page-turner, and a big part of its success was Michaelides' structure. Interspersed with Theo's narration are bits and pieces of Alicia's diary, which paint a very different picture of events than the version Theo obtains from his own investigations and the official record of events. As Alicia is clearly an unreliable narrator, this push and pull between conflicting pieces of information keeps the reader guessing throughout the story. It's tough to know how much of Alicia's sections to believe, as she is obviously suffering from some form of mental illness, but everyone Theo interviews about her is so shady that it feels unwise to discount what she says entirely. Eventually, the diary entries and Theo's narration collide, with pretty surprising results.

The characters in the novel were suitably developed as well, with both Theo and Alicia having multiple layers to their personalities that are revealed over time. Interestingly, neither of them are particularly likable or sympathetic, but their less-likable aspects are what drive the plot of the story, so this didn't bother me while reading. If Theo wasn't inappropriate and kind of creepy, and if Alicia wasn't dramatic and emotionally damaged, the story couldn't exist.This is not a "nice" story, thus, the characters aren't particularly nice people. The minor characters are nothing special, but they serve their purpose and are about what you would expect in a mystery/suspense novel.

Where the story fell a bit flat for me was the ending. While I didn't guess the final twist, I didn't think it made all that much sense either upon a closer examination. I think Michaelides had a great idea for the last big reveal, and I did think it was creative and clever, but his way of getting there wasn't quite as tight as it could have been. Upon thinking over the previous events in the book after knowing the ending, I found myself questioning why certain people would act the way they do or care about the things they care about. Obviously, a novel in this genre is going to have a lot of red herrings along the way, but it seems like people were going too far out of their way to look guilty when they weren't.

So due to my feelings on the ending, I ended up rating The Silent Patient a three out of five. It was still a very enjoyable and quick read, and I would recommend it to anyone who is a fan of this genre. The ending left me wanting a little more, but it was a fun and engaging reading experience overall. I'm glad I took the time to scratch that itch I had to read something exciting and dramatic with this novel. 

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 48/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 77

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

I decided to tackle Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle as my next Classics Club book. I read Slaughterhouse-Five last August and really enjoyed it, so I figured that I would probably like this one too. Cat's Cradle is often classified as science fiction, and that's how I categorized it on my Classics Club list, but Vonnegut is not really an author that I associate with that genre. I started my reading very curious to see how those elements would come into the text.

The novel is narrated by a man named John (although he asks the reader to call him Jonah). As the story begins, he describes how he set out to write a book about what important Americans were doing on the day the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. One of the Americans he wants to include in his novel is Dr. Felix Hoenikker, the creator of the bomb. Dr. Hoenikker has already passed away when Jonah begins writing, so instead of interviewing him, he turns to his three children, Angela, Frank, and Newt, and his old boss, Dr. Asa Breed. He doesn't find out much of interest for his book, but he does learn that shortly before his death, Hoenikker invented a dangerous substance he called Ice-Nine. Ice-Nine has the ability to instantly freeze any liquid it touches, and in the wrong hands, it could easily destroy the planet. He runs into a dead end searching for more information about it though, and soon gives up on both that and his book.

Later, Jonah is drawn back into into the lives of Hoenikker's children when he is sent to the remote island of  San Lorenzo to write an article about a free hospital being established there. San Lorenzo is an unusual place, to say the least. It is run in a rather haphazard way by the dictator, "Papa" Monzano, who is constantly at odds with a religious leader there named Bokonon. Bokononism is full of bizarre teachings that center around a mixture of fate, cynicism, and peaceful rituals. Anyone caught practicing Bokononism is put to death by Papa Monzano, so everyone on the island denies believing in it and just practices in secret. As Jonah arrives on the island and learns more about the culture, he meets up with the Hoenikker children again. It turns out that Frank, the oldest Hoenikker son, has somehow become second in command to Papa Monzano, and is about to get married to a beautiful islander named Mona. Angela and Newt Hoenikker show up for the wedding, and through a very surreal and strange set of circumstances involving human greed and a few secret pieces of Ice-Nine, the siblings end up bringing about the end of the world.   

That summary is a very broad-strokes version of what happens in the story, but this is really one of those novels you have to read yourself to get a true picture of. Kurt Vonnegut's work is characterized by absurd plot elements and dark humor, and Cat's Cradle is no different. It's not a difficult read at all, in fact, it's a rather quick one, but it is a strange one too. It's not as easy to interpret as Slaughterhouse-Five was, but it's a worthwhile journey all the same.

The novel is spread across two main locations. The first is the town of Ilium, where Jonah begins his research for his WWII book, and the second is the island of San Lorenzo. San Lorenzo is the more important place between the two, as it is home to Bokononism, the philosophy of which forms the main themes of the novel. Life on the island is distinctive and odd. Most of the people there live in poverty, but are kept entertained and busy by the constant fight between the "good" and "evil" forces of Bokonon and Papa Monzano. Manzano rules the island with an iron fist, threatening execution by hook to anyone found practicing Bokononism. Fearing this, the islanders practice their rituals in secret, the most notable of which involves a practice in which they press the bare soles of their feet together with someone else, an intimate act that is supposed to bring peace and joy to the participants. There is more going on beneath the surface, however, and as Jonah finds out more about how the island actually functions, several themes of the novel begin to emerge. Trying to narrow it down to one specific idea is impossible; Vonnegut comments on many different topics here, including religion, war, the arms race, weapons technology, fate, and free will. Despite the seriousness of these topics, Vonnegut's treatment remains funny throughout the text, and Jonah's exploration of San Lorenzo is more like a surreal adventure than a depressing journey.

Most of the characters are very distinctive and eccentric, in typical Vonnegut style. Jonah functions a reader surrogate, so his personality is pretty normal and bland. They characters surrounding him, however, are anything but. Dr. Hoenikker, for example, is a genius with laser-focus on what interests him, but not much patience for anything else. Felix Hoenikker, is a little person, who creates artwork of dubious quality and takes multiple insensitive remarks about his height in stride throughout the text. Mona Aamons Manzano is a woman so beautiful that everyone who sees her falls in love with her. Each of the minor characters have their own quirks, making for a very memorable and funny reading experience. As the novel moves from event to event quite quickly and irreverently, readers don't get to know the characters particularly well, or see them grow throughout the text. That really isn't the point here though; it's not that kind of novel. The characters function mostly to parody concepts or illustrate different themes.

As for my interest in what the science fiction elements of this novel are, I have to say that I didn't find many of them. Obviously, the inclusion of Ice-Nine justifies its placement in that genre, but the story wasn't really centered around that. I would call Cat's Cradle a dark comedy novel or simply a post-modern work of literature before I would call it science fiction. The absurdity of the plot, the fragmented structure, and the parody of war and religious elements are much bigger factors in my overall impression of the work than the minor science fiction aspects of it.

So even though I was expecting a different kind of story based on how this novel is typically classified, I still enjoyed it. As far as determining a deeper meaning to it all or identifying one unifying theme though, I'm lost. Vonnegut comments on so many things and throws so many odd events into the mix that it's not easy to wrap your head around after one reading. It's anti-war in parts, poking fun at religion in parts, and questioning the free will of the human race in parts. I get the sense that this is one of those books that you can read several times and take something different away from it after each time. I didn't enjoy this one quite as much as I enjoyed Slaughterhouse-Five, but it was still a great read and definitely a requirement for fans of Vonnegut's work.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#46 on my list): 59/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 76