Thursday, April 30, 2020

April Wrap Up

We are at the end of April, and I must say that I am ready to move onto May. This was not a great reading month for me. Despite being home for the entire month, I only managed to read five books, two of which were extremely long and not enjoyable. I'm ready to start fresh with a new TBR list. First, however, let's review what I managed to finish.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

My best read of the month was, once again, my nonfiction pick. Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser was a very well-written exploration of the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and reading it really helped put the Little House series, which I read last month, into perspective. I started telling my husband so many facts about Wilder that I'm pretty sure he was ready to leave me.

My most disappointing read was definitely Imaginary Friend, which I found to be overly-long, oddly religious, and poorly written. This is the first book I have read this year that I really hated, which was disappointing, because Chbosky's other novel is one of my favorite books of all time.

I also didn't enjoy Moby-Dick much, as its multiple chapters on the science and industry of whales were extremely boring.

I am hoping that my TBR for May is more successful. There was one book that I planned to read in April that I didn't get to (My Dark Vanessa), so I am including it here again. Here's the plan:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak
Educated by Tara Westover
The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton
The Lost Girl by D.H. Lawrence
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Nothing here is super-long, so I'm hoping to maybe sneak in a few more along the way. The one good thing about all the social distancing we're doing now is that there is plenty of time to read.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

I have a bit of a history with Herman Melville's classic whaling novel, Moby-Dick. I first encountered the story in my junior year of high school, when it was assigned in my literature class. As the novel is 655 pages, and me and my classmates were 16 at the time, our teacher didn't make us read the whole thing. She only assigned certain chapters that were important to the plot. As a reader just starting to develop an appreciation for the classics, I hated this decision. I really wanted to read the whole, entire thing. I tried to do so on my own, but I eventually couldn't keep up with all the extra pages and stuck to the assigned chapters. It was a bummer, but I still enjoyed the experience.

The next time I encountered Moby-Dick, I was in college. When my American literature professor gave us our course reading list, I was quite pleased to see that this title was part of it. Finally, I thought, I would get a chance to go back and complete my partial reading from high school. Imagine my dismay when my professor ended up doing the exact same thing my high school teacher did -  he only assigned certain chapters. As I had several other literature courses going on that semester, I simply didn't have time to read what was left out on my own. So again, I had to satisfy myself with only reading part of the novel and wondering why none of the educators in my life thought it was important to assign the whole thing. I did enjoy it, but I still knew that I wanted to return to it one day and read it properly.

The next time I thought about Moby-Dick was about three and a half years ago, when I was putting together my Classics Club list. Now that I was in charge of deciding what classics I would be reading, I chose to include this novel right away. It wasn't even a question as I was browsing my shelves and selecting what I wanted. Of course Moby-Dick would be there. I had unfinished business with this book! It had become my very own white whale, popping into my life, upsetting my perfectionist sensibilities, and disappearing again. I would read it for a third time, and this time, I would do it right. Determined to complete the adventure, I picked it up this month.

The plot of the novel, of course, centers around a whaling expedition launching from New Bedford, Massachusetts in the nineteenth century. Our narrator, who famously asks the reader to call him Ishmael, kicks off the action of the story by signing onto the crew of the Pequod for a three year voyage to hunt sperm whales. On board the ship, he meets a colorful cast of characters, including the brooding Captain Ahab, the level-headed first mate Starbuck, and the tattooed harpooner Queequeg. Things proceed normally at first, but before long, he learns that his simple whaling trip has an ulterior purpose: revenge. Ahab, who recently lost a leg in a whaling accident, is determined to find and kill the white whale known as Moby-Dick that maimed him. He will stop at nothing to get his vengeance on this creature and it is clear that the entire economic enterprise of hunting whales is a distant second on his priority list.

At first, Captain Ahab's secret mission unsettles the crew. Not only is Moby-Dick legendary for being a dangerous killer, but spending time searching for him could greatly impact the amount they are able to earn for their commission. However, after a rousing speech and the promise of a cash prize to the first man to spot the white whale, Ahab manages to get everyone to go along with his plan. From that point on, the search begins in earnest. The Pequod travels all over the globe, looking for their deadly quarry and harvesting other sperm whales as they come across them. As they start hearing about sightings of Moby-Dick from other ships, Ahab's obsession deepens and it becomes increasingly difficult for him to maintain his cool exterior. He eats, sleeps, and breathes the white leviathan, and the crew becomes very wary of him. Eventually, the Pequod closes in on the beast and Ahab finally gets his chance to take down his great enemy. The showdown that ensues has grave consequences and is one of the most memorable clashes in all of American literature.

Okay. I have now officially completed the unfinished business I had with this novel and read all of Moby-Dick. I've finished every chapter, perused every page, and in so doing, I have slain my literary white whale. All that's left to do now is to decide whether it was worth it or not. Was it a good decision to read the whole thing? Did all those chapters my teachers made me skip add anything to my understanding of the story? Should I have put my precious, precious reading time into making my way through this tome?

No. On all three counts. No.

 Let's back up and discuss.

Moby-Dick is one of those giants of classic literature that I don't feel qualified to say anything negative about. And much like when I read Melville's White Jacket earlier this year, my main criticism of it is the least sophisticated criticism imaginable. So, I know I'm going to sound horribly unrefined here, but I have to say it. This novel is boring. So, so boring. And I hate to admit it, but the reason that it's so boring are all those missing chapters my teachers tried to shield me from years ago.

Of course, I knew before I started that all those chapters I was so desperate to read contained information that was nonessential to the plot. I knew that several of them were about whaling and life aboard a whaling vessel. I expected them to be boring, but in that usual way that most classic novels are at times. In reality, the novel is almost ruined by informational chapters that do not advance the story at all. These chapters discuss various whaling procedures, biological information about whales, facts about the whaling industry, philosophical musings about the importance of whales, and anecdotal evidence to prove that the plot of the story is plausible. These chapters are so numerous that it is rare to read more than two chapters in a row that feature that actual characters and plot points, and Melville's verbose, dramatic prose means that these sections crawl by very slowly. A lot of them are nearly solid blocks of text. Melville didn't favor paragraphs, apparently.

To make matters worse, much of the information contained in the informational chapters is outdated and incorrect. Of course, this wasn't Melville's fault. I'm sure he was writing what was believed to be true at the time. At this point, however, we know that a lot of the information is wrong, racist, or a combination of the two. There is a whole chapter about how hunting sperm whales will never negatively impact their numbers in the wild. There is another chapter in which Melville insists that a whale is a type of fish, rather than a mammal. Taking the time to wade through these is ultimately unrewarding. I was consistently flipping ahead to check and see when the actual story was going to start up again. It takes a lot for me to call a reading experience awful, but these chapters were really pretty awful.

So why then, is Moby-Dick such a literary darling? It's because if you were to take all of the chapters that actually convey the story and put them together, you are left with a great adventure full of memorable characters and suspenseful action. The setting of the Pequod is romantic and interesting, the constant anticipation of finding Moby-Dick is engaging, and Ahab's descent into madness is fun to watch. Certain passages are full of beautiful language and compelling themes. This is exactly why people are advised to just read those parts and avoid the informational chapters, even at a college level, like I was.

So as it turned out, much like Ahab's foolish, arrogant quest to slay his white whale, my foolish, arrogant quest to assert my literary superiority by reading this whole novel was a bad idea. I didn't really enjoy the work as a whole, and as a result of my bad experiences with all those dead chapters, I now like it less than I used to. This is my second Melville read, and the second one that I am rating at two stars, for the exact same reasons. I think I may have to own up to the idea that Melville just isn't for me, which pains my English major heart. Sadly, what I truly learned from my mission to experience Moby-Dick in full was that I don't really like Moby-Dick

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#83 on my list): 72/100 

Total Books Read in 2020: 35

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser

For my True Books 2020 read this month, I decided to go back to the Little House on the Prairie with Caroline Fraser's Prairie Fires. This biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago, and was selected as one of the ten best books of 2017 by the New York Times. All of this pointed to it being one heck of a read, which was good, because I had a lot of questions after I finished reading the Little House series last month. I wanted to know if the various plotlines and characters from the stories were actually true, why Wilder decided to write the books, and how the oddly dark final novel in the series, The First Four Years, came to be published. Its length and tiny print was a little bit daunting, but I went into my reading excited to see what I would learn.

The novel begins with Laura's parents, Charles and Caroline Ingalls. They are, or course, the real-life counterparts to Ma and Pa from the Little House books. As such, Fraser spends a fair amount of time discussing their backgrounds and lives. Eventually, they settle into a little house in Wisconsin and begin having their children, the second of which is Laura. The novel is just over 500 pages long, and the first 170 or so detail Wilder's life up through the end of what is depicted in her book series, which encompasses her childhood, adolescence, and young adult life after she marries Almanzo and has her daughter, Rose. The events described do resemble what she would go on to write about years later, but there are clear differences. People are added or omitted along the way, including another sibling that died as a baby, events are out of order, ages are fudged, and some places the family lived and worked along their journey are excised completely. There is more darkness, hardship, and struggle. While there were certainly moments of joy, Wilder's life was very difficult. Fraser does an excellent job reconstructing this and takes the time to point out the similarities and differences that would appear later in her novels along the way. 

The rest of the book mostly concerns Laura's continued struggles with trying to establish a functioning farm in the Midwest, her complex relationship with her growing daughter, her decision to begin writing (first for newspapers and magazines, then for children), and how her life changed as she became a highly-regarded author. I was surprised to discover as I was reading that this part of the story was actually much more interesting than the adventurous, pioneering parts of her life that she would became famous for writing about. Her journey from farm wife to author was fraught with struggle and heartache, and the many conflicts she engaged in with her daughter throughout the writing process were fascinating to read about. Fraser also delves into her evolving political views, which were deeply affected by the social programs FDR attempted to implement to help farmers on the prairie during the Great Depression. Unsurprisingly, Laura's hardworking background gave her a "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" type of mentality, and she would come to loathe the New Deal programs intended to provide aid. She became deeply conservative as a result, and slipped bits and pieces of her political philosophy into her writing. It was interesting to learn about how the politics and issues of the day influenced her personal beliefs and her writing. The novel ends, of course, with her eventual death and an exploration of what happened to her works afterwards, including how the famous TV series came to be.

Every aspect of the work felt meticulously well-researched and presented and I liked it a lot. I enjoyed Fraser's writing style and pacing, as well as the handful of pictures she included in the text. Biographies usually have some dry stretches, and Prairie Fires is no exception, but the majority of the work held my interest and was very enjoyable. I was delighted to see that all of the questions I had at the beginning of the novel were answered, and much more interesting information that I had no idea about was included as well.  

The most interesting part of the story for me was Wilder's strange relationship with her daughter Rose. The little baby I last saw toddling around on the prairie in The First Four Years turned out to be a bit of a wild child. She stepped away from her family's farm as soon as she was old enough to move to the city and became a writer. She started making a bit of money with stories for magazines, and encouraged her mother to give writing a try. Wilder, struggling with debts and worried about Almanzo's increasingly poor health, agreed to give it a shot. After years of writing for magazines successfully, she began the Little House Series. Rose acted as her editor, extensively rewriting sections to soften them and add interest. The correspondence that survives between the pair reveals that Rose was responsible for pretty extensive revisions, to the point where some Wilder scholars question how much of the manuscripts were from Laura versus Rose. They also show that the stories are firmly in the historical fiction genre, despite Wilder's lifelong assertion that every word of her series was true.

While Rose was acting as her mother's editor, her behavior became increasingly strange. She was romantically linked to a handful of men, she published a few biographies of famous people that were full of fabricated details, she became obsessed with Albania, she informally adopted a few orphan boys, declared herself a Muslim, and spent an irresponsible amount of money buying and renovating a series of houses. She also completely mined her mother's life for writing ideas, publishing a series of stories essentially plagiarized from her mother's manuscripts. Throughout all this, she fought and made up with her mother repeatedly. They needed each other to survive financially, but struggled to maintain a healthy relationship. They dynamic between the pair was endlessly fascinating and it's worth reading the novel for alone.

Reading Prairie Fires made the Little House novels come to life in a way that just reading the books themselves didn't for me. Knowing how the series was created and what Laura Ingalls Wilder's life was actually like put the whole series in a different perspective. Life on the prairie was indescribably difficult, but their were some joys along the way. The series showed the joys. It's a reflection of what Wilder held close to her heart in a tough world. This novel showed the truth. The combination of the two made for a really nice reading experience. I would definitely encourage anyone interested in the Little House books to give this novel a try.

Challenge Tally
True Books 2020: 7/14

Total Books Read in 2020: 34

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

It had been a while since I read one of my Back to the Classics Challenge books, so I decided to tackle one of them next. I first picked up The Good Soldier years and years ago during my initial classics-buying phase when I was in high school. Aside from a vague recognition of the title and author name, I knew absolutely nothing about this novel before reading it. It turned out that this was the ideal way to go into this text, because it's a weird one and, as it turned out, a fun one to be surprised by.

The story is narrated by John Dowell, a wealthy American living in Europe in the early 1900s. He begins by explaining that the events he is about to relate are "the saddest story" he has ever heard. He then launches into a long-winded tale about the tragedy of his relationships with his wife Florence, and another couple, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham. He explains from the very start that he loved his wife and considered Edward and Leonora to be his very best friends. He also explains that his wife and Edward were sneaking around together behind his back for almost the entire length of their decade-long friendship, and Leonora knew about it. He was the only one in the group that had no idea what was going on.

From there, Dowell explains the long chain of events surrounding the affair in an extremely unreliable fashion. He skips around in time, goes on of short digressions, and switches the perspective from which he tells the story multiple times. Figuring out the exact order of events is a puzzle, no characters are exactly as they seem, and there are many dramatic reveals along the way that keep readers engaged. To say much more would be to spoil the story, so I'm purposefully leaving my summary vague. What I will say is that I thought The Good Soldier was unique, memorable, and definitely worth the time.

As I've mentioned here before, I tend to avoid classics that play with the traditional novel structure. I usually don't enjoy elements like time skips and deliberately confusing narration. In this story, however, I thought that what Ford was doing worked. It felt like someone was really sitting and telling me a painful and embarrassing personal story. At some points, Dowell even acknowledges that he isn't narrating perfectly, saying that, "I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze." He forgets to mention things, circles back, and gets distracted frequently. His messy narration is both realistic and a good mirror for the messy nature of the events he is describing. He is talking about people that he loves behaving very badly, and despite everything that happens, he still feels some affection for them. He has a lot of conflicting feelings, and his attempts to show everyone's side of the story works well with the chaotic structure Ford employs.

The so-called "good soldier" in the novel is Edward Ashburnham, who was a veteran of the service in India. The relationship between Ashburnham and Dowell is quite complex, and it helps to develop the ultimate theme of the novel. Ashburnham sleeps with Dowell's wife for years, and he hates him for that betrayal. At the same time, Dowell goes to great lengths to excuse a lot of his behavior and show the more noble sides of his personality. The opinion he ultimately arrives at about him is breathtakingly cynical and delusional. It definitely made me think.

So ultimately, The Good Soldier ended up being a nice surprise. It was quite different to other classics I have read and I really enjoyed Ford's unique writing style. While I can't say it reached the rank of a new favorite, it was a good reading experience and one of the better books from my Classics Club list.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2020 (20th Century Classic): 7/12
Classics Club (#96 on my list): 71/100 

Total Books Read in 2020: 33

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky

*This review will contain mild spoilers.*

After rereading The Perks of Being a Wallflower for my Then Versus Now Challenge, I started in on Stephen Chbosky's newest (and only other) novel, Imaginary Friend. I was excited to get started, as I hadn't read a horror novel in a while, and I was looking forward to getting lost in a dark, suspenseful page-turner. I was also interested to see how Chbosky's writing style worked in this genre, which was completely different from the young adult contemporary novel he made his name with.

The story centers around Christopher Reese, a young boy who moves to a small Pennsylvania town with his mother, Kate, at the start of the novel. Christopher is used to moving - he's traveled with his mom several times over the past couple of years as she made her way through a string of abusive men after his father committed suicide. He's a kind boy and a good son, but a learning disability has caused him to struggle in school and made him a target for bullies. He loves his mother dearly though, and is determined to make the best of his situation. Not long after arriving, Christopher is led  by a series of mysterious events to the woods surrounding his new town. He disappears and is gone for six days.

When he finally returns to his mother, he's different. He's suddenly quite smart, begins to excels academically, and knows personal details about people just by looking at them. He can't remember anything that happened to him in the woods excepts for a hazy recollection of a "nice man" that helped him find his way out. After investigating, the police determine that he must have just gotten lost and hallucinated or dreamed up this "nice man." Christopher knows this isn't true however, because the nice man hasn't left him. He still talks to him all the time, like an imaginary friend. He tells him to do things, and Christopher obeys. The nice man is preparing him to save the world, and Christopher will do whatever it takes to protect those that he loves.

I'm not going to mince words here. I did not enjoy this novel, and I was immensely disappointed with my reading experience. The more I think about it, the more I fail to understand how Chbosky could go from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which was so beautiful and emotional, to this absolute mess.

At 706 pages of tiny print, this is a very long story, and it felt like it. I don't know if I've ever read another novel that was so obviously in need of an editor. There were too many perspectives shown and too many events included that did not further the plot. The opening hundred pages or so were intriguing enough, but things quickly devolved into a repetitive series of action sequences in which characters ran around, screamed constantly, and were horrifically injured over and over again. The pacing was a complete disaster. There was so much running around and fighting in the second half of the novel that I became fatigued with it and stopped feeling any suspense at all. There were so many climaxes occurring that I consistently failed to understand how I still had so many pages left as I made my way through all 135(!) chapters.

Aside from the length, the plot was ultimately preachy and bizarre. Things take an oddly religious turn as the story goes on, and there is a twist towards the end of the novel that places it firmly in the genre of Christian fiction. I did not know I was reading this kind of text, and I did not appreciate this pivot. I am not a believer myself, so these types of books are not generally my first choice, but I have enjoyed some novels with Christian themes in the past. A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of my all-time favorites. However, the religious aspects of Imaginary Friend are ridiculous, clumsy, and truly cringeworthy. For example, we get both God and Satan appearing as actual characters, a crucifixion allegory, and even an immaculate conception. The last hundred pages of the novel are so heavy-handed that I ended up feeling like Chbosky tricked me into reading a book that he wanted me to think was a traditional horror story so that he could attempt to proselytize his ideas.

There were also a lot of elements of the writing style that I did not like. Certain bit of figurative language were repeated over and over. For example, I learned that a surprising amount of things are just like "the cool side of the pillow" and that many objects look like "baby teeth."  A lot of sentences were written ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS to denote screaming. Sometimes, the text got very large to show HOW LOUD SOMEONE IS YELLING. One character speakS witH a crazY jumblE oF uppercasE anD lowercasE letterS just like you used to do on your MySpace page in the early 2000s. Sometimes, words appear in

to show extra creepiness. This all came off as amateurish. These types of techniques are things that my middle school students do. It felt gimmicky and cheap, and wholly unlike Chbosky's writing in his first novel. It's hard to believe that The Perks of Being a Wallflower was written by the same author.

There's more I could say. I could write a paragraph about how every single female character is either a slut or a victim of physical or sexual abuse. I could talk about how Chbosky should be sending parts of his royalties from this novel to Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. I could spend time talking about his decision to describe pine needles as "fresh and wet as sex." Ultimately though, my thoughts can all be summarized in a single line - this was a bad book. I hated it, and I very rarely say that in my reviews. It made me doubt Chbosky's ability as a writer. I loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but now I'm wondering if he simply got lucky with that one, or if maybe his protagonist's mental illness covered up a lot of weak writing. I'm so disappointed with it that I probably will not read another of his novels, at least not another one marketed as "horror."

Reading tastes are such a personal thing. There are lots of reviews on Goodreads that are very positive towards Imaginary Friend. I don't see anything appealing in it myself, but I don't begrudge anyone that does enjoy it. I would tell anyone considering giving it a shot to maybe try getting it from the library before spending your money though, and don't even bother unless you are really open to Christian themes having a prominent role in your ultra-violent horror fiction.

Challenge Tally
Then vs. Now: 8/27

Total Books Read in 2020: 32

Friday, April 3, 2020

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

I first read The Perks of Being a Wallflower back in 2013, before my blogging days here. It instantly became one of my favorite young adult novels. When I saw that its author, Stephen Chbosky, had a new book coming out last year, I knew I had to give it a shot. I decided to make both his first and second book part of my Then Versus Now Challenge, so I could experience an old favorite again, and check out his newest (and very different, from what I hear) work.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming of age novel, quite similar to A Separate Peace or The Catcher in the Rye. It concerns fifteen year old Charlie, a shy and withdrawn boy just about to start high school. The novel is an epistolary; Charlie tells his story entirely through anonymous letters to a person he doesn't actually know. This is quite an effective technique on the part of the author, as it essentially allows the reader to become the person that Charlie is writing to. This feeling of almost being included in the book pulled me in from page one, and this worked just as well on my second reading. Just like the first time I read this, I couldn't put it down.

Through his beautifully honest letters, Charlie describes his anxieties about school, friends, family and girls. It is obvious from the start of the novel that he isn't a normal fifteen year old. Many of his behaviors seem to place him on the autism spectrum, although a formal diagnosis is never discussed. He is socially awkward, doesn't have many friends, cries frequently, and seems too ignorant of his sexuality. He is also highly intelligent, academically successful and unusually empathetic. He is a keen observer of the behavior of those around him. He notices everything, but doesn't always understand what he sees. It's clear that he has some emotional issues and through the course of the novel the explanation for some of his behavior is revealed. Despite his problems, Charlie is the kind of kid you want to root for. As a person that understands social anxiety and shyness, I found that I came to care about him. I really wanted him to figure everything out and make his way in the world.

This novel is frequently referred to as a modern classic, and I wholeheartedly agree with that assessment. I can see this becoming required reading in high school one day, much like how The Catcher in the Rye is now. Everyone can find something to relate to here. The dramas of high school stay imprinted in our thoughts long after we graduate, and this book stirred up some of those old memories from the back of my mind and brought them to the surface. Who can't remember a time when they fell in love with someone unattainable or did the wrong thing and caused a big fight? Who hasn't felt acute embarrassment over something silly or enjoyed having class with a teacher they really loved? Most importantly of all, who can't remember having a group of friends who just meant the world to them? I experienced it all again through Charlie's eyes, which had the effect of bringing me deeper into the novel. Even though my high school experience was entirely different from his, there was enough in his story that was universal to all teenagers to make everything feel familiar. I think this novel speaks to a lot of people.

It's true that this novel deals with a lot of tough, controversial issues. They are handled honestly and tactfully, but not deeply. This is a common criticism I have seen of the novel. It includes several very mature issues, like drug use, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, but does not spend a lot of time dealing with them. I believe that this is a deliberate strategy on the part of Chbosky to characterize Charlie. He doesn't talk about these issues too much because he can't. His emotional intelligence is all over the place, and he is an unreliable narrator. The way he can describe something that is absolutely terrible in such a matter of fact way adds to the impact of his narration for me. The writing is simple and unadorned throughout the whole novel, regardless of the content of what Charlie is conveying, yet the words are unwittingly wise and make you think while you read.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower definitely held up on my second reading and remains one of my favorite young adult novels. There is just something about this narrator and this story that really draws me in and tugs on my heartstrings. I still would highly recommend this novel to mature teens and young adults. I'm excited to move onto his second novel, Imaginary Friend, and see if I like that one as much.

Challenge Tally
Then vs. Now: 7/27

Total Books Read in 2020: 31