Friday, July 31, 2020

July Wrap Up

July is over and I ended up having a surprisingly good reading month. I didn't read a huge amount of books, but a lot of the ones I ended up reading were really good. I even added two books to my all-time favorites list! Here's what I finished:

My favorite read of the month was Wives and Daughters, which was amazingly well-paced for a nearly 700 page classic. I also really liked The Bluest Eye, which was a dark book, but a very thought-provoking one too.

I had a weird experience with my reread of Eleanor and Park, which I found to have some problematic elements the second time around. Sorting out my feelings around that was a weird experience. I still like a lot of things about the book, but I can't really recommend it to people anymore. Luckily, I did really enjoy the other books I read by Rainbow Rowell, so that made me feel a little better.

My least favorite read of the month was Truevine, my nonfiction read for the month. It included too many digressions from its main topic for me. 

I've been very optimistic with my planning for next month. I want to take on more of the StoryGraph Onboarding Challenge and continue on chipping away at my classics goals. Here's what I have planned:  

Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck
Mama's Last Hug by Frans de Waal
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
The Haters by Jesse Andrews

I struggled a bit with blogging this month. I just didn't feel like writing for some reason, and I think that's because I've been doing the exact same thing on this blog for years now. I was exploring a few other book blogs this week, and I'm thinking I want to start planning for a bit of a redesign in the coming months. Nothing drastic, after all, this blog is really only a place for me to keep track of what I read, but I think it's time for a remodel and some other kinds of posts. It's something to think about anyway.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

You know that feeling you get when you pick up a book and realize that you are reading something brilliant and important? That's the feeling I got immediately after starting The Bluest Eye. This is Toni Morrison's first novel and it follows Pecola Breedlove, a black child growing up in the 1940s in Lorain, Ohio. Pecola is not a beautiful child, and the constant stream of racism she is exposed to from other children and adults in her neighborhood has decimated her self esteem and sense of worth. She is bullied by her classmates at school and abused by her alcoholic father at home. As a result, she lives her life as quietly as possible, tries to avoid anyone's notice. Her deepest and most secret wish is for her eyes to turn blue, the color she believes to be prettiest. She believes that if she could only have beautiful blue eyes, her problems would fade away and everyone would treat her better.

Pecola's story is told out of order in a few different narrative styles. Several of the chapters are from the point of view of Claudia Mac Teer, a little girl that Pecola stays with temporarily after her father burns their house down in an alcoholic rage. Claudia witnesses a lot of the ugliness directed at Pecola and forms a small friendship with her. Her narration conveys the difficulty of growing up poor and black in this time period, especially for a fragile, abused child. Other chapters include flashbacks to the early lives of Cholly and Pauline Breedlove, Pecola's parents, and chapters following Pecola herself. All of the pieces together tell a harrowing story of a young girl crushed under the weight of a brutal, uncaring world.

The Bluest Eye is not an easy read. It takes on tough, heartbreaking topics and deals in complex themes. Morrison masterfully weaves together the sections of the novel to explore difficult concepts about racism, sexism, and how people calculate their own self worth. A character like Pecola, who is sensitive, young, female, black, and living in a dysfunctional home, doesn't stand a chance. She is so desperately unhappy that she becomes obsessed with white ideas of beauty. She sees how loved little white girls are and comes to think that if only she could have blue eyes like they do, people would love her more too. What she is not capable of realizing is that it is not her appearance that is the true root of her problems, it is the ugliness of the world around her, and she is powerless to change that.

Everything about this novel was excellent and thought-provoking. It's about some of the worst ideas and impulses present in our society today, and while the book is very dark, it is very necessary too. Pecola's tragic story reminds us that our ideas of beauty and who is allowed to be considered beautiful are deeply rooted in sexist and racist ideas and affect our lives in ways we don't even realize. These ideas can intentionally or accidentally destroy people who aren't born to privilege. It's quite a weighty concept to think about. 

I remember that when I read Morrison's Beloved several years ago, I was very challenged by the complexity in the text. I enjoyed that story, but felt somewhat lost while reading it. I did not find The Bluest Eye difficult to follow and could more fully appreciate the skillful storytelling. Part of that is likely because this was Morrison's first book, and is less complicated than her later works, and another part of that is because I am a more experienced reader now and better able to understand these kinds of ideas. In any case, this was both a very good and a very sad read and Toni Morrison is a deeply gifted writer. 

Content warnings: domestic violence, rape, pedophilia, incest, racial slurs

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#15 on my list): 76/100 books completed

Total Books Read in 2020: 55

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

I chose to read Wives and Daughters this month to complete the "classic about a family" prompt in the Back to the Classics Challenge. I was a little apprehensive about starting it, because I have a mixed track record with Elizabeth Gaskell's novels. I read her first novel, Mary Barton, in college, and while I don't remember many details from it at this point, I do remember enjoying it. More recently, however, I read her third novel, Ruth, and struggled to stay engaged in the story. As Wives and Daughters is over 650 pages long, I was really hoping for this mirror my college experience. It didn't take me too long after I started to realize that I was going to be okay--more than okay, actually. Simply put, I fell in love with this story.

Gaskell published Wives and Daughters in serial format from August of 1864 to January of 1866 in Cornhill Magazine. It's a family drama that follows several characters, centering mostly around Molly Gibson, a young woman living in a small English country town with her father. Molly's mother passed away when she was a young girl, leaving her father, the respected and competent town doctor, to raise Molly on his own. The pair are devoted to each other and have a wonderfully warm relationship. It's been just the two of them for a long time, but as Molly is quickly reaching an age where she will have suitors, Mr. Gibson decides to get married again in order to give Molly a stepmother that can help protect and guide her in this process.

He chooses to marry Mrs. Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, a former tutor that is well-regarded around their neighborhood. Hyacinth is widowed with a daughter of her own, Cynthia, who is about the same age as Molly. When Molly first hears of her father's decision to remarry, she is upset. She would prefer to keep things the way they are, but as she is a kind and dutiful daughter, she resolves to make the best of the situation and love her new stepmother and stepsister the best that she can. 

That proves difficult, however, as it doesn't take long for the new Mrs. Gibson to disrupt the calm, orderly flow of Molly's life. While not a terrible person, she is sensitive, dramatic, and attention-seeking. Her self-centered nature leads her to make several changes to the Gibson household which annoy Mr. Gibson and Molly. Her daughter Cynthia brings a whole other sort of change in the family. She is beautiful, friendly, and charismatic. She is also fickle, flirtatious, and curiously aloof in her feelings. Molly becomes close friends with her immediately, but struggles to understand her. It becomes clear that she is hiding some weighty secrets, but Molly is at a loss as to what those secrets might be. 

As the story goes on, the newly blended family learns to live together. The new Mrs. Gibson's concerns shift towards making advantageous marriages for Cynthia and, to a slightly lesser extent, Molly. A pair of brothers in the neighborhood, Osborne and Roger Hamley, become close with the Gibsons and are soon seen as potential matches for Cynthia. Osborne, as the eldest and more attractive son, is the more valuable catch, and his frequent visits to the household and attentions towards Cynthia seem to point to a budding romantic connection. However, Roger, the more academic-minded brother, is paying Cynthia quite a bit of attention too. Molly is too naive and innocent to fully understand her feelings towards the Hamley brothers, but she is powerfully drawn to Roger, and watching him gravitate towards Cynthia is painful to her in ways she can't fully comprehend. However, the Hamley brothers have secrets of their own, which complicate their attachments and intentions towards the girls. Sorting out these relationships and forging a path towards happiness forms the rest of the plot of the novel, with each member of the Gibson family learning how to best love and support each other despite their differing personalities and goals.

Wives and Daughters is not a flashy story. It is dramatic and filled with its fair share of twists and turns, but at its heart, it is a story about a very human family striving to get along, fix past mistakes, and figure out the best path forward. Gaskell's focus on character development is highly effective and among the best I've seen in older novels. Each of the characters in the story are fully realized with distinct personalities, goals, and problems. I related strongly to Molly. She was a kind character who only desired to help others and not not be a bother to anyone, which is how I (admittedly, optimistically) see myself. She consistently strove to hide her true feelings, smooth conflicts over, and not bother anyone, which aligns strongly with how I live my life. As such, it was easy for me to fall into her story and become deeply invested in her success. She was perhaps overly naive in many respects, but I found this to be endearing. She was quiet and demure, but not afraid to speak up for herself or others when the occasion called for it. Her efforts to help Cynthia, for example, were near heroic in how far they took her out of her comfort zone, and she didn't hesitate to step up for her. As a quiet girl myself, I genuinely liked Molly's character and I think a lot of introverted lovers of classic novels will feel the same. 

The other characters were similarly well-written, with Cynthia in particular standing out in her depth and nuance. She's a lot of things at once, both good and bad. She's kind and caring, but at the same time she's shallow and capricious. The reasons for her being complicated are clearly explained and make sense within the text. As the daughter of a well-meaning, but incredibly shallow and silly mother, she struggles to form authentic connections with others. She's afraid of being hurt, but desperately wants to be loved, which leads her to make some questionable decisions that help drive the plot. In her, Gaskell manages to create a character that is simultaneously sympathetic and annoying, and this dimension was highly engaging.

What was perhaps the most surprising aspect of Wives and Daughters for me was the excellent pacing. As I mentioned before, this novel is a long one. I've read several long classics over the years, and while I do enjoy them, they generally have boring stretches. Part of the classics experience is wading through over-long descriptions, dense sections of philosophical or religious musings, and detailed detours with uninteresting secondary characters. None of that happened here. The novel is 672 pages long, and everything flowed naturally and serviced the plot well. It was no problem for me to read around 100 pages a day and I didn't struggle with boredom at all. Information was revealed at a good pace and there were enough secrets to uncover to keep things interesting throughout the story. Of course, the book is from the 1860s, so it's still a fussy, polite, and proper read, but as those are the sort of classics I like, I was quite happy with my experience.

Indeed, the most disappointing thing about Wives and Daughters is that it is unfinished. Gaskell died suddenly in 1865 before completing the final section. Instead of a true last chapter, we get a note from Frederick Greenwood, editor of Cornhill Magazine, where the novel was being serialized. He writes about what the reader can safely assume the end of the story would have been and mourns Gaskell's loss. It's quite a touching tribute and probably the best way to end the story under the circumstances. It is truly just the very end of the novel that is incomplete, and it is obvious what was going to happen by that point, so readers will not be left with many (if any) questions, but I really wish I could have read Gaskell's own ending. 

So, despite my initial apprehension about Wives and Daughters, I ended up loving it. The length looked daunting, but the excellent character development and pacing made this a new favorite novel for me. I really can't say enough nice things about it. I can't believe how charming and emotional it was. It's nice to be surprised like this when picking up a classic! I am looking forward to reading more of Gaskell's novels in the future and seeing if I can discover any other new favorites among them. 

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2020 (A Classic about a Family): 10/12
Classics Club (#56 on my list): 75/100 books completed

Total Books Read in 2020: 54

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Truevine by Beth Macy

I first heard about Truevine from an interview I read with Beth Macy when the book first came out in 2016. I was instantly intrigued by the subject and I downloaded it onto my Kindle right away, a rare thing for me to do for a nonfiction book. I didn't get around to reading it at the time, but Truevine consistently stuck in my mind as one of the ones I really wanted to get to. I was convinced it was going to be a powerful and interesting novel. Naturally, when I was making my True Books 2020 Challenge list, this was one of the first books to go on it. I finally sat down to read it this month. 

Truevine tells the story of George and Willie Muse, two African American brothers born near Roanoke, Virginia in the 1890s. George and Willie were albino, and their stark white skin and blonde hair gave them a very distinctive appearance. Eventually, a man from a traveling circus show learned about their existence and, as Muse family legend tells it, abducted the young boys one day and turned them into a sideshow act. The brothers were forced to perform in various circuses all over the United States for years under the stage names "Eko" and "Iko." Their managers created various exotic backstories for the children. Sometimes they were billed as being two wild men found off the coast of Madagascar. Other times, they were billed as being ambassadors from Mars. Crowds flocked to see them and, of course, they were not paid for their work. 

Their mother, Harriet Muse, spent several years trying to track her sons down. Eventually she discovered their whereabouts and caught up with them when their circus was in town. She took George and Willie home, but her fight didn't end there. Determined to get some justice for her sons, she sued the circus for their back pay and was awarded a settlement. George and Willie Muse would go on to return to the circus life, but this time, they were paid for their work. Harriet had to hire a lawyer to ensure all payments were made promptly and to track down her sons when their managers attempted to disappear with them again (which, unbelievably, happened a few more times). They worked on that way until the brothers retired.

Parts of Truevine were interesting, sad, and powerful, as I suspected they would be. George and Willie's story is undeniably shocking and outrageous. Their mother's efforts to get them back home and fairly compensated for their work were moving. It is clear that Macy's research into George and Willie's life was extensive, and she does a good job of explaining how the politics and racism of the time period made it possible for something like this to happen. She also includes a lot of pictures and interviews in the text, which really helped bring the Muse brothers to life.

Despite these positive aspects, however, I did not have a great experience with this novel. Simply put, most of it wasn't actually about the Muse family. Records from this time period were spotty and poorly preserved at best, and not enough documentation has survived to tell a complete story. To fill in the gaps, Macy includes hundreds of pages worth of additional information about topics related to George and Willie, including the history of circuses, the rise and fall of freak shows, the backstories of other sideshow performers, interviews with circus enthusiasts, the history of sharecropping, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and gentrification, and more. She also inserts details about her own research, explaining how she tried to find records about the brothers and how she had to build relationships with the surviving members of the Muse family to get their blessing to write this book. Truevine is around 400 pages long. Maybe 100 of those pages directly concern George and Willie. So much extra information made it very difficult to piece together a timeline of events. I was consistently lost as to which order things were happening in, what year it was, and how old the brothers were. Just when I felt like I was getting a handle on the chronology of the story, Macy would take a long detour through another topic and I would be confused again.

To add to the difficulties I had, the details that have survived about George and Willie Muse are fragmented, vague, and often conflict with one another. Macy's research turned up discrepancies about nearly every aspect of her subjects' lives, and as a result, key pieces of the narrative are shrouded in mystery.  For example, the ages of George and Willie, the identity of their father, their true mental capacity, and their personal feelings about circus life are all unknown. Even the story of their kidnapping is unclear, as Macy discovered details that seemed to show that Harriet Muse initially allowed them to join the circus. Almost everything about them has a giant question mark hanging over it. By the end of the novel, I'm not sure how much I actually learned about George and Willie.

That being said though, I do think that the story of the Muse brothers deserves to be told. The reason that there isn't clear information about them available is because they were poor, exploited, and subject to incredible racism. Those types of stories should not be forgotten. I just did not enjoy the way Macy put this novel together. The extra information, while generally interesting, was excessive. It went beyond providing proper context and became a disruption to the story for me. Ultimately, I appreciated the bits and pieces I learned from this story, but I definitely did not enjoy it as much as I was expecting to.

Challenge Tally
True Books 2020: 10/14

Total Books Read in 2020: 53

Monday, July 20, 2020

Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell

**This review will contain spoilers for the first book in this series, Carry On**

Most of my Then Versus Now Challenge consists of pairs of books - one book that I read years ago, and another book by that same author that I haven't tried yet. In the case of Rainbow Rowell's match up, I had a third book in the mix. Carry On has a sequel, so I figured that now was the best time to read it since I would have the details of the first book fresh in my mind. I really liked Carry On, so I was excited to see how Wayward Son would continue Simon and Baz's story.

The story picks up soon after the close of Carry On. Simon, Baz, and Penelope have all moved to London and are attending university, while Agatha has decided to move overseas and attend a school in California. Everyone is doing pretty well except for Simon. Having to give up his magic to defeat the Insidious Humdrum the previous year has taken a toll on him and he is struggling to figure out his place in the world. He and Baz are still together, but Simon is secretly planning on ending their relationship. He sees himself as an anchor around Baz's neck and is just waiting for the right time to break things off. Sensing Simon's growing depression, Penelope plans a vacation for their upcoming summer holidays - a road trip across America to visit Agatha.

The trio flies into Chicago, rents a car, and begins their adventure together. It doesn't take them long to learn that magic in America is quite different than what they are used to. There is no organized form of government for magicians there. Those that are capable to performing magic keep to themselves and educate their own children; there is no magical community. They also need American words and phrases to cast spells, which gives them no end of trouble as they travel. British words often don't work and the group doesn't know enough American idioms to fill in the gaps. There are also a lot of magical creatures roaming the world, and despite their best efforts to keep a low profile, they continually run into all manner of beings, like vampires, pixies, and even a dragon. Luckily, they meet a young man named Shepard that acts as a guide and helper to them. Shepard is not a magician, but he is a magician enthusiast, and he has near-encyclopedic knowledge of their world.

The group's experience is decidedly mixed. Penelope is having boyfriend issues, so she is unhappy for most of the trip. Baz is not a fan of America as a place, but is happy that Simon is enjoying himself. Their relationship seems to grow stronger and stronger the longer they are there. Simon is having the time of his life, and as their encounters with magical creatures continue, he starts to feel alive again. Before long though, the group receives some unsettling news about Agatha and their fun road trip turns into a serious rescue mission. Wayward Son is an exploration of what happens to heroes after their time in the spotlight is done. What is there left to do after you have fulfilled your destiny? Where do you fit in once you have completed the task you were born to do?

This was a fun novel and a worthy sequel to Carry On. I generally don't enjoy the road trip trope, so I was a little apprehensive when I started reading, but I was pleased to find that I was completely engaged in the story. As in the previous novel, Rowell's writing was a nice blend of funny and emotional and Simon, Baz, and Penelope continued to be lovable and nicely developed characters. This novel brings some interesting changes to their lives - Simon has to deal with the depression and insecurity that comes from losing his powers (not to mention his new wings and tail), Baz struggles to come to terms with his vampirism, and Penelope must confront her tendency towards bossiness and aggression. Each of them ends up learning about themselves and growing on the trip in ways that feel organic and authentic to their characters. The romance between Simon and Baz continues to evolve as well, and plenty of drama ensues as they attempt to sort out their feelings for each other and find a path to happiness and stability.

In my review for the first book in the series, I wrote about how the story suffered from its associations with Harry Potter. I thought that those issues were lessened considerably in this book. By taking the story out of England and away from a magic school setting, Rowell was able to develop her own universe more fully. Placing the characters in an unfamiliar country with new magical elements to explore helped the story to stand on its own. I found that I wasn't constantly comparing Wayward Son to Harry Potter while reading and just enjoyed the novel on its own terms. 

There is a third Simon Snow book in the works and I'm excited read it when it comes out. These are sweet stories with a lot of diversity, humor, and heart. I'm glad that I included these in my reading challenge for the year and I'm very glad that I discovered that there was more to Rowell than Eleanor & Park.

Challenge Tally
Then vs. Now: 15/27

Total Books Read in 2020: 52

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

As the midway point of July approaches, I am finding myself a little bit behind in my blogging. Thankfully, my reading is more or less on track. I just have been lazy about writing lately. I'll chalk that up to the general malaise of living through a pandemic and try to whip myself back into shape here. 

I chose Carry On as part of my Then Versus Now Challenge, so I picked it up right after I finished reading Eleanor and Park at the start of this month. This book has a strange origin. It was first mentioned by Rowell in another one of her young adult novels, Fangirl. In Fangirl, the main character writes fanfiction about this series, which is meant to be a Harry Potter-like set of fantasy novels that exist in that universe. Eventually, Rowell decided to take that fictional series and make it real. Hopefully that makes sense - I'm finding that it's difficult to explain this situation clearly and succinctly. Basically, this book started off as part of the background of another novel, and Rowell decided to take that background element and turn it into an actual book series.

The plot concerns a group of teenage mages attending Watford, a magical boarding school in England. The narration alternates between a handful of characters, but it mainly centers around Simon Snow and his roommate/rival Baz Grimm-Pitch. Simon is the all-important "chosen one," the powerful mage that is destined to take down the Insidious Humdrum, a mysterious villain whose ability to suck magic out of the atmosphere threatens the very existence of the world of mages. Simon is an orphan that was introduced into the world of magic late, and as a result, he struggles to control his power. He is able to make it through school with the help of his highly intelligent friend Penelope and his beautiful girlfriend Agatha. Together, the trio have had several clashes with the Humdrum over the years and are gearing up for their inevitable final confrontation with him.

One continual thorn in Simon's side, however, is his roommate Baz. The pair have been locked into a fierce rivalry since they met and often get into fights or try to sabotage each other. Baz comes from an old, wealthy family of mages and is less-than impressed with Simon's uncontrolled magic. He is also wrapped up in the ongoing political unrest in his community, which is currently dividing the traditional mages like him from the more liberal ones, like Simon. The two groups disagree over the best way to defeat the Humdrum and are very suspicious of each other.

As the novel begins, Simon and Baz are entering their eighth and final year at Watford. Towards the beginning of their first term, the ghost of Baz's mother appears and gives Simon a message about finding her killer. Simon, when he delivers the message to Baz, promises to help him unravel the mystery. From that moment on, the pair call a truce and work together to try and figure out what happened. Their journey leads them to make several startling discoveries about both the Humdrum that threatens their world, and, of course, themselves.

This was a really fun read. Rowell's writing was both emotional and funny, and I really enjoyed both Simon and Baz as characters. I was invested in the story and liked exploring how Rowell played off the tropes common in fantasy novels. She put a lot of clever twists on things and created a cute universe. The magic system was especially unique, as it worked through using idioms and common phrases rather than an established set of permanent spells. As language changes over time, their spells do too. Another aspect I enjoyed was all the diversity and representation in the book. There are a wide array of different cultures and sexualities present, and I didn't catch any glaring stereotypes or problems, like in Eleanor and Park. It felt like a cool, modern fantasy and I had a good time reading it. I even liked the ending, and I don't always feel that way when it comes to young adult fantasy novels. 

My main criticism of the story was in its complicated relationship with Harry Potter. In Fangirl, the Simon Snow books were created to be a stand in for that series so that readers could understand the fanfiction that her protagonist was writing. By making that series real, Rowell was stuck with a lot of  elements that borrow heavily from the Potter books. While she does create an entirely separate universe with its own details, the story definitely shares a lot of similarities with J.K. Rowling's universe. It was very clear that Simon was the Harry of the story, Baz was the Draco, Penelope was the Hermione, the Humdrum was the Voldemort, etc. Again, this story is clearly different in its specifics, but I don't think it completely escapes its origins of being an alternate version of Potter. I'm not sure if this novel would have felt complete if I didn't have the framework of Rowling's books in my mind before reading this one. That being said though, I did still enjoy it a great deal.

After being disappointed in my reread of Eleanor and Park earlier this month, I am glad that I followed it up with Carry On. I really do like the way Rowell writes and builds relationships between her characters, and I was relieved to see that in her later works, her representation of non-white characters has improved.  I was happy to pick up the sequel to this novel next, Wayward Son, and see how Simon and Baz's story continued.

Challenge Tally
Then vs. Now: 14/27

Total Books Read in 2020: 51

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I first read Eleanor & Park back in 2013 and it absolutely wrecked me. This little YA romance made me cry real, ugly tears. I've shed a tear before now and again while reading, but this was different. Something in this story hit me just right and I literally sobbed at the end. It instantly became one of my favorites. Rainbow Rowell has written a handful of novels since this time and I haven't read most of them, so it was an easy decision to revisit Eleanor and Park as one of my Then Versus Now challenge books. It also fits in perfectly with my new StoryGraph Onboarding reading challenge. I started off my reading wondering whether I would be affected the same way I was the first time I read this, or if my feelings would have changed. It ended up being a lot more complicated than that.

Eleanor and Park is an overwhelmingly character-driven novel, so there isn't a lot of plot to describe. Essentially, the entire story centers around the growing romantic relationship between Eleanor Douglas and Park Sheridan, two misfit high school students in Nebraska in 1986. Eleanor is the new girl in town, and her wild mane of red hair and unusual fashion sense instantly make her a target for bullying. She mostly ignores her cruel classmates and focuses her attention on surviving her home life, which isn't easy. Her family lives in poverty and her stepfather is becoming increasingly abusive. Park is a quiet kid that tries to be on good terms with everyone by keeping a low profile. He's half-Korean, and this brings him some unwanted attention from his classmates in the form of ignorant remarks and stereotyping, but he is generally well-liked. He has a pretty good home life too. His family is comfortable financially and his only struggle is meeting the expectations of his father, who he senses is disappointed in his lack of "manliness." 

The pair meet on the school bus one morning, when a lack of open seats forces them together. At first they barely acknowledge each other's presence, but over the course of the school year, they slowly fall in love. The narration switches back and forth between the pair as they discover their feelings for each other and start a romantic relationship. They come to care deeply for each other, but they have to continually sneak around to avoid the notice of Eleanor's stepfather, who has forbidden her to date. When his abusive behavior starts to escalate, the pair must make some difficult choices to keep Eleanor safe.

What this story does extremely well is capture the giddy passion of first love. The relationship between the protagonists feels very genuine and is easy to get lost in. Rowell does an excellent job of making you care about these two misfits. Just like with the first time I read the novel, I was rooting for Eleanor and Park and felt invested in their story. I didn't quite reach the level of sobbing at the ending again, but I think that knowing it was coming ahead of time was a factor in that. 

I was distracted on this second read, however, by how much of the story really hasn't aged well. A lot of the lines regarding Park's Korean heritage made me cringe. In particular, the character of his mother had some issues. She speaks in broken English that feels stereotypical and is almost painful to read now. At one point, she is described as a "china doll," a characterization that is tired and infantilizing. Park also makes several comments that point to a deep self loathing, like a belief that Asian men aren't masculine, for example, that are never really addressed in the text. This begs the question as to why they were included in the first place. Things that I somehow missed on the first reading seemed glaringly obvious now and I was pretty uncomfortable at several points throughout the novel. Over time, I have definitely become more aware of how racism sneaks into writing, and all my alarm bells were going off as I was reading this second time. This book was written in 2013. Rowell probably should have been more sensitive to these issues and I should have been more aware as a reader when I was first encountering them. That being said, I don't think she was deliberately trying to be hurtful at all. I do think that there are real concerns here though, and that they make this novel problematic for a modern reader. This article contains a good summary of what's troubling, if you are interested in learning more.

So now I'm left with deciding exactly how I feel about this novel. When I first read it, it was far and away my favorite young adult novel. Now, however, I don't know if I can say that anymore. I undoubtedly had an important and memorable experience when I read it for the first time, and I do still appreciate the bones of the story. I still love Rowell's writing and I still love both Eleanor and Park as characters. However, I can't overlook its racial issues either. A quick search on Google will turn up lots of other people that take issue with these elements too, so I know I'm not alone here. I can't recommend this book to anyone in good conscience anymore due to how absolutely cringe-inducing many passages are. I guess I'm just stuck in the middle. I like the book, and I treasure the memory of the first time I read it, but I also fully acknowledge that it has problems too. I'm going to refrain from rating it here, and make a note on my favorites page about my concerns. I don't want to forget how deeply I loved this book the first time I read it, but I also can't consider it a true favorite anymore.     

Eleanor and Park has recently come back into the spotlight on Twitter, as Rowell has recently made an announcement that this novel will be made into a movie. Many, many people commented on the racial problems in the text on her Twitter thread, but as of this post, Rowell has chosen not to acknowledge the criticisms. This is disappointing, to say the least. I don't think there would be any harm in admitting that some passages were rough and will be changed for the upcoming film. I'm hoping that the movie version will do this anyway, and update some of the dialogue in order to correct these issues.  As for me, I'm going to try two more of Rowell's works next for the second half of my Then vs. Now Challenge, and hope that her newer novels don't have similar problems.

Challenge Tally
Then vs. Now: 13/27
StoryGraph Onboarding 2020 Challenge: 1/12

Total Books Read in 2020: 50

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The StoryGraph Onboarding 2020 Reading Challenge

I think the last thing I need right now is to take on another reading challenge, but hey, the world is on fire and I'm increasingly bored. So here we are.

StoryGraph is an new reading website that's gotten really popular lately as an alternative to Goodreads. It's still in beta, but it looks really promising and I'm enjoying exploring it. It uses a combination of a reading survey and your past reading history to offer customized book recommendations. It also gives you detailed statistics on the types of books you tend to read. Here's what I learned about myself after importing all my Goodreads information:

Another feature of the website are some reading challenges, one of which is designed to help users explore all the different features of the website. There are twelve prompts in total, and I don't think I will be able to finish them all before the end of the year, but I thought it would be fun to try a few out just to see how good StoryGraph's recommendations really are. 

Here is the list of prompts and the books that I found for them using StoryGraph's different features:

The StoryGraph Onboarding 2020 Reading Challenge

1. Read a book that you find using the filter that has three moods attached to it.
2. Read a book that you find using the filter that has two moods attached and excludes a genre.
3. Read a book that you discovered on our Community page.
4. Read a book that someone suggested for any of the Reading Women Challenge prompts.
5. Reread one of your five-star reads.
6. Read a book that exactly fits another member’s preferred book.
7. Read a book that you’d normally want to remove from the Find A Book page.
8. Read one of your 5 oldest To-Read books.
9. Read a book corresponding to your most-preferred mood.
10. Read a book corresponding to your least-preferred mood.
11. Read a book somebody else on the site marked as DNF.
12. Read a book reviewed by either Tam or Nadia, the challenge hosts.

I'm interested to see how many of these I can get to before the year is out, and to see if the recommendations StoryGraph is giving me really align to my particular interests. It's something to fill the hours with, anyway!