Saturday, August 29, 2020

August Wrap Up

I feel like August went by more quickly than most months have this year. That probably is because I spent a lot of it trying to prepare myself to return to school, a daunting prospect that I tried to distract myself from by reading. I managed to finish quite a few books too. Here's the complete list:

I had two really fantastic reads this month. Both The Custom of the Country and The Poet X became new favorites, for completely opposite reasons. The Custom of the Country had a deliciously awful heroine, while The Poet X had a relatable and inspiring one.

My least favorite of the month was probably Mama's Last Hug, which was a little bit too light on animal content for me. I also didn't love In Dubious Battle or The Haters, a fact that surprised me as I generally love everything both of those authors write.

My reluctance to go back to work aside, there are a few things to look forward to in September. The weather is turning cooler, fall is on the horizon, and the leaves will start to change. The fall and winter months are the coziest reading times for me and I'm looking forward to curling up with a blanket and stack of good books. It won't be so hard to self-quarantine then.

I filled my next TBR with some shorter and lighter novels, as my reading time will be reduced. Here's the lineup:  

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
The Hating Game by Sally Thorne
Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

There are a few novels on this list that I wouldn't have picked without being prompted to by my reading challenges. I'm actually excited to give them a try and see if they surprise me. I'd like to add another classic on here too, if I have the time. I'm going to plan conservatively for now and see what I can add on later if I finish these early.

The Haters by Jesse Andrews

One of the StoryGraph Onboarding Reading Challenge prompts is to read a book that another user marked as DNF (did not finish). So, I started clicking through random users that had DNF lists and scrolled through my options until I came across a book I already owned. I ended up with The Haters by Jesse Andrews. This was an intriguing pick for me, since this is the same author that wrote Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Munmun, both of which I read and loved a few months ago. Those were both 5-star reads for me, so I was really interested to see if I would feel the same way about The Haters. It's not a great sign that I found it on a list of books that someone didn't want to finish, but I couldn't imagine not liking something Jesse Andrews wrote. Accordingly, I went in expecting have a different experience from the reader that gave up on it.

The plot of The Haters follows Wes Doolittle, a high school student living in Pittsburgh. His life revolves pretty much entirely around music--he plays the bass guitar and spends hours listening to albums with his best friend Cody. Both boys have a tendency to be quite critical of different songs and artists, even ones that they truly like, which is why they consider themselves "haters." For them, hating on something is an extension of loving it. 

At the start of the novel, Wes and Cody are attending a summer jazz camp. Right away, they realize that they don't really fit in. They aren't as musically talented as the other campers and they don't feel very passionate about jazz as a musical genre. The one bright spot in their experience is Ash, a quirky guitar player and one of the only girls there. Ash isn't too thrilled with her camp experience either, so after a disastrous first practice, she convinces Wes and Cody to run away from the camp, form a band together, and go on a tour. 

The trio's tour is rife with misadventures from the start. They drive through several states, begging different venues to let them perform. They end up playing in some pretty strange places, including a Chinese buffet, a retired nurse's backyard, and a shady Southern bar. Some of their performances are terrible and some are epic. Along the way, they have to try and stymie the efforts of their parents, who are very worried about them, to find them and bring them home. This comes to include dodging the police after they wind up in some sticky situations. This tour changes their lives forever, and Wes, Cody, and Ash end up learning a lot about themselves, about music, and about the random imperfectness of real life. 

I had mixed feelings about this novel. The best way I can describe it is that it was like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, but without the pathos. Andrews' trademark writing style was definitely on full display here. The characters were his usual mix of naive, sarcastic, introspective, and vulgar. Wes, Cody, and Ash have a lot of funny conversations throughout the story, and the parts of this that were lighthearted were genuinely a good time. However, there were a few moments that I felt like Andrews went overboard with the mature content. There is an overreliance on sexual jokes, gross-out masturbation scenes, and fairly graphic descriptions of sexual encounters. I am not against including these elements in young adult fiction by any means (it is realistic after all), but it grew tiresome here. It seems clear that Andrews intended The Haters to appeal to a male audience, and while I enjoyed most of the novel, I also consistently felt like this book wasn't for me. It seemed like it was exclusively for 15-18 year old boys.

Ash's character wasn't my favorite either. She was a low-level a manic pixie dream girl and seemed to exist purely to push Wes and Cody out of their comfort zones. While she does have some flaws and grows a bit throughout the novel, she's still that impossibly cool girl with the wacky ideas that all the male characters in the novel are chasing after. Wes and Cody are no exception here; they both have sexual encounters with her over the course of the trip and nearly end up destroying their friendship over it. There was also an uncomfortable age issue going on. Ash is 19 in this novel and has already graduated high school, while Wes and Cody are around 16. This isn't a huge deal--they are all still teenagers I suppose, but I couldn't help but wonder why Ash even wanted to mess around with either of them. It's not like they were examples of mature, cool guys. Quite the opposite, in fact. I also couldn't help but note that if the genders were swapped here, I would feel like the encounters were predatory. On top of all that, Ash was often oddly mean and made an absolutely incomprehensible and cruel decision at the end of the story that kind of made the whole plot seem pointless, so all in all, I didn't like her very much.

The Haters was clearly meant to be a more fun and lighthearted novel that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and that's fine, but it also made it less enjoyable overall. I think that Andrews' immature humor and sarcasm works better when his characters are dealing with a serious topic. Then, those quirks become their way of dealing with something difficult. In this case, the characters were just behaving in a reckless manner, so their humor wasn't a coping mechanism, it was just who they were, and the endless dick jokes got old quickly. Andrews also ended the novel on a surprisingly sober note. I felt like he was trying to stir up emotions in the reader than he didn't really earn in the last few pages. 

So ultimately, I didn't like The Haters nearly as much as Jesse Andrews' other novels. It wasn't terrible, but it was too immature for me and didn't give me the poignant experience I have come to expect from his works. I can see why someone would abandon this one. It's definitely not for all readers. It was pretty funny a lot of the time though and, for me, it was very readable. It just wasn't Andrews' best work.  

Challenge Tally
StoryGraph Onboarding 2020 Challenge: 4/12

Total Books Read in 2020: 63

Friday, August 28, 2020

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

One of the Back to the Classics challenge prompts was to read a classic that you started in the past, but ended up abandoning. It's very rare for me to leave a book unfinished, so I had to go all the way back to my college days for a novel that fit this category. In my American literature class, the professor assigned Walt Whitman's classic collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass. I read a bit of it, but then the book ended up being cut when we ran out of time in the semester. Poetry has never been my genre, so I was pretty relieved when that happened and immediately stopped reading it. I always meant to get back to it one day though, as it's one of those seminal American works that I feel like I have to experience. As such, I added this novel to my Classics Club list too. This seemed like a good opportunity to finally give it another try and be able to cross this collection off both challenges.

Walt Whitman first published Leaves of Grass in 1855, and expanded on and republished it over the course of his lifetime. The final version is nearly 500 pages worth of poems written over the course of forty years. I knew from the start of my reading that I was going to have a terrible time if I tried to read it straight through, so I took a slower approach. I started my journey in March, and made my way through the work in bits and pieces in between all the other books I was reading. 

Now that I've finally finished it, I'm not quite sure how to review it. It's a collection of poems written at different points throughout a man's life. I am certainly not enough of an expert on poetry to remark on the quality of the poems or reflect properly on their deeper meaning. Frankly, there were a good chunk of them that I didn't even understand. There were, however, parts of Leaves of Grass that I really liked too. So, since this was a very different reading experience for me, I decided to write this blog post differently. I decided to make a list.

Things I Noticed While Reading Leaves of Grass

1. Walt Whitman loves listing things.

While the poems in Leaves of Grass are about various topics, the structure of many of them are remarkably similar: lists. I don't mean that as a criticism; no one can write a list like Whitman can. It's just a noticeable technique he repeats. A lot. The most famous example of this is probably, "I Hear America Singing," which you probably had to read in school at some point:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
2. Parts of this are absolutely filthy.

I knew going into this work that parts of it were scandalous. Whitman was actually fired from his job at the Department of the Interior when it was first published. I was expecting the objectionable content to be that soft, old-fashioned kind of spicy that is barely detectable by today's standards. Whoa boy, this was not the case. Whitman "sings of the phallus" in his poems. In "I Sing the Body Electric," he talks about his "love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching" and his "limitless limpid jets of love, hot and enormous." This type of content appeared in quite a few poems towards the beginning of the collection. He clearly embraced his sexual side and viewed lovemaking as a transcendent experience, as something that should be celebrated. It was pretty awesome. 

3. Whitman is extremely patriotic.

Many of Whitman's poems are written in celebration of America, and this theme persists throughout most of the sections of the collection. It's clear that he fully believed in the American Dream and loved all the different types of people living and working around him to make the country successful. There are several poems appreciating the natural beauty of different regions (often presented in the form of a list!) and several more poems expressing endless optimism towards the freedom and liberty that characterizes the land. Curiously, he doesn't really comment on the slavery that also characterized the land at this time, which denied freedom and liberty to thousands. I couldn't help but feel that this was a weird omission, and that his view of the world was very privileged, naive, ignorant, or maybe a combination of all three. I wish he would have written more about it. It would be interesting to know his thoughts.

4. The Civil War left a huge impression on Whitman.

 Once the Civil War kicks off, Whitman's poems take a dark turn. Where before there was an explosion of freedom, happiness, and "limitless, limpid jets of love," there now appears soldiers, battles, and death. While Whitman wasn't a soldier in the conflict himself, his brother George was, and he once took a journey across several battle-scarred regions when he believed George might have been gravely injured. What he saw profoundly affected him and served as the inspiration for several poems encouraging the Union soldiers and describing the horrors of war. These were dark and not the most enjoyable to read, but they were interesting in a historical sense. Again, I couldn't help but notice a lack of references to slavery. When Whitman supports the North and celebrates their victories, it is because he is relieved the states are once again united. He doesn't really comment on his feelings about slavery being over.

5. Whitman sure did love Abraham Lincoln.

This goes along with the previous point. Lincoln saved the United States that Whitman so loved, so he was naturally quite devastated when he was assassinated.This is where "O Captain, My Captain" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" live, after all.

6. The poems follow a clear arc from youth to old age.

If you read Leaves of Grass in order, there is definitely a sense of time passing. In the beginning sections of the collection, when Whitman was younger, the poems focus on freedom, sex, and joy. As he gets older, the poems shift to more serious topics, including war and politics. At the end of the collection, the poems begin to talk about death and what might come after. This makes work feel epic in scale. It's truly a grand achievement in poetry.

7. It's better to read this slowly, rather than all at once. 

This might not be true for super-poetry fans, but for me, this collection was way too long to read straight through. While I liked a lot of it and appreciated its scope and creativity, reading poem after poem made them all start to blend together in my mind. It was a much better approach to read smaller sections over time, and give myself breathing space to appreciate and think about the work before moving forward with it.

8. My favorite poem in the collection, and maybe of all time, is "Song of Myself" Verse 52.

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow'd wilds,

It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

"When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer" and "Orange Buds by Mail from Florida" get honorable mentions too. 

So ultimately, Leaves of Grass was a challenging and different kind of read. Poetry still isn't my preferred genre, but it wasn't as tough to make my way through this as I was anticipating. A lot of it was deep and beautiful. I'm glad to have gone back and experienced it. It's an important work and I feel like my knowledge of American classics would be incomplete without it. 

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2020 (An Abandoned Classic): 11/12
Classics Club (#66 on my list): 76/100 books completed

Total Books Read in 2020: 62

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

One of the prompts on the StoryGraph Onboarding Reading Challenge was to read a book that someone suggested for their Reading Women Challenge prompts. I took a look at that challenge and clicked through to see what people recommended for the "read a book by an author from the Caribbean or India." I skimmed through the suggestions until I found a book that I already owned - The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (who is Dominican American). This young adult novel written in verse won an insane amount of awards back when it was published in 2018, including the Michael L. Printz award and the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. I've been wanting to read it for a while now, and this was the perfect opportunity.

This novel follows Xiomara Batista, a tenth grade student growing up in Harlem with her parents and her twin brother Xavier. Xiomara is an outgoing and confident young woman, which often causes her to clash with her parents. They are from the Dominican Republic, and they have a very strict, old-school parenting style. This is especially true of her mother, who is extremely religious and expects Xiomara to be just as devout. She also expects her daughter to take on a large share of the housework and has told her that she is not allowed to date until she is finished with college. This is tough on Xiomara, as she finds herself increasingly uninterested in her religion and increasingly interested in boys. 

As an outlet for her feelings, Xiomara turns to poetry. She has a special notebook that she writes her feelings in everyday in the form of free verse poetry. This is also the way she narrates the entire novel, giving readers an inside look at her passion and talent for the art form. As the story begins, Xiomara finds herself at a bit of a crossroads. Her mother is pressuring her to attend confirmation classes and place more emphasis on church, but she is struggling with religious doubts and her heart isn't in it. Before long, she starts skipping her confirmation classes and attending a spoken word poetry club at her school instead. She falls in love with performing her work and excels at it. She also develops a major crush on a boy in her science class and starts a secret relationship with him. While she doesn't want to make her parents angry, the pull to follow her heart is stronger than her fear of being disobedient. Keeping up all these deceptions proves impossible however, and when her mother discovers what she's been up to, Xiomara must find a way to assert her independence without destroying her family relationships.

This was a beautiful and emotional novel, and by the time I finished reading, I understood why it won so many awards. As Acevedo is Afro-Caribbean herself, she was able to create an extremely authentic voice for Xiomara. Her culture was integral to the story and shone clearly throughout its pages. I really liked reading a story told from a perspective that is different to my own. I also really enjoyed the unique free verse structure, and found it to be both artistic and easy to read. I finished the novel over the course of three hours or so and was totally absorbed in the story the whole time. This is the kind of book that is much more character-driven than plot-driven, which worked well because Xiomara had such a distinctive, likable voice and showed clear growth throughout the story.

Another aspect of The Poet X that I appreciated was how Acevedo was willing to talk about issues that affect young women that I don't often see discussed in young adult literature. For example, the attention from men that girls start receiving after they reach puberty. Xiomara is a naturally curvy girl with a large chest, and this causes her to attract a lot of attention, both wanted and unwanted. She is interested in boys, and is flattered when they find her attractive, but at the same time, she has to fend off vulgar cat calls from strangers and be on her guard against boys touching her without permission. She feels split over the various reactions to her body, which is a completely realistic struggle that most girls go through. Even more realistic is how her maturing body changes her relationship with her mother. Once Xiomara has her first period, her mother becomes hyper-focused on her sexuality. She shames her for trying to use tampons (something that many women believe somehow affects your virginity), forbids her to date or even just hang out with boys, and calls her derogatory names when she discovers her secret boyfriend. This kind of overzealous maternal guarding of teen girls' sexuality is very common and the abrupt shift from being treated like a treasured kid to a suspected deviant is an upsetting fact of life for many women. I appreciated seeing it explored here. Also, Xiomara pleasures herself at one point during the story, and it was written respectfully and beautifully. I see this with teenage male protagonists fairly frequently, but this was the first time I read a female protagonist exploring this aspect of her sexuality. I thought that was pretty cool.

Ultimately, this is one of those novels where reading the summary on its back cover doesn't capture how special the book is. Elizabeth Acevedo created a truly emotional and satisfying coming of age story in The Poet X, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone interested in young adult realistic fiction. However, my recommendation is probably not needed at this point. I'm definitely really late to read this particular novel. Since its publication, Acevedo has written two more books. Both happen to be sitting on my shelves, waiting for me, and I've never been so glad to have stocked up on books I was only guessing  I would enjoy.

Challenge Tally
StoryGraph Onboarding 2020 Challenge: 3/12

Total Books Read in 2020: 61

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

It's no secret here on the blog the Edith Wharton is one of my absolute favorite authors. I've read several of her novels over the years and have thoroughly enjoyed most of them. As such, when I was putting together my Classics Club list, I ended up including four of her books sprinkled among the different categories. The Custom of the Country, a book I picked up so long ago that I can't remember the circumstances I acquired it under, was one of those four. I knew nothing about it prior to starting my reading, but I went into it expecting another novel lampooning early 20th century American society and exploring women's issues. I was not disappointed. 

The novel follows Undine Spragg, a young woman living in New York with her parents. The Spragg family are newly wealthy and Undine has her heart set on worming her way into high society and enjoying all the material pleasures life has to offer. She becomes frustrated, however, when she hasn't managed to insert herself into the right social circles after two years of effort. Even more tiresome, her father is constantly trying to curtail her spending on expensive dresses, restaurants, and travel. She always manages to wheedle the money she wants out of her parents in the end, but the process of doing so is deeply annoying to her and she has no concept of why her father doesn't immediately acquiesce to her requests.

Her fortunes finally take a turn, however, when she catches the eye of Ralph Marvell. Ralph is a young man with literary ambitions from a prominent old New York family. He is immediately entranced by Undine's beauty and views her lack of familiarity with upper-class manners and customs to be refreshing. He notices her tendency towards the superficial, but he chalks this up to her youth and believes that he can elevate her interests and behavior over time. He eventually proposes to her and the pair marry.

It doesn't take long for Ralph to realize that Undine's love of society and material wealth is an integral part of her personality and is not going to change. He is unable to get her to take an interest in art, literature, or music and her continual need to be at social engagements and have the latest fashions is depleting their money much faster than he can replenish it. He is forced to give up his ambitions to write and take a job in business, which he dislikes and is terrible at. Undine is similarly unhappy in the marriage. Much like her attitude towards her father, she does not understand why Ralph is incapable of providing her with unlimited funds. Furthermore, she finds his respectable family to be stuffy and his intellectual interests insufferable. The pair has a son in the first year of their marriage, and even this doesn't soften her feelings towards family life. Undine sees the boy as little more than an inconvenience to her social calendar. She regrets the marriage and begins to set her sights on securing a different husband--one with more money that can boost her further up in the social scene.  However, she badly underestimates how her friends will react to her obtaining a divorce and she soon finds herself struggling to maintain the lifestyle she so desires. Undine is a ruthless climber though, and she won't go down without a fight.

This novel was fantastic, and as is typical in an Edith Wharton novel, it delivered a lot of social commentary. Wharton explores several topics, including the difference between old and new money, the role of women in marriage, the effects of divorce, the superficiality of the upper classes, and the cutthroat nature of the social game. By following an unscrupulous character for most of the story, she is able to use sarcasm and irony to great effect. Undine's successes are clearly society's failings, and she is merciless in her depiction of the nouveaux riche and the vulgar, frivolous atmosphere they cultivate. 

At the same time, however, Wharton gives her characters depth and nuance. Undine is selfish and careless to an incredible degree, but she is also shown to be a product of her rather toxic environment. As one of the characters explains, the "custom of the country" is for American businessmen to devote all of their passion and effort to their various money-making schemes without including their wives as equal partners in it. It is the man's job to make the money and the wife's job to spend it. Under these conditions, women become completely fixated on acquiring dresses, eating at fashionable restaurants, and traveling all over the world. It's how they fill their hours and show their strength. Undine's zeal to climb to the top is not so different from any of the ambitious male characters around her, it's just that a woman's path to success during this time lies in what she can get through strategic marriage and friendships instead of business acumen. Despite her missteps throughout the novel, she excels more often than not at this game and it's fascinating and scandalous to watch it develop. Undine is not likable at all, but I didn't hate her. I couldn't wait to see what she'd do next.

In addition to the strong themes and characters, the pacing in this novel was excellent. There were enough twists and turns to keep things interesting and I stayed engaged all throughout my reading. I've read a lot of classics that I appreciated for their literary importance, but was personally bored by. This was not the case here. The Custom of the Country is excellent reading on its own. It doesn't need allowances or excuses made for it due to its age. The language was beautiful as well. I've always admired Wharton's style, and this novel is a fine example of her wit and wordplay. Of course, I'm biased, as Wharton has long been one of my favorites, but anyone who is a fan of Wharton's other works, like The Age of Innocence, or The House of Mirth, should definitely give this one a try.

So obviously, I really enjoyed The Custom of the County. It's a new favorite for me and I'm so happy that I made it a part of my Classics Club list. This was a special delight because I got to enjoy a writer I love in a totally new way. Rather than focus in on a sympathetic protagonist struggling against the unfair rules of society, I got to spend time with a character who was decidedly part of the problem. Undine was such a monster, and I loved it, start to finish.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#36 on my list): 77/100 books completed

Total Books Read in 2020: 60

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Mama's Last Hug by Frans de Waal


A lot of the nonfiction I have read over the years is about animals. In particular, I like to read about animals that are intelligent, like chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, and octopuses. There's just something about smart creatures that fascinates me. When I saw Mama's Last Hug on a display at Barnes and Noble, I knew that I had to pick it up. Like many, I had seen the viral video of the elderly chimp named Mama who perked up and embraced a scientist she had known for forty years as she lay dying. Her actions in the video seem to clearly express love and joy, emotions that are supposed to belong to humans. A few years ago, I read Beyond Words by Carl Safina, so I was already familiar with the idea that animals experience many emotions like humans do, but I was still interested to learn more. Accordingly, I made Mama's Last Hug one of the books in my True Books Challenge for this year. I decided to give it a try this month and see if it would be as interesting as I hoped.

Frans de Waal begins this novel by outlining his strong belief that animals and humans experience the same emotions. He explains that emotions are different from feelings; emotions are automatic responses to different situations and feelings are how we privately react to those emotions. Emotions are observable and can be studied. Thus, it is possible to recognize and analyze how animals show them.  The book is divided into several sections, each focusing on a different concept, including joy, empathy, guilt, and grief. In each chapter, de Waal discusses how both humans and animals display the emotions being discussed and backs up his assertions with examples from scientific studies and observations drawn from his own experiences. Throughout the course of his analysis, it becomes clear that animals live rich, emotional lives, and that they are not as far separated from humans as we may think.

Despite my interest in this subject matter, Mama's Last Hug was not a particularly fun read. It wasn't terrible, and Frans de Waal clearly knows his stuff, but something about it just didn't come together for me. Mainly, I thought that the chapters were a bit unfocused and too heavy on the philosophizing. I found myself wanting more detailed content on animals. Instead, most of the writing consisted of de Waal making his case about emotions. Information about animals was only lightly sprinkled in among his thoughts. I wish it had been the other way around. As it was, I was frequently bored while reading.

Also, there were a few instances where I thought de Waal's ideas were overly simplified, or outdated. For example, in a chapter focusing on power, he makes the claim that women in politics only become electable after they reach menopause. He states that, "women begin to appeal as leaders only after they have become invisible to the male gaze by leaving their reproductive years behind." He cites examples such as Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel to support this point, but he completely ignores the success of women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jacinda Ardern, who are both younger, attractive, and successful leaders. As this book came out in 2019, there's no excuse for these omissions, and I think it's safe to say that the reasons young women are underrepresented in politics are more complex that he suggests. He goes onto say that women did not support John McCain in the 2008 election because they subconsciously perceived Sarah Palin as a sexual rival. I am a woman and it's true that I did not support John McCain in the 2008 election, but I'm pretty confident that it wasn't because I felt sexually threatened by Sarah Palin. This kind of assertion really sells women short and feels hopelessly out of touch. There were a few more instances like this that popped up and left a bad taste in my mouth. It was very clear that an older man was writing this text. 

So unfortunately, Mama's Last Hug was not my favorite read. Carl Safina's Beyond Words handled the same topic in a much more engaging way and I would definitely recommend that book over this one. Still, I did pick up a few interesting bits of information during my reading and came away from the experience feeling more connected to the animal world. It's too bad that I was left wanting more. This book is headed to my donate pile. Hopefully, someone else out there will enjoy it more than I did.

Challenge Tally

True Books 2020: 11/14

Total Books Read in 2020: 59

Sunday, August 16, 2020

In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck


As I've mentioned before, John Steinbeck is one of my favorite classic authors. I've made my way through most of his major works over the years, but I never got around to In Dubious Battle, so I decided to make it part of my Then Versus Now Challenge. I didn't know much about this one before I got started, so I did a little research before reading.

I learned that this novel is the first in what came to be known as Steinbeck's Dustbowl Trilogy. In Dubious Battle, along with Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath all focus on the working class during the Great Depression. The novels aren't connected to each other in a narrative sense, but each one takes place in California and offers a sympathetic look at people on the lower rungs of society during this difficult time period. Each book in the series focuses on a different issue--The Grapes of Wrath focuses on migrant workers, Of Mice and Men focuses on the fleeting nature of the American Dream, and In Dubious Battle, as I was soon to learn, focuses on labor rights and communism. 

The story follows Jim Nolan, a man who has become completely disillusioned. He's worked hard all of his life, but has very little to show for it. He's also lost both of his parents fairly recently, his father through violence over a labor dispute and his mother through an illness combined with a loss of her will to live. As a result, he's lost his sense of connection with the world and is seeking some meaningful purpose. He settles on joining the Communist Party and meets up with a local organizer, Mac, who takes him under his wing. He starts off with the simple task of typing letters, but his depression starts to lift once he begins working for a cause he believes in.

Before long, a dispute between the apple pickers and the farm owners in Torgas Valley catches the Party's attention. Mac is sent to try and organize the workers and rally as many of them as possible to their cause. Sensing promise in Jim, he brings him along to teach him the ropes. Jim is excited to learn and take on more responsibilities, but he soon becomes frustrated as Mac repeatedly refuses to allow him to do much on his own. Instead, as Mac begins laying the groundwork to encourage the workers to strike, Jim follows him around, observing his methods. 

Through a skillful blend of deception and persuasion, Mac and Jim are able to rally the workers together to strike. Things start off well enough, but it soon becomes apparent that they face a difficult battle. The wealthy citizens of Torgas Valley are extremely adept at breaking strikes and employ a wide range of tactics to run the workers off. The men themselves are also difficult to keep motivated and making sure they stay angry enough to continue fighting is a consistent problem. To make matters even worse, Mac and Jim are almost immediately identified as Communist interlopers by the authorities, meaning that they are now the special targets of police and local vigilantes. Despite these challenges, however, they remain committed to their mission to support the strike and drum up public support for labor reform. As the novel progresses, Mac and Jim must decide the best way to see their job through to the end, whatever the outcome may be.

I had mixed feelings on In Dubious Battle, but one element that I thought was interesting was the way Steinbeck explored Communism. Unlike other books I have read that dealt with this philosophy, he left his thoughts on the matter ambiguous. By not taking a side, he was able to leave a lot of questions open to the reader. For example, how important are the needs of a few individuals compared with the needs to further a movement? What about when you know your movement has no chance of succeeding? Is it still okay to ask people to make huge personal sacrifices then? Throughout the story, Mac tells several lies in order to gain the trust of the workers, some of which have absolutely disastrous consequences for people that truly don't deserve it. Similarly, he knows from the start of the strike that it is doomed to failure. He says so several times. Still, he reasons that all of these sacrifices are worth it if it helps spread sympathy and awareness for the Party. Depending on how you think about the situation, Mac and Jim are either incredibly selfish or devoted activists, and it was interesting to turn that question around in my head. 

Jim's growth was also engaging to follow. As the story progresses, he goes from being completely disaffected and aimless to being an eager and inspired leader. His experiences speak to the importance of feeling valued and necessary - of having a goal to work towards that feels righteous. Once he is put into a situation where he has these things he flourishes, even though Mac holds him back from fully participating in Party activities for most of the story. However, the nature of his cause also brings out a rather merciless side of him. In his zeal to protect the rights of workers, he is willing to tell any number of falsehoods and sacrifice an awful lot of lives, which led me to wonder how beneficial his growth actually was for him. These questions only deepened upon finishing the novel and seeing his ultimate fate.

What wasn't so enjoyable for me though, was the pacing of the story. At 269 pages, this was a relatively short book, but it felt long to read. I love Steinbeck's writing, and this was no exception, but the plot was so repetitive that I couldn't help but feel bored throughout a lot of it. Most of the novel was spent watching the characters wonder the same few things over and over. How can we win the men's trust? Will the men stay angry enough? What will the landowners do next? What should our next move be? How will we get more food? How can we get the men to fight? It quickly became too repetitive. This issue, plus the fact that very few characters in the story were likable, combined to create a rather dull reading experience. This felt strange; Steinbeck's serious novels have always had a strong emotional impact on me. I just couldn't bring myself to care as much about what was going on in this story as I usually do.

I eventually want to read all of Steinbeck's novels, so I'm not upset that I read In Dubious Battle, but it's not one of my favorites. It wasn't bad, but my expectations for Steinbeck are sky-high and this story didn't deliver for me. What it did do effectively was raise interesting questions about sacrifice and the needs of the many versus the needs of the few, especially considering its abrupt and brutal ending. Overall, I mildly enjoyed it and I am happy to have crossed another Steinbeck novel off my list.


Then vs. Now: 17/27

Total Books Read in 2020: 58

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

One of my favorite classics of all time is Of Mice and Men, but I haven't read it since high school. I remember finishing this book way ahead of my assignment due dates because I couldn't put it down. I finished it during gym class (our teacher was out sick and we were just sitting in the bleachers that period), and I was completely devastated. It was one of those heart-pounding, truly moving reading experiences. Thinking back, this was one of the first books that got me interested in classic literature. When I was putting together my Then Vs. Now Challenge list, I knew that I had to revisit this one and see if I still felt the same was about it now as I did when I was 15. 

The plot of this novel centers around George Milton and Lennie Small, two drifters traveling together around California looking for work. Their goal is to save enough money to get their own place one day and live off of their own land. However, they struggle to work one job long enough to save anything. Lennie has an intellectual disability and operates at the mental level of a small child. This, coupled with his large frame and prodigious strength leads the pair into a lot of trouble. Lennie is an innocent with a heart of gold, but he continually gets himself into bad situations due to his lack of understanding of social rules. George does the best he can to teach him how to act and protect him from the cruelty of others, but his effectiveness is limited. The pair continually has to flee to new towns for fresh starts. 

As the story begins, George and Lennie are about to start a new job harvesting barley on a ranch. They are hoping that this will finally be the situation that works out - that this will finally be the job they can stay on long enough to put together enough cash to buy their own land. They even find another person to help them with a deposit, an old worker named Candy, who lost a hand working the ranch years ago and is worried about losing his job as a result. They only need to last another month to get their funds together, but their goals are complicated by another man named Curley. Curley is the son of the ranch owner, and has an extremely aggressive temperament. His new wife is also troublesome, as she constantly flirts with the other workers behind Curley's back. Both of these characters clash with Lennie in disastrous ways, leaving George with some difficult decisions to make in order to keep his friend safe.

This story is absolutely gut-wrenching and it hit me hard reading it for a second time. I believe that reading it as an adult is a much more emotional experience than reading it as a teenager. Having been responsible for students as a teacher and having experienced married life gave me a whole new level of connection to the text, and I was actually sobbing as I finished the story this time around. Steinbeck's writing is simple in this short novel, but he manages to tell an extremely thoughtful and heartfelt story about friendship, kindness, responsibility, and the casual cruelty of strangers.

I found myself thinking a lot about power while reading this novel, and how people choose to exercise it over others. Many of the characters use their power in cruel ways, designed to serve some broken part of themselves. Curley uses his status as the son of the ranch owner and his physical abilities as a fighter to constantly harass and threaten the men working below him. He is a short man and a weak man and he wants to feel big. His wife uses the power of her sexuality to tempt the men around her. She is lonely and unfulfilled in her marriage and she wants to feel loved. Both of these characters terrorize Lennie simply because his diminished mental capacity makes him an easy target. They also behave terribly towards the only black person working on the ranch, a man named Crooks, because the racism of the time period allows them to. Both behave as badly as they can get away with and abuse whatever power they have over others. 

The contrast to this behavior is George, who uses his power in a much more positive way. He does everything he can to protect Lennie, even though he is not related to him and has no formal obligations to stay with him. Lennie himself says several times throughout the novel that George can just leave him if he's too much trouble, and that he will disappear into the mountains and fend for himself. George, however, refuses to abandon him. In a world where most of the other characters use whatever leverage they have to serve their own selfish ends, George actually helps someone occupying a lower place in society than him. Other characters comment on how odd this is - how you rarely see two friends travelling together and helping each other out. It's like trying to be kind is the exception rather than the rule. After reading the novel and seeing how his efforts turn out, its clear that even the best intentions often aren't enough to overcome the seemingly innate cruelty of the world.

I was left wondering, is the real world that tough? Is kindness a rare and often futile gesture in the face of the overwhelming selfishness of others? Granted, Of Mice and Men isn't the perfect coda to our reality. None of the characters are perfect and the plot is more complex than a simple question of good versus bad. However, looking around at the state of things in the U.S. at this moment, one does have to wonder how the ratio between selfishness and kindness looks. Are there more Curleys or more Georges in the world? How many kind actions actually overcome the meanness projected by everyone else?

I don't mean to sound so pessimistic here. Of course I believe that being kind is important no matter what anyone else is doing. This novel did make me think quite a lot about those kinds of questions though and explore the different ways people can use their power. It's nice to go back and reread classics for this reason. I certainly wasn't pondering the ties between social status and behavior when I was a teenager sitting in the bleachers finishing this novel for the first time, but revisiting it made me think about aspects of the text that I didn't pay much attention to before.

No matter how many times I end up reading Of Mice and Men though, it will stay a favorite for me. It's an emotional, simple masterpiece exploring both the best and worst of humanity. I have liked pretty much all of the Steinbeck novels I have read over the years, but this one is truly special. 

Challenge Tally
Then vs. Now: 16/27

Total Books Read in 2020: 57

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter

The first prompt in the StoryGraph Onboarding Challenge is to read a book that you find using their filter that has three moods attached to it. Vassa in the Night, by Sarah Porter, is tagged as being adventurous, dark, and mysterious. It also happens to be the very first book on the list that StoryGraph recommends for me. The StoryGraph website orders their recommendations for you based on a detailed survey about your reading tastes. Vassa in the Night was the book that their algorithm predicts I will like the most. I had never heard of this novel before, so I was very interested in seeing if it would actually become a new favorite.

I'd never heard of this author before either, so I did a little research before getting started. Sarah Porter is the author of eight young adult fantasy novels, none of which I was familiar with before I started my reading. Vassa in the Night is her fifth novel and is a retelling of the old Russian folktale, Vassilissa the Beautiful. Now, I love fairy tale retellings, and I told StoryGraph this information on my survey, so this recommendation was seemingly dead-on. However, what StoryGraph doesn't know, and would have no way of predicting, is that I've never found a story including Baba Yaga that I have truly loved. Nevertheless, I was willing to go in with an open mind and give this one a shot.  

The plot of the novel centers around Vassa, a high school student living with her stepmother and stepsisters in an alternate, surreal version of Brooklyn. Her birth mother passed away a few years ago and her father walked out on her a little while after that. She gets along well enough with the family she has left, but she is feeling a bit melancholy and aimless as the story begins. Her closest companion is Erg, a tiny wooden doll that she keeps in her pocket. Erg can walk, talk, and seems to have deeper magical gifts as well. She was a gift from Vassa's mother, and Vassa has sworn to keep her safe and secret. 

Erg isn't the only magic present in the universe of the story. Vassa's Brooklyn is full of it, but most normal people give it a very wide birth. The uncanny is violent and unpredictable here and it's foolish to involve yourself in it unnecessarily. The most notable example of this is BY's - a supermarket that dances around on chicken legs and displays the heads of shoplifters on spikes around its parking lot. Vassa has always steered clear of the place, but a series of events leads her to make midnight shopping trip there at the beginning of the novel.

Once inside, she meets the proprietress, an old woman named Babs and, thanks to some magical shenanigans, is almost immediately accused of shoplifting. She talks her way out of a beheading, and agrees instead to work at BY's for three nights in exchange for her life. Each night, Babs sets her a seemingly impossible task to complete, but with Erg's help, she manages to get most of them done. However, as she struggles, she comes to learn that she is not the only being that Babs is controlling, and her focus shifts from her own survival to saving others and taking down Babs once and for all.

This story was pretty good, and my summary falls woefully short of describing all the bizarre, fantastical elements that Porter includes in this world. This kind of setting definitely won't be for all readers, but I really enjoyed all of the weird details that made up Vassa's Brooklyn. Figuring out now the magic worked was very engaging and impossible to predict. The novel as a whole felt like a fever dream. Still, Vassa was a very relatable character and her struggle to defeat Babs and grow as a person was compelling. The themes in the story were similarly strong, focusing on family and friendship over romantic desires. The story had a lot of heart and it was a good retelling of a classic tale.

What I couldn't escape, however, was my random dislike of Baba Yaga stories. I've read a few books including this classical character over the years, most notably Gregory Maguire's Egg and Spoon, and I've just never fully enjoyed her. I respect her literary and cultural significance, but she just isn't my thing. In Vassa in the Night, Babs is the reimagining of this character and I couldn't help but dislike her meanness. She's a character with a really cruel and violent edge to her, and her brand of villainy just does not appeal to me. Anyone that is into Russian folklore, however, will probably absolutely love her portrayal here. I looked up Vassalisa the Beautiful, the folktale this novel is based on, and I do think that this is a clever and well-written retelling. This is simply a case of personal preference diminishing my enjoyment.    

Overall, I did think this was a worthwhile and really unique read. It didn't becomes a special favorite, but I'm still glad to have experienced it. I think that StoryGraph did a nice job matching me with this book, as its aspects of being adventurous, dark, and mysterious were a great choice for me. The fact that it was a fairy tale retelling was also great for me. It could never have known that I don't love Baba Yaga, so I won't hold that against it. I'm looking forward to continuing to use this website and checking out more of its recommendations in the future.

Challenge Tally
StoryGraph Onboarding 2020 Challenge: 2/12

Total Books Read in 2020: 56