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:
Saturday, August 29, 2020
Total Books Read in 2020: 63
Friday, August 28, 2020
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.
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.
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.
Back to the Classics 2020 (An Abandoned Classic): 11/12
Total Books Read in 2020: 62
Wednesday, August 26, 2020
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.
Total Books Read in 2020: 61
Tuesday, August 18, 2020
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.
True Books 2020: 11/14
Total Books Read in 2020: 59
Sunday, August 16, 2020
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.
Total Books Read in 2020: 58