Saturday, October 31, 2020

October Wrap Up


October ended up being a pretty awful reading month for me. It's a shame, because I had been saving up some of my darker reads for now and I was excited to do a little seasonal theming. I ended up completely losing my reading momentum with The Last Man, which I did not enjoy at all. I compounded the problem next by picked up The Witches, which was interesting, but way too dense for my mood at the time. I ended up only finishing three books and falling woefully short of my goals. Here's what I ended up completing:

I'm hoping to get myself back on track in November. My goal is to finish reading the books I set for myself in October and then continue chipping away at my other reading challenges as best I can. Here's my list:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey 
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
The Last Policeman by Ben Winters
Thorn by Intisar Khanani
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

When I'm not enjoying reading, I don't feel like myself. Hopefully November will set me straight again. 

The Witches by Stacy Schiff

After the disaster that was reading The Last Man, I was anxious to get into another book and revive my interest in reading. Next up on my list was The Witches by Stacy Schiff. This nonfiction novel about the Salem witch trials was part of my True Books 2020 Challenge. I had been saving this one until October to read, as it seemed to be a good match for the season. I live close enough to Salem to go there for a weekend, so I was hoping to learn about all about what happened back in 1692, and then go see some of the historical sites. Covid has ruined that plan, at least for now, but I was still interested to learn about this weird part of American history.

The Witches is an extremely detailed account of the hysteria that gripped Salem in 1692 when a group of teenage girls went into strange fits and began accusing their neighbors of practicing witchcraft. As their Puritan community believed wholeheartedly in the existence of witches, the girls' stories were taken seriously and the accused were arrested and put on trial. The Puritan community was soon turned on its head, as more and more accusations were made and more and more "witches" were rounded up and put in prison. Some were prosecuted and were put to death, while others saved themselves by confessing to consorting with the devil and naming other witches for the witch hunters to round up. Neighbors accused neighbors, daughters accused mothers, and husbands accused wives. Before the fervor died down, Massachusetts executed fourteen women, five men, and two dogs for witchcraft, and imprisoned many more. The incident tore the community apart and left deep wounds that took generations to heal.

Schiff conveys the story chronologically, starting by giving the reader a picture of how Salem was founded and what it was like to live there in the 1690s. From there, she describes the initial accusations and traces how the fear and suspicion always present in Salem started a runaway sequence of events that led to a lot of innocent people being killed. She discusses the trials themselves, the executions that took place, and the eventual petering out of the mayhem once it became unsustainable. The Salem Witch Trials are one of those events from history that seem unbelievable, but Schiff does a nice job giving as much context and reasoning as possible to explain how it happened.

I learned a lot of interesting things from this novel, but not without a price. This was obviously a well-researched and expertly constructed account, but part of it were very dry. The middle of the story was especially challenging, as it felt like a lot of the same type of information being given over and over. There are only so many accounts of ridiculously false testimony you can read before getting bored. There were also a lot of moments where Schiff detoured into the background of various people, which I felt stopped the momentum of the book. Additionally, there were a lot of names to keep track of, and I found it impossible to keep everyone straight. It wasn't necessary to remember exactly who everyone was to understand the overall narrative, but it did bother me a bit that I couldn't recall who everyone was as I was reading. 

Overall, I did enjoy my experience with The Witches, but I found parts of it difficult to get through. I think that maybe I wasn't in the right mood for another long, dense read after The Last Man, so part of this is my fault. I ended up learning a lot though, so it was a successful experience. I won't remember this as one of my favorite nonfiction reads, but I will definitely remember what I learned about history from it. I am still hoping to visit Salem myself one day, once this Covid nightmare is over. 

Challenge Tally

True Books 2020: 13/14

Total Books Read in 2020: 72

The Last Man by Mary Shelley

Trigger warning: This novel is about a plague that ends humanity, so anyone struggling with anxiety about Covid might want to steer clear.  

After finishing Frankenstein earlier this month, I moved onto another novel by Mary Shelley, The Last Man. I picked this up for my Then Versus Now Challenge. Prior to doing research for this challenge, I had no idea that Mary Shelley even wrote any other novels, and I was really interested to try something else from her. I have a very high opinion of Frankenstein, so I went into my reading hoping for something with similar, creepy vibes, or maybe another novel full of interesting psychological questions. What I ended up getting was depression, one literal nightmare, and quite a bit of disappointment.

The novel begins with a framing device - an unnamed narrator, while exploring a cave on a holiday in Greece, stumbles into the long lost cave of an ancient Seer. He finds several papers scattered around the cave, which he translates and assembles into a manuscript. The manuscript contains the story of the last man alive on earth, which the seer recorded from a prophetic vision she received centuries ago. The narrator shares this manuscript with us, and that forms the plot of the novel. In this way, the novel is supposed to be a glimpse into our future, and explains the story of how humanity will end from the point of view of the last living person.

The narrator of the manuscript is Lionel Verney, a young man living in England in the year 2074. He begins by explaining his history, beginning with his birth to a disgraced nobleman. Due to the tarnished reputation of his father, he starts out in a lowly station in life until he meets and befriends a young man named Adrian, the Earl of Windsor. The monarchy has been abolished in favor of a democratic republic by this time, but the royal family has retained social prominence and titles. Adrian lifts Lionel up out of his rough, gloomy life and introduces him to art, music, and culture. They become like brothers and from that moment forward, he lives the life of a gentleman. The path Adrian sets him on eventually leads him to Idris, his one true love. It also introduces Lionel's beloved sister Perdita to Lord Raymond, another prominent nobleman that she eventually marries. Both couples go on to have children and live together in a manor in the idyllic English countryside.

Before long, however, their happy world is shattered by an unusually virulent plague that sweeps from Middle Eastern and Asian nations to the rest of the world. The sickness doesn't discriminate; both rich and poor people become infected equally, and all who contract it die. Lionel and his friends try quarantining and helping the ill as much as they can, but unlike previous versions of the plague that they have encountered, this one doesn't gradually fade away. Instead, it becomes stronger, taking more and more people each day. Years go by with all of humanity living in constant fear of being sick. As population grows smaller and smaller, Lionel and his family decide to gather as many survivors together as possible and leave England to seek their fortunes elsewhere. They are hoping to find a safe haven, but they soon discover that the illness follows them wherever they go. Throughout it all, Lionel records their struggles and reactions to the tragedy unfolding around them, presenting a harrowing story about the end of mankind.

The Last Man was a difficult read for me, for reasons beyond the heavy subject matter. Right from the beginning, pacing was an issue. This novel is about 500 pages, and the plague doesn't enter into matters until right around page 200. All the time prior to that was spent detailing Lionel's life, which is full of dramatic turns of fortune and cliched romances that feel like they belong in a much older book. This novel was published in 1826, but it felt like it could have been 50 years earlier. I was reminded of Tom Jones or Don Quixote a bit while reading, just without the comedy. The characters had that similar feel of being larger than life with clear, distinctive personality traits, but at the same time being completely unbelievable as human beings. Flat and overly virtuous, they did nothing to engage me in their stories and I consistently struggled to feel any connection to them. This beginning section was, simply put, dreadfully boring, and it took me longer than it should have to get through. I just wasn't excited to pick it up.

In addition to being an apocalyptic novel, this also falls partially into roman à clef territory, with Shelley modeling Adrian and Lord Raymond after her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her friend, Lord Byron, respectively. As such, her descriptions of them are overly effusive in their praise, to the point of ridiculousness. Both Adrian and Raymond are impossible attractive, good, and noble characters, and the narrator is sure to remind us of this at every available opportunity. I believe at one point, Lionel waxes poetic about Adrian's eyelashes. Much of the narration did not read like a man speaking about dear friends. It read like an infatuated woman describing men she was attracted to, which is exactly what it was. This further damaged the unbelievability of the characters and further disconnected me from the story.

Another consistent issue while reading was the world-building, which was almost non-existent. It was very easy to forget that this story was taking place in the distant future because almost nothing was different than how the world would have been in 1826. I don't blame Mary Shelley for not being able to predict future technology accurately. After all, the world we live in today would be utterly unrecognizable to her, and The Last Man takes place over fifty years from right now. However, I do think some attempt should have been made at depicting future advancements. This novel starts off in the year 2074 and ends up around the year 3000, and people are still traveling by horse and carriage and living and working the same way they did in the 19th century. Aside from a throwaway reference to traveling by air in a balloon-type conveyance and her prediction that England would eventually do away with the monarchy, there were no details that would suggest this novel is set in the future. In an attempt to gloss over this, Shelley actually gives very few specific details about how life works for her characters, which had the effect of making the setting quite bland. Much like in Frankenstein, she wrote a story that was technically science fiction, but she was not interested in the details of how her world worked. However, her omission of specifics was fine in Frankenstein. The novel was short and the vagueness increased its mystery and suspense. Here, however, in a 500 page novel, the omission of details was a noticeable flaw that made the story worse. 

I could really continue on at length describing issues I had with this book, but the last one I'll get into here was the endless misery of the plot. This is an apocalyptic book about a deadly pandemic. Obviously, it was not intended to be lighthearted. However, its slow pacing and relatively empty plot made the dread, fear, and sadness of the characters very difficult to endure. Once the plague comes into the story, we have about 300 pages of abject suffering as the characters move from place to place, slowly dying. As I mentioned before, the characters weren't realistic enough to actually get attached to, so the reading wasn't difficult because it was emotionally draining. It was difficult because it was boring and joyless. The plot didn't really raise interesting questions or make astute observations about humanity. It was just abject misery for hundreds of pages. To make matters worse, at one point I fell asleep while reading and had a terrible dream that my husband was slowly dying from a plague, which was an absolutely terrible experience. I don't think the fact that we are currently in a pandemic influenced this reaction. It was just that I was reading page upon page of people dying in this book and it bubbled up in my sleep. I don't think a book has ever given me an actual nightmare before, so this was a first for me.

There was very little that I liked about The Last Man. I didn't mind the ending, which I thought contained the right amount of melancholy, for once. I also thought some of the writing was beautiful. There are a handful of quotes throughout the pages that struck me as quite smart and relatable to the current situation the world is in right now. However, anything good about this novel was swallowed up in the dreary, largely uneventful plot and unrealistic character portrayals. This was undoubtedly my worst reading experience of the year, because not only is this poorly written (my unenlightened opinion, I know), it spoiled all my reading momentum for the month. I'm not going to get to half the books I wanted to read in October, and it's because of this novel. It made me want to avoid reading, which is not a feeling I'm used to having. I literally never quit books. If I did, I would have quit reading this one.

 Challenge Tally

Then vs. Now: 21/27

Total Books Read in 2020: 71


Friday, October 9, 2020

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley


October is the perfect time for spooky reads, so I wisely saved Frankenstein for this month. It's one of my favorite classics and I've read it a handful of times over the years. I've never blogged about it here though, so I decided to include it in my Then Versus Now Challenge. I'll be comparing it with another Mary Shelley novel (The Last Man) later on in the month. Now, I know what you're thinking - Mary Shelley wrote another novel? She did, in fact. She published somewhere in the neighborhood of seven fiction novels and did some travel writing and poetry editing as well. Frankenstein is by far her most famous and well-known work though, and the impact it's had on the world of horror and science fiction is incredible. Everyone, even people who have never read the novel, have a basic idea of what it's about, and new adaptations of the story continue to come out year after year. It's one of those larger than life novels that has grown to be more than just its 200 pages.

The plot of the novel concerns Victor Frankenstein, a brilliant young scientist who manages to discover the secret of how to create a living being while attending university. He becomes obsessed with the idea of actually creating life and works feverishly on constructing a man. He succeeds in doing this, but once his creature takes its first breath, he is immediately horrified by what he has done. The creature repulses him, with its large proportions and garish facial features and he immediately abandons it. 

The creature, who remains unnamed, goes out into the world alone and manages to educate himself. His unnatural appearance causes everyone to shun him, so he has to live in isolation, learning skills like reading and speaking by spying on others. Once he has learned enough about society to understand that he can never really participate in it, he becomes enraged at his abandonment. Eventually, he tracks his creator down and asks him to build a mate for him. Victor at first agrees to his request, but later finds that he can't in good conscience release another monster into the world. His change of heart enrages the creature, who embarks on a quest of revenge that threatens everyone Frankenstein holds dear. Realizing his creation must be stopped, Victor embarks on a quest to destroy his monster at all costs. 

One of the best things about Frankenstein is how deep it is. This isn't just a scary story about a monster; in fact, its exploration of morals and ethics is a more prominent feature of the text than its horror elements. The book raises a lot of complex questions. For example, Is it possible to take scientific discovery too far? Should some theories be left untested? Is Victor solely responsible for the actions of his creation, or is the monster, once educated, responsible for himself? Did Victor have a duty to create a mate for the creature to save his family, or was he right to abandon that plan? If he killed his creation, would it be murder? This is a fun book to discuss with other readers, because different opinions will inevitably prevail. Myself, I can't help but side with the monster most of the time. I don't condone his violence, but I understand his anguish. Shelley did an excellent job creating a sympathetic antagonist in him. He is an interesting character, with layers of feelings and motivations.

Another strength of this novel is its atmosphere. From the picturesque mountains of Geneva to the desolate Arctic glaciers, Mary Shelley presents a rich world that perfectly suits her dark story. Her description of the monster is very creepy as well. Frankenstein tried to create him to be beautiful, but he soon discovers the the large, long proportions he chose, flowing black hair, and stretched skin are monstrous when brought to life. He has the shape of a human, but there is enough that is off about him to make everyone that sees him recoil in horror. Imagining what this would look like is great fun and gives the story a truly dark mood. While there aren't a lot of flashy action sequences here, Shelley is very effective at building a quieter kind of horror that grows and grows throughout the novel. The suspense is terrific and I was totally engaged in the story, even though I have read it several times before.

There is one element of the story that does bother me, however - Victor's near-constant fits of nerves and fainting spells. There are several sections of the story in which his guilty conscience and grief leave him in a coma-like state. He is laid up in bed for weeks at a time, with friends, family members, and even strangers dropping everything to sit at his bedside. I assume that Shelley was trying to get across the extreme horror and guilt he felt, and nervous illnesses are a common element in novels from this time period, but the repetition grew boring and broke the flow of the story. Ultimately though, this is a small issue and doesn't detract too much from the overall quality of the novel.

So, I really ended up enjoying my reread of Frankenstein. It remains one of my favorite creepy classics. Its subtle horror and dark plot make it the perfect October read, and its intellectual elements make it a thought-provoking one as well. I'm really interested to try another Mary Shelley novel next and see if I will discover another favorite.

Challenge Tally
Then vs. Now: 20/27

Total Books Read in 2020: 70