Sunday, November 29, 2020

November Wrap Up

November was (thankfully) a much better reading month for me than October was. I managed to finish all the books I planned to read, and even enjoyed some of them. I also finished two of my reading challenges for the year this month - Back to the Classics and True Books 2020! Here's the list of everything I finished:

In December, my goal is to finish up my remaining reading goals for the year. It's not going to be easy, because while I am more or less on track with my main challenges, I would really like to finish the StoryGraph Onboarding Challenge too. I didn't discover that one until July, and I said that I probably wouldn't finish all of it at the time, but there's this little voice inside my head whispering, "But wouldn't it be awesome if you did?" I'm going to see how far I can get with it. Here's what I have to read in order to finish everything:

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
The Familiars by Stacey Halls
The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf
Transformation by Carol Berg
The Woman in the Wall by Patrice Kindl

This is more than I would usually plan to read in a month, but with my winter break coming up towards the end of December and all travel plans out the window, I'm hoping to have more time to read. I also have no idea how long the last four on the list are because I was picking them sight-unseen from StoryGraph's website, so some of those might be longer than I expect. In any case, I'm going to give it my best shot and hopefully end the year on a high note (as far as reading is concerned, anyway).

Thorn by Intisar Khanani

For my last read in November, I decided to go with another pick from my StoryGraph Onboarding Challenge, Thorn by Intisar Khanani. This book went with the prompt to "read a book corresponding to my most preferred mood." According to Storygraph's analysis of my reading data, my preferred mood is "emotional." Honestly, that sounds pretty legit to me. I looked through my recommendations on the site and selected the first book on the list with the emotional tag. This was the third one down. I hadn't heard of Thorn at all before I saw it on StoryGraph, but it had been a long time since I got lost in a young adult fantasy, so I was eager to give it a try.

The story follows Princess Alyrra. As the story begins, she is betrothed to a prince from a wealthy neighboring kingdom. While she is nervous to marry someone she doesn't know, she is relieved to be leaving her family behind. Her father passed away years ago, leaving her with a cruel mother and an abusive brother. This marriage provides her with a way out, so she begins her trip to her new home hopefully. However, complications arise on the journey there when an evil sorceress appears and switches Alyrra into a different body. Instead of a princess, she becomes a mere goose girl, living near her new kingdom's stables. Part of the curse makes it so Alyrra is unable to reveal her true identity, so she can't explain what happened to anyone. She is stuck being someone else. 

As Alyrra settles into her new life, she comes to embrace the simplicity and anonymity of it. She is released from the constant pressure she felt as a royal and she is free from her hurtful and manipulative family. She changes her name to Thorn and settles into her new routine. As she begins to make some friends, she starts thinking that she could get used to living this way. She is greatly tempted to just continue living in the wrong body and fade into the background. However, her conscience won't let her completely leave her old life behind. The evil sorceress put a girl she can control into Alyrra's original body, and has been using her in an attempt to destroy the royal family. Thorn finds that she can't stand by and do nothing. She must find a way to come forward and protect her kingdom from danger, even if it means giving up her chance at a quiet life.   

I am surprised to say that I actually really enjoyed this novel. It hit several of my guilty pleasure tropes - a fairytale inspired plot, a Cinderella-esque heroine, some hurt/comfort scenes, and a slow burn romance. I wouldn't say this was a fast-paced read, but I found it consistently engaging and moved through it pretty quickly. I liked how Thorn was a quiet character that relied on intuition, kindness, and hard work to solve her problems. That's the kind of person I try to be, and I love seeing quiet, good characters in books. It makes a nice change from the bold warrior-women heroines that I see all the time. I don't mean to say that those types of characters aren't great too, but I have a soft spot for more introverted ones. The author did a nice job with details and character development too. The universe of this novel felt suitably complete and the main characters had nice growth arcs throughout the story.

I don't have many criticisms of the book to discuss. I honestly found this to be one of the better fantasies I've read lately. There is a sequel to this coming out in March of 2021 and I definitely plan to pick it up when it comes out, so I'd say that this pick was a perfect one. When I first started this StoryGraph Challenge, I was really interested so see how accurate their recommendations would be for me. Out of the books I found using their filters so far, I have liked or really liked almost all of them. I would say that their book suggestions are much better and more personalized than Goodreads, and I'm interested to see how the rest of this challenge will play out. I've got four books left on it, and I do not think I will be able to finish them all before the end of the year, but I am excited to see if this trend continues. 

Challenge Tally
StoryGraph Onboarding 2020 Challenge: 8/12

Total Books Read in 2020: 79

Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

It's been a while since I worked on my StoryGraph Onboarding Challenge, so I decided to finish out the month by tackling a few of those prompts. The first prompt I tackled was to read one of my five oldest to-be-read books. I've been steadily adding books to my Goodreads TBR list for several years now. Every once in a while I go through and reorganize it, pruning titles I am no longer interested in. Even so, my list is currently 950 books long. I know. I have a serious addiction to browsing book titles and making lists. Anyway, I scrolled way down to the first few books on the list and figured out that the oldest novel on there was The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters. I first heard of this book from a book-themed desk calendar I had several years ago. It's a detective novel, which isn't a genre I am normally drawn to, but the summary of this one was really intriguing to me. Since it was the actual oldest book on my list, I decided to use it for the challenge prompt.

The plot follows Hank Palace, a new detective working in Concord, New Hampshire. Being a detective is his calling and he loves his job, but it has gotten a lot more difficult lately. Scientists have recently announced that a large asteroid is on a collision course with earth. It will destroy all human life when it strikes in six months. All of a sudden, police work has become quite different. With the end of the world rapidly approaching, crime is on the rise and new laws are being placed on the books to attempt to hold society together. Many people simply walk off their jobs, failing to see the point in continuing on. Others turn to drugs to ease the stress of their approaching doom. Many others give up all together and commit suicide. 

Hank isn't giving up though, and he still carries on doing solid detective work in spite of the asteroid. So when he is called out to investigate a suicide in a McDonald's bathroom, he doesn't simply settle for the obvious conclusions. Something about the crime scene feels off to him. He comes to believe that this "suicide" is actually a cleverly disguised murder, and begins digging into the victim's life to try and discover the truth. He carries on following his instincts, even though almost all his colleagues encourage him to just call it a suicide and move on. As he uncovers more and more clues though, it becomes clear that something deeper is going on and it's up to him to figure it out.

I thought that this novel was pretty good, if a little bland. The central mystery itself was standard detective novel fare, but the element of the asteroid racing towards earth gave the story interesting new dimensions. Exploring the behavior of people facing imminent death made you rethink everyone's motives. When you don't really have to plan for the future anymore, you act differently, and watching Hank try to reason out why people make the choices they do in a world that's about to end was engaging. I moved through the story quickly, and was never really bored.

Unfortunately, aside from the approaching asteroid, there was nothing especially memorable about this book. I enjoyed it and there was nothing specifically wrong with it, but I don't think I'm going to remember much about it once a few weeks have passed. This is book one of a trilogy, and I don't feel the need to explore the other novels. It just didn't grab me enough to want to continue. It was quite interesting to actually read the book that has been on my TBR list the longest though, and it was a very nice break from the heavier stuff I've been reading lately. All in all, I'm not mad about The Last Policeman, and I would recommend it to any detective novel fans looking for an easy, quick read with some unique elements. 

Challenge Tally
StoryGraph Onboarding 2020 Challenge: 7/12

Total Books Read in 2020: 78

Friday, November 27, 2020

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

As I mentioned in my previous review, I was feeling a lot of apprehension about the Harper Lee match up in my Then Versus Now Challenge. I love To Kill a Mockingbird with all my heart, but I was nervous about trying its sequel, Go Set a Watchman. This novel was released in 2015, over fifty years after Mockingbird was published. To say I was excited for it when I first heard the news would be an understatement. I was very interested to see how Scout's story would continue and I was especially excited to see more of my literary hero, Atticus Finch. However, as more details started to come out about the book, my anticipation began fading away. The legality of its publication was called into question and the reviews for it were decidedly mixed. I became almost afraid to read it. I worried that it might spoil my high opinion of Mockingbird. I didn't want to cast a shadow over one of my favorite novels, so I ended up pushing the book to the back of my to-be-read pile and avoided it. This year, however, I decided that enough was enough. I was finally going to give Go Set a Watchman a shot, come what may.

The history of Go Set a Watchman is worth noting. Harper Lee originally wrote this novel in 1957 and sold it to a publisher. Her editor worked with her on refining the text, and gave her the advice to restructure her story to be set earlier and to be told from the perspective of a younger version of her main character, Jean Louise "Scout" Finch. Over time, she gradually turned Go Set a Watchman into To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960 to widespread critical acclaim. Go Set a Watchman was never intended to be published in its original form, and it was never meant to be a sequel to anything. It was simply the first draft of Mockingbird

When Go Set a Watchman was announced, it was almost instantly the subject of controversy. Accusations were made that unscrupulous agents or publishers were taking advantage of an elderly and infirm Harper Lee, who might not have understood what she was agreeing to in allowing the publication. Although an investigation was made into the matter and no wrongdoing was found, many still remained skeptical. Additionally, as more people read the text, it became clear that Watchman was not really a sequel, and pointed questions were asked about why it was being billed as such by its publisher. Many people started assuming this was a shameless cash grab, and boycotted the book on principle. In short, it was a total mess, but people's love for To Kill a Mockingbird was so great that the book sold millions of copies anyway.

The plot itself concerns Jean Louise Finch, who is 26 years old at the start of the novel. She has moved to New York, but is heading back to Maycomb for a two week vacation to visit her father. She is excited to reconnect with Atticus and her old childhood friend and romantic interest, Hank, but when she arrives in town she is disappointed with what she finds. Maycomb is completely engulfed in the racial tensions brought on by the Civil Rights Movement and all of her old friends are espousing extremely ugly views about the Black people in their community. Jean Louise, who has spent years living among a diverse crowd in New York, can't believe how closed-minded everyone is. Especially devastating is her discovery of Atticus and Hank's opinions. They do not support integration or Black people getting the right to vote, and are actively working within the community to slow down the NAACP's efforts. 

Jean Louise remembers Atticus as someone who believes in rights and equality for everyone. After all, this was the same man that defended a black man against a rape allegation back when she was still going by the nickname "Scout." This new, racist version of him doesn't match with the image she had of her father in her head. She is deeply disturbed by this and eventually has a big argument with him. When he fails to budge in his views, Jean Louise must come to terms with the fact that her father is just a man, with faults like everyone else. 

My initial worry when I started reading this was that it would somehow spoil To Kill a Mockingbird. As it turned out, I really didn't need to worry about that. Go Set a Watchman was so clearly never meant to be a sequel that it was very easy to not regard it as such. The details in it do not match up with the details in Mockingbird at all. Names, locations, and characteristics of characters are different between the two books. Significant plot points are not consistent from one book to the other. Sentences, and sometimes whole paragraphs, are word-for-word the same between the two, clearly showing how Lee took bits and pieces from Watchman to create Mockingbird. It utterly fails at being a sequel to anything, so it didn't ruin my perception of the original story. The reading became annoying after just a few pages though, because my brain kept picking out the inconsistencies as being "wrong." The biggest one of these was the revelation that in this story, Atticus' defense of Tom Robinson was successful. I literally laughed out loud when I read that because it was so wildly different to one of To Kill a Mockingbird's central themes. Marketing this as a sequel was completely disingenuous on the part of the publisher.

So then the question becomes, is Go Set a Watchman a good read as a standalone novel? What if this book was the only book we had from Harper Lee? Would it be praised and loved to the same extent? Sadly, the answer to that is a resounding no, at least for me. This novel has almost no plot. It's the story of a young woman who visits her hometown for a few days and is disappointed with how racist everyone is. While that's a realistic human experience, it does not make for an interesting novel. There are several flashbacks to her childhood sprinkled throughout the text, and these are probably the strongest parts of the story, but they lack the charm of Mockingbird and many of them are almost mean-spirited or too melancholy to enjoy. At only 278 pages of relatively large print, there's really not much to this story at all. Harper Lee is still an excellent writer, and you can see her skill peeking through in several passages, but overall this reads like exactly what it is - a first draft in need of more development.   

In addition to this, several of the plot elements that did exist were clunky or disturbing, especially the events surrounding the character of Uncle Jack. This character was present in Mockingbird too, but almost all of the details about him were different and his role was small. Here, Jack is one of the main characters and he has an obsession with English literature that deeply impacts the way he communicates. Every time he tries to give advice to Jean Louise, it's buried under layers of allusion and metaphor to old English works. What little plot there is turns on her suddenly understanding a vague reference he makes to an old poem, which came off as a ridiculous gimmick rather than a clever plot device. He also hits Jean Louise in the face at one point in an effort to get her to pay attention to him, knocking her down and making her mouth bleed in the process. He then proceeds to get her drunk to the point where she more susceptible to his suggestions about how to handle her anger. This was supposed to be a learning experience for her, but it was very distasteful to me.

Speaking of distasteful, the racism in this one was difficult to get through. I'm not going to linger on this point, because I know it was supposed to be difficult. I'm sure it's realistic to the era, but it doesn't feel like reading all that bile is worth it in this book. In To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the major themes is that it's worth it to stand up for what is right, even when you know you aren't going to emerge victorious. It still ends with hope for the future. In Watchman, the major theme is that you have to just let racist people be racist and realize that everyone has flaws you can't change. It's depressing. 

Because of all these reasons, I did not enjoy reading this at all. Simply put, this book does not need to exist, at least not in its current form. It's only interesting as a study of Harper Lee's writing process. It is not a sequel and it's not even a very good book. Unfortunately, Go Set a Watchman appears to be an obvious cash grab. It's a far better use of one's limited reading time to reread To Kill a Mockingbird if you're itching to visit Maycomb one more time.

Challenge Tally

Then vs. Now: 23/27

Total Books Read in 2020: 77

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee


I only have a few match-ups left in my Then Versus Now Challenge, and I decided to finally take on the one that I was dreading the most this month. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has been a favorite of mine ever since I read it in ninth grade. Later on in my life, when I became a teacher, I taught the novel to my own students for several years. I know the story backwards and forwards. I've created projects, essays, and assignments for it and given hundreds of quizzes on its content. I know this book. I love this book. I was dreading going back to it because the only thing to match it up against was its "sequel," Go Set a Watchman. I'm getting ahead of myself though. Before taking on Watchman, I had the pleasure of rereading this Pulitzer Prize winning classic one more time.

To Kill a Mockingbird is the coming of age story of Jem and Scout Finch, two kids growing up in the sleepy Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s. Their mother passed away when Scout was just a baby, so they are being raised by their father, Atticus Finch. Atticus is a respected lawyer in town and his approach to raising his children raises a few eyebrows. His kids call him by his first name, he speaks to them with more honesty than is usual, and he allows Scout to be her true, tomboy self. Both children adore him and spend their days having little adventures all over town.

They are forced to grow up quickly, however, when Atticus agrees to take the case of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of rape by a white woman. While the residents of Maycomb genuinely like Atticus under normal circumstances, the racism of the era brings out a lot of ugliness towards him and his family as the trial draws near. This confuses Scout and offends Jem. They both wonder why Atticus agreed to take on a case that brings him so much trouble, but he explains that defending Tom is the right thing to do. He fully expects to lose in court; Maycomb's racist attitudes won't allow for a different outcome, but he believes that everyone deserves a fair trial, no matter what color their skin is. Together, Scout and Jem watch as he tries his best to get justice for Tom in the face of some serious and dangerous opposition, and they learn a lot about kindness, equality, and empathy along the way. 

To me, To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece. Although the subject matter is often sad and it depicts an ugly side of our world, its themes of fairness and understanding create an overall tone of hope. Harper Lee's writing contains a wonderful mixture of dry humor and emotion, and the plot of the story is well-constructed. Things flow nicely and make sense. The book feels complete. To me, this novel doesn't read like a typical classic. I often have a sense of disconnectedness when I read older works. I can often feel the years stretching between me and the texts. This story, however, stays in my heart. When I read it, I fall into it just like I do with newer novels. 

A big part of that feeling comes from the characters. Atticus, Scout, and Jem make you feel warm inside when you read about them; they live their lives being as good as they can, help their neighbors, and stand up for what they believe in, even when it is difficult to do so. Watching Atticus raise Jem and Scout to be honest, respectable people is satisfying. The kids get into scrapes and make mistakes, but Atticus is always there to lead them through their troubles. When he has troubles of his own, his children are there for him. Their family is one that you want to root for. This doesn't mean that they are bland though. Each character is wonderfully unique, with their own personalities. Scout, in particular, is a little spitfire. The blend of her childhood innocence and her adventurous spirit makes her an interesting, if at times unreliable, narrator. She is too young to understand the nuances of everything she witnesses in this novel, but her narration and observation of the events is enough for readers to infer the truth of the story. She grows in believable and authentic ways throughout the plot, and her coming to terms with the messiness and unfairness of life is very relatable. 

I know this novel has its detractors, especially today, in an era where the way we look at racism and inequality is rapidly changing and becoming more nuanced and refined. There are some who criticize Mockingbird for containing the white savior trope. There are others who dislike its language, which includes gratuitous use of the n-word. I've also heard the opinion that this novel, written by a white woman, does a poor job reflecting the realities of the black experience during this time period. All of those criticisms have merit. I believe, however, that the good in the novel outweighs the outdated concepts. Atticus gives us a character to look up to, to admire. Perhaps he's impossibly good, but most literary heroes are. His story gives us hope that with compassion and patience, we can make a better world. These ideas are timeless and keep this novel relevant today even though some of its story hasn't aged well. My feelings for this book haven't changed over several readings. It is truly a special story and remains one of my very favorite classics.

 Challenge Tally

Then vs. Now: 22/27

Total Books Read in 2020: 76

Monday, November 23, 2020

Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

The last book left in my True Books 2020 Challenge this year was Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton. I rescued this memoir off my husband's donate pile when he was reorganizing his books ages ago. I was initially drawn to it because of the high praise it received from Anthony Bourdain, who called it, "the best memoir by a chef ever." I was also curious to see what kind of struggles Hamilton might have had to face as a woman trying to succeed in the male-dominated culinary world. Happy to read something shorter and less dense than my last few picks have been, I got started.

The memoir begins with Hamilton's unconventional childhood with a pair of artsy, bohemian parents. Her French mother introduced her to all sorts of simple, fresh foods, immaculately prepared. Rather than the traditional kid fare of chicken nuggets and mac and cheese, Hamilton grew up eating classic, simple dishes with ingredients like olives, sardines, rabbit, and fiddleheads. She spent her days playing with her siblings in their large, secluded home in the forest, and attending a series of elaborate parties hosted by her parents each year. She lived this way quite happily until her parents divorced when she was a young teenager. From that point forward, she became fiercely independent. She lied about her age in order to take a series of restaurant jobs, in which she gradually moved from washing dishes, to prepping food, to serving in a bar. As she moved around from place to place after finishing high school, working with food was a constant in her life. Even so, she wasn't nurturing any ambitions to become a chef as a young adult. Food was simply her comfort zone and a reliable way to bring in money.

Her memoir skips around a bit from there as she recounts the path that led her towards opening a restaurant. She spent time working a series of high-end catering jobs and worked for several years as the chef at a children's summer camp. She also spent some time backpacking across Europe, where she learned about all different sorts of cuisines. A brief moment of dissatisfaction with her career path led her to enroll in a college and get her MFA in creative writing, but she returned to food jobs soon after that was over. Eventually, an acquaintance mentioned an empty café space he had for sale, and she decided to take the plunge and open Prune, her own restaurant. She served the simple kind of food with classic ingredients she ate growing up and it was an immediate success.

The final section of the memoir deals mostly with her meeting and marrying her husband and having her two sons. Her marriage is unconventional and largely unhappy, but she does enjoy interacting with her husband's Italian family. They own a large villa in Italy, and her trips there over the summer further expand her culinary education.

Much like with the last few novels I've read this month, I felt split on this one. On the positive side, the first half was quite interesting and engaging. I enjoyed seeing Hamilton's weird and risky adolescence and the beginnings of her career. Her writing was often vivid and beautiful, especially when she was describing food. There were a lot of passages in here that made me and curious to try different meals. This was also a relatively quick read, which was something I definitely needed after making my way through some longer books recently.

On the negative side, I felt like this memoir lacked a strong narrative flow. Chunks of Hamilton's life and career are completely skipped over, leaving me wondering about what happened in the missing sections. For example, in one chapter she describes opening her restaurant for the first time, then the next chapter abruptly picks back up with it being wildly successful. There were a lot of moments like this, where she'd be doing something like appearing on Martha Stewart or speaking at the Culinary Institutes of America with absolutely no explanation as to what led up to these opportunities. As a result, the story felt incomplete. The second half of the memoir, which dealt largely with her ill-fated and extremely depressing marriage, really drifted away from food and was dreary to get through. It actually made me quite sad for her, as I can't imagine living the strange, loveless life she did for so long. It wasn't what I was expecting or looking for in a memoir about the rise of a chef. 

On top of this, her general attitude and demeanor seemed to grow increasingly entitled and arrogant throughout the story. At one point, she tells an anecdote about how she blocked a bus stop so she could sit in her car with her husband and drink beers and eat salami sandwiches. She literally describes elderly people struggling to walk around her car to board the bus like readers are supposed to think this is cute or endearing. It was neither. Once I realized that I did not enjoy Hamilton's personality, it limited how interested I could be in her story. She's far from the world's worst person, but there were enough moments where she behaved in a spoiled or self-contradictory way that I was mildly irritated with her a lot throughout my reading.

In the end, I think the biggest drawback for me ended up being her position (or lack thereof) on women succeeding in the culinary world. She only addresses this in one chapter, and it is a complete mess of contradictions. She goes from believing that women have no problems in the profession anymore, to regarding women who take jobs at food magazines in order to spend more time with their families as being quitters who will never be successful, to believing that she did have to work harder sometimes to keep up with the guys, to crying about not being at home with her babies in the space of ten pages or so. I suppose being a woman in a traditionally male field is tough because other women are frequently going to look to you as some kind of role model or expert on how to succeed, even when you don't have opinions or advice to give. Hamilton really does not. She went from working in catering to owning her own restaurant. She didn't have to struggle under male chefs in culinary school or other restaurants as she worked her way up. Her experience wasn't easy, but it wasn't riddled with institutional sexism either. I can't blame her for that, but I do wish she had left the topic out entirely. The chapter devoted to it was not satisfying to read and not flattering to her.

So while I obviously had some issues with this one, it was certainly engaging enough to keep my attention. I feel like if it were any longer, my review might be different. As it was however, Blood, Bones, and Butter was a quick read about a world that I know very little about. It was interesting to see how Gabrielle Hamilton made her way to the top of the food world, even if she took an unconventional path and even if her personality rubbed me the wrong way at times. Despite all the picky things I have to say about it, I did ultimately enjoy the novel more than I disliked it.

As I mentioned at the top of this review, this was the last book in my True Books 2020 Challenge! I definitely succeeded in my goal to read more nonfiction this year. I'm so pleased to have finished this one successfully.

Challenge Tally

True Books 2020: 14/14 - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2020: 75

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie


I first came across Midnight's Children when I was researching titles for my Classics Club list. I knew that I wanted to include works from diverse authors, and this novel popped right up while I was exploring different possibilities. I didn't know much about Salman Rushdie before reading, only that he famously had a fatwa issued for his assassination in Iran after he published his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses. I was interested to read something from him, and I figured that Midnight's Children, winner of both the Booker Prize and the Best of Booker Prize, was a great place to start. 

The plot of the novel is pretty epic and meandering, making it a difficult one to adequately summarize. Essentially, Midnight's Children is the strange and fantastical story of Saleem Sinai, a young man whose life has intimate and magical connections to the history of India. Saleem was born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the exact date of India's independence. The timing of his birth imbues him with powerful psychic powers, and as he grows up, he discovers that he can see into people's minds. Most importantly, he is able to form a psychic link with the hundreds of other children who share his birthday and who also have a wide array of magical powers of their own. He comes to call this group the Midnight Children, and the meetings he facilitates in his mind to bring them together he calls the Midnight's Children Conferences. 

As the story progresses, Saleem weaves together an incredibly intricate and far-reaching story about himself and his family that spans generations. He speaks of both small, simple things from his childhood and more weighty matters from his adult life. The actions he takes, whether significant or insignificant, tend to have a ripple effect that impacts major historical and political events in India. In time, he comes to believe that his life has a direct influence on his country. He initially thinks that this connection to India and his ability to connect all the Midnight's Children could be used for some good, moral purpose. However, as time goes on and the children grow increasingly different from each other, he eventually abandons that idea. Similarly, other parts of his life begin to sour right alongside the political situation in his country, leading him down a strange and twisted path that he never could have envisioned for himself.  

Midnight's Children was an incredibly detailed and well-crafted novel. It is very obvious that Salman Rushdie is a uniquely talented writer and his novels deserve all the praise and accolades they have acquired over the years. I don't think I've ever read something so full of little writerly tricks before. Images, ideas, and events repeat throughout the text in unexpected and satisfying ways, characters pop in and out in the most unlikely and interesting places, and the interactions between Saleem's life and his country's history were interesting to watch unfold. Saleem was a well-constructed unreliable narrator, and Rushdie did a nice job of including enough plausible and implausible information throughout the book to keep readers guessing as to how much of what he was describing was real. It's the kind of good book that you know is good while you are reading it.

However, at the same time, Midnight's Children was not a good book for me. While the care and skill in its construction was obvious, I found reading it to be a surprisingly unpleasant experience. The story itself is ugly and dark. Tragedy upon tragedy besets Saleem and his family, and they bring a lot of it on themselves. They are a quarrelsome, vicious bunch of characters most of the time, and I didn't particularly enjoy any of them. The story was often gross as well. One of the major symbols throughout the plot is Saleem's massive nose, which is constantly dripping snot everywhere for most of the novel. It's mentioned a lot and I got tired of hearing about it pretty quickly. When combined with the numerous descriptions of other oddly sized body parts, spit, and urine that fill the pages, it just felt disgusting to me a lot of the time, which didn't make for a nice, relaxing read.

I also couldn't get away from the nagging feeling that this was a book written by a man for other men to find meaningful. I'm not trying to say that women can't enjoy this book, because of course they can, it just felt to me like a man's story. There were several female characters present, but they definitely were of secondary importance the the male characters, and there were a few weird sexual situations throughout that I didn't love. For example, at one point in his childhood, Saleem accidentally sees his mother naked. He describes her backside as a "black mango," which is off-putting enough on it's own, but he continually brings up the black mango throughout the rest of the story. Accidentally seeing your parents naked is almost a rite of passage for kids, but this way of describing it and fixating on it definitely felt like something only a man would write. There were quite a few little things like that sprinkled throughout the story that felt a bit alienating to me or made me roll my eyes.  

Midnight's Children contains 540 pages of very small print, and making my way through a story that long without being invested in the characters and feeling grossed out by a lot of it was a trial for me. While I can clearly see that Rushdie created a remarkable work here with many excellent qualities, I also just didn't have that great of a time reading it. It felt more like work than a relaxing activity. It's weird to feel so split on a novel with such a positive reputation, but not every book is going to suit every reader, no matter how critically acclaimed it may be. Ultimately, I'm not mad that I read this and I'm happy that I increased my knowledge of classic literature, but I don't think I'm going to be seeking out more of Rushdie's novels in the future.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#16 on my list): 82/100 books completed <-- I definitely messed up counting somewhere over the years, so this number is a few books higher than I initially thought! 

Total Books Read in 2020: 74

Monday, November 9, 2020

Back to the Classics 2020 - Wrap Up Post

2020 is (finally) winding down, and I've finished another year of the Back to the Classics challenge. This year, my reading was very diverse. I sailed on a man-of-war, searched Scotland for a perfect view, was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, and traveled across Middle-Earth. I read about a boy growing up in England in the 1800s and about a boy growing up in the American South in the 1900s. I read about divorces, affairs and family dramas. I read a whole lot of poems. It was definitely a journey. Here's the complete list:     

1. 19th Century Classic: White Jacket by Herman Melville (1850) - Completed January 2020
2. 20th Century Classic: The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford (1915) - Completed April 2020
3. Classic by a Female Author: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (1913) - Completed March 2020
4. Classic in Translation: The Green Ray by Jules Verne (1882) - Completed January 2020
5. Classic by a Person of Color: Black Boy by Richard Wright (1945) - Completed February 2020
6. A Genre Classic: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954) - Completed June 2020
7. A Classic with a Person's Name in the Title: Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1886) - Completed March 2020
8. A Classic with a Place in the Title : The Tenant of Wildfeld Hall by Anne BrontĂ« (1848) - Completed March 2020
9. A Classic with Nature in the Title: The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton (1922) - Completed May 2020
11. An Abandoned Classic: Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855) - Completed August 2020
12. A Classic Adaptation: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey (1962) - Completed November 2020 

I found a few new favorites this year, which was very nice. In particular, Wives and Daughters, The Green Ray, and The Glimpses of the Moon stand out as ones I will remember. In a year where a I ended up reading a lot of books I didn't quite click with, my selections for this challenge were largely enjoyable.

I finished all twelve prompts, meaning I get three entries in the prize drawing. If I should win, I can be contacted at quiet.kristina [at] gmail [dot] com.

As always, I adore Back to the Classics. This was my sixth time completing it and I'm already ready to do it all over again next year and make my way through even more books.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey


My final prompt for the Back to the Classics Challenge was to read a classic with a movie adaptation. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was already on my Classics Club list and suited the category perfectly. The movie version of this novel is very famous in its own right, and I had somehow never seen it before. I decided that now was the time to read the book and then give the movie a try, to see how they compared.

The novel is told from the point of view of "Chief" Bromden, a long-term patient at a psychiatric hospital. He pretends like he is deaf and mute, but he can actually hear and speak just fine - he simply chooses not to interact with others. He struggles with paranoia and is subject to a lot of delusions. He believes that he and all the other patients are being controlled by something he calls the "combine," a vast mechanism that uses listening devices to break everyone's spirits and keep them in line. This idea is personified in Nurse Ratched, the head nurse on the ward. She controls the patients and staff with an iron fist, and employs several cruel strategies to keep everyone in their place.  Bromden, and everyone else, are afraid of her. 

Bromden is a keen observer as well, and as a result, he knows quite a lot about the other patients and staff at the hospital. Through his (unreliable) narration, he tells us the story of what happens when a new patient, Randle McMurphy, is admitted to his ward. Right away, McMurphy is obviously different from the rest of the men. He's loud, crude, and doesn't care much for authority. He's also extremely charismatic and quite fond of gambling. Right away, he begins making friends with the other patients and making friendly wagers with them. They bet on cards and many other random things over McMurphy's first few weeks. Eventually, as he grows closer and closer to the other patients, he starts to see them as more than easy marks. He begins to actually care about them a little and starts encouraging them to laugh and loosen up.

Of course, Nurse Ratched is aghast at these developments. McMurphy's unpredictable, boisterous behavior and his effect on the other patients are elements that she can't control, and it drives her crazy. Determined to regain her dominance over the ward, she exerts as much cruel, quiet pressure on the men as she can. Frustrated with her behavior, McMurphy sets up a new wager with the men. He bets them that he can get rid of Nurse Ratched in a week. This bet sets off a chain of events leading to a violent, shocking conclusion. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a story about the machine of American society, individuality, control, and what happens when mental health is thrown into that mix. 

My thoughts on this book are very scattered, and I've been struggling to write this review for a few days now. I did enjoy reading it, and I think it's a unique story that gives its readers a lot to think about. Its characters are well developed, with McMurphy and Nurse Rached in particular being very memorable. The writing style was very readable too and the story was easy to get into. I liked its exploration of mental health issues in the sixties, including the use of electroshock therapy and lobotomies. It's clear that Kesey was no fan of how patients in these facilities were treated during this time and he does a good job conveying the barbarity of a lot of the practices typically employed. This feels like a notable postmodern classic when you are reading it, and it's clear to see why the work has endured over time. It's not exactly my favorite kind of book, but I can see why others love it. I'm sure the movie adaptation aids its popularity as well, as many of the performances in that are widely praised.

What stopped me from just writing a generally positive review and moving on here was how incredibly poorly it has aged. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are blatant throughout its pages. The black orderlies that work at the hospital are continually referred to using slurs (including the N-word at one point) and described as homosexual rapists, there is a Japanese nurse repeated referred to using a slur, and the female characters are all either evil or promiscuous. At one point, the men tell McMurphy that Nurse Rached is unbeatable because she is so old that no one can "get it up" for her to rape her into compliance, which is pretty horrible on several different levels. Of course, one can always make the argument that the time period the novel was written in excuses this. To an extent, I suppose it does. However, the sheer amount of offensive material in here seems extreme.

This novel, with it's blend of strong literary elements and outdated, offensive content made me question - at what point does a classic novel outlive its readability? If I were black, or gay, I certainly wouldn't feel like reading this was valuable or enriching to my life. As a woman, I was pretty close to feeling like it wasn't really worth the read as it was. I think this is one case where just watching the movie adaptation is probably enough, especially if you belong to one of the groups Kesey marginalizes. 

So ultimately, this was a mixed bag for me. I settled on a three star review - a middle rating for a book I felt split on. The novel is clearly notable for its time period and the story is compelling. However, it has not aged well at all, which makes me question whether anyone really needs to read it anymore. There are so many wonderful novels out there in the world. I'm still not sure if the (admittedly sizable) literary merits of this one justify me spending my limited reading time on it.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2020 (A Classic Adaptation): 12/12 - Completed!
Classics Club (#90 on my list): 78/100 books completed

Total Books Read in 2020: 73