Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton


After reading a string of classics that I felt only so-so about, I really needed to get back on track with a classic that I would actually like. Out of everything left on my Classics Club list, the most appealing book there was Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton. Wharton is one of my favorite authors and I have liked almost everything I've read from her so far. In fact, I have so much faith in her ability to entertain me that she made it into my challenge list four separate times--more than any other author. I figured she was my best shot at reviving my engagement in classic literature, so I decided to give the novel a go.

The plot follows the Manfords, a wealthy family living in New York in the 1920s. The matriarch of the family, Pauline Manford, is a whirling dervish of activity. She's on several different committees, hosts frequent dinner parties, and socializes with the best people all over town. She has a personal secretary to keep track of all her different engagements and is busy almost every hour of every day. To cope with the stress of all her activities, she visits all the trendy "spiritual healers" for expensive treatments designed to cure her anxieties and prevents wrinkles from forming on her face. 

Her husband, Dexter, is quite the opposite. He is a successful lawyer and longs for a simpler life. He's tired of being dragged all over town to parties and dinners and longs to live a quiet life at home. He's good at his job, but is becoming weary of it. He does like his fun however, and entertains himself by indulging in affairs every now and then. Pauline's first husband, Arthur, is also a part of their family life. He's a bit of a hypochondriac and spends his time dealing with various doctors and illnesses. Arthur's split from Pauline was amicable, and both her and Dexter visit him from time to time.  

The adult children in the family, Jim and Nona, indulge their mother's activities with good humor, but they have their own problems going on under the surface. Nona is hopelessly in love with a married man, but refuses to act immorally and start a relationship with him. Jim is married to a vivacious woman named Lita, but he can sense she's getting bored. She's a party girl, and settled family life really isn't for her. He fears that she's about to ask for a divorce so she can travel to Hollywood and become an actress. Watching all the characters sort out their problems forms the bulk of the novel. 

I thought that Twilight Sleep was okay. It's not my favorite Wharton novel, but it's not the worst I've read from her either. Each of the characters were interesting, there were several humorous moments, and lots of little critiques of high society popped up. It was a rather quick read too, so I didn't feel bogged down at all with it. Wharton's writing style is always a pleasure to experience. I'm not mad that I read this. It wasn't as entertaining as I was hoping for though.

The main issue for me was its lack of one central plot. As I said, it follows all of the Manfords as they deal with their various issues and try to find their own paths to happiness. What (supposedly) ties all their stories together is that all of the characters are hopelessly bored with their upper class, luxurious lives. Each one of them is looking for their own version of "twilight sleep" to make it through their days. Pauline has her social engagements, Dexter has his affairs, Arthur has his doctor's appointments, Nona has her hopeless romance, Jim has his glamorous wife, and Lita has her parties. None of these things truly satisfy any of these characters, but they do make the time pass. I could see how Wharton meant for their various plotlines to connect. I didn't think this commonality was strong enough to create a tight story in the end though. 

The plot does pick up at the end of the novel with a surprise burst of intrigue and violence. When it comes though, it almost felt out of place for me. Not enough time had been spent with any of the characters involved for me to fully understand what was happening. I kind of understood it, but I actually had to look up the ending online to make sure my inferences were correct. Edith Wharton is a master at saying something without really saying it, but in this case, I don't think her twist came off as well as it could have.

So ultimately, this ended up being a "meh" experience for me, but at least it was quick to read and still fairly entertaining. I know Wharton is capable of absolute masterpieces, so it's a little bit of a disappointment that I didn't end up loving this novel, but it did accomplish my goal of finding a classic to read that wasn't a slow torture session. It's bittersweet that this is the last Wharton book on my Classics Club list, but I am excited to cross it off and be one step closer to completing this challenge.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#85 on my list): 91/100 books completed

Total Books Read in 2021: 22

Thursday, April 29, 2021

April Wrap Up


Guys, it's the end of April already. How is it possible that this year is going by both quickly and slowly? The fact that I took up half the month reading one of the most boring (and long) classics I have ever come across probably had something to do with it. *shakes fist at Daniel Deronda*. 

Even with the-book-that-wouldn't-end in the mix, I finished almost everything I had set out to read this month. The only book I didn't get completely through was Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton, and I only need a few more days to get it finished up. All in all, I did okay.

Here's what my April looked like:

100 pages of Les Misérables

My favorite read of the month was probably The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller. This young adult contemporary about a teen boy with anorexia was extremely dark, but it did provide a pretty good exploration of the psychological impact of an eating disorder. Add to that Miller's black humor and his sympathetic, likable protagonist, Matt, and you've got a moving and thought provoking reading experience. It felt gritty and real, and I appreciated that.

My least favorite read of the month was (do I even have to say it?) Daniel Deronda. My goodness this is one classic that has not aged well! It was packed full of stereotypes about the Jewish people that were painful to read in 2021, and the plot wasn't exactly action-packed either. Who would have thought that a 700 page story about a man's slow journey towards embracing his heritage would have been boring? I kid. But seriously, it was one of the most trying reading experiences I've had this year.

Next month, I'm going to take a break from gigantic classics and try to knock some of the shorter books off my lists. Here's the plan:

Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner 
At least two books chosen from my owned-not-read list based on my mood
At least 100 pages of Les Misérables

To be honest, I'm not super-looking forward to these picks. Over the past four years that I've been working on Classics Club, I've basically already read most of the books that I was really excited about. What I'm left with now are the stragglers - the books that I put on the list out of a feeling of "I really should read this" instead of books I genuinely wanted to read. It's true that part of this challenge for me is broadening my literary horizons, but I think there's a fine line between trying something new and forcing yourself to read something you have no interest in. 

I've been working on Classics Club for four years. That's a long time. The way I approach reading has evolved since 2017. I'm starting to see less value in trying to read all the big names and more value on spending my precious reading time on novels I think I will love. I've gotten so far with this challenge that there is no way I'm giving up on it now, but if I were to do a second round, I would select books differently for sure. 

In any case, I do not think I'm going to enjoy On the Road or Absalom, Absalom! Neither are my preferred genre of classic. It would be absolutely delightful if I end up being wrong though. It would be funny if I disproved my own point about book selection the very month after writing this post. I guess I'll find out the truth soon enough.

What about everyone else out there? What are you planning on reading this month? Do you ever make yourself pick up books that you aren't personally interested in out of a sense of duty? I'd love to know! 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

One of the categories in Back to the Classics this year is to read a classic play. Since I still had three Shakespeare works on my Classics Club list, I decided to work on both challenges by reading Hamlet next. This was probably the most famous Shakespeare play that I hadn't read yet, so I went into it curious to see what all the fuss was about and to see if I would like it any better than my current favorites, King Lear and Romeo and Juliet

The plot of Hamlet follows young prince Hamlet of Denmark as he is struggling to make sense of the death of his father, the King. As the story begins, he is upset that his father has suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. He is also angry at his mother, who has remarried his uncle Claudius, the new King of Denmark, only two months later. He sees this as an incestuous betrayal and has become angry and depressed at the turn his life has taken. Even the woman he loves, Ophelia, isn't responding to his romantic advances. Everything seems to have gone terribly wrong. 

Hamlet is thrown into further turmoil when the ghost of his father appears to him one night and tells him that he didn't die in a random accident - he was murdered by Claudius. The ghost asks him to get revenge for his death by exposing his uncle's crime and killing him. Hamlet readily agrees, but upon reflection, he has some second thoughts. Fearing that the ghost could be a mere trick of the devil, he decides to confirm the information about his father's death through other means. He arranges for a play to be performed at the castle which mimics the supposed murder so that he can see his uncle's reaction to the events. When his uncle storms off during the show, he knows that the ghost was real and he sets out to make Claudius pay for his crimes. 

I think that I would enjoy seeing Hamlet performed on stage more than I enjoyed reading it. I didn't dislike the play, it is iconic, after all, but I had a hard time warming up to the characters and getting invested in the story. I couldn't really get a sense of who Hamlet was. For most of the play, he is pretending to be crazy in order to distract his uncle away from his investigation (which really doesn't do anything except cause himself more trouble), but I found myself consistently wondering how much of the crazy was really an act. He was awfully cruel and inappropriate at various points throughout the play when he didn't have to be. He was also indecisive and strangely drawn to rash violence. It was consistently said of him that the people of Denmark love him, which is why Claudius doesn't murder him once he starts making waves, but nothing he actually does in the story shows him to be a likable person. I wasn't able to find the "hero" part of the tragic hero in him, unlike I could with Romeo, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear. I just found him to be odd. 

Women don't fare particularly well in this play either. There are only two, Queen Gertrude and Ophelia. Gertrude is regarded with complete contempt by Hamlet, who is totally preoccupied with thoughts of her having sex with his uncle. Essentially, every time Hamlet thinks of his mother, he refers to her as a whore and makes comments about her sex life. She is not characterized at all beyond this and doesn't have many lines. I found myself wondering if Hamlet ever felt any feelings of affection for her, or if he felt split in his feelings between love and anger. This wasn't really part of the story though. Ophelia gets more lines, but quickly fades into madness when her father dies and meets with a tragic end. It's that female kind of hysteria that women from older works are often afflicted with. She eventually just wanders around the palace singing snippets of songs that show men to be faithless and cruel. These songs were tough to understand. They used a lot of wording and references from the time period. I didn't find her very compelling. 

The pacing felt strange in this play as well. Things happened incredibly quickly between scenes. There aren't many stage directions to indicate how much time is passing, so everything was jumbled together in my mind. I feel like this wouldn't be a problem if I were watching the play though, so I'm not being critical of it. It's just one of those things that happens when you are reading something that is meant to be seen.

So, this obviously wasn't my favorite Shakespeare play. There was a lot to like in it though. It felt like there was a famous line on nearly every page. This is where we get the phrases "hair standing on end," "murder most foul," and "method to his madness," among many, many others. As a Star Trek fan, I chuckled when I saw "the undiscovered country" come up. Of course, the famous "to be or not to be" speech is here too. It was fun to see so many well known words pop up and see what context they were first used in. The end was also absolutely wild. You know going into a tragedy that there will be many deaths by the end, but this was really something special. 

I'm sure that I'm missing something here. Hamlet is regarded as Shakespeare's best work by many. It just didn't reach me on a deeper level. I struggled to see Hamlet as a real person and didn't really connect with the story. It was still definitely worth reading though. The wordplay alone made it a fun experience. I still have two plays left on the Classics Club list, Julius Cesar and The Tempest. I'm looking forward to seeing what I think of those in the near future. 

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2021 (A Classic Play): 8/12
Classics Club (#3 on my list): 90/100 books completed

Total Books Read in 2021: 21

Friday, April 23, 2021

The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller


As I was still recovering from Daniel Deronda after my last read, I decided to go for another young adult contemporary novel next. I picked up The Art of Starving based on the striking cover art a few years ago. The summary on the inside flap seemed interesting enough, so I bought it and added it to my shelf, where it has sat ever since. I was in the mood for something emotional and hard hitting, so I gave it a shot this week. 

The plot of the novel follows a high school junior named Matt. He's going through a difficult time as the story begins. He's gay and is relentlessly bullied for it in school, he doesn't have any close friends, his mom is about to be downsized from her job at the local hog rendering factory, and his older sister Maya recently ran away from home. Even though Maya has called home a few times and explained that she is fine and just taking some time for herself, Matt is convinced she left because something terrible happened to her. He suspects a group of boys at school of hurting her in some way, and he is determined to exact revenge on them. 

As everything in his life currently feels out of his control, Matt attempts to take charge by restricting how much he eats. The hunger constantly rumbling in his stomach is painful, but it gives him a sense of power. As he begins consuming less and less food, he starts to feel like he develops super powers. When he isn't eating, he can hear conversations happening miles away, sniff out people like a bloodhound, and even create wind and fire on demand. If he takes a bite of food though, his powers go away. Before long, he starts to feel like the only way to help himself and his family is to stop eating and use his abilities to solve all their problems. The only trouble is that doing this is slowly killing him.  

The Art of Starving is a pretty brutal look at the way eating disorders psychologically affect a person. Matt, who is an extremely unreliable narrator, truly believes that not eating makes him literally powerful, and watching him try to rationalize what he is doing throughout the text is a harrowing experience. The novel is structured as if Matt is writing a rule book to help other people uncover their own powers through restricting their food intake, with each chapter starting out with a quote or observation about how to push through the pain of starving yourself to unlock your enhanced abilities. Matt's narration is written in a way that makes you almost second-guess yourself as to whether he is being factual, because he is so entrenched in his delusion. I've never struggled with an eating disorder before, and I know that this experience is not reflective of how most people feel while going through one, but I thought that Sam J. Miller did an excellent job conveying the warped sense of power and control that lead people to harm themselves.

I appreciated also that Miller used a male protagonist here, since most of the discussion you hear about eating disorders centers around women. While it is true that more females are diagnosed with these kinds of disorders, there are plenty of men that struggle too. Men are also constantly bombarded with images of impossible physiques and negative comments about bigger bodies. I thought it was good to draw attention to the fact that anorexia or bulimia can affect anyone. I also learned through my reading that LGBTQ youth are more likely to develop eating disorders than other teens, and also to consider suicide, as Matt also does in this book. This is a tough subject to think about, but I think that Miller did a good job of telling an emotional story about this issue and raising awareness for it. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was a dark read, but the way the Miller used the feeling of super powers to describe how people feel a sense of control with an eating disorder worked well. His writing style is also full of black humor, which makes the story actually funny in parts and breaks up some of the heavy mood. Matt is a protagonist that you want to root for, and watching him go down such a dark path with starving himself is emotional. It makes you invested in the story. This was a very engaging read for me as an adult, and I think the older teens it was written for will like it as well. I don't see myself wanted to read it again (so many books, so little time), so I'm going to donate it. Hopefully it will make its way to someone who will enjoy it as much as I did.

Challenge Tally
Clear the Shelves 2021: 11/50 (donate)

Total Books Read in 2021: 20

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Ship It by Britta Lundin

After struggling through a really dense classic for my last read, I was in the mood to pick up something on the lighter side next. I ended up settling on Ship It by Britta Lundin, a young adult contemporary book I've had sitting on my shelf for a few years. I didn't know much about it before I started reading, I bought it on a whim after reading the summary on the inside flap. I thought the story idea was intriguing though, and it always stuck in my mind as one of the books from my massive TBR pile that I wanted to get to soon, so I decided to finally give it a try.

The plot of the novel follows a sixteen year old girl named Claire. She lives in a small farm town in Idaho and doesn't fit in well with the rest of her peers. Her interests are on the nerdy side and the rest of her school is more into sports and 4-H. She is a huge fan of a Supernatural-esque TV show called Demon Heart, which follows the adventures of demon hunter named Smokey and a demon named Heart. She spends most of her time writing fanfiction about the show, in which she pairs up Smokey and Heart together romantically. The characters aren't gay on the show, but she believes that their relationship is headed in that direction and is hoping that they become a couple for real on the series one day. She's not alone in this desire either; thousands of other viewers in the Demon Heart community feel the same way and her fanfiction is incredibly popular online. 

As the story begins, Claire attends a local Comic-Con panel for Demon-Heart and she gets the chance to ask a question during the audience Q&A portion of the event. She asks about the possibility of Smokey and Heart having a romantic connection and Forest, the actor who plays Smokey in the show, reacts poorly. He brushes the question off and treats the concept as ridiculous, which outrages several audience members and causes Claire to leave in a fit of tears. Footage of this incident is quickly posted online and the PR team behind Demon Heart shifts into damage control mode. They manipulate a promotional giveaway to award Claire the grand prize of a ¨superfan experience." They invite her to travel around the convention circuit with them on the Demon Heart tour bus. She will get an all-inclusive trip to three different cities and get to spend time with the cast of the show. Claire is still upset from her experience at the panel, but as Demon Heart's biggest fan, she excitedly accepts the prize anyway. 

She still hasn't given up on her idea of Smokey and Heart getting together though, and she uses her time on the tour to start applying pressure to both Forest and the showrunner, a man named Jaime. She is determined to make them realize that the relationship she wants so badly for her favorite characters makes sense and should make it to the screen. She brings important topics like queer representation and sexism into the conversation, but her aggressive tactics end up causing more harm than good a lot of the time. In addition to her Demon Heart mission, Claire also begins to grapple with her own sexuality when she meets another teen named Tess at the convention. Suddenly, her deep attachment to a gay relationship between fictional characters has taken on a new tone. Is she looking at Smokey and Heart from a purely fan perspective, or is she actually yearning to see her own story reflected in these characters? As the tour draws to a close, Claire must figure out how to proceed without hurting herself, Tess, the Demon Heart fandom, or the show she loves.

I really enjoyed this book as I was reading it. I was probably primed to like anything a little too much after struggling so much with my last read, so I don't think my first impression was entirely accurate. Indeed, the more I sat and thought about Ship It, the more I realized that it had a lot of issues. There are some things that it does really well, but there are also some parts that don't work.

Among the things I really enjoyed in the novel was its depiction of fanfiction and fandom in general. It's clear the Lundin is a part of this community and understands it. As someone who read a whole lot of X-Files and Harry Potter fanfiction back in the day, I understand the yearning for certain characters to get together and the guilty pleasure escapism that writers in the fan community provide. The right terminology and vibes were all there. I also really liked the discussion of representation and sexism that took place throughout the story. It's true that TV and films have a long way to go when it comes to including main characters of different backgrounds and sexualities. It's also true that teen girls are often depicted as unreasonable, childish, or crazy when they like something in large numbers or speak up for what they want. I liked that the novel drew attention to those points. I think it will resonate with a lot of young readers. I really liked the ending too, cheesy as it was.

What was not so great about the story was that a lot of it was very unrealistic. The entire idea of a production team of a television show rigging a contest to take an upset teenager on a convention tour, and giving her unfettered access to the actors and showrunner is pretty laughable. The way relationships developed between the characters often didn't make sense either, with many characters becoming friends too easily or forgiving too conveniently. Claire's behavior was pretty awful at times too. She was pushy and demanding, and not in a way that felt like empowerment. She was often very inappropriate, doing things that were hurtful or even illegal at times in order to try and force her will on others. She never faces meaningful consequences for her behavior either, which I think muddled the message of the story. It's a shame, because I think the story idea (which was based on true events from a Supernatural convention panel years ago) had a lot of potential and the topics Lundin touches on are important. I wish the story had gone in a more realistic direction. I wish Claire was a more introspective and less mean character.

So ultimately, I have mixed feelings about Ship It. If you browse the user reviews on Goodreads for this novel, you'll see a whole lot of 1-star reviews that meticulously outline all the problems in the story. I don't think that the book is all bad though. It made some good points and I enjoyed reading most of it. It's definitely got its share of issues though. I think that the high school audience this was written for will probably like it. Adult readers and savvy teens will probably have difficulties seeing past its shortcomings. At least this book served its purpose of giving me something light to get lost in after my last really tough read!

Challenge Tally
Clear the Shelves 2021: 10/50 (donate)

Total Books Read in 2021: 19

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

I first came across Daniel Deronda when I was researching novels for my Classics Club list. I wanted a selection of Victorian books on there, and this one popped up while I was Googling. I had read three other novels by George Eliot up to that point - Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss, and Middlemarch. I enjoyed each of those quite a bit, so I figured that Daniel Deronda would be a pretty safe inclusion. I was excited to give it a shot, but its length (700 pages of tiny print in my edition) made me put off actually reading it for years. Now here we are, in the final year of my challenge, and I'm running out of time. Happily, this novel matched up perfectly with the Back to the Classics prompt to "read a classic by a female author," so I could kill two birds with one stone by reading it now. Hoping that this book wouldn't feel 700 pages long, I started in on it at the end of last month.

The novel is set in England in the 1860s and shifts between two characters whose stories only touch a small handful of times. The first, Gwendolen Harleth, is an beautiful, spirited young woman who is determined to have fun, exciting life. The idea of marriage doesn't interest her, as she believes it would curtail her freedom, but she isn't opposed the marrying the right sort of man one day (i.e. one with money that she can control). Her hopes for freedom come to an abrupt end, however, when her family loses their fortune. She decides to marry Henleigh Grandcourt, a wealthy suitor, in order to save herself from having to work as a governess or teacher. Henleigh is a cruel man with a dubious grasp on morality; Gwendolen knows some of these details, but decides to marry him anyway for the financial benefits. Predictably, their marriage is a bad one and Gwendolen must come to terms with both the new realities of her life as a wife and her guilt over knowing that her own selfish decisions put her in this situation.

The other character is, of course, Daniel Deronda. Daniel is a kind, upstanding young man with a penchant for taking the side of the underdog in any given situation. He enjoys a good reputation; everyone who meets him loves him. He has been raised since he was a small child by Sir Hugo Mallinger, a wealthy noble. Daniel's exact parentage has never been explained to him, but he has always assumed that he is Sir Hugo's illegitimate son and avoided asking any questions that might cast a shadow over the morals of his beloved father figure. In either case, he has no property or fortune to inherit, so he is studying to be a lawyer in order to provide for himself. One evening, however, an event occurs that sets him down a very different path. While rowing down a river, he witnesses a young woman about to drown herself. He rescues her and is immediately struck by her beauty and her sadness. He learns that her name is Mirah Lapidoth and that she has recently traveled to England to try and reconnect with her mother and brother, whom she was separated from when she was a child. She has no money or friends to help support her and decided to end her life when she was unable to find her family. Daniel introduces her to a friend who agrees to take her in, and takes on the responsibility of helping her restart her life. He also learns from Mirah's story that she is Jewish, and his tendency to help support the persecuted makes him very interested both in her backstory and her religion in general. He sets out to learn more about the Jewish people, and his explorations lead him to make several discoveries about himself.

Gwendolen and Daniel meet each other a few times throughout the story. They live in the same general area and Sir Hugo is Henleigh Grandcourt's uncle, so there is a family connection as well. Gwendolen is immediately drawn to Daniel's innate goodness, and looks to him as a guide and mentor as she struggles against some of her own selfish tendencies. She wants to reform herself and become a better person; she sees him as a kind of teacher. They also feel a bit of a romantic inclination towards each other, although both know that such a relationship is not meant to be. Each time they see each other, Daniel is empathetic and helpful to Gwendolen. She tries to improve herself through his example. 

I wish I could say that I drawn into this story and that the 700 pages just flew by. Unfortunately, I cannot. I had a terrible time with this novel, for several reasons, and this was very surprising to me. I know that I like George Eliot and I know that I like Victorian classics. I've read my share of long classics and have had no problems making my way through ones that I found to be engaging. On paper, I should have had a decent time with this read. In reality, however, there was a lot about Daniel Deronda that I didn't enjoy. 

I don't want this to turn into a long, ranting review. I am fully aware that it is not impressive to bash George Eliot for being boring, so I'm going to try and be concise about what I didn't like. Essentially, I thought that this story was an overlong, disjointed slog. Eliot spends an exhausting amount of time detailing her characters' every inner thought, and this slowed the action down tremendously. Throughout the entire novel, you would read two or three pages of normal dialogue and action, and then have to make your way through three or four pages of the characters' thought processes and feelings, often presented in extremely long blocks of text with few paragraph breaks. It was excessive and it took over the story. 

Speaking of the story, it was not strong either. Very little actually happens in this book. About half is told from Gwendolen's point of view and the other half focuses on Daniel. The chapters flip back and forth between the pair. Unfortunately, I did not think both parts were equally interesting. I was much more engaged in Gwendolen's story and found my attention majorly drifting when I was in a Daniel section. I would not say that any of the characters in this story are particularly fun to read about, but Gwendolen at least felt multi-dimensional. She had different sides to her personality and her tendency to behave poorly at times made for a more compelling story. The saint-like Daniel, whom all the characters treat with a reverence bordering on mania, was very boring. Most of his story revolved around him learning about Judaism and finding out information about his heritage, and as he's already a perfect person, his journey of self discovery fell flat for me.

As I mentioned before, the two halves of the story do not fit together well. Daniel and Gwendolen had very little to do with each other throughout the plot, and their relationship to each other in the times where they did meet felt strange and forced. It didn't make much sense for Gwendolen to develop the obsession with Daniel's opinions that she did. They barely knew each other and only spoke a few times in person before she decided that the entirety of her future behavior rested on what he would tell her to do. By the end of the story she is completely consumed by thoughts of Daniel, a person to whom she is not really connected in any concrete way. I found the whole relationship between them bizarre and unnatural. This is really two separate books combined into one. Daniel's story has nothing to do with Gwendolen's and vice versa. I suppose you could make an argument that Daniel goes on an exterior journey to learn about himself while Gwendolen goes on an interior journey, but this connection between the halves is tenuous at best and does not really come across in the reading.

Perhaps the worst element of all, however, was Eliot's depiction of the Jewish people. It's clear that Eliot meant well, did her research, and was very accepting, especially considering the time period she lived in. The heroes of the story are Jewish and are portrayed in a very favorable light. These points don't change the fact that this novel does not feel remotely authentic when it comes to Judaism. It is overflowing with stereotypes, and is very specific in delineating "good Jews" from "bad Jews." It is filled with paragraphs that regurgitate information about Judaism like an encyclopedia. It is not a natural depiction of the religion or the people. 

Again, I'm not going to blame Eliot for not having modern views on race, but it's not so easy to brush off this stuff as "a product of its time" when you are faced with it over and over across hundreds of pages. It is a dominant feature of the book and it has aged very poorly. It reminded me of what Harriet Beecher Stowe was doing in Uncle Tom's Cabin. She was another author writing about a people she didn't really know, trying to get others to take pity on them. Both of their hearts were in the right place, but their work is tough to get through now. 
To be fair, some aspects of Daniel Deronda are thought provoking. Gwendolen's character in particular raised interesting questions about a woman's role and options in Victorian society. She consistently broke social norms and envisioned a future for herself free from the encumbrance of a husband. Ultimately, she is forced to succumb to what the world expects of her, but her struggle was an interesting exploration of what some more independent-minded women probably felt during this time. As I mentioned before, I was disappointed that her character becomes so deferential to Daniel, but the beginning part of her story was still engaging. There are a few other female characters that defy expectations, with varying levels of success. I don't think Eliot's treatment of them was very even, but at least their stories kept my attention. The writing, of course, was well crafted throughout. Some parts of the ending were surprising. Overall though, I didn't have a very good time with this one.

Usually when I reflect on a classic I didn't like that much, I can find some redeeming value in it. Either I will appreciate its historical importance or acknowledge that it expanded my literary knowledge. In this case, however, I can't truly say that reading Daniel Deronda improved my life in any appreciable way. It was okay, but disjointed and entirely too long. It hasn't aged in a way that is pleasurable to read. I would not recommend this to anyone except those who are die-hard George Eliot fans and are on a mission to read all of her works. Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner are better choices by far for anyone interested in trying her out. I suppose at the very least I can say that in reading this, I was able to complete part of my reading challenges. Hopefully my next classic will be a better match for me!

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2021 (A Classic by a woman author): 7/12
Classics Club (#58 on my list): 89/100 books completed

Total Books Read in 2021: 18

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

March Wrap Up

March is now at an end and my reading was moderately successful. I completed everything I set out to do anyway. I liked some of what I read, but unfortunately two of the classics I finished didn't end up being favorites. Here's the list:

At least 100 pages of Les Misérables - Done (read 125 pages)

I think my favorite of the month was Monday's Not Coming, a young adult contemporary novel that I found to be really gripping. It wasn't perfect, however, as I thought its twist ending was confusing and unnecessary. 

My least favorite of the month was a tie between Under the Greenwood Tree and To the Lighthouse, but for very different reasons. I found Under the Greenwood Tree to be too shallow and To the Lighthouse to be imbued with meaning that I didn't really understand. They both counted for my various challenges though, so all was not lost.

In April, I'm taking on another monster of a classic, so my other picks will be on the shorter side. Here's my goal:

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
At least two books chosen from my owned-not-read list based on my mood
At least 100 pages of Les Misérables

The only one on here that I am worried about is Daniel Deronda, which is 784 pages of very small print. I love George Eliot, but I already started reading this one a little bit, and it's taking me a little while to get into it. I haven't hit that point yet where I'm fully oriented to the story and want to pick it up. Hopefully I'll get there soon. Otherwise, it's going to be a long month!

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is one of those authors that I have a heard a lot about in the classics community, but have never read myself. This is mainly because she's a famous modernist writer, and I generally find those kinds of novels to be intimidating and unpleasant to read. One only has to go back to my experience with Ulysses to see what I mean. I was still curious about her though, so I ended up putting two of her novels on my Classics Club list. Predictably, I've waited until the last year of the challenge to actually read them. I decided to start with the shorter one of the two first, To the Lighthouse.

The novel follows a period of time in the life of the Ramsey family and some of their friends. In the novel's first section, The Window, the story follows the thoughts of the characters over the course of a single day while the group is vacationing in a home in the Hebrides. Part of the the action centers around Mrs. Ramsey promising her young son John that they will take a trip to the nearby lighthouse the next day. Mr. Ramsey puts a damper on their plans, however, saying that the weather will be too poor to make the journey. John is inwardly furious with his father, and Mrs. Ramsey is annoyed that he was so negative about the idea. From there, the novel floats from character to character, showing their thoughts in stream of consciousness style as they muse over lots of topics including love, marriage, careers, and family. 

The second section of the novel, Time Passes, covers several years and gives some updates about some big events that have happened in the lives of the characters since the day covered in section one. This section is very short and functions to give us the background we need to continue on with the story.

The third and final section of the novel, The Lighthouse, once again covers a single day in the same style as before. The story floats around from character to character giving us a look at their inner thoughts as they join together once more at their holiday home in the Hebrides. This time, the trip to the lighthouse that was stymied years ago occurs and James, now a young adult, thinks about how his negative feelings towards his father both have and haven't changed.  

This is a difficult book for me to review. I didn't hate it, but stream of consciousness writing is just not my thing. I don't enjoy reading the strange, wandering thoughts of people. I much prefer a traditional story with a real plot. Nothing really happens in To the Lighthouse, and of course that was intentional. I'm just not sure what I was supposed to take away from it aside from a meditation on the random and hypocritical nature of one's inner voice. 

That being said, this novel was more understandable than other books using this style that I have tried. There were some lines in it that I really liked, and I especially liked seeing the perspective of the female characters as they mused on marriage, motherhood, and careers. I can understand why this book is important in the literary cannon and why Virginia Woolf is a highly praised author. It's just not my cup of tea. 

Thankfully, this novel was short enough that I was able to make my way through it in a few days without getting too annoyed by it. Part of my reason for doing the Classics Club Challenge is to experience different kinds of literature, so at least I'm accomplishing that here. I also was able to use this for my Back to the Classics Challenge to read a 20th Century Classic, so that's another book checked off the list there too. I'm not exactly looking forward to the other Virginia Woolf novel I have to read before the year's end, Orlando, but who knows? Maybe I'll end up liking that one better.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2021 (A 20th Century Classic): 6/12
Classics Club (#76 on my list): 88/100 books completed

Total Books Read in 2021: 17

Monday, March 29, 2021

Monday's Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson


I first came across Monday's Not Coming on a trip through the young adult section of Barnes and Noble a few years ago. I was drawn in by the striking red cover, and intrigued by the description on the back. I picked it up not realizing that I already had another Tiffany D. Jackson novel, Allegedly, sitting on my shelf at home, unread. What can I say? I guess I like the way Jackson writes summaries. I ended up reading Allegedly first, at the start of this year, and liked it well enough. I was really into the dark, gritty story for the majority of the book, but was disappointed by the twist ending that I felt undercut the novel's messaging. As I got started reading Monday's Not Coming, I was curious to see if I would feel the same about the ending in this one, or if I would have a different experience. 

The plot of the novel follows Claudia, a thirteen year old girl living in Washington D.C. At the start of the story, Claudia returns from a summer vacation out of state to find that her best and only friend, Monday Charles, has disappeared. She doesn't turn up at school once the new year starts, and her phone number has been disconnected. Claudia is frantic with worry; Monday was a sister to her and they did almost everything together. She knows that she wouldn't just leave without saying something. She goes to several adults for help, including her parents, teachers, Monday's mother, and even the police. Each time, she is brushed off as if nothing is wrong. Her parents tell her that Monday is either busy or just cooling on their friendship, her teachers tell her that she withdrew from school, Monday's mother tells her she is staying with her father in Maryland, and the police tell her that since no one filed a missing person's report for Monday, there's nothing they can do.

Undeterred by this frustrating lack of help, Claudia continues her search for her friend. Eventually, all of her persistence pays off and she starts to uncover some disturbing information that points towards Monday being in real trouble. Thinking back over the course of their friendship, she begins to realize that there were a lot of signs that Monday was struggling with serious issues at home that she didn't pick up on. As she keeps digging, some of this trouble starts to creep into her own life, putting her in danger. She will stop at nothing to find Monday though, even it it means defying her parents, and risking her own safety.

I enjoyed this novel quite a bit. I was very engaged while reading and I ended up finishing the story quickly because I was so interested in finding out what happened to Monday. Much like in Allegedly, Jackson touches on several social issues within the text and doesn't soften her subject matter for her young audience. The harsh realities of poverty, abuse, and systemic racism are unflinchingly explored and Claudia finds herself in some truly harrowing situations throughout the story. The novel is divided up into sections discussing the past and the present, and the flashbacks to Monday and Claudia's friendship do a nice job of giving good background details and highlighting the warning signs that showed something was wrong with Monday long before she disappeared. There were a few instances where I thought that Claudia was a little too naïve when it came to Monday's obvious distress, but I could forgive those moments in the interest of storytelling. 

I thought that the novel's best theme concerned which kinds of kids tend to attract attention from adults. Monday, a young Black girl living in poverty, is allowed to slip through the cracks with alarming ease. Most people have no idea she's missing until Claudia brings it up, and even when social services and the police are alerted, no one is in a hurry to help. They are overwhelmed with other cases and are unable to make time for another kid. It is probable that a wealthier kid, a kid living in a better neighborhood, or a whiter kid wouldn't suffer the same treatment. I liked that the novel drew attention to this idea. 

Much like in Allegedly, there is a twist at the end of this story. Also much like in Allegedly, I felt like the twist was unnecessary. It wasn't quite as clear as I would have wished it to be either. Once I knew what it was and thought back across the events of the book, I still couldn't piece together an accurate timeline, which is exactly what I said in my Allegedly review. What was better about the twist in Monday's Not Coming though, was that it didn't undercut the overall message of the story. So while I didn't love the ending, it wasn't actively harmful to the novel. I do wish that Jackson could resist slipping in these surprise endings - her writing is strong enough to play it straight.

Ultimately, I really did enjoy Monday's Not Coming. It was a dark, emotional, and gut-wrenching reading experience. Jackson did a nice job incorporating a lot of social issues into the story and the novel left me with a lot to think about beyond just the events of the plot. It hit me a little bit different because as a teacher, I see a lot of kids with tough home lives that end up being absent quite a bit, often for long stretches of time. It's disturbingly easy for these kind of at-risk kids to slip through the cracks and disappear. It's a sobering thought, and I appreciate Jackson bringing some attention to this issue through her story. This probably isn't a novel that I would choose to reread, so I'm going to add it to my donate stack and let someone else discover it. I do think it was a worthwhile and engaging read though. I preferred it to Allegedly and I'm glad I gave it a shot. 

Challenge Tally
Clear the Shelves 2021: 9/50 (donate)

Total Books Read in 2021: 16

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

For the 19th Century Novel prompt in the Back to the Classics Challenge, I decided to go with one of the shorter novels left on the Classics Club list, Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy. This wasn't my first time with a Hardy novel; I read Jude the Obscure in 2019 and I'm pretty sure I've read a few others from before my blogging days that I no longer remember. Jude was one of the most shocking and depressing classics I have ever read, but I knew going into this one that it would be much lighter fare. The summary on the back of the book promised a romantic comedy, so I settled in for a quick and (hopefully enjoyable) read.

The plot of the novel follows a handful of people, but mainly Dick Dewey, a young man living in a small country town named Mellstock. Dick sings in the church choir and helps him father run a hauling business. He hadn't thought much about romance or settling down until a new young schoolteacher named Fancy Day comes to town. Instantly smitten, he begins a clumsy attempt at courtship. He is not alone in his affections, however. Fancy's beauty has also caught the eye of a prominent local farmer named Mr. Shinar and the town preacher, Mr. Maybold. From a practical point of view, Dick is the least desirable of Fancy's suitors. He is the poorest and least refined of the bunch. He has the most heart, however, and won't be deterred in his mission to beat his rivals and win his true love's heart.

The novel is divided into sections by season and takes place over the course of a little more than a year. It is pastoral, sweet, and charming, with most of the action focusing on Dick's nervousness and his awkward attempts to woo Fancy. A few subplots concerning the other suitor's efforts and the replacement of the church choir with a new organ are included as well, and these sections of the novel are similarly lighthearted and sprinkled with small town humor and eccentricities. Hardy's writing is beautiful and easy to read, as is usual for him, and at just over 150 pages, the story is easy to digest.

Overall, this novel was okay for me. While it was well written and full of charm, it was also very shallow. There was very little character development and the plot was extremely straightforward. Any difficulties the characters had were cleared up within a couple of pages, so there was no sense of tension or suspense. I felt no connection to anything going on in the story, and once I realized this, I was just reading to finish. It's a cute story but that's all.

Aspects of this haven't aged particularly well either. Of course, this is a reflection of the time period and readers of classics know to expect these kinds of things in older texts. I'm not criticizing Under the Greenwood Tree for that; it did limit my enjoyment of it though. A lot of the humor is centered around female stereotypes, like women being difficult, expensive, flighty, etc. Fancy's personality was a reflection of this. She was silly, vain, and indecisive, and conformed to all of the stereotypes the male characters in the text joked about so freely. By the end of the story, the main characters are happy, but no one has really learned anything--especially not the reader. 

This is all okay, of course. Not every novel has to contain a serious message or emotional moments. When I read, however, I like to have those things. Ultimately, I thought this novel was forgettable, but I'm still glad to have read another of Thomas Hardy's works. I still have Tess of the d'Urbervilles on my Classics Club list, and I think I'm going to like that one more.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2021 (A 19th Century Classic): 5/12
Classics Club (#57 on my list): 87/100 books completed

Total Books Read in 2021: 15

Monday, March 22, 2021

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden


**This will contain spoilers for the two previous books in the Winternight Trilogy**

After finally finishing my last (very long) book, I decided it was time to pick up The Winter of the Witch and complete Katherine Arden's Winternight Trilogy. I've been slowly working my way through these Russian folklore-inspired fantasy novels over the past few months and have been mildly enjoying them--at least enough to be interested in finishing out the series. It's been a like-but-not-love situation with these books for me so far. As I headed into the last book, I was hoping to maybe feel a stronger connection to it than the previous ones.  

The plot of this novel picks up right where the second book leaves off, with Moscow reeling from the massive fire Vasilisa accidentally caused when she released the Firebird from its captivity. Although she was able to stop the fire with Morozko's help, and defeat the evil sorcerer menacing the city, the townspeople still consider her to be a dangerous witch and they immediately call for her execution. As a violent mob begins to gather outside the gates of Vasilisa's terem, she decides to leave to protect the rest of her family. She is unable to simply disappear, however, as decisions are being made in Moscow that will lead the country into a war with the Tatars. The army of the Tatars is vast, and Vasilisa knows that Russia's entire existence is threatened by this approaching conflict. While she is very tempted to disappear into Morozko's eternal winter and lose herself in her romance, she can't ignore the needs of her country. She decides to help Russia win the war.

Her journey to help her country takes her into strange, otherworldly realms and awakens a magical ability in her. Her new, fragile magic, however, is not enough to defeat the Tatars on its own. Similarly, Morozko's powers aren't strong enough to turn the tide in their favor. While he can help, this is not his season and not his fight.  So, in order to save Russia, Vasilisa must unite all of her people - the Christians, the Pagans, and the magical creatures hidden away across the land, and lead them to defend their country together. She must also decide whether or not to ally herself with an old enemy who could very well lead them to victory, or betray her and bring about certain defeat.  

I was pleasantly surprised to find that I really liked this novel. Vasilisa's mission to unite her people against their common enemy allowed the text to explore worthy themes, and it felt appropriately epic. I thought that Vasilisa's growth as a character showed through clearly. She really comes into her own this novel and is brave, selfless, and powerful. When I think back to the beginning of the series, when she was a frightened child with strange abilities she didn't understand, I can truly appreciate how far she has come. Arden did a nice job transforming her across the series. I thought the romance between her and Morozko was well written here too. There was just enough of it that you felt invested in them being together, but not so much that it took away from the overall story about the war. 

I enjoyed the feminist aspect of the novel as well. This story is set in medieval Russia. Women had few rights and were expected to be either wives or nuns in this time period. Vasilisa's independence, courage, and willingness to defy gender norms send a great "girl power" message throughout the text, even though they frequently get her into trouble. I also liked the theme of working together despite differences for a common good. This was my favorite book of the trilogy by far, and I was happy that the series ends here, on a high note for me.

I've read a few books based on Russian folklore over the years, and none of them have ended up being favorites for me. I think this trilogy is my favorite of these types of stories I've encountered so far, and that's really saying something, because I just don't love Baba Yaga as a character, and she was definitely present here. I still wish that I fell completely in love with Vasilisa, but I enjoyed the journey well enough and The Winter of the Witch was a satisfying ending. I'll be happy to donate all three of these books so that someone else out there will hopefully enjoy them a little bit more than I did. 

Challenge Tally
Clear the Shelves 2021: 8/50 (donate)

Total Books Read in 2021: 14

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens


One of the prompts for the Back to the Classics Challenge this year was to read a new-to-you classic by a favorite author. This was an easy pick for me, as I dearly love Charles Dickens (most of the time) and I had Our Mutual Friend on my Classics Club list already. I was first interested in this novel because one of my literature professors in college claimed that this was Dickens's best work (she made us read Bleak House for the class though, which I ended up loving). I was curious to see if I would feel the same way as her. I think I didn't pick it up until now purely because of the length. My version was 800 pages of tiny print, and I knew it would take a long time to finish. However, as this is my final year of my Classics Club Challenge, I finally took the plunge this month and gave it a try.

Our Mutual Friend is a novel with a vast cast of characters and many separate plotlines running concurrently. All of the action however, is connected with a large inheritance and a mysterious murder. At the start of the novel, we learn that an old miser named Mr. Harmon has recently passed away, leaving a large fortune behind. Having alienated his son John during his lifetime, he ends up creating a rather unusual will, designed to control him from beyond the grave. He leaves his entire estate to him, on the condition that he marries a young lady named Bella Wilfer. If he does not marry this woman, then he inherits nothing and the estate will fall to Mr. Boffin, a servant that helped manage the property for several years. John has never met this young woman before and knows nothing about her, but he decides to try the marriage anyway. However, as he is traveling to London to meet her for the first time, he is murdered by an unknown assailant. 

The murder of John Harmon sets off a chain of events that affect a wide variety of characters connected in various ways to the inheritance. Mr. Boffin, the former servant, suddenly becomes a very wealthy man and must learn how to live like rich people do. Bella Wilfer, disappointed to lose a fortune, becomes quite mercenary in her quest to find another wealthy man to marry. Silas Wegg, a new servant of Mr. Boffin, becomes obsessed with finding a way to weasel away some of the estate for himself. My Wrayburn, a lawyer connected with the estate, becomes enamored with the daughter of the man who found Harmon's body and must grapple with the attraction to someone below his social station. Mr. and Mrs. Lammle, two society people on the brink of bankruptcy, try to scheme their way into pocketing some of the fortune with the help of an unscrupulous moneylender. John Rokesmith, Mr. Boffin's new secretary, attempts to protect his boss's new fortune from all the different people looking to take a piece of it. There are several more characters involved here too--this is only a small sample of the madness that ensues around the Harmon inheritance. There are around twenty major characters followed throughout the course of the story and a similar number of minor characters that appear from time to time. What they have in common is that they are all touched by the often-corrupting influence of wealth, and their lives are all changed because of it.

Our Mutual Friend was Dickens's last novel, and it does feel like the sum of his writing experiences. It has all of the his signature elements: dastardly villains, virtuous orphans, hilarious buffoons, eccentric oddballs, and admirable heroes. Biting social commentary is here as well, with his feelings about the power and dangers of money taking center stage. The upper crust of society is also mercilessly lampooned, with several chapters dedicated to their silly and narcissistic social gatherings. Of course, layered in between all of the silliness is a compelling and emotional story in which the more realistic of the characters learn and grow, to their benefit, or don't, to their peril. It feels like a magnum opus. If you are a fan of Dickens, and a fan of Victorian literature, you will certainly like this book.

That being said, this wasn't exactly an easy read for me. I don't think I was in the proper mood to take on such a dense book, so even though I liked most of what I was reading, a lot of it did feel slow. I think this story is one meant to be savored and enjoyed at a leisurely pace. I wasn't in that place, so I felt antsy from time to time. I was also a bit bothered by some of the parts that didn't age so well. For example, there is a Jewish character in the story named Mr. Riah. He's one of the good guys. He doesn't have much money, but is rich in kindness, care, and patience. Since he is Jewish, however, most of the other characters in the book treat him abominably. The amount of antisemitism shown towards him is ugly, intense, and very tiring to read. I'm not talking about just a few pages of it here either. Almost every time Mr. Riah makes an appearance in the text, the antisemitic comments fly thick and fast. Obviously, the time period is to blame for this, and I'm used to making allowances for this sort of thing in classic novels. That doesn't make it pleasant to read though.

Another piece of the story that irked me was the paternalistic treatment of Bella Wilfer. A big part of the novel concerns her reformation from a wealth-obsessed character to a proper, virtuous lady. Many of the people around her assist with this transition through some pretty serious subterfuge and lying. She is treated with less respect than a child throughout the story. Of course, Bella is grateful for this treatment in the end, and I couldn't help but roll my eyes. Everyone around her was creepy and controlling and she didn't mind a bit. I don't want to get into specifics because I don't want to spoil key plot points, but the lies she is told are serious, cause her intense emotional distress, and come from the people closest to her. I couldn't help but feel like she should have been at least a little bit mad about it. This kind of treatment of women is another common trope of the time period, so I don't fault Dickens for including it, but it is one of those plot elements that are really not entertaining to modern audiences any longer. The men around her are so damn smug about teaching her a lesson and deceiving her "for her own good" that it spoiled a good chunk of the ending for me.

All that being said though, I did like parts of this novel a great deal. I certainly agreed with Dickens' point about wealth being a corrupting influence on people, and his large, quirky cast of characters were fun to get to know. No one can create a circus of personalities like Dickens can, and his intricate storytelling is a pleasure to watch unfold. Thinking back to my professor who said this was Dickens's finest work, I think she was probably right. Our Mutual Friend is absolutely masterful. All things considered, I enjoyed Bleak House a bit more than this, but this is certainly worth the read for anyone that considers themselves a fan of Dickens's work. It's a long, twisty journey, but it is worth the time.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2021 (New-to-you Classic by a Favorite Author): 4/12
Classics Club (#55 on my list): 86/100 books completed

Total Books Read in 2021: 13