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