Tag Archives: book challenge 2017

Book Review: The Awakening – Kate Chopin

A rich, married woman in 1890s New Orleans falls in love with a young man. She realises that she is completely dissatisfied with her life as a mother and housewife, and sets about changing her life so she is happy with it. A really evocative book about a woman’s rejection of society, and her discovery of who she really is.

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Edna Pontellier has what seems to be a pretty nice life. Her husband is a kind man – he doesn’t believe in ordering his wife about, or even worse. Her role is to, well, lounge about entertaining people from what I can gather. But she isn’t passionately in love with her husband. When she spends a summer in the company of Robert Lebrun she slowly realises that she is unfulfilled and desperately unhappy with the mundanity of life. She craves independence and passion.

An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish

As an insight into Edna’s state of mind, it’s really insightful, convincing, and beautifully written. A criticism would be that clearly Edna’s life is actually not that bad. She has an ok husband, who provides for her, is generous, and is supportive of her (so long as she behaves in away that fits in with societal expectations of her). She is expected to care for their children when their maid is not around, but she’s quite free to socialise as she likes. I’m not saying she should just put up with being unhappy, just that she actually has a whole lot of options – especially given that during the story she realises that with her paintings becoming better, she has a means to support herself.

She is quite indifferent to her children. She doesn’t have much to do with their day to day upbringing and she sends them away fairly often to her family.

She was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way. She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would sometimes forget them.

What The Awakening does really well is to describe how a daily life, living up to other peoples expectations of how she should behave, can grind you down and make you miserable. Edna decides to change things in her life…

Mr Pontellier had been a rather courteous husband so long as he met a certain tacit submissiveness in his wife. But her new and unexpected line of conduct completely bewildered him. It shocked him. Then her absolute disregard for her duties as a wife angered him. When Mr Pontellier became rude, Edna grew insolent. She had resolved to never take another step backward.

Her action so far had been to ditch her usual Tuesday receiving and visiting of other society ladies. Scandalous! It’s admirable how once Edna sets out to free herself she goes for it without giving a fuck what anyone else thinks.

…she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself.

You need to be aware that as it was written in the 1890s there is a lot of racist language used in the descriptions of the staff they have serving their lives. There are specific words used to describe people that refer to the colour of their parents. In fact, these terms are used in place of their names. They are just referred to as ‘the …..’ or ‘the ……’ in reference to their skin colour. The lady that brings up Edna’s children is not even given a name.

Given that the whole plot is driven by infidelity, or the idea of it, it is almost devoid of sexual interaction. This is not Jilly Cooper. When an illicit kiss happens it’s description is electric, and it’s a refection of the whole plot that she is the instigator:

She leaned over and kissed him – a soft, cool, delicate kiss, whose voluptuous sting penetrated his whole being – then she moved away from him.

It’s a fleeting glimpse into one character, but this small insight into the douchery of Robert is spectactular:

He looked at Edna’s book, which he had read; and he told her the end, to save her the trouble of wading through it, he said.

Un.be.liev.able. Run away, Edna! He’s a bad ‘un!

Book review: The Story of my Life – Helen Keller

Helen Keller had an illness at 19 months old that left her deaf and blind. This book, written when she was 22, and at college, is an account of how she has lived her life and came to be at college. It was published in 1903. It’s the story of how she has flourished, against the odds, with the help of an great teacher.

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There’s no doubt that Helen Keller is a certified bad ass. She graduated from college when not many woman did, and she did it all as a blind and deaf person (the first to hold a Bachelor of arts degree). She went on to be a campaigner and activist.

A member of the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, she campaigned for women’s suffrage, labor rights, socialism, antimilitarism, and other similar causes.

Having said that, you could have knocked a third off this book and it still been really fascinating. Later parts are a string of mini book reviews from her studies and accounts of all the famous people she has met.

A lot of it is written in very flowery language; lot of smells and feelings, but clearly that’s how she experiences the world and so is totally fine. She describes brilliantly how she felt before she could communicate effectively, and how utterly amazingly life changing her teacher, Anne Sullivan, was. Incidentally, I didn’t realise Anne was also blind! I only realised this when I just looked up her wikipedia entry to check her name.

An interesting short (but still too long) read. 🙂

And I read the whole thing with this song on repeat in my head:

Book Challenge 2017 update

I leapt into this years book challenge with great enthusiasm after getting all giddy watching the new Gilmore Girls episodes. I saw the reading list and identified that, of all the books I had read, a lot were my favourites. I therefore decided that the rest of the list must be possible future favourites of mine.

All this is still true, but I’ve had more time to critically appraise the list and it’s just… it’s… so white, and so American and European. It’s turned out to be too restrictive in terms of what I want to read.

I’m still choosing books from the list, because what I said before is still true. But l have found myself adding in other books. I can’t just read books from that list this year. I need more options!

This is the first time I’ve tried to restrict my reading to books from a specific list. It’s just not really working for me in the way I’d originally hoped. I have read 11 more of the books though, and have really enjoyed them (score!). It’s just that I’ve also read 8 books that aren’t on it :-). Here’s the updated list with the ones I’ve read in red:

• The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

• Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

• The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander

• Brick Lane by Monica Ali  

• Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood  

• Emma by Jane Austen  

• Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen  

• Oracle Night by Paul Auster  

• Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

• Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

• The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov  

• The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

• The Awakening by Kate Chopin

• The Meaning of Consuelo by Judith Ortiz Cofer

• Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

• Fat Land : How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World by Greg Critser

• Cousin Bette by Honore De Balzac

• Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems of Julia De Burgos by Julia De Burgos

• The Red Tent by Anita Diamant  

• David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

• Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky  

• An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

• The Bielski Brothers by Peter Duffy

• The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas  

• Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn 

• The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco  

• Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

• The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner

• Time and Again by Jack Finney

• The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald  

• A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

• Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

• Bee Season by Myla Goldberg

• Lord of the Flies by William Golding  

• Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

• My Life in Orange by Tim Guest

• The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon 

• The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

• Sacred Time by Ursula Hegi

• The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

• Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

• Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

• Rescuing Patty Hearst by Virginia Holman

• A Quiet Storm by Rachel Howzell Hall

• The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby

• Songbook by Nick Hornby

• The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini  

• The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo  

• Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

• How the Light Gets In by M. J. Hyland

• The Lottery: And Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

• Nervous System by Jan Lars Jensen  

• The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

• The Story of My Life by Helen Keller

• On The Road by Jack Kerouac

• One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

• Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes  

• The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd  

• A Separate Peace by John Knowles

• Extravagance by Gary Krist

• The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

• The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson  

• The Song of Names by Norman Lebrecht

• The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

• Small Island by Andrea Levy

• Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire  

• A Month Of Sundays by Julie Mars

• Life of Pi by Yann Martel  

• Property by Valerie Martin

• The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

• The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus         

• Quattrocento by James McKean

• Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller  

• Beloved by Toni Morrison

• Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

• Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi

• The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger  

• How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer

• 1984 by George Orwell  

• When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

• Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

• Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett

• The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker

• My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

• The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath  

• Complete Tales & Poems by Edgar Allan Poe

• The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

• Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

• The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elisabeth Robinson

• The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

• Empire Falls by Richard Russo

• The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

• Sybil by Flora Schreiber

• The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

• Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

• Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

• Hamlet by William Shakespeare

• Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

• Frankenstein by Mary Shelley  

• Unless by Carol Shields

• Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

• The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

• A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

• Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

• Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

• Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

• The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan

• Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray  

• Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy  

• A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

• The Song Reader by Lisa Tucker

• The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

• Just a Couple of Days by Tony Vigorito

• Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

• Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

• Night by Elie Wiesel

• The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde  

• The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse

• Old School by Tobias Wolff

• The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Book Review: Galapagos – Kurt Vonnegut

This book is delightfully bonkers. Set over a million years, it focuses on a short period in 1986 when a small group of people became stranded on one of the Galapagos islands. These people seed the future of the human race after other circumstances cause humans every where else in the world to die out. It’s all narrated by the ghost of Kilgore Trout’s son. Obviously.

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This is only my second Vonnegut book after I finally got around to reading Slaughterhouse Five last summer.  I listen avidly to the bookshambles podcast and they talk about Vonnegut A LOT. So I knew I wanted to read more. This one doesn’t appear on any YOU MUST READ THIS VONNEGUT BEFORE YOU DIE lists, but it’s on my book challenge list for the year. I knew if I like this there must be more that I would just LOVE.

The assorted characters are booked onto the Nature Cruise of the Century to the Galapagos islands. We have a Japanese computer genius, an expert flower arranger ( these two are husband and wife), a straight laced widow, a conman, a business man and his blind daughter. With various other characters, the small connections between their lives are revealed, along with much information about their intended cruise destination, the Galapagos islands, and Charles Darwin’s adventures there. We find out from our narrator what he thinks went wrong with humans, and find out how different (improved?) their lives are a million years after the events of the book, when they are all descended from the small group that finally made the Nature Cruise of the Century.

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It’s a crazy story of small events that have lasting consequences. I loved this book and I can’t wait to read some more Vonnegut. 🙂

Book Review: Night – Elie Wiesel

You don’t start a book about the holocaust expecting anything but horror. Horror that people are capable of the most inhumane, disgusting acts. Horror that this is not fiction. Horror that this could ever happen. I had to keep repeating to myself ‘This was what he saw. This is real. Real people did this.’

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Elie Wiesel was brought up in Sighet, Romania. Himself, his Mother and Father, and his little sister were moved into a Jewish Ghetto when German troops occupied the town in March 1944. Elie was 15 years old. In March 1944 they were deported to Auschwitz. His Mother and seven year old sister were murdered there. Elie and his Father were later transferred to Buchenwald camp. Before the camp was liberated on April 11th 1945 his Father died.

He wrote this book about 10 years  after the camp liberation. He explains in the introduction that he was writing it because so many couldn’t tell the story because they didn’t survive. He needed to give voice to the experience so it could not be forgotten.

I don’t even need to explain that this is a harrowing read. Harrowing, but important. I am shocked I had not heard of it before seeing it on my reading challenge list for this year. It’s a very short book, so if you haven’t read it yet, you can do it in an hour or so.

Book Review: The Polysyllabic Spree – Nick Hornby

I knew I would love reading about someone else’s reading habits. I already like reading blogs about it, and I love the book club I’m in, partly for just talking about books. I would put Josie Long and Robin Ince’s Book Shambles as my must listen to podcast, followed by  A Good Read then Open Book, on Radio 4. Put like that, it seems strange I haven’t read a book about reading books before.

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My main motivation for starting this book though, was that I needed something that had a good chance of being quite light. I’ve read some heavy books recently and  needed something I could breeze along happily with. Pick up, read a little, feel good, carry on with something else and repeat. Perfect. And it’s on my reading challenge book list for the year. Score!

This is a collection of essays Nick Hornby wrote, over 14 months, for The Believer magazine. They cover 2003 – 2004. They are about his book buying, and reading, habits. It has a few extracts from mentioned books too. It’s not very long, I managed to read it in a day whilst also being in sole charge of my two children (probably tells you all you need to know about my parenting style). In fact, it was perfect because each essay is just a few pages long.

Reading a book about someone reading will inevitably cause me to buy or wish-list more books I haven’t really got time to read. Which is a bit funny considering that’s partly what the book is about. Well so far every essay has at least one book from my 2017 reading challenge list. They’ve been bumped up the to-read list! Fortress of Solitude – Jonathon Lethem, How to Breathe Underwater – Julie Orringer, and Old School – Tobias Wolff are given particularly stand out praise. Typical that these are books I don’t already own. David Copperfield (also on my 2017 book challenge list) should now be on the top of my reading pile, but it just still doesn’t appeal. I got through Crime and Punishment last year and the part of my brain that wants to be punished (I mean REWARDED) by reading long, difficult, old books is still broken.

I am now really glad I did get through Crime and Punishment so I could get the references to it. I’m slightly sad I’m not well read enough to fully understand the other 50,000 classic book references, but don’t let that put you off reading The Polysyllabic Spree. It’s fun, entertaining, I learnt quite a bit, and also have many more books I now want to read!

Book Review: Beloved – Toni Morrison

This is a book that will break your heart. The story of Sethe, and those she knows, gradually unravels. She was born into slavery and manages to escape, though of course, her experiences never leave her. It’s about an how someone might rather kill her children than see them taken back into slavery.

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This book is about the worst in people. About racism and about how vile people can do vile things to other humans in the name of power, profit and thinking they are superior. It’s also about love and what on earth that can mean when you’re whole life makes you feel used and wretched.

Heartbreaking, difficult, raw, but with touches of hopefulness and joy. I’m glad I read this.

Update 26/2/2017

Last night I watched The Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained. It is set in pre-civil war times in 1858, and covers themes of slavery in America. Beloved is set in the post civil war era (after 1865), but covers the same era as Django Unchained in the characters histories. It really helped bring Beloved to life to see a visualisation of the world of Beloved.

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I have never studied American history and had no clear visual idea of what 1860s Kentucky would look like, for example. In Django you see the American west (I hadn’t even managed to put together this era in the same time frame as Beloved!), then they move to the South and the plantations. You see the slave collars described in Beloved and generally get an idea of what the landscape might have looked like.

Django has it’s problems, but is a good entertaining film. There are issues with the representation of most of the slaves though and I certainly didn’t watch it thinking it was telling me anything real about slave life.