Wednesday, October 29, 2014

This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff

This is a book about a troubled teenage boy with a broken, dysfunctional family.

So of course, from the beginning I was destined not to like it. I didn't hate it. I thought the writing was pretty good. But frankly, I have never understood teenage boys who get into trouble and don't care about anyone but themselves. I would have liked it if this book had helped me understand that sort of person, but it only made me more confused. Wolff tells us, "This is what I did, just because I felt like it," and I was constantly thinking, "But why? Why did you do it? And why does it matter? And why should I care what you did when you were a teenage boy?"

The way I felt about This Boy's Life reminded me of my experience with Catcher in the Rye. They're not really all that similar, but they're both about teenage boys who can't even begin to understand themselves or other people, so they act out in self-destructive ways. It seems that people who had similar experiences as teenagers are absolutely in love with Catcher in the Rye. "Oh, it's just so real," they'll say. Well, maybe. But I think really good stories are told in such a way that anyone, even those who haven't had the same experiences, can relate to them and understand them. Especially memoirs--a huge reason for the existence of memoir is that people who can't relate to the memoirist's experience can live in the author's story as they read.

I didn't have that experience as I read This Boy's Life, and for that reason the book felt distant to me. It was somewhat interesting, and it was readable, but I didn't particularly enjoy it.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Pollyanna by Eleanor Porter

I'm surprised that I liked this book. Normally I have trouble with children's books because I find them too simplistic or didactic, and this book was definitely both of those. Maybe I'm getting kinder towards children's literature now that I'm going to have a child of my own. (I hope so.)

If you haven't read Pollyanna but have heard someone called "a Pollyanna," then the story is probably much like you would expect. A little girl named Pollyanna, recently orphaned, goes to live with her aunt Polly, a strict, strait-laced woman constantly preaching about duty. The optimistic child runs about town chattering incessantly and teaching everyone she meets (mostly adults--there aren't too many children in the story) about the "Glad Game," the rules of which are simply to find something to be "glad" about in everything. The characters are transformed and everyone learns how to be happy. Until, of course, Pollyanna runs into a hardship that even she can't find anything to be glad about.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Counting books.

I started counting my books even before I started blogging. I counted them in my journal--I'd make a list in the back of all the books I'd read that year.

After I created Classics and Beyond, I started using Goodreads to track the books I read. (I had a Goodreads account before, but I didn't use it regularly.) I loved this easy way to see what I'd read, and just as importantly, how many books I'd read in a year.

At first, I was a little surprised at how low my numbers were, but as I looked over my books, I found that I usually read a few long and/or difficult books each year; the majority of my reading wasn't just breezy novels. Of course, being in school, I'm often assigned to read long and difficult books in a short space of time.

Up until now, I would only count a book in my year's reading if I finished every last page of it. But I've become dissatisfied with that. Of course, I'm not going to count DNFs if I only made it through the first 30 pages. But I often get pretty far in these books before I have to give up. I have a ton of reading to do, and although I really want to finish every book I'm assigned, sometimes I just don't have the time, especially nowadays. So far this semester, I've already put aside How Green Was My Valley after about 200 pages, and I'm suspecting the same is going to happen to Angela's Ashes, even though I only have about 100 pages to go.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

A guy in my class said he didn't like this book because Gornick tried too hard to explain her experience, that there was too much meditation interspersed with the stories from her life.

Well, I guess I need a lot of explanation, because Gornick's meditation on her experience was my favorite part.

To summarize, this is a memoir about Gornick's relationship with her mother. Gornick explores her childhood experience in a poor Jewish family in New York, and how this experience made her the adult she is: both rebellious toward her mother and exactly like her mother.

Vivian Gornick doesn't seem like the kind of person I would like to meet, but she's a fantastic writer. She does a wonderful job of portraying her mother both as a victim of circumstance and culture, a woman who tried her best, and as a cold, judgmental, controlling mother who should have tried harder (and, actually, as a strong and independent woman who rose above her circumstances). She also portrays herself as a person who is victimized, but has made her own choices, both good and bad. I think this was possibly the most fair way Gornick could have told her story.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Hi, guys. So here I am, doing what I said I would do--totally failing at updating the blog during my busy school semester (my last one!). I'm not going to promise that I'll be any better over the next few months when I'll be graduating and having a baby, but I will try when I can, since I've been reading so many books. The reviews will probably be rather belated, like this one, and might not be very good or very long, but I want to try to stay a part of this great book-blog community! 

I knew without a doubt I would love this book. And I wasn't disappointed.

Ever since reading North and South, I've been dying to read more Gaskell. And I'd heard wonderful things about Wives and Daughters, so that was my next pick.

Of course, then life happened and other books got in the way and I didn't actually end up reading it until nearly two years after reading N&S. But even with all the expectations that built up in those two years, Wives and Daughters still gave me all the wonderful, good-book feelings I knew it would.

With this sort of book, it's hard to know exactly what to say. I could talk about the issues it deals with in 19th-century English society--the class problems, the gender issues, the rise of naturalism, etc.--but that would make the book seem more like a relic of purely historical interest than a real classic. I could wax poetic about the timeless themes of love, loss, marriage, sisterhood, friendship, family, duty, right and wrong, and plenty of others--but that's all been done before, by people who are much more poetic than I am.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

This is going to be one of the most difficult reviews I've had to write in quite a while. I had a lot of mixed feelings about The Reader. A summary, as spoiler-free as possible:

In postwar Germany, a sick teenage boy is rescued by an older stranger named Hanna. As he gets to know Hanna better, Michael becomes Hanna's lover. After some time, Hanna disappears without a trace...until Michael sees her again, several years later, in a courtroom being accused of committing horrifying crimes as a Nazi guard. 

The first half of the book, about Michael and Hanna's love affair, was not my cup of tea. Frankly, I don't really find it interesting to read about a messed-up thirty-something woman indulging a horny fifteen-year-old boy's sexual impulses. I think part of the purpose of this part of the book was to make me care about the characters, particularly Hanna--or, at the very least, to be curious about them--but it only repulsed me. I didn't want to learn more about the characters. The only reason I pushed on was that my mom gave me this book, so I knew there had to be more to it than first met the eye.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams

I was sure I was going to like this book. First of all, it came highly recommended from sources I trusted. Plus, the way the memoir was set up seemed to be fail-proof: the author juxtaposes her narrative of the rising of Utah's Great Salt Lake and the effect it has on the birds in the Bird Refuge alongside the narrative of her mother's slow death from cancer. Brilliant. Even more, it's by a Utah author, so I really had no choice but to like it.

...Except that I didn't. I hate to say that. I really do. This is possibly the biggest reading disappointment I've ever had because I just really wanted to like it. 

In the first half, Williams failed to make me care about the birds. The parts about her mother were the most interesting, but they were only snippets in the longer, much more technical narrative about the birds. I felt more like I was reading a newspaper article than a personal memoir. Williams made it clear how much she cared about the birds, but she didn't express this in a way I could understand. The birds were her job, and she left out no solitary technical detail. It was hard to keep my eyes from glazing over. 

But I thought, it'll get better. It has to. Everyone loves this book; it simply must get better. Well, unfortunately, it was actually downhill from there. In the second half of the book, I started to realize just how distant I felt from Terry Tempest Williams. Like her photograph on the back of the book--a black and white picture of a young woman on a boat, clasping her hands as her luxurious hair billows in the wind, looking toward the camera with a mystical half-smile that says, Oh, I didn't see you there--Williams paints herself as a mysterious, wise woman. Frankly, I didn't like this portrayal at all; I thought it was inappropriate for a memoir. Memoirs are a place to connect with your reader, to say, Look, I have these problems just like you, and I'm going to lay them out in front of you so we all can acknowledge that we're not alone. At least, those are the kinds of memoirs I like to read. Williams, instead, seemed condescending, as though she knew something the rest of us don't about nature and life and the universe. It didn't help that she started calling everything she did--driving, vacuuming, whatever--a "meditation." Oh, please. I progressed to the eye-rolling stage.