Friday, December 26, 2014

A Readable Joyce

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was on the reading list in 12th grade. It is the only book I've ever been assigned to read for school that I couldn't finish. I mean I was such a snob about my reading back then that I scoffed at students who used Cliff's Notes or any other device to cheat through reading the complete book. It never made sense to me to not read the book until old James Joyce came around. I got two-thirds of the way through and just stopped cold turkey, and it showed on my test. My teacher at the time even wrote directly on my test asking if I'd actually finished the book.

To this day I've yet to finish the book or pick up another James Joyce title to try. There are very few books or authors I've tried out and totally disliked right from the start, but he's one of them.

Thankfully, I've found another Joyce to read that is James' complete opposite. These books are remarkably creative with the most beautiful illustrations. The stories are unique, even taking popular tales and putting a new spin on them to appeal to a wider audience. It took having kids (and a few animated movies) to fully discover this author, but I've managed to find a readable Joyce, and his name is William.

Most widely known are William Joyce's Guardians series which follows the adventures of Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Man in the Moon, Jack Frost, and the Easter Bunny and Epic. Both were made into movies. Guardians is actually really good. If my daughter wasn't so afraid of the bad guy, Pitch, this movie would be a staple of our house. Epic is okay. But, it's the books for the younger kids that really just blow me away. My daughter got two of them for the holidays this year and we've loved reading both; A Day with Wilbur Robinson  (which is also a movie that's pretty good now that I think of it) and A Bean, A Stalk, and A Boy Named Jack. They are both imaginative and adventurous and hopefully inspiring to my amazing four-year-old who is beginning to pretend more and more as she plays. 

William Joyce makes the unusual exciting and weaves in such simple moral lessons like the importance of family, being careful what you wish for, the value of an individual, the importance of laughter, and realizing that even big problems can have a simple answer. These are the types of stories I hope stay with my kids as they grow up and move away from picture books to the more involved chapter books. While I can't wait to watch then discover Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, A Wrinkle in Time, etc. I feel like these books are where all that creative imagination that you can pull from a book is starting. I feel honored to be watching this process really begin with my daughter and can't wait for my son to be old enough to experience this same thing too.

Another William Joyce book that I really love that my family is still getting into is The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. I think it might also be a short film, but the book is such a great story about the value of your own life as you live it, the things you accomplish for yourself, and the people you care about. It's about your personal story and how much it really matters. And, there are flying books!

I feel like we're just scratching the surface of the large library of books William has penned and I'm looking forward to reading more as my kids grow. I'm just thankful there's a Joyce out there writing that I can enjoy since my first encounter with a literary Joyce was so totally disappointing. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe

It takes 300 pages for something to happen in this book and where it ends up is so far from where you think it's going, that I'm not sure the trip is worth it. I'm also not sure the person who wrote the synopsis of the book actually read it.

I picked up this book because it is set in Boston, my favorite town, and it's a period piece, taking place on the eve of U.S. involvement in WWI. It features the Allston Family who is recovering from the tragedy of losing two of its members on the Titanic. The synopsis of the book cites "mysterious circumstances" and a "harrowing mystery" to be solved as the family copes with their loss, or at least that's what I thought and what intrigued me about the book. Taking the position of the survivors who were left ashore while family members drowned on the Titanic is a unique perspective that I wanted to read about, but instead I was given Harlan, a rule-breaking college kid with a gambling problem and Sybil, a young woman who discovers through the use of opium that she has a very special, very depressing gift. Both characters are affected by the loss of their family members (a sister and their mom,) but what takes main stage is coping with these other issues. Must be what the synopsis meant by "mystery."

Even thinking about the flow of the book now, I'm confused. The book jumps between the present (1915,) the day the Titanic sank, and 1868 where you learn more about the father in the family. Initially, it made sense to pair the present in the book with scenes from the Titanic, but then things shifted and you see a connection between the present and the father's flashback. There's only a tiny point where the three story lines connect in any way and it was anticlimactic. It would have been a more compelling story without the flashes back to the Titanic, if you ask me. The story would have felt more cohesive to shift the focus on the "gift" Sybil discovers and how it affects her life and the lives of her family. The conclusions she reaches about destiny and fate as a result of coping with her "gift" are the most interesting piece of the entire story, but they get tangled up with the reader's incorrect expectations that this is a book about the aftermath of the Titanic.

Howe likes to infuse her stories with a lot of history and a little bit of the fantastical and I think she got it right with her previous book, but this one definitely fell short.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

This is a modern-day adventure story, what Indiana Jones might have gone through if the Internet and cell phones existed in the 1940's. Instead of dark caves with lots of skulls and scurrying animals, the characters here have Google and CG as their tools to solve the great mystery of a secretive society.

Everything about this book is quirky. Even the realistic impression of the crazy stuff going on at Google HQ is odd (and probably not that far from reality.) Clay is an out-of-work marketing person whose most recent job at a start-up that went under has left him a little disillusioned, so he takes the night shift at a unique 24-hour bookstore run my Penumbra. It's not your typical bookstore. There are only a few shelves in the front that carry modern-day books for sale. The rest of the store is devoted to a collection of old books all written in code. The regulars at the store don't buy anything, just borrow these old books, one at a time. Clay must track the activity of these regulars in great detail. He has no idea why or what's going on and probably would have stayed only slightly curious if not for a girl. She works for Google and she's extremely curious about everything and very persuasive.

So, the adventure begins to discover what these coded books are for, why they must be read in a certain order, who Penumbra really works for, and what the strange symbol on the door really means. In order to figure things out, Clay enlists a special effect wiz with a preference for building models out of real materials and his best friend who happens to own a company that creates anatomically correct body parts digitally. He also takes advantage of some pretty serious equipment and some serious brain power at Google. I won't give anything away, but even the cause for the adventure is quirky - it's all about a specific font with a cameo plot line about a fantasy writer (think dragons and magic.)

A quick and light read, this was a great departure for me from all the fantastical books I've been reading lately. It took place in today's world but was still a little mystic and exciting. It was a real adventure, one that anybody with the right resources and the right mystery to solve could go on today. The focus was on the quest itself with a little bit here and there about the characters so you were easily kept in the moment and not bogged down with too many flashbacks and internal monologues. I had fun reading this book and definitely feel like it has mass appeal potential.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins

I absolutely love Tom Robbins as an author. I've read most of his books and liked just about every one. Skinny Legs and All is probably in my Top 10, so I was excited that a memoir was coming out. Robbins is a quirky writer so I assumed his life was going to be interesting and that he would tell good stories about himself. Eh, it was sort of true.

Overall, this was disappointing. There was no real flow beyond some vague chronology and the stories Robbins selected to share weren't always interesting. He definitely didn't paint a cohesive picture of himself - nothing 3D - other than that he likes women, art, food, and traveling. He had some serious relationships, a few kids, and a life off the straight and narrow. I didn't finish the book feeling like I knew who Tom Robbins was (maybe that was the point?) I feel a little like I wasted my time.

He hardly talks about his books, his creative process, his inspirations. I only know that he, like me, writes things out long-hand first (and I really liked that) but I wanted more.

Don't let this be your introduction to this guy. Get to know his writing first before you attempt this one - trust me.

Check out reviews on other Tom Robbins books:

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

You see it all the time - a trilogy starts off super strong and drags you into its world. Then the second book spends a lot of time explaining the plot so you finish it a little less enthusiastic. By the time you finish the third installment, you're disappointed at how it all ended.
This trilogy doesn't do that!
No disappointments here as the third book in Harkness' All Souls Trilogy wraps up. This was an amazing collection of books - intelligent and exciting with real three-dimensional characters. I absolutely loved it.

In the third installment, our main character base has broadened considerably. Diana, a witch, and Matthew, a vampire, are no longer the only characters we're worried about. Yes, they still propel the action, more so now that Diana is pregnant with Matthew's twins and they're both breaking the single most important rule of no intermingling between creatures. Plus, there's the blood rage - a severe, chromosomal sickness in vampires that can be passed along when turning a human into a vampire. This disease causes the infected to simply lose control and become a violent, murdering machine. It can be managed but it isn't easy. So, with all these black marks against the couple, family is more important than ever. They will protect the couple and the babies. They will help get answers to the question that started this whole series off when Diana discovered a book, magically hidden in a library, that contains the origins of all creatures. Everyone is after the book, people are killing for it, but Diana needs it now more than ever to protect her children, her family, and save Matthew from blood rage.

What's so unique about these books is the history and science fused into the supernatural. Yes, there's magic and vampires and all the strange things that go along with characters like that, but there is also academia. A huge part of all three books take place among books, in libraries, and on college campuses. It gives the story some plausibility because it goes beyond the fantastic and roots the existence of these creatures in the real world. The idea of these character traits being rooted in DNA, something that can be studied, is fascinating.

There's also the concept of family at the center of the story. It's everything and that's a message you don't often get. The vampiric family structure is very important and strong. Vampires must adhere to the responsibilities of the family hierarchy and everything is done in a certain, proper way. Diana and her family of witches is brought into this structure and must adapt. They blended family they all become and their devotion to each other compliments the rough action and tense moments perfectly. 

Another great thing about this trilogy is how it ends. The third book keeps our characters going on their initial quest, but adds in an additional element - a rogue vampire - to create new tension and fear and to propel the characters into a new direction. I like that Harkness held something back until the third book so we'd have something new. 

So many series I've been reading over the last few years are coming to a close in the next few months. It's always hard to let a story go, but this one went out in such a perfect way that I'm not sad to be done. 

Start at the beginning and read my review of A Discovery of Witches then check out book #2, Shadow of Night.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire

It took 400 pages for anything to happen in this book. Then, there was some action that almost made it interesting. Then, everything settled down and got overly philosophical and random. This book was ridiculous.

I love the Oz mythology - read L. Frank Baum's books as a kid - so when Wicked came out I was excited. It was an amazing book, but all of Maguire's forays into Oz since have been disappointing. Out of Oz is the last book in the series and time has moved on so we're following the lives of Elphaba's (The Wicked Witch) son and granddaughter. Glinda is an older woman who has lost the bubbly charm she's best known for and the Cowardly Lion is very beaten down. Dorothy makes an appearance and she's almost an adult, but even her return isn't very exciting.

More than half of this book has characters travelling through Oz, either running away,hiding, or trekking a great distance to stop something horrible from happening. Regardless, they're always moving slowly. There are a few battles in the book since Munchkinland is at war with Loyal Oz (those areas still loyal to the Emerald City,) a high-profile trial, and an interesting love story, but nothing totally delivers. The narrative feels long-winded and a little forced. Bits and pieces unrelated to the story are dumped in to give the book a more literary feel, but it's obvious and ill-fitting.

I finished the book hoping for something to pop at the end and was disappointed. Stop at Wicked if you're interested, but just read the book, don't bother with the musical.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

That Used to be Us by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum

We need to reconnect with our country's illustrious past. We need to be inspired by the accomplishments we've made as Americans. We should stop resting on our laurels, expecting handouts, and comparing ourselves to others. It's what we used to do, how we used to think, that can save our country today which unfortunately, as Friedman and Mandelbaum point out, has a lot of problems.

There weren't any surprises in the book as to what's wrong with our country and how we might attempt to fix it. The unique thing about this book is the presentation of the issues. Each problem is put into its historical context - how did we get here, what's perpetuating the problem, and how can we remedy the situation. In general, regardless of any specific issue, we as a country need to take control of our future through action. We need to stop being complacent and entitled and relearn how to compromise in order to get the job done. We need to find the middle ground within the solutions to our major problems and stop ignoring their existence.

The book was really interesting all around, but way too much was covered to sum up in a simple book review. The authors focus on the issues of debt, education, jobs and the economy, technology, and politics. Not only do the authors show you the issues present in these areas, but they so fully explain each situation that you, as the reader, feel educated yourself by the end of each section, able to form your own opinions. I found myself particularly interested in what the authors had to say about the need to stress the importance of education, how doing this can support job availability and economic growth. So many jobs will become available as the baby boomer generation retires and customized education could help prepare today's young people to fill those spaces. They also spend a lot of time talking about the political system today and its flaws - how the two-party system has driven out politicians into extreme, opposing camps and how a single person's support of an independent candidate can influence the political agenda and force our leftists and rightists onto some middle ground.

There's so much I don't understand about the way things are done in our country right now at the higher levels. I see so much waste and too many distractions. I felt like what I learned in reading this book has given me hope and encouraged me to think positively about what our future can bring; that even a little voice can lead to change.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

I love that in Discworld anything goes. Pratchett has created so many stories in this world because it has infinite possibilities. It's the only series I can think of that lets you read it out of order and even skip books without missing out on anything. I tend to gravitate toward the books featuring witchcraft or, in the case of Equal Rites, wizardry. 

Magic in an unequal profession in Discworld - men are wizards, women are witches, and magicians are somewhere at the bottom of the barrel - for those possessed with magical acumen. Things get complicated when a dying wizard accidentally passes his magic down to a baby girl instead of a baby boy. Granny Weatherwax, an accomplished witch, attempts to train the young girl in the magic more associated with her gender, but quickly realizes Esk (the girl) has wizarding magic whether she likes  it or not. So, they have to figure out how to debunk the stereotypes, which of course is extremely complicated, in order for Esk to learn how to properly use her magic before she hurts someone. This mission of creating equality in the wizarding world drives the rest of the action in the book and leads to some intense action and near-death experiences (and a lot of rain.)

Overall this book was entertaining and aligned with what I enjoy most about Pratchett but it definitely wasn't my favorite. I found certain spots hard to follow; some plot points felt very abrupt and I never really connected to any of the characters. Granny Weatherwax wasn't even that entertaining this time and she's a character I've liked a lot in the past. I would definitely recommend the Discworld series to anyone looking for something a little off kilter and comic, but maybe not this specific book.

Here are reviews I've written in the past for other Discworld books:
Witches Abroad
Wyrd Sisters

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

A surprisingly quick read, this funky story captures one particular instance in a boy's childhood that not only brings him into contact with the supernatural, but puts him in the face of death numerous times. Even though the boy never completely remembers the event after it happens, it's something that sticks with him indefinitely. The story gives our narrator a chance to survive while simultaneously allowing a young girl to become a hero. With so much magic sprinkled in and very unique folklore, there is never a dull moment.

We first meet our narrator as an adult, aged to the point where his own children are grown. He's returned home for a funeral and ends up being drawn back into childhood memories he's been made to forget. Specifically, the suicide of a man with a gambling problem and the magical evil his death allowed into the world. The evil sneaks in through the body of our narrator and defeating it requires the assistance of three women, older than time, living together on a nearby farm (magical in its own right.) The women all seem to be of specific ages with a timeless knowledge of the world. Their land, with its own magical attributes, contains a pond capable of becoming an ocean.

So, the evil hitches a ride in the narrator, ruining his heart in the process and temporarily turning his whole family against him so that he's basically in life-threatening danger. In order to defeat this evil, other mystical beings have to be called on that bring with them their own dangerous agenda. It's the youngest of the three women, Lettie, who becomes the hero and selflessly saves the boy in the end. Her devotion to protecting him is the bright spot in a very dark tale.

Fitting nicely into the style Gaiman has built in his writings, this book is dark and dangerous but not without hope. It's a satisfying read and I really enjoyed it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The House of Hades by Rick Riordan

Riordan did such a smart thing with this book, he took the two best-known characters and put them in Hades. Forcing Percy and Annabeth to strike out on their own, in a place where they couldn't get help from their fellow demigods, keeps them isolated and finally allows someone else to really shine. In a series where fans already "knew" who the hero was, shuffling characters around finally lets Riordan show off the heroic qualities in all his characters. And, he does an amazing job bringing Tartarus to life. His descriptions of the Underworld are better than of actual places he sends the other demigods to visit.

I know know why Riordan waited so long into the series to position his characters in this way. I knew he had to build out the story slowly since it's a long series with a lot of moving parts, but still, this is the first time I really felt like I was getting to know anybody. The narrative finally goes beyond simple back story for each demigod and in addition to all that we start learning about who they all really are and what they're experiencing on this quest, how it's changing them. In the midst of all this character development there is an actual mission the demigods much achieve - to reset the Doors of Death and prevent the monsters loyal to Gaea from quickly regenerating once defeated. The trick is in closing the Doors properly and they have to be accessed at the same time from both the entrance in Tartarus and the one in our world (located in the House of Hades in Greece.) Percy and Annabeth end up falling into Hades so they take on that part of the quest while the rest of the crew - Hazel, Piper, Frank, Leo, Jason, and Nico travel topside to the House of Hades. Everyone knows they're coming so there's no shortage of monsters trying to defeat the demigods at both ends of the quest.

As the journey continues the demigods are really given a chance to grow their talents. Frank evolves into a true son of Ares and a mighty warrior. It even changes his physical appearance. Hazel learns to manipulate The Mist, a new talent that really comes in handy in the major battles of this quest. Leo develops in a different, more personal way, but still changes for the better in a way that benefits the whole team. This particular quest really teaches the characters so much about themselves that I found this book to really be the most meaningful in the series.

Focusing less on Greek and Roman myths and more on the actual character of the characters makes House of Hades by far the best book I've read by Riordan since wrapping up Percy's own series. I'm excited to see where all these characters end up and am sad I've finally caught up to the publisher and now have to wait something like six months for the final book.

My review here is light on plot because I had a baby while reading this. Most of what I read before the baby was born got a little fuzzy after, but I definitely liked the book a lot and am still pretty happy with the series overall.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees

This book was an extremely quick read but totally disappointing. There are simply no happy endings, only short-lived moments of joy. If you're going to fictionalize not just the life of a famous author, but her whole family, you could at least give the reader more than fleeting happiness to walk away with. Not even Louisa seems content with her writing career in the end -- how sad is that?

The book focuses on a single year really in Louisa's adult life when her family relocates from Concord, Mass. to Walpole, New Hampshire. Her family is living off the charity of others since her father refuses to work a "day job," so she's struggling between the demands of helping her family sustain themselves and the desire to strike out on her own and really pursue her writing. She's already been published at this point and has saved enough money to venture out on her own, but decided to help her family settle into their new home first. 

In the midst of her time in Walpole, she falls in love, waffling back and forth between the traditional concept of marriage as an acceptable future and her continuing desire for her independence. How it translates in the book though is in repeated confrontations between the lovers where Louisa caves in - admits her love and willingness to be with her man - waits a minute to think it over, and changes her mind, abandoning him. It's redundant with a bad payoff since at the end of the book she's not even fulfilled by the ultimate choice she makes for herself.

I love Little Women and had no expectations this book would mirror any stories from that book, but I was hoping for a little less depressing drama and a little more positive character growth. So many books are popping up that fictionalize the life of someone well-known and I admit that I do enjoy the genre, but skip this book. It's just not worth even the brief investment.

Monday, February 17, 2014

My Mother Was Nuts by Penny Marshall

I'm not really sure why this memoir stuck out to me. Maybe it's because I've always thought of Penny Marshall as a character and was curious about her real life. I also always liked how laid back she appeared and how out of the media she was/is. Her life seemed like something to really be curious about and her memoir didn't disappoint.

The book opens with the greatest anecdote I've ever heard. Penny is home alone, an adult, and she she's getting robbed. She has a facial masque on so she's covered in green goo and she somehow manages to call security, get the robbers out of her house, and clean her face off without losing her cool. She even gets to know one of the robbers who admits he wouldn't have broken in if he'd known it was her house. It was very attention grabbing and basically sums up the theme of the book, really of Penny's life - she just doesn't lose her cool. She moves through life accepting opportunities as they come, asking for help learning the ropes in Hollywood, and developing an amazing acting/directorial career.

Everything in her life seems to happen organically and she knows everybody! With this casual tone she talks about the parade of celebrities that come in and and our her life, live in her house, and travel the world with her. What's unique is how she humanizes them along the way, really showing that nobody has it all together all the time. She marches to her own beat driven by the relationships she had with all kinds of people. She also manages to circumvent the Hollywood curse of all things being temporary (like fame itself) and keeps lifelong friends.

This was a great book, an easy life story to follow, and especially enjoyable because of the short chapters. I could pick this book up and put it down at will without losing momentum in the narrative. It was a great book to read while sitting around waiting...which I've been doing a lot of lately (freaking slow-moving doctor's appointments!!!!)

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan

So much happened in this book, but I guess when you're juggling seven story lines it's to be expected. Even though our seven prophecy-chosen demigods are all questing together in this book, there are a lot of moments of fragmentation - small group off-shoots - that end up keeping the overall story moving forward. It honestly got a little confusing who had done what and where at times, but like I said, this was a very busy story.

Finally, the seven demigods meant to save the world have come together: Percy and Annabeth who you know really well by now if you're a Riordan fan, Jason, Piper, Hazel, Frank, and Leo. Their group quest is to travel to Rome and destroy twin giants - Gaea's minions - before they destroy Rome, but a separate quest has been given to Annabeth to find an old statue of Athena that went missing in Rome centuries ago which Athena has been trying to get back ever since, sacrificing her demigod children along the way. Apparently the statue is necessary to ultimately stop Gaea so Annabeth has to succeed on her quest as much as the group as a whole needs to stop the giants.

After traveling across the the U.S. with a few heart-pounding pit stops (because nothing is easy for these guys,) they head out to Rome. As they travel, more pieces of the puzzle of exactly what needs to be done and who can potentially help them fall into place. In the end, they have to find and retrieve the statue, kill the giants, and save their friend Nico (also Hazel's brother) who has been kidnapped and is near death. They face many monsters and immortals we haven't seen yet (surprised there are so many left) from both Greek and Roman origin and enlist the help of a very unlikely God. Any success they find is made bittersweet by the cliffhanger ending that divides the group in a way that makes it uncertain whether they'll ever come back together.

So much happens and it's all very fast-paced with a lot of jumping around that, as I said, gets a little confusing. I also felt like the action took center stage here just as we were getting to know everyone and I was sad that often personality development was set aside so we could watch the characters simply do things. While we do learn a little more about some of our demigods, their motivation for what they do becomes a little muted at times. I also just kept getting Piper and Hazel confused. I couldn't help it and I felt like that was a flaw from the story.

Two more books in the series though with the last one publishing later this  year, so I've almost caught up to the author :) I think it's definitely a series worth finishing. I might even go through Percy Jackson withdraw when it's all over. It's fun to have something exciting and easy-to-read in my book queue though.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan

I might be partial to Percy Jackson as a character because I found this second book the The Heroes of Olympus series to be much more exciting than the first book. The characters have better secrets to share, the threat is more immediate, and the quest for our lead characters feels more intense.

We pick up in time after the first book with the same evil threatening the world, Gaea, and the same prophecy of seven coming together. This time though, we're at the camp of the Roman demigods, Camp Jupiter, which we've never seen before, and Percy is our hero with a missing memory (you might want to check out the review of the first book so this makes a little more sense.) He wanders into camp, is questioningly accepted, and befriends two other campers, Hazel and Frank. Again, there are characters who know Percy's true identity, just like in book one, but they're keeping the truth to themselves to not disrupt the master plan (whatever that turns out to be.)

A quest gets issues to find and free Thanatos, who's basically the Grim Reaper, from a giant who also happens to be Gaea's son. They also need to help prevent an army of monsters from destroying Camp Jupiter. It's a tall order for three kids especially when they're all grappling with a very personal issue. In addition to Percy's memory loss, Frank is trying to figure out his family's big secret and how it applies to himself, and Hazel is wrestling with the guilt of a very bad deed nobody knows she's committed. 

So all three set out to Alaska to fulfill their quest with nothing but the deeds they do to prove their character to each other and earn trust. They run into a lot of monsters, a few gods, and some other characters with mythological makings. Fewer immortals appear than in the Percy series and they mythology is very Roman-focused (which I know a lot less about,) so this book felt more like a pure adventure story to me than the first book of the series. I really enjoyed and it and am definitely Team Percy over Team Jason if such a thing exists.

Riordan continues to introduce compelling and intricate characters in extraordinary scenarios in his world of demigods that keep the pages turning. I think these are great YA books outside of the overly popular dystopian-framed books and are more worthy of your time to read if delving into this genre as a whole.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

2013 Reread #10

Well even though I technically didn't finish rereading this in 2013, I started it last year, so am counting it as my final reread in my 2013 project. I did save the tougher classic for last knowing it wasn't going to move quickly.

I read this book initially for a class in college and was so affected by it that I obtained a first edition copy from a dusty, old bookshop in London. I've read a lot of Hardy since as well, but this one is still my favorite. It was so ahead of its time and so critical of just about everything that my satirical college brain loved it. I don't think the book moved me as much this time around although I do still feel its greatness in the ideals of the time it goes against and the social standards the book explores.

Hardy dared to posit that radical conventions (for the time) in love and life could lead to happiness of only the world would stop being so judgmental. He calls out everybody and uses this book to show the preconceived notions of society that hold people back really drive them to sorrow. Almost all of the characters here end sadly - broken down - through the corruption of their radical thoughts by the modern mundane. They give up on being different and so suffer. Jude, our lead, wants to learn and go to college but can't because society says he's too poor. So, he turns his attention (eventually) from lofty ideas of education to living a more conventional life where he's tricked into marriage and left shortly thereafter by his wife. He finds real love in Sue, an unconventional girl in her own right, who shrugs off the expected bonds of marriage and a the woman's place to unite in happiness with Jude. But, their happiness in life together is frequently overshadowed by the fact that they never marry and the scorn of the people around them wears them down to a point of despair that only brings on great tragedy.

In the end they both give up trying to live differently than status quo suggests. They're both miserable in their minds and hearts while living "right" by society. Jude dies alone in a most depressing scene. Is that the "normal" he should have spent his whole life working toward? If he and Sue had been strong enough to fight the societal norms he would have died loved, happy and cared for and it's a huge commentary by Hardy on life in the 1890's to set the scene in the way he does. It hit such a chord and public response to this book was so severe it drove Hardy to permanently stop writing fiction for the rest of his career.

Reading classics for fun is hard and I know a lot of people don't do it often, but the perk of reading a classic is already knowing the impact the literature had. Reading books like this is important because of the window into history they give us, because it's comforting to know there were always radical thinkers out there brave enough to tell a story that stirred the pot, and because it helps put life today into perspective to see the things that caused an uproar in daily life in the past and how we've possibly overcome those obstacles in modern times.