2018 Reading Challenge

I’m still fighting to wrap up my 2017 challenge before the end of the year, but as I’m focusing on that, I’ve also been thinking about what sort of reading goals I want to strive for in the new year. For a number of reasons that will be listed in a review at the end of my 2017 Reading Challenge Wrap-up (coming next week), I’ve decided to construct my own reading challenge for 2018.

As with many reading challenges, some of the categories I’ve chosen are much more specific than others because there are some books and some types of books that I really want to push myself to get around to this year. But there are also other categories that I left more open so that I can pick up unexpected books throughout the year without sacrificing progress on my challenge.

If you want to join me in this challenge, please feel free! Just link back to this page or any of my updates throughout the year so I have a chance to follow your progress, too. 🙂 I tailored this one to fit me, but it’s absolutely acceptable if you want to adapt it to your own reading needs– change author names, titles, or genres from my list to best fit your own reading goals of 2018. Anything counts!

Here is the first set of challenges: individual books.

  1. A book you didn’t get around to in 2017
  2. A book with a blue cover
  3. A Stephen King book
  4. An illustrated Harry Potter book
  5. A book you’ve loved in the past
  6. A book at least 1000 pages long
  7. The last book in a series
  8. A book recommended by a friend
  9. A prize-winning book
  10. A non-fiction book
  11. A book picked up on a whim from the library
  12. A book at the bottom of your to-read list
  13. A book with a strong female lead
  14. A book from the staff recommendations display at a bookstore
  15. A book in which a beloved character dies
  16. A Shakespeare play
  17. A book that takes place in space
  18. A book by a new-to-you author
  19. A new book by an author you already love
  20. A book of short stories
  21. A memoir
  22. A true-crime book
  23. A book with a five-word title
  24. A book set in another country
  25. A book of poetry

And for the second set: the big categories. Books that count for this part of the challenge can also be counted for a category in the sets above or below.

  1. Twelve classics
  2. Twelve books within a month of their publication dates
  3. The rest of the A Song of Ice and Fire Series
  4. My backlog of Book of the Month books
  5. Nine books by Victoria/V. E. Schwab

Final set: some specific titles I definitely want to read in 2018. These can also count in the sets above.

  1. The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
  2. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  3. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
  4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  5. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  6. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  7. Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
  8. The Martian by Andy Weir
  9. Iron Gold by Pierce Brown
  10. Obsidio by Jay Kristoff and Amy Kaufman

That’s the Literary Elephant Reading Challenge, 2018. There are 40 categories in total, and books can be used in multiple sets though not in multiple categories within the same set. If you like the structure, feel free to change titles, authors, genres, series, or whatever you like to create your own challenge list. I wanted to set goals that fit my own reading preferences, with challenges that will help me branch out of my comfort zone and work through some unread books on my shelves. Some of the categories will require reading multiple books, but I hope that allowing books to fill multiple categories will keep that from being too overwhelming. I don’t know if I will actually be able to read all of these books within 2018, but I did intend to challenge myself and I think this list will help keep me motivated and on track with what I really want to read this year. I’ll post updates on my progress every three months.

Are you taking part in any reading challenges for 2018? Which ones?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

 

 

 

 

 

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December Book Haul

I done good. So far. I know there are a few days left in December, but I’m not anticipating buying any more books in that time and I have lots more updates and 2018 plans to share with you in upcoming days, so today is Book Haul Day!

My goal for most of 2017 has been to acquire a maximum of five books per month (I usually fail, so I’m lowering that goal for next year, yikes) and even with Christmas this month I managed to add only five books to my shelves! That seems like an odd thing to be excited about, but 2017 has just been out of control for me when it comes to buying books (no regrets) so I’m glad to end the year on a more successful note. My new books:

  1. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. This is my BOTM selection from December, and I have not read it yet but I’m planning to get to it (and several other BOTM books that I fell behind on) first thing in January. I’m proud of myself for only choosing one book for my December box even though most of them looked great. All I remember about this one is that Eleanor Oliphant is not fine, that she has a strange relationship with her mother, and that the way she interacts with the world tends to alienate her from the people around her. I’ve heard good things, and I can’t wait to see for myself.
  2. Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. I’ve read the first three books in Maas’ ACOTAR series. Even though my interest in those is waning, I wanted to check out her other big series. I’ve seen mixed reviews for the Throne of Glass books, but even though I didn’t like A Court of Thorns and Roses much I was interested enough to read the entire novel and continue the series anyway; so I’m planning to read at least Throne of Glass and decide from there how far I want to go in the series. I think the final book comes out in 2018, so if I do end up wanting to read them all, now’s a good time. All I know is that there’s a female assassin, maybe on a mission from the king, and there’s a love interest once she’s in the castle. Fingers crossed for ACOMAFquality writing.
  3. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. My one Christmas gift book, and I picked it out myself. (No one buys me books because they’re afraid I will already have, have read, or not like the ones they pick.) I found a signed copy on sale at Barnes and Noble, and I thought this would be a great way to complete my 2017 reading challenge without having to read the Pulitzer Prize winner that I fell out of the mood for, so I asked a family member to stick it in my Christmas box. I haven’t completely finished, but I’ve read a lot and I’m loving it. One of the most intriguing aspects for me has been seeing the Underground Railroad as a literal train, but of course there’s a lot more to love about this one. I fully intend to finish this novel within the week.
  4. It by Stephen King. I’ve been meaning to read It for years, and the interest definitely increased around the time of the new film adaptation in 2017. But I was busy, and It is extremely long, and excuses, excuses. I’m tentatively planning a buddy read for this one in January, which should be fun because 1) it will be my first buddy read and 2) it will be so satisfying to cross a book this giant off of my TBR so early in the year. I know there’s a scary clown and maybe it’s targeting a group of kids in the town and maybe the adults secretly know what’s going on because of something that happened when they were kids. I’ve been trying to avoid spoilers, so most of my knowledge is pieced together from the movie trailers and really I don’t know much about the book yet. But I’m excited to change that.
  5. Great Tales of Horror by H. P. Lovecraft. No real reasons or excuse for this one– I knew I wasn’t up to five books yet, and I found this short story collection on sale for less than $4. For a 600 page hardcover book, that’s a deal too good to pass up (for me, anyway). I’m not sure exactly when I’ll get around to reading this one, but I do like Stephen King and Shirley Jackson and Edgar Allen Poe, so I think I’ll definitely find something to enjoy in this collection. Some of the titles look familiar, but these stories will be my first foray into Lovecraft’s oeuvre.

decemberbookhaul

That’s a wrap. December’s been a pretty good reading month, and I’m working on my reading wrap-up already even though I’m still in the middle of a couple books I hope to finish before the end of the year. I’m so pleased with my book haul this month, even though I haven’t actually finished reading any of the books on it yet. It just makes me more excited for what comes next. Stay tuned this week and next week for updates on my reading/buying/writing/blogging goals and more good stuff, because that’s coming up pronto. I can’t believe it’ll be 2018 in like, three days. So much to read. So little time.

What new books did you add to your shelves in December?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Some Luck

One of the categories in my 2017 reading challenge was “a book that takes place in your hometown.” But I live in small-town Iowa and there are no books written about my hometown. I don’t give up easily though, so I widened the category to “a book that takes place in your home state,” which led me to Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, the first book in a trilogy of Iowan history that follows one fictional family over a span of 100 years. And honestly, I could not have found a better book for this part of the challenge even if something had been written about my hometown.

someluckAbout the book: Walter Langdon just put a down payment on a new farm. In the year 1920, he’s back from serving in the war, he’s recently married, and he’s moving off of his dad’s farm to try his luck on his own. Walter and Rosanna’s first son has just been born, and the grand adventure of their life begins– even though both of them grew up on farms before they were married, the farm work combined with parenthood seems like the biggest job in the world– and maybe also the most rewarding. They will go on to have five more children as the years progress, and the reader will follow each one of their lives through a history of Iowan culture until a calamitous event in 1953 affects them all– and sets the tone for Some Luck‘s sequel.

First of all, I know Some Luck is not going to be the book for everyone. There’s going to be a very small audience that appreciates it, which is a shame, but I understand it. It’s about Iowa. It’s about farming. It’s about family. There’s not much plot, though some events carry over for months or even years through the narration. The book is divided into chapters by year– I assume in the entire trilogy there will be one hundred chapters, as the saga covers 100 years. Book one covered 33 years, from 1920-1953. It’s further divided into unlabelled sections within each chapter for different perspectives and events that happen within that year. And it all adds up to: a sort of Little House on the Prairie from later in history, geared toward adults.

“Of course, his father laughed. He could afford to laugh– he owned his farm free and clear. And more than that, his father always laughed at farming and what a joke it was on the farmer.”

It sounds pretty unimpressive so far, right? At first, I too was unimpressed. The book opens on a new family settling into their new farm, and several of the earliest sections in the book are “narrated” by the new baby. I’m talking surprisingly intelligent babble about waving spoons and rolling over and teething. But this first baby is going to be important to the story, and after only a couple of years, he does become a pretty interesting narrator. I was addicted about five years in.

“On a farm, you knew that you could die from anything, or you could survive anything.”

I should be able to explain what’s so great about Some Luck after reading all 400 pages of it, but it’s hard to put into words exactly where the magic comes from. The characters are generally quiet people, with simple, hard-working lives. There are births and deaths and marriages. But each character has their own personality– they are unique in the way that their family members see them and in the way that they see themselves. It’s incredible to see the difference between those two points of view. And it’s incredible to see such ordinary lives in such an ordinary way; the characters are not particular heroes or villains, there are no fantasy elements, the story is not especially driven by romance or revenge or learning, though all of those things happen and more. It’s just a story about some fictional people in a mostly real setting (the Langdons’ hometown is fictional, though many real Iowan towns make an appearance) that reminds its readers that we’re all human, and we’ve all got our own story to tell. Even if you think your story isn’t much, it exists, and it’s yours, and even if the people who will understand it are few and far between, they’re out there. That’s the magic of Some Luck. It’s quiet, but it’s not trite.

It’s like the stories that your grandparents tell, if your grandparents are farmers. It’s a whole way of life, and like all cultures, it comes with its own particular hardships and rewards. You can die in a freak storm, or you can fall down a well and then go about your day as if nothing unusual has happened at all.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I will definitely be continuing with this trilogy. I know that Smiley also has published a Pulitzer Prize winner, which I might also check out eventually, but my first priority is The Last Hundred Years trilogy. And I think reading it as a trilogy will bring out the best aspect of the story: the gradual change.  Even in one volume, thirty-three years, every chapter has felt like a continuation of what came before, and most of it is unremarkable, just the regular progression of seasons and life on a farm. And yet over the course of those thirty chapters, everything changes. I’m excited to see how things will look as the timeline approaches the current year.

Further recommendations:

  1. Little House in the Big Woods is the first book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s well-known children’s series, the Little House series. They take place through Laura’s childhood and describe aspects of her life, everyday life and big events, that took place as her family tried to make a home for themselves on largely unsettled prairie land as the United State expanded west. They are technically fiction novels, and most of them read like children’s books, but I still find them fascinating as an adult. It’s U.S. history, or a very particular sub-genre of it like Some Luck, more about past culture than major politics or wars or the sort of things that history books tend to focus on.
  2. Again, fiction, but again, if you’re looking for those snapshots of past culture, I’m going to recommend Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. There’s some time travel, some supernatural stuff going on, there’s a giant romance through the series, but it also shows glimpses of cultures. It starts in 1940’s Scotland, and from there goes to 1740’s Scotland, but there’s also 1960’s America, 1740’s France, 1760-70’s America, 1760’s Jamaica, etc. The romance was a guilty pleasure for me, but seeing all these different places and ways of life was really what sold me on seeing it through.
  3. If you’re looking for a nonfiction snapshot of a past cultural and historical moment, try Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. This one reads like fiction, but it follows the assembly of the World’s Fair in Chicago in the late 1800s. There’s a real-life murderer in there, the beginnings of electricity in America, the invention of the Ferris wheel. There’s architecture, fraud, giant sums of money. But also it’s just a really fascinating glimpse into the way people– seemingly ordinary people– lived in that time period. People that history doesn’t remember much. It’s great.

What’s next: I am ALMOST DONE with my 2017 reading challenge. Barring some unexpected disaster, I should have no trouble fitting in the last two books I need this year. The next on that list is Homer’s The Iliad, the famous classic about Achilles and the Trojan War, and other well-known characters from Greek mythology. I’ve read some of this book before, but never finished. I’m starting over today.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Mini-Review: A Christmas Carol

I have not read a Christmas story at Christmastime since childhood. For some reason, Christmas traditions have never really crossed into my reading life. But picking up Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol this year is really making me rethink what I should be reading around the end-of-year holidays, just as surely as it’s reminding me to embrace the Christmas spirit this season.

achristmascarolAbout the book: “Bah. Humbug!” is what Ebeneezer Scrooge thinks of Christmas. He has devoted his life to making money– and hoarding it. He is not interested in spending time with the remaining family he has left, and as for sharing his wealth with them, or with anyone– why shouldn’t they earn their own fortunes, as Scrooge has earned his? He frowns upon all those who take an entire day off of productive pursuits to celebrate Christmas. So he closes his office on Christmas Eve, determined to be unhappy all through the holiday. But that night, he is visited by the ghost of his late business partner, who laments his choices in life and offers Scrooge another chance. To avoid his partner’s gruesome fate, Scrooge must accept the visits of three Spirits, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. He must learn their lessons, before it is too late!

“Scrooge went to bed again, and thought, and thought, and thought it over and over and over, and could make nothing of it. The more he thought, the more perplexed he was; and the more he endeavored not to think, the more he thought.”

If I were to voice any complaint about this story, I would say only that it’s predictable. But I should also acknowledge in that case that time and the book’s status as a classic are probably the greatest contributors to its predictability. I knew going in which ghosts Ebeneezer Scrooge would see, and what effect they would have on him. But again, I think that comes down to the fact that this is such a well-known Christmas story. I remember seeing the Mickey Mouse version of it, with Donald Duck starring as Scrooge, several times in my younger years; and that wasn’t the only adaptation I encountered, though it stands strongest in my memory.

And then again, the predictability of the story also helps demonstrate what I believe to be the greatest strength of the book: that even for readers who know exactly what to expect from the plot, Dickens captivates readers with his prose and his characters’ heartfelt emotions so thoroughly that the story is still worth reading. It was not only Scrooge’s transformation that held my attention, but poor Tiny Tim’s plight, the fate of Scrooge’s wife, and the games at his nephew’s Christmas party (and the guest with a crush on the niece’s sister). A Christmas Carol is packed with smaller stories inside the main plot that run through quite a range of emotions.

Best of all is the narrative style with which Dickens presents his story. He writes easily and informally, as though telling a story to a close friend. He’s often addressing the reader directly, emphasizing the fact that the story is going on in some window that only the writer can see, and the writer is pulling the reader closer to let him/her in on the secret. It’s a great balance that gives the story a sort of raw, honest feel, though it’s also begging to be shared, or shouted from the rooftops. No film adaptation I’ve seen of this same story has interested me so thoroughly or promised to stick with me as well as the book will– and that is because no one tells it better than Dickens. If you’ve ever been intrigued about A Christmas Carol, let me tell you, reading the book is worth it (and it’s a short book, so really you have no excuse).

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I will charlesdickensdefinitely be reading more from Charles Dickens in 2018. I will be especially interested to see if the narrative voice I found in A Christmas Carol will be apparent in his other works, or if his style changes across novels. I think I’m less familiar with his other books, classics though they all are, so I’m excited to start fresh. I’m thinking either A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations will be in my plans for 2018.

Coming up Next: I’m just starting Some Luck by Jane Smiley. I’ve been having a surprising amount of fun with the dregs of my 2017 reading challenge– all the books I put off all year are finally being read, and they’ve been great. I don’t know why I’ve been putting off the titles I have, because I’ve particularly enjoyed reading them this month. I hope the trend continues with Smiley’s novel, which is the first book in a family saga trilogy that takes place in Iowa. One of the blurbs on the cover states that her writing is very Dickensian, which makes me hopeful after my experience with A Christmas Carol.

What seasonal reads are you checking out this year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Mini-Review: Macbeth

It’s been a hot minute since I last read a play, and especially a Shakespeare play. Occasionally I like one, but I can’t name a single play I’ve ever really loved the way I love a good novel. But my 2017 reading challenge urged me to try again, so I picked up William Shakepeare’s Macbeth. I even bought my own copy so that I’d have no excuse to skip over this part of my reading challenge, which turned out to be a successful move.

macbethAbout the book: Three witches appear to the recently-victorious-in-battle Macbeth, and his friend Banquo. They prophesy the two men’s futures, but Macbeth dismisses them as liars. Soon after, the king honors him with a new title as reward for his victory, and Macbeth realizes that the witches must have been telling the truth. And if they told the truth in that instance, perhaps it is also true that Macbeth will be king, as they claimed. But Macbeth is greedy and afraid, and he sets out to take the throne by removing competitors rather than securing the royal title honestly, which earns him a growing list of enemies and assures that the witches will be correct about Banquo’s future too– which doesn’t look so good for Macbeth.

“Double, double toil and trouble, / Fire burn and cauldron bubble. / Fillet of a fenny snake, / In the cauldron boil and bake; / Eye of newt, and toe of frog, / Wool of bat, and tongue of dog; / Adder’s fork, and blindworm’s sting, / Lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing – / For a charm of powerful trouble / Like a hellbroth boil and bubble.”

This is probably one of the easiest plays to understand right from the start that I’ve ever read. For some reason in plays, though not in novels or other mediums, it’s usually difficult for me to keep track of all the characters and the implications of early plot points. But Macbeth has a single plot arc, focusing solely on Macbeth and his affect on other characters, rather than weaving multiple threads together. It is easy to determine the relation of every character to Macbeth, and how they will help or impede his goals.

“False face must hide what false heart doth know.”

“By the pricking of my thumbs, / Something wicked this way comes.”

Here’s a comment more generally applicable to Shakespeare’s works than specifically for Macbeth, but it applies to Macbeth as well as to any other of Shakespeare’s plays that I’ve read. I find the inventiveness of the language so notable– the use of familiar words as different parts of speech than are typically found, and the use of familiar word pieces doctored with different prefixes or suffixes (or even morphed with whole other words) to give new meaning. I love seeing writers stretch the language. I’m talking about examples like “ravined”: made ravenous, and “incarnadine”: to redden. Unusual turns of phrase, like “water’s breach” for breaking waves, and “eternal gem” for immortal soul. To some extent, this is a product of the medium, and the time period in which it was written. But some of these examples have the same sort of whimsical and unexpectedly apt feel that Dr. Suess’s made-up words do, and I think playing with language in that way, making new connections with the bare pieces of it, is so commendable. There are footnotes in case you miss the meanings, but all of the examples I’ve listed here were clear enough in context despite my unfamiliarity with them that I took notice, and appreciated the author’s willingness to experiment.

The downside to Macbeth, for me, was that a significant portion of it seemed much like filler. There’s miscellaneous magic babble. There’s much talk about the action, but very little action seems to be going on. They’re always talking about battles coming and ending, but only part of one battle is right there in the text. The murders are talked over more than anything else, and yet they also pass fleetingly and without much struggle. At one point a ghost appears, does nothing but frighten someone with his presence, disappears, reappears, does nothing, and then is gone from the play entirely. The most exciting action moments were seen in the all-too-brief stage directions that said merely: [Dies.] I know there are some Shakespeare plays with long and impressive monologues, and I did mark some interesting passages from Macbeth, but for a story so focused on death, I was disappointed with how little fight and action actually appeared in the play. So much of it was tucked behind the scenes. But there were some interesting “last words,” at least:

“Whither should I fly? / I have done no harm. But I remember now / I am in this earthly world, where to do harm / Is often laudable, to do good sometime / Accounted dangerous folly.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’ve only read a couple of plays outside of school (although in all fairness let’s acknowledge that I took an entire class on 15th-16th century plays in college so I have read a healthy number). Maybe if I read more of them for fun, I’d enjoy more of them. I did like this Pelican Shakespeare edition, with the line art on the outside and just enough extra info packed between the covers. Maybe I’ll make a note to read more of them. Any recommendations? (I’ve only read Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, and Julius Caesar.)

What’s next: On to the next title of my 2017 reading challenge, which is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. This is also my classic of the month for December, so it’s got that two-birds-one-stone sort of productivity feel. And of course, ’tis the season. Expect another mini-review coming soon, this one featuring the ghosts of Christmas and Ebenezer Scrooge.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Mini-Review: The Color Purple

I do love a good classic, but generally I go into them knowing they’ll probably be dense and a little slower to read. I picked up The Color Purple because I needed a book from the bottom of my TBR for my 2017 reading challenge. The fact that it was on the bottom and a classic besides had me wary about how long it would take (I’m still hurrying to wrap up some 2017 goals) and how much I would actually enjoy it. But by about the tenth page, I knew: I was going to finish it within 24 hours, and I was going to love it. Thank you, reading challenge.

thecolorpurpleAbout the book: narrated through letters addressed to Celia, her sister Nettie, and God, Celia tells the story of her life in 1930’s Georgia. She’s a colored woman in a place and time that’s still very prejudiced, but she’s also found very little love in her childhood family, and in the family she was forced to marry into as an adult. She does, however, make some interesting friends after a fashion and begins to see the wrongs that have been done to her, as well as the ways in which she can rise up against them and persevere.

The Color Purple is written in dialect, meant to sound in the reader’s mouth or mind the way Celia (or her companions) would actually speak. This means the grammar isn’t perfect, the spelling is intentionally wrong in places, and the reader has to find the rhythm of the narration to read it at a normal pace. But, unlike some attempts at dialect writing, I had no trouble following this story, and I doubt many readers will struggle with the unusual style. It’s not my own dialect, so I can’t vouch for how accurate/inoffensive it may seem to others, but personally I had no complaints with it. The hardest aspect of the writing style for me to accept was the lack of quotation marks around dialogue, which occasionally made it difficult for me to differentiate between Celia’s running commentary and someone else speaking.

“My skin dark. My nose just a nose. My lips just lips. My body just any woman’s body going through the changes of age. Nothing special here for nobody to love. No honey colored hair, no cuteness. Nothing young and fresh. My heart must be young and fresh though, it feel like it blooming blood.”

Even though the reader can see from the very first page how hard Celia’s life has been, The Color Purple is not overly heavy or depressing. She’s not an intrinsically sad or angry person, so even when I should have been outraged about something bad that happens to her, I found that reaction somewhat stifled by a greater interest in what would happen next, what it would mean for Celia going forward, because she herself always seems to be looking forward rather than back. That isn’t to say that the reader can’t appreciate the horrifying nature of some of the sins committed against Celia, but Celia’s tendency not to dwell on them overmuch provides a necessary sort of pull through the story that keeps the reader from throwing down the book in inconsolable despair.

“Olinka don’t believe in educating girls she said, quick as a flash, They’re like white people at home who don’t want colored people to learn.”

On the contrary, the best thing about this book is how encouraging I found it, despite some difficult subject matter. If you’re a reader who likes to know what they’re getting into, let me warn you that there’s rape, spousal abuse, misogyny, prejudice, mutilation, displacement of native peoples and more. And yet, this isn’t a book solely for women of color, or even just for women. It’s full of positive messages about treating other people with kindness and finding strength from within. It’s about appreciating oneself first of all. It’s about righting wrongs, starting in one’s own family, in one’s own heart. There is history and culture here, but the morals they provide are accessible for all audiences, in a myriad of situations. The world needs more books like this: stories that keep the past from being forgotten, with the purpose of improving the future.

“The world is changing, I said. It is no longer a world just for boys and men.”

“Why any woman give a shit what people think is a mystery to me.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book has been on my TBR for so long I don’t even remember exactly why I put it there. I knew next to nothing about The Color Purple before I started, but in spite of my hesitation it constantly surprised and impressed me. I will definitely be recommending this one, and it’s one of the few books that I’ve really been thankful for my reading challenge pushing me to read.

Further recommendations:

  1. Toni Morrison’s Sula is another short classic novel that focuses on prejudice toward African American citizens, and especially on the strife that prejudice creates within a smaller community. It’s a phenomenal tale of friendship and betrayal, with a hint of the fantastic.
  2. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a greater-known classic that’s also very easy to read and highlights the history of prejudice in America and the need for equality. This one is narrated by a young girl who learns some hard lessons about the state of her southern community when her father goes to trial to represent an African American man accused of raping a white girl.

What’s next: It’s starting to look definitely possible that I could finish my 2017 reading challenge list before the end of the month. I’m forging ahead with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which I also know next to nothing about (maybe there are witches?) but am picking up for my challenge. I’ll have another mini-review up for this play shortly.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Wonder

Here I am, checking another last-minute item off my 2017 reading challenge with Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder.

About the book: Nurse Lib Wright trainedthewonder under the famous Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, but three years later her career has come down to spending two weeks with an impoverished family in Ireland, making sure an eleven year-old girl doesn’t eat. Anna, the “miraculous” child who claims to have been surviving for four months without food, has been generating a lot of attention. She has fans and believers knocking on the door every day, but there are skeptics as well, and even worse, the folk who accuse the family of terrible trickery or abuse. Lib and another nurse have been called in to watch over the child every moment of every day for two weeks, to set the public straight at last on whether or not any morsel of food is passing into Anna O’Donnell’s mouth. Lib expects to have discovered the trick to the ruse within a matter of hours, or days at most, but instead she encounters many surprises. As the first week turns into the second, Lib questions what she thought she knew, what her job requires, and how far a caretaker should go to ensure her patient’s health.

“How could the child bear not just the hunger, but the boredom? The rest of humankind used meals to divide the day, Lib realized– as reward, as entertainment, the chiming of an inner clock. For Anna, during this watch, each day had to pass like one endless moment.”

The narrator’s skepticism is over-the-top in the beginning. From the premise of the book alone, I knew that there was some question, some mystery, as to whether Anna was indeed a miracle. Lib is so certain that she is not, and that someone in the house is slipping food to her in a way that the nurses will easily detect, that she is completely blinded to other possibilities. It is not until her mind opens to other suggestions that Lib becomes an interesting character. Her doubt makes her more dynamic. She quickly grew on me then, though I did not particularly like her until this predictable line on page 11 (more than a third of the way through the book, my only real complaint about The Wonder):

“It was then, sitting up in the dark, that it occurred to her for the first time: What if Anna wasn’t lying?”

And yet, even in those hundred-plus pages before the characters become so much more sympathetic, the mystery of Anna’s health drives the reader forward. The Wonder is set in mid 1800’s Ireland, touches on the seven year famine of only a few years before, and makes the reader fully aware of every bite they eat while reading. It raises awareness for those people who cannot eat, who cannot afford to eat, who choose not to eat. It brushes against the history of nursing, and the legality that’s tied to healthcare. The Wonder is rooted in Irish customs, filled with historic ways of life and turns of phrase from that country’s culture, and yet its topics feel relevant today, across oceans. There are still eating disorders, parents making choices for their children, children becoming unwittingly involved in problems far bigger than themselves. Donoghue does an excellent job of grounding this novel in the past without alienating modern readers.

“That was what hunger could do: blind you to everything else.”

But the most notable element for me is the religion found within the book. The Wonder is a perfect example of a novel that deals heavily with religion– in this case, Catholicism– without becoming inaccessible or burdensome to readers of other denominations. It neither advocates for or against the religion, though it contains key characters from both sides of the debate. Even though Anna’s and Lib’s experiences with religion have shaped them and play important roles in the events of this story, the reader does not close the book with a sense that Catholicism is “right” or “wrong,” or that any of The Wonder‘s characters have been especially victimized or liberated by their religion or lack thereof. The focus lies on the characters, not their church. It’s a refreshing view.

“That had probably been the making of the man. Not so much the loss itself as his surviving it, realizing that it was possible to fail and start again.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had only read Donoghue’s Room before picking up The Wonder, which I enjoyed though it didn’t send me out immediately searching for more books by the same author. However, The Wonder came as a pleasant surprise– it’s nothing like Room, but it’s a strong novel anyway. Some authors tend to write the same worlds and stories over and over again with surface changes only, but The Wonder proved to me that Donoghue has a good range, and it encouraged me to keep an eye out for more Donoghue books I might want to check out in the future. None of her other already-published books are calling out to me, but I’ll definitely watch for upcoming releases.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like reading about women who see something they don’t like in the world and set out to change it, try Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. This one deals with racism and feminism rather than religion and health, but I think readers of either of these books would enjoy the other. They both tackle serious topics from the perspective of a woman who is used to being overlooked or looked down upon, and are packed with both history and lessons for the modern reader.
  2. If you’re looking for more Donoghue, I do suggest picking up her older novel Room if you haven’t done so already. The difficult themes handled here are rape and imprisonment, but different though Room is from The Wonder, its subjects are handled just as tastefully and powerfully. Also, the novel is narrated primarily from the young child’s point of view, which adds an extra level of intrigue to an unusual situation.
  3. If you’re most interested in Anna’s part of the story and want a YA option for further reading on negative adult influence toward the children in their care, try Robin Roe’s A List of Cages, narrated from two teen perspectives and focused on the abuse of the foster system. This one also deals with mental health in children.

Coming up next: I have several short classics coming up as I work through the rest of my reading challenge list. I usually don’t review classics, but since I’ll have more than one this month I’m going to post mini-reviews for each of them instead of longer paragraphs in my monthly wrap-up. I’m currently reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, an epistolary novel set in 1930’s Georgia and focusing on racism.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant