2015 Reading Challenge – The Other Side

Way back on March 15, I posted my 2015 Reading Challenge. Accepted and met! Here are the reviews:

A book I’ve been meaning to read:

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CafeFried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There was a huge windstorm in the Puget Sound area, that left us without power for a day and a half and turned out to be a blessing in disguise by giving me the opportunity to read this entire book from start to finish. What a treat! What wonderful storytelling! I loved the movie, and I love the book more. The book has many more characters – Big George’s wife and children, the Threadgoode siblings and their spouses. I especially loved Sipsey’s graveyard of heads, the saga of Railroad Bill, and the deeper story of Smokey Lonesome. As in the movie, there is much slipping around in time to quilt the entire story, and Flagg is a master at it.

Of course one of the main questions I see in almost every commentary about this story, and it is more strongly implied in the book than it was even in the movie – were Ruth and Idgie lovers? What I came away with was: does it matter? The Whistle Stop Cafe and the lives of those who passed in and out of its doors, whether the front door for whites or the back one for “colored,” were  about love, community, looking out for each other and taking care of each other, even at the risk of life itself. Love is love, no matter with whom it manifests or how it is expressed. That assurance of linked and shared humanity from the past was Ninny’s gift to Evelyn in the present. The movie also left the question of whether Idgie and Ninny were the same person. The book makes it clear, they were definitely two different people. Idgie just might still be out there, a bee-charming will-o’-the-wisp.

It made me absurdly happy to see that one of my favorite movie lines of all time was taken directly from the book: “Face it, girls. I’m older and I have more insurance.” Towanda!

Technology and our bigger-better-faster-more society have robbed us of many things. This book actually made me a little sad that I missed the Great Depression.

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A book published this year:

I did not win a signed first edition, and I’m not too disappointed.

The Buried GiantThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This may be the most intellectual book I’ve ever read in which pretty much nothing happens. I blame the mist that has robbed Axl and Beatrice of their memories. The characters are flat and events are repetitive, and I am reminded of how deeply our memories form our personalities and our relationships. The dialogue is stilted and formal. The little action is related through looking back on it, one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back style, so even that is rather passive. I can see where an amnesiac existence would be that way, but it does not make for a book that can draw me in. It’s entirely possible that I’m simply not highbrow enough to enjoy this work, and I’m okay with that. It took me three weeks to push through to 75%, and then the library loan expired and it disappeared from my Kindle. While I’d be interested to know if I’m right about the the son and the boatman, I don’t care enough to borrow it again to finish it. This is an Ishiguro book that just couldn’t do it for me.

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A book in a genre I don’t typically read:

I, Robot (Robot, #0.1)I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m generally not a huge science fiction fan, and I’m not sure why that is since I’ve read some stellar science fiction books. I should have read this one before now. After reading it and thinking back over the science fiction I’ve seen in TV and movies, I see why Asimov is considered the progenitor of all things robotic. The writing style is a bit dry for me, as much of the writing of that era was, but the stories were enjoyable enough that it didn’t get in the way. These short stories form a nice arc of the “history” of artificial intelligence with an interesting mix of psychology, philosophy, and logical deduction.

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A book from my childhood:

The Borrowers (The Borrowers, #1)The Borrowers by Mary Norton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book I originally chose for this category in my 2015 Reading Challenge, a book from my childhood, was El Jardin Secreto, or the Spanish translation of The Secret Garden. It turns out that my Spanish is not quite at that level, so I revisited The Borrowers instead.

I had forgotten how magical this book was. The concept is simple but brilliant, the way human “bean”-sized objects are used by little people is creative, the idea of brownie-like inhabitants of our houses is tantalizing, the thought of the damage a housecat could do is bone-chilling. It may have been a children’s book, but the language is not childlike and I enjoyed it as much at my “advanced” age as I did as a kid. And the illustrations – love them! I don’t recall reading the other Borrowers books that followed, but I’ll be reading them now.

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A book my mom loves:

Naked in Death (In Death, #1)Naked in Death by J.D. Robb
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I usually don’t enjoy romance, but this novel had the mystery/police procedural in the forefront, so it’s okay. The fact that the phrase “throbbing member” was not used is a big plus. I’m forced to admit I’m not as in love with Roarke as so many other readers are. I’ve always gone a bit more for the hot guy who’s still at least slightly on the wrong side of the tracks, who gets things done through ingenuity and true resourcefulness, not because he’s rich and powerful and connected and has every known and unknown resource in the world already at his fingertips. Where’s the challenge? Still, I liked the characters, the writing was good, the mystery plot was tight. It was good timepasser and I will read more of them. I am intrigued by the futuristic world – I so want an Auto Chef! – and would like to feel more of a sense of this future place as I continue reading.

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A book that was originally written in a different language:

One Hundred Years of SolitudeOne Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First, this book has one of the best opening sentences for a novel I have ever read. No spoilers.

I understand why this book is considered a great piece of literature, and why so many people admire it. It is peppered with such gems as:

“She had the rare virtue of never existing completely except at the opportune moment.”

and

“He really had been through death, but he had returned because he could not bear the solitude.”

These quotes give you an idea of the dreamlike quality of this work. It is beautiful, but also problematic for me. I believe I understand the similarly-named characters, and the circularity of events and characters who seem to live for 150 years or so. History repeats itself, the life-death-rebirth cycle is circular, the fantastical existence of Macondo and the founding Buendía family is reminiscent of the gods and goddesses of Olympus. The whole thing is not unlike the Dreamtime of the Australian aborigines. But all of the characters with the same names and jumbled familial relationships are confusing, and, as a work of magical realism, it’s like reading a 417-page account of a fantastical, intricate dream. Without a waking consciousness of reality and character development for context, I’m having difficulty pushing through. For me this would have worked better as a collection of interconnected short stories. I’ll keep trying until it’s due back at the library, but if you’re reading this sentence, that means I didn’t finish it. I’m still giving it three stars just for the beauty of the writing. I will most likely try others of Márquez’ work.

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A book “everyone” has read but me:

The Great GatsbyThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The takeaway: If you hold on to the dream too tightly, it will bite you in the ass. Let it stay a happy dream…

I love the Roaring Twenties, with all the decadence and excess and excitement and changing morality and innovation. I’ve heard this book described as “rich white people behaving badly” and I suppose that’s one way to look at it, but on the other hand, the rich have dreams and heartbreak too (although I imagine it’s easier to drown your sorrow in champagne than in tap water). No, money cannot buy happiness, and while it could conceivably buy you a moral compass, it also buys you an excuse not to have one. Can money buy the dream come true…?

I wonder what it must have been like to read Fitzgerald when he first started publishing, to be one of those hearing this voice for the first time. He had a gift for creating ambiance and capturing the essence of a fleeting, pivotal moment without overwriting it. Yes, it’s a short book, but it’s exactly as long as it needs to be to tell the story, unlike other long-winded classics I’ve tried to read (I’m looking at you, Vanity Fair).

“‘If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,’ said Gatsby. ‘You always have a green light that burns at the end of your dock.’ Daisy put her arm through his abruptly but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to him, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted things had diminished by one.”

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A book I chose because of the cover:

The Supernatural EnhancementsThe Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book!

Fans of Neil Gaiman, take note- although Edgar Cantero is a voice all his own, there is a Gaiman-esque-ness to this book.  As part of my 2015 Reading Challenge, this is the book I picked by the cover. I’ve discovered a great new author, and this may be my most enjoyable read of the year.

A secret society, a treasure hunt, keys but no locks, a garden maze, crystal spheres that record dreams and visions, some cryptanalysis…then toss in a ghost and a missing butler, and you’ve got the wonderful old gothic house and its supernatural enhancements. I love the watchdog named Help, and “conspiranoia” is my new favorite word. The epistolary format gives the feeling of being inside the story instead of just being narrated to.

“And the sad truth is, I want to be all those people. I’d sooner die forked a thousand times in that house than wake up to a world without monsters or goddesses. I’d rather play the monster myself.”

My only complaint is Niamh’s name. My stuck-in-English mind kept wanting to mispronounce it and then correct itself, so I was constantly tripping over it.  Once I allowed her to just be Nye-am, it got better.

I’m very much hoping Edgar Cantero publishes more books in English while I improve my skills enough to read his Spanish works.

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A book by a favorite author:

The Beginner's GoodbyeThe Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I believe I’d enjoy reading Anne Tyler’s shopping lists, she’s that brilliant a writer. This book is shorter and with less depth than her other work (although as far as I’m concerned, she’ll never be able to top Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which remains one of my all-time favorite books ever) but it still delivers. I’m always a little sad when I turn the last page of one of her books. Her characters remind me that bittersweet is the condition of unconditional love, and that I’m not (always) crazy.

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A book recommended by someone with great taste:

East of EdenEast of Eden by John Steinbeck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I closed the back cover after the last page, I was torn. I was irritated by the Biblical metaphor. I am offended by the whole one-woman-did-something-wrong-so-all-women-are-condemned-forever thing. But in spite of that, I loved this book. The philosophies surrounding good, evil, and predestination were explored by many paths before Christianity, and timshel rocks. Such beautiful, beautiful writing. It’s been too many years since I’ve read anything by Steinbeck. I won’t let that many years go by again.

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A book I should have read in high school:

The Three MusketeersThe Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An adventurous read I should have had a few decades ago, but I’m glad to be here now.

I am confused, though. The Duke of Buckingham was the enemy of France, and Anne of Austria was having a love affair with him, so how are our heroes not also guilty of treason by supporting the Queen and protecting Buckingham?  And all the escapades like taking what you wanted from innkeepers without paying, and having affairs with rich married women to get money, and getting women into bed under false pretenses (even a Delilah like Milady), and generally bullying and leeching off of others…was this book written tongue in cheek? If that was typical noble behavior at the time, no wonder there was a revolution.

Cardinal Richelieu is not nearly as evil as I’d thought him to be, but Milady is a hundred times more diabolical. What does it say about me, that she is my favorite character? On the other hand, she’s the only character whose head we get into; the rest are rather undeveloped. The book started off slow-ish to me but halfway in it really picked up and by the last third I couldn’t stop turning those pages.  Once I stopped considering the scruples and the politics and just enjoyed the romp, it was a fun read. There is much swashing of buckles, and intrigue and romance abound. I will be sure to read The Count of Monte Cristo, which I understand to be rather darker (and therefore more to my taste).

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A book that’s currently on the bestseller list:

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh, the romance of gazing through a moving window to the imagined lives of those we pass by! Each of the three women in this story is a hot mess, and that’s what makes them real. I figured out whodunit early on, but that didn’t take away from the twists and surprises waiting in this tight, page-turning, intricately plotted psychological thriller.

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Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

2 thoughts on “2015 Reading Challenge – The Other Side”

  1. Deb, I hadn't heard of this reading adventure, but I like some of your choices – and find others deadly boring (like Steinbeck) – I am a fan of The Three Musketeers (once had to read it in French) but warn you that The Count of Monte Cristo is not just darker it's black with torture and horror.

    Like

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