1001 Books to Read Before You Die (Sort Of) Challenge: 86-90

“You cannot open a book without learning something.” – Confucius

I was lucky when it came to reading books for school. Having always loved reading, I had no aversion to reading for English classes in middle or high school. If anything, I became frustrated with the slow pacing at which some of the books were covered. I finished them quickly and took up a second book for fun. In some cases, this meant that I, albeit unintentionally, read books for school ahead of when we actually read them in school (and sometimes I regretted it like when I had to read Where the Red Fern Grows twice in about four months and wound up crying like a baby both times; what is it with middle school curriculum and sad books about dogs?).

Letting go of that fun reading was the hardest thing about college. I simply didn’t have the time though I could sometimes get away with reading a chapter of a guilty pleasure book between major assignments. Graduate school I had too much trouble keeping up with the workload to even think about fun reading. Thank God I don’t suffer from motion sickness and have always been able to read in the car (or on a bus or on the subway); my commute into the city was at least two hours each way on public transportation. I also found that getting audio books for some of the titles helped keep my attention focused so I didn’t fall behind.

9781593081317_p0_v3_s260x420 The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

I was familiar with this story long before I ever read the actual novella. Both times I’ve read the actual text were for classes. For undergrad, I read it in my fantasy lit class but we ran out of time for actually discussing it. I enjoyed the story both times but the discussion we had in my graduate Gothic lit class was a large part of why I will probably reread it again. The complexities of the writing as well as the themes addressed are difficult to fully appreciate alone. It is a story that requires discussion and critical thinking for complete enjoyment. Though it is also pretty cool and creepy entirely on its own.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway 9780743297332_p0_v1_s260x420

This is another book that I read twice, once for undergrad and once for graduate school. I enjoyed it equally both times. It’s a wonderful example of Hemingway’s writing style: the clipped sentences, the lack of adjectives when it comes to telling who is saying what, and, of course, the subtle power dynamics of the male/female relationships. There are probably more pages of literary critics debating whether or not Hemingway was a rampant misogynist and to what degree his misogyny extended than there are pages Hemingway wrote. And while it is an important conversation to be had, I hope it doesn’t detract from the stories being told and the characters themselves. There is more to the novel and more to Hemingway than just the question of sexual politics (and more and more I find people shaming one another for the things they like, conflating a problematic element with the work as a whole and using someone’s enjoyment of the work as a whole to put them down; okay, mini-rant over).

9780618706419_p0_v1_s260x420 The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

I tend to have a difficult time with watching anything graphic. I could only watch MASH when the color on our television started to go turning the blood purple. I can’t watch most horror films. But the kinds of things I can’t watch, I can read. And I’m a history nerd. Thus, I have an odd fascination with books about wars. Usually I gravitate towards the American Civil War since that’s a particular period of history that I enjoy learning about, but I also have a number of other novels centered around twentieth century wars lining my shelves. The Things They Carried was one I read during high school. I was so engaged in the text I went out and bought my own copy and now it sits with copies of All Quiet on the Western Front and Johnny Got His Gun.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides 9780312428815_p0_v1_s260x420

This is one time where I saw the movie first. It was on Lifetime or Hallmark or one of the other stations like those late one night when I was babysitting and the kids were in bed (I also saw Seven that way and couldn’t make myself go to sleep when I got home; not always a good way to watch unfamiliar movies). I was mesmerized by the film and a short time later, I bought and read the book. I don’t remember too much about my initial impressions except that I found it all… well, mesmerizing. I’d probably have stronger opinions if I went back and read it again having a much firmer grasp of things like the male gaze and the objectification of women; I don’t think it glamorized suicide though I can see why some people would think so. I do think it demonstrated, in an indirect way, the impact and lingering effects of such events on teens though it is also rather subdued, building to the titular suicides. There’s a tendency to put narrative distance with that kind of traumatic event; the narrator is years removed and reflecting rather than displaying the immediate reactions, the confusing emotions. Part of that, I think, stems from the fact that there’s so much already confusing about being a teenager that it is only with time that some sense can be found; but I almost wish there were more books that focused on those moments themselves, the chaos that must be endured instead of showing things only from the other side.

9780060838676_p0_v6_s260x420 Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

When I first read this book in high school I remember my classmates getting caught up on the characters’ names (Teacake in particular) and missing a lot of the story. I enjoyed it far more than the TV movie adaptation we only ever got halfway through during a class on one of the last days of school. The discussion was more active and more relevant when I had to reread it in graduate school. More than the novel, I find the author interesting. I need to go back and read more of Zora Neale Hurston’s writing (I know I have some of her shorter pieces and excerpts of her work in my anthologies from college).

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Book Review – Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Published in 2002, almost a decade after the success of The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Middlesex, tells more than just the story of Calliope/Cal Stephanides; it tells the story of Cal’s grandparents and parents as well. With small flashes of Cal’s life, the novel primarily moves from the Greek/Turkish conflicts of World War I through emigration to America, through the Great Depression and World War II before finally focusing on the unusual genetic situation and the way it impacted Cal’s adolescence and adult life.

Delving into issues of minority and immigrant cultures in America during the first half of the twentieth century as well as gender and sexuality, Middlesex covers a lot of ground. It is not an easy novel to get through. Descriptions are rich but can be a bit much at times. There is also a lot of repetition. The mutated gene that causes Cal’s condition creeps into passages where the subject isn’t expected or welcome. It forces the reader’s attention back to Cal and disrupts the novel’s flow. Most of the time, I had no problem with Cal as a narrator, but those little deviations came across as self-serving and egotistical (understandable when the narrator’s struggles are a key piece of the novel but annoying all the same).

The biggest piece of criticism I can see Middlesex generating is its length. I can see how the histories of Cal’s grandparents and parents can feel superfluous, especially when the focus reverts to Cal and many of these ancestral characters fall away from the narrative almost entirely. However, if the novel is viewed, not as Cal centric, but in three pieces, it is less bothersome. Three different generations and three different sets of experiences are presented in Middlesex, each compelling on its own. It is only when the narrative creates and emphasizes the overlap that it becomes cumbersome and exhausting.

Though sexuality and social taboos jump to the forefront of the book, my favorite aspects dealt more with the question of culture and acceptance in the rapidly urbanized and then suburbanized America. The process of assimilation, the persistence of superstition, and the Americanization of this immigrant family is a fascinating story to watch unfold.

Perhaps my favorite characters are those of the grandparents’ generation: Desdemona with her predictive spoon and love of soap operas; Sourmelina and her arranged marriage of mutual convenience; the ancient Dr. Philobosian who seems doomed to the outskirts of the narrative but proves so influential in the mistake he made.

Middlesex has too much going on for readers to give up on it, but the way it is presented is difficult to digest. The best advice I can give is to take it slow. I had to alternate reading chapters from Middlesex with something lighter to keep myself from getting bogged down in it. Despite the subject matter, The Virgin Suicides is the easier novel to read, but Middlesex has a slightly greater depth and richness that is worth the extra effort required to actually get through it.