I feel so inadequate when I look at other book blogs.
There are so many links. And graphics. And charts. And gifs. And little pictures celebrating how many challenges they’ve participated in.
Here at the Readers’ Corner…I’ve got lots of Simpsons stills. Lots.
As longtime readers have probably guessed, I’ve just spent some time investigating more reading challenge possibilities for the blog. And I think I’ve got a good one: The TBR Challenge!
It’s just what it says on the tin: I read as many books as I can from my To-Be-Read list–in my case, I’ll be going down my Goodreads To-Read list, which currently numbers 831 and dates back to 2012.
I figure this will be a lot easier than other challenges (all I have to do is go down a list of books I already want to read), and there’s a rewarding achievement at the end (I’ll have knocked some titles off my TBR list).
I just finished the first book on the list: The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill. You will have to wait for Horror Month to hear about that one.
Next up: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.
This is the way the challenge ends
Not with 26 randomly chosen books read
But with…not that
So I failed at the Reading Challenge, everyone. Though I didn’t do all that badly, if I do say so myself. I certainly did better than I ever have before at a reading challenge. Out of 26 titles I managed 20. With a little cheating here and there. You can look under the “Reading Challenges” category archive, or go here, to see all the books I read for the challenge.
And the challenge was a great way to get me motivated to blog in a year where I found I had very few books that I couldn’t wait to tell you about. I also read a few titles that I normally wouldn’t have picked up, thanks to 26 Books to Read in 2015.
Last, if nothing else, I’ve learned my lesson. Way back in February of 2015 I admitted that I never learn. I was sure I would “[slink] away in defeat, belly to the ground and grumbling that I’ll never attempt a reading challenge again.” And what do you know, I was right!
Now that I’ve experienced the reality of blogging along while I try to fulfill a reading challenge, maybe I can finally admit that I can read broadly enough on my own. The whole reading/book blog challenge thing just isn’t for me.
Exorcism and possession story fans, have I got one for you this year. Let me introduce you to A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay.
When Merry was a little girl, her older sister was possessed by a demon–and her cash-strapped family made a reality-TV show about it. In the present, Merry is the only surviving member of her family, and she’s agreed to let an author write a book about her. And in a third narrative, there’s a horror blogger discussing the TV show and its impact and background. What really happened to Merry’s sister? And why is Merry the only one who made it out alive?
I’ll go ahead and say I absolutely loved this, especially the construction. I love how Tremblay uses the blog narrative to train you to think in horror references, and then how he uses that to set up the reveal at the end. If you’ve read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (and if you haven’t, do pick it up either before or after you read this one!) you’ll figure it out, but it’s great either way. (Sorry. I guess I just sort of spoiled both books with that, but I enjoyed it anyway, and having some idea of what was going to happen didn’t lessen the emotional impact for me at all.)
A reviewer on Goodreads who didn’t like the book used the phrase “warmed over Shirley Jackson.” I don’t think this is fair. I’d say Tremblay took the chili that Shirley Jackson made and then made tamale pie with it. He didn’t just microwave it and slop it down in front of you. He added and mixed and spiced and topped until, while you can still taste the chili, there’s an entirely new dish. I’d go so far as to say he even made his own topping from scratch, he didn’t use Jiffy mix.
Anyway, you see what I’m getting at. Tremblay pays an homage while making the story his own. And it’s a great story with wonderfully drawn characters, particularly Merry. Horror, like Romance, is a genre where you have to care about the characters, at least a little. The best Horror makes you care, so that the terrifying things that happen and the fight against darkness seems to be happening to you personally. It’s a very visceral experience. Tremblay succeeds in depicting a family in full break-down, and choosing to narrate through Merry’s eight-year-old eyes makes that storyline even sadder, more confusing, and scarier. Is it mental illness, or a demon? Is Merry remembering correctly? How much did she create in order to make sense of her family falling apart?
It’s also jam-packed with frightening sequences, described in atmospheric, chilling detail. Possession stories, like The Exorcist, always make a lot out of how scary a human being behaving in unnatural or unusual ways can be.
All three of the voices ring true, the imagery is genuinely creepy, and the story is an affecting mix of scary and melancholy, with enough jumps and twists and unsettling scenes to keep you on the edge of your seat. A really wonderful blend of horror and psychological suspense, one of the best ones I read this year.
It’s October, the season to be a cheater-cheater-pumpkin-eater! #5 complete, a book published this year. Boom.
I chose Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Not only because I’ve been meaning to read it for years, particularly after finishing Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, but also because it’s delightfully slim.
Written in 1919, Winesburg, Ohio is a cycle of short stories all about a small Midwestern town at the turn of the twentieth century. More particularly, about the people who live there, especially the ones who somehow live on the periphery. Anderson’s dedication reads:
To the memory of my mother, Emma Smith Anderson, whose keen observations on the life about her first awoke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives, this book is dedicated.
“To see beneath the surface of lives.” That’s precisely what this book allows the reader to do.
We see tales of wasted lives, of tragedy, of sexual awakenings, of striving for meaning and never finding it. We watch people being unable to articulate what they need, and the unspoken knowledge that even if these people could articulate their desires, they probably wouldn’t be fulfilled.
I’ve been trying and trying to think of something to say about this book other than that it affected me deeply. And by that I mean made me really depressed. There’s a bleakness to these stories. Stylistically, Winesburg has its flourishes here and there, but for the most part it’s natural, simple, and intensely focused–you can see the influence Anderson had on writers who came after him, such as Faulkner, Hemingway, and Updike. There’s a humanity and a realism to each piece that makes you want to cringe. At least, that was my reaction to many of the stories.
There’s a voyeuristic feel to these tales. You’re peeping in the windows of this town, prying off tight lids and seeing what’s kept inside. It’s bittersweet and complicated and you come away feeling as though you’ve seen and heard things you shouldn’t. Hence the cringing. The cringing is aided by how well small-town life is nailed, the good and the bad. Mostly bad, since you’re with characters who live on the edges of everything.
Winesburg, Ohio. If you want some meaty but depressing small-town stories, you should give it a look. Uplifting it is not, but everything about it feels very real. You could also have a look at the post I wrote about Main Street by Sinclair Lewis–though Anderson’s work doesn’t have the same satire or humor to it. I found myself making comparisons between the two as I read.
So we’re now midway through August. Four months remain in 2015. Let’s do a Challenge Progress Check-In:
I…have a lot left to read.
Welp. Might be time to really buckle down. Put the nose to the grindstone. Get down to business.
Today’s challenge book is #20: A book everyone but you has read.
And that book is:
Seriously. Everyone on the planet has read this except for me. I asked around. There are hermits in Siberia who have read The Name of the Rose. Tribes otherwise untouched by modern civilization in the Brazilian rainforest have read it. People who can’t read have read it.
Even though you’ve probably read this already, too, I’ll go ahead and tell you about it anyway.
This brilliant historical mystery has been on my list for a very long time. I’m so pleased that I finally took the time to read and savor it as it deserves. There are so many layers, so many textures, so many sections of Latin, so many references and allusions, so many characters, so much of everything in this novel. It’s weighty, in ideas and structure and in prose. On top of it all it’s a wonderfully crafted murder mystery.
Set in 1327, the story follows novice monk Adso as he accompanies the British William of Baskerville to an abbey in northern Italy to represent the Pope in upcoming negotiations. Soon after they arrive, however, monks in the abbey begin turning up dead, and William turns detective. That’s the bare bones of the plot. The meat is in the atmosphere, the allusions, the structure, and the many books within books.
The Name of the Rose is a masterwork of fiction, positively Pyncheon-esque in its levels and ideas. It’s a book that demands care and attention and absorption. And probably a re-read or two. Or three.
My memory of school reading in elementary school is a blur of boring and stupid. The Giver is the only book I really loved from that time period, followed closely by Sign of the Beaver. I still re-read Shiloh, a book from third grade, from time to time. I remember the books I read on my own more than the classics that were being shoved down my throat in grades four through six. I wanted Goosebumps and Felicity Saves the Day and The Boxcar Children: That One Where They Live in a Lighthouse for the Summer. As far as I was concerned school could keep their Sing Down the Moons and their Bridge to Terabithias and their Phantom Tollbooths.
This is why I’m not a school librarian, guys.
As I said, the assigned reading during these years is hazy at this date. But I’m pretty sure The Whipping Boy was a reading group assignment in fourth grade. Maybe third, but I refuse to blame Mr. Morin for The Whipping Boy. I don’t recall reading groups in sixth grade, but it’s possible–I mostly remember the science units from that year. At any rate, at some point during my later elementary years I was supposed to read The Whipping Boy and I didn’t because I thought it was boring and confusing and then I had to fudge my way through the response sheet and discussion at school. Several times.
I decided to go ahead and give The Whipping Boy a fair shake. So I took it home last night and read it. I kept an open mind, and brought my adult reading sensibilities and comprehension to the work. Perhaps I’d just been in the wrong headspace for it when I was in school. Maybe other homework had been getting in the way. Maybe I just didn’t get it or something.
The story is about the horrible bratty Prince Horace and his whipping boy, Jemmy. As it is not fitting for a prince to be beaten, it’s the whipping boy’s job to take a thrashing whenever the prince misbehaves. The idea was that, since a prince and whipping boy were brought up and educated together, the prince would not want to see a friend get whipped and he would behave. You can imagine how well this works out for Jemmy. So he decides he’s going to make a run for it–only Prince Horace is running away, too. Horace and Jemmy run into some highwaymen, which leads to them inadvertently switching places prince and pauper style. From there it’s a run from highwaymen and a journey of personal growth, with lots of characters and adventures thrown in.
Would you believe it? I got bored and wanted to stop in the exact same place as I did when I was a kid!
Clearly, this is a case of personal preference over judgment. The Whipping Boy is a good story with a nice quick pace, good characters that develop nicely, funny bits and moving bits. As a grown-up I think I had more appreciation for the relationship that develops between Jemmy, the whipping boy, and Prince Horace. It’s actually very well-done and believable how they come to an understanding and come to respect each other. The narration is primarily through Jemmy’s eyes and his voice is perfect. The bumbling villains are fun. It deserved its Newbery Award. I’m just the wrong reader for this one.
At least I can say I finally fulfilled a homework assignment that’s been on the shelf for nearly a decade! All thanks to the Reading Challenge.
No joke, while I was researching this post and reading about The Whipping Boy, I got distracted and started reading a blog about Goosebumps. Old habits, man.
My next read for the 26 Books to Read in 2015 Challenge is lucky number ten!
#10: A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit.
A couple of years ago I developed an intense, inexplicable desire to see Montana.
I have no relatives in Montana. I have no friends who came back from Montana and said, “Marie, you gotta go to Montana!” I don’t hunt or fish or interact with bears. I don’t know how to camp or to mine coal. I am an indifferent hiker prone to falling down. I have no interest in pronouncing “Butte” correctly.
I really want to visit Montana. Look at their tourism website! Everything looks so sweeping and grand and immensely beautiful. A different sort of beauty altogether than what we have in New England. There are two national parks there, Yellowstone and Glacier.
As if all that wasn’t enough, comedian Rich Hall lives in Montana!
Until I can steal an Airstream trailer and go AWOL from the library for a couple weeks, though, I’ll have to make do with novels that boast a beautiful and evocative sense of place, like S.M. Hulse’s Black River.
This novel is about an ex-prison guard named Wes, who was maimed during a prison riot years ago. When his wife passes away, he goes back to his little hometown of Black River, Montana, to see his estranged stepson and put his wife (and ghosts) to rest.
There’s a gorgeous emotional honesty to this character-driven Western. Wes has a lot of past to overcome, particularly when the inmate who tortured him during the long-ago riot comes up for parole. Hulse really gets to the heart of the old-fashioned Western–at their cores the best Westerns are stories about redemption, of strength in the face of adversity, and of setting an out-of-joint world to rights again. Black River is about all of those things, presented simply and well and without a lot of drama and fuss (also like a good Western!).
A pretty good patch on a trip to Montana for now.
There’s also this, which has nothing to do with Montana but does give me a Rich Hall fix.