I Read 26 Classics, So You Don’t Have To: Part 3

My new year’s resolution for 2020 was to read a minimum of 52 books, at least half of which I could reference in casual conversation without making people uncomfortable… so, not mobster erotic romance. Since I’ve never actually read most of the classics I was assigned in high school and, as a teen librarian, my main customers were still being forced to do so, I figured I’d make all 26 classics. I finished them just after my girls were born, with a six month delay due to the headaches caused by infertility medications. I only violently hated one and generally disliked a second one, as you can see in my review of books 1-7 and 8-13. So, I present, books 14-19.

14. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I was prepared to hate this book, purely out of spite. After all the praise given to Anna Karenina, I lost some faith in the tastes of the masses and Pride and Prejudice is beloved by women everywhere. So, it was with a begrudging heart that I downloaded the book that has spawned a dozen adaptations and retellings, only to realize within the first few chapters, that I love Jane Austen.

As much as I adore romance, historical has never been my jam, since the genre as a whole takes a pretty liberal suspension of disbelief with its sexy, wealthy, successful heroes and ambiguously curvy, sassy, independent heroines. In this particular subgenre, I nearly always find the men to be laughably attractive and the women to be overly abrasive for the time period, as I will enthusiastically rant about given the briefest mention of the movie Titanic. Without a time travel plot, it’s just too jarring to read about relatably modern characters in a historical setting, so my enjoyment is pretty limited to titles written during said time periods, like Little Women or Pride and Prejudice.

Y’all, I’m aware that I’m peaking as a basic white girl as I type this, but Elizabeth Bennet is likely one of my top five literary heroines across all genres. Written by a woman indisputably familiar with the day, Lizzie Bennett stands up for herself, voices opinions, and pushes just the right number of buttons to make her strong and independent but not completely ignorant the social norms of the era. Similarly, Mr. Darcy is written as the ideal man of the early 19th century, intelligent, proud, and wealthy, but with a level of introversion and stoicism not often found in literary romantic heroes that still adheres to the acceptable norms of the day.

Lizzie was endlessly loyal to her family and friends, standing up to Darcy for his slight against her older sister, despite the riches and comfort a romantic match with him would have ensured. She cried for her younger sister when she’d ruined her own reputation and supported her friend’s unenviable marriage, after overcoming her shock and prejudice. While Mr. Darcy has never been my type, he was a believable romantic hero who somehow made infuriating, yet understandable judgements and endearing apologies. Anyone familiar with the romance genre knows the value of grovel and Fitzwilliam Darcy nailed it when he saved the Bennet name to make up for the harm he had inadvertently caused.

While I understand that the writing style of Jane Austen takes some acclimation, I find that to be true of essentially every classic I’ve read. Pride and Prejudice was full of witty, relatable, fleshed-out characters, right down to all seven members of the Bennet family. The romance was sweet and I found the hero and the heroine to be pretty equally flawed and redeemable. The depiction of the time period was easily visualized, but not overly detailed. As much as a cliché as it makes me, I have to say that Pride and Prejudice is officially one of my favorite books, deserving five stars.

15. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkein ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Growing up, I often felt like an outsider among my family, as we watched Baywatch and Walker Texas Ranger, while I much preferred fantasy. Having been assigned a ridiculously high reading level, because American public schools are horrid at fostering a love of books, I often read solely to satisfy academic requirements that weren’t met by titles that would have actually interested me, like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. While I tried to watch the movies as a teenager, I found them slow and uninteresting and hadn’t really considered reading the books until I met my husband, who loves them.

I don’t know that it’s necessary to break down the plot of The Lord of the Rings, but I’ll give it a go. The story starts in the Shire, where Bilbo Baggins is celebrating his 111th birthday by telling everyone to kick rocks. Before he leaves, however, he gives his nephew, Frodo, the One Ring, ultimately leading the innocent hobbit on a great adventure to take the ring from the Shire with his three companions, Sam Gamgee, Pippin Took, and Merry Brandybuck. The quartet find themselves pursued by Black Riders, agents of the Dark Lord Sauron, who seeks the return of his Ring of Power. Shenanigans ensue in the form of singing (yet badass) elves, dangerous battles with the Black Riders, and a lot of walking.

I wanted to love this book. Sadly, while I recognize the brilliance behind the work, I’m simply unable to live up to my aspirations of becoming an LotR Fangirl. I have a great deal of respect for the fact that Tolkien literally set the stage for high fantasy. In an age when it would have been impossible to depict such a tale on screen, Tolkien painted a vivid and beautiful picture of Middle Earth and its inhabitants, though some of the latter have been decried for their obvious anti-Semitic stereotypes. Had I been read this story as a child, tucked snugly in bed by a mother who enjoyed fantasy, I’d have surely adored it… but I wasn’t.

I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time at age 33, already familiar with tales such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. While I recognize that, in many ways, The Lord of the Rings is the source material for these stories, knowing that fact doesn’t make it any less redundant to read a painfully detailed description of settings I can easily picture from my prior knowledge of high fantasy. It also doesn’t pick up the pace. It’s not that The Lord of the Rings isn’t a good book. It’s an amazing feat of literature, the literal metric for all epic fantasy to follow. A product of the age it was written, it’s just kind of a slog compared to those followers and so, I give it four stars.

16. 1984, by George Orwell ⭐⭐⭐

2020 was a bad year to read a bunch of politically dystopian classics and 1984 was no exception with its tales of government corruption from censorship to legit brainwashing. 1984 has long been a reference point for both American political parties to warn the public about overreach from the other. Since Orwell modeled his make-believe society after Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, I personally find both claims to be pretty hyperbolic. Even if it is more representative of China or North Korea than present day U.S., that doesn’t make 1984 any less worthy of a read.

Orwell’s final novel tells the story of Winston Smith’s gradual betrayal of The Party, rulers of a province of what was once Great Britain but is now a totalitarian superstate called Oceania following an ideology called Ingsoc or English Socialism. Winston is an outwardly loyal worker of The Party, altering historical documents so the regime appears to have always been in the right, though he secretly opposes their rule. He begins his gradual betrayal through an affair and illicit meetings with those who claim to be members of the resistance, growing increasingly careless. As one might predict, Winston is discovered by the Thought Police and his story doesn’t end well, serving as a bleak cautionary tale against protest of an all powerful government.

While I wouldn’t recommend reading 1984 (or any of the other politically disturbing classics I’ve reviewed) in an election year, it’s definitely a compelling read. It primarily suffers in its characterization, an entirely forgivable flaw considering the predominant goal of The Party is the quelling of individuality or independent thought. This does, however, make both Winston and his lover, Julia, less sympathetic protagonists. By extension, the grim ending of 1984 doesn’t hit as hard as say, the ending to To Kill a Mockingbird, warranting an overall three stars.

17. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

In my experience, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the most frequently praised classics and horror novels. It seemed an obvious choice for my project, considering how much I loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Like Dracula, the story of Frankenstein is woefully misrepresented in every adaptation, as even those who’ve never read it will insist that the title references the creator and not the monster. The monster doesn’t actually have a name, because Victor Frankenstein is an unethical blasphemer who gets what he has coming to him. The deviations go well beyond this, however, overlooking the point of the story entirely.

The tale of Frankenstein starts as a correspondence between an arctic explorer named Captain Walton and his sister, as he passes along the story of an emaciated man he’s rescued, Victor Frankenstein. Victor has succeeded in the unthinkable, bringing forth life from spare parts. Tragically, this scientific marvel has gone horribly awry, ultimately finding Victor chasing his creation through the frozen tundra… and it is all his fault.

After Victor breathes life into his creature, he’s horrified by his achievement and abandons his innocent, if repulsive, creation to wander the countryside alone. While Victor returns to his childhood home in Italy, his monster is left to fend for himself, growing attached to a family he secretly observes in a cottage in the woods. Over time, the Creature teaches himself to speak and read, longing for love and companionship, yet only interacting with a blind old man. When the family discovers the monster they flee in terror, causing him to seek out Victor’s aid. During his travels, the Creature is attacked for trying to help humans and yearns for vengeance against his creator. When the monster finally catches up with Victor and shares his tale, he begs him to create a companion, promising to retreat into the wilderness with his bride. If refused, the monster vows to kill everyone Frankenstein loves.

It’s clear from the start that this story doesn’t end well for Victor or the Creature, but the turns the tale takes are shockingly dark for a classic written by a 19-year-old woman over 200 years ago. While the movie adaptations of Frankenstein focus on the horror of the pieced-together monster, it’s clear that Shelley intended him to be a sympathetic character. In fact, Victor comes off as the true villain, playing God only to shirk his responsibility as a creator and lead his family and friends to pay the price. Frankenstein’s Creature isn’t simply a 19th century serial killer, but an abused and tortured creation seeking only love and affection. Frankenstein is the shockingly complex story of a being heartbroken by society’s complete ostracization. This book easily ranked in my top five and I’m disappointed that no movie has done justice to the intended story, which absolutely earns five stars.

18. Anthem, by Ayn Rand ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I first read Anthem in the 10th grade and loved it. When I say that, I mean I had the email addresses and Xanga tags Liberty-53000 and The Golden One. It wasn’t Pre-AP English kid pretention, either… or rather it wasn’t solely Pre-AP English kid pretention. I genuinely adored the story of one man quietly rebelling against a collective regime that had destroyed all sense of individuality and ultimately finding happiness. Considering 17 years had passed, I felt it was reasonable to count this title in my total classics, despite it technically qualifying as a reread.

Anthem is a novella, written by Ayn Rand while she was taking a break from her research for The Fountainhead. It tells the story of Equality 7-2521 as he records his life and perceived transgressions in a forbidden journal in an underground tunnel. Equality 7-2521 shares details of growing up in a collective society, where individualism is a crime, where there is no I, only We. He writes about the “curse” of intellectual curiosity that plagues him, a streetsweeper, the experiments he does in his tunnel and eventually, of a flaxen-haired girl he’s dubbed The Golden One.

Since Anthem is literally 105 pages long, I won’t give more details, as it’s not my goal to completely spoil these books. I will, however, report that Equality 7-2521’s story ends in a happily ever after. I’m sure that’s partially to credit for why I loved Anthem at 33, just as much as I did at 16. I think this is also due to the fact that, despite Rand’s works having quite the reputation to the contrary, there’s just something so palatable about this book. After having read essentially every weird dystopian science fiction classic for this project, I can say that Anthem is in the minority in both of those, possibly competing with George Orwell’s Animal Farm in the latter. Like We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Anthem sprung from the mind of someone who lived in Communist Russia, but lacked the confusing jargon, world building, and translation issues despite having been written only 16 years later. It’s just more readable and I truly enjoyed We.

I only wish Anthem hadn’t been a novella. I’d have loved a more fleshed-out picture of Equality 7-2521’s society and how it came about, of the characters and what made them different, if they even were different or if everyone felt the same way. Of course, that was part of the magic, the not knowing, but it does leave a little something to be desired. With that, I give Anthem four stars.

19. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brone ⭐⭐⭐

I was supposed to despise Wuthering Heights. It was going to be a contender against Anna Karenina for worst classic ever. It’s predominately loathed by readers and according to the judgmental ninnies at r/romancebooks, anyone who enjoys it condones abuse. Maybe my low expectations are actually to credit for why I genuinely enjoyed this book, but aside from the complaints about length, I found many of the criticisms of Wuthering Heights to be unfounded.

This book was a lot of things for me, but romance wasn’t one of them. I think that inaccurate classification might be why it gets so much hate. It’s a pretty universally accepted rule that all romance ends in a Happily Ever After or HEA, which is far from the case for Heathcliff and Catherine’s story. No, Wuthering Heights is more accurately described as a story of vengeance, as Heathcliff sets out to get his retribution for the racism and mistreatment he’s experienced from Catherine’s brother, Hindley Earnshaw, and the neighbor for whom she left him, Edgar Linton. If read with Heathcliff in mind as the protagonist, but not as a romantic lead, Wuthering Heights is an epic tale of revenge as a dish best served cold and I found it delightful.

As with most classics, this one is unforgivably long, but that adds something to the story as the reader experiences the wait for justice right alongside Heathcliff, while the years pass. Essentially no one in this story is even remotely likable, but that made it more fun for me to witness as they all got their comeuppance through Heathcliff’s sociopathic shenanigans amidst the gloomy backdrop of the moors. This story really was the ultimate tale of just desserts and I was pleasantly surprised, though I can understand why others wouldn’t enjoy such a bleak tale, especially one so often billed as romance and therefore award it only three stars. Additionally, I highly recommend the MTV movie adaptation starring Mike Vogel and Erika Christensen as a fabulously terrible trip through time to 2003. It is painfully bad and the best $3 I’ve ever spent on Ebay.

I’m Reading 26 Classics, So You Don’t Have To: Part 2

My new year’s resolution for 2020 was to read a minimum of 52 books, half of which were not dragon erotica. Since my library teens still have to read the classics and I never actually read any, myself, I decided those 26 titles would be undoubtedly considered classics. I’ve surprisingly enjoyed most of my choices, as evidenced by my review of the first seven, here. So, I present, books 8-13.

8. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy ⭐

I’ll be blunt. I have never before finished a book I hated as much as Anna Karenina. I am so tired of people who loved this book telling me that I just didn’t understand or read it thoroughly. Classics are almost as bad as politics in that, if someone doesn’t agree with another person, they must be less intelligent or not know all of the facts, because we’re all arrogant assholes, incapable of respecting different opinions. Not only did I read this book, I also read many analyses on this book, to make sure I fully understood it, after these insistences. I did and I still hated it. If you love this book and consider it the greatest work of literature ever, I respect that, but you might not want to read further.

Anna Karenina tells the story of Russian socialite, Anna’s, affair with Vronsky, some dude she saw for four minutes on a train and for whom she decided to throw away all of her social standing and clout, cuz feeeelz, despite knowing the society she lives in and the consequences of an indiscreet affair. Women are stupid that way. s/ As Anna falls deeply in love with Vronksy, her husband, Karenin, essentially demands discretion or divorce. Selfish cow that Anna is, she denies both and nearly dies birthing Vronsky’s child. Karenin forgives Vronksy, which embarrasses him and he tries and fails to kill himself. Ultimately, Anna and Vronsky run away together, with Anna forfeiting her son, because she is a horrible, wretched person and ultimately being shunned by society, no matter where she goes, while growing more and more insecure of Vronsky’s affection. Finally, in the best scene in both the terrible book and the terrible movie, she throws herself under the train and I have a new fandom: the train from Anna Karenina.

Alongside this story, we read the tale of Kitty, Levin, and farming. Kitty, Anna’s young sister-in-law is also infatuated with Vronksy, so certain that he’ll propose to her that she turns down the good and honorable, if provincial, Levin, only to have her heart broken, when she realizes that Vronsky never had any true intentions toward her. Over the next year, she spends time in grief and self-reflection, mourning her mistake, and because she’s a very good girl, Levin comes back and asks her to marry him again. She says yes and they move to the country, where there’s farming and tilling and plowing for entire chapters, in a needlessly drawn out symbolic message of “idleness and city life bad, hard work and rural life good.”  Kitty ends up happy and Anna ends up dead. The end.

This book is 864 pages long, so the above summary is of course oversimplified. I’ve read that the book isn’t supposed to be about likable characters and I get that. I liked The Great Gatsby, because it was beautifully written about awful people. This wasn’t. Anna Karenina is the kind of classic that makes people hate classics, because everyone claims it’s amazing.

Why is Tolstoy above reproach for the writing tropes we mock today? Let’s start with the instalove. There was no explanation for Anna’s affection for Vronsky. I get it, she wasn’t really given the chance to choose her path, but poor women weren’t either, and many of them remained faithful, even after four minutes on a train with another man. Her husband wasn’t abusive or cruel. Despite the ridiculous arguments I had on Reddit about this book, there is zero evidence that Karenin mistreated Anna. He even raised her illegitimate child. He was kind, if distant, and she had literally every thing she wanted. She was doing pretty damned good for 19th century Russia, so when she threw it all away, I needed a reason… besides boredom. If Tolstoy had written a compelling love story between Anna and Vronksy, I could’ve felt a lot more for Anna, torn between her head and her heart. However, she literally throws away everything, including her son, for this man she barely knows and we’re never told why. Even if it was adventure and excitement, which I don’t buy considering her unexplained obsession with Vronsky, she didn’t do anything with Vronsky she couldn’t have done with Karenin. No. It was instalove and vaginal tingles and that’s just as stupid as when modern romance novelists do it.

As for Kitty and Levin… I don’t hate their storyline, but I’m often told that this book was feminist and are you fucking kidding me?!?! There is not a single point, in this book of 732 characters, where Tolstoy introduces a woman who is more than one-dimensional. His lead females are The Madonna and The Whore. Kitty keeps her legs closed and her eyes down and gets the life she wants. Anna follows her passion and ends up under a train. Even the female side characters are vapid and shallow hens. This book is not feminist, no not even for the time period, in part because we get no compelling reason for Anna’s actions. She’s just a bitch in heat, as far as Tolstoy is concerned, a slave to her baser nature. The fact that society treats her differently than her lover doesn’t even garner much feeling, because she was the one who was married. While her brother was treated differently for his affair and that might have had some merit with different telling, the execution of this tale just painted a picture of a horrible woman I was glad to see die, as opposed to a woman caught up in a double standard. If the reason this book was empowering was Kitty’s personal growth and self-improvement, Louisa May Alcott told that story much better, and much more quickly, in Little Women.

Then there was the length. So much of this book is filler, dragging out a poorly told story about awful people, that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish it. I’ve read long books. I’ve read books about horrible people. I’ve read long books about horrible people. I’ve mentioned several times that I love Steinbeck, but his filler is interesting or pivotal to the storyline. Tolstoy is just in love with himself and takes full advantage of a lack of more entertaining pastimes to ramble on about nothing for almost 900 pages, because the people of the 19th century couldn’t discreetly download alien erotica for a better time.

So there you have it. I hated everything about this book, aside from the Kitty/Levin plot, which was still simplistic and preachy. I hated the characters, the writing, the oversimplified themes, the Poor Little Rich Girl plot, the length, and my favorite character, by far, was the train. I’m glad I read this title halfway through the year, because this is truly the kind of classic that makes people hate classics. I give Anna Karenina a single begrudging star.

9. The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway ⭐⭐⭐

Yes, I Googled “shortest classics” again. However, I surprisingly enjoyed this audiobook, which was only two hours and some change. It told the depressing story of a fisherman who meets his ultimate opponent, the marlin that will bring him glory, only to hook him but fail to reign him in, as he’s pulled further out to see. Eventually, both the old man and the marlin face defeat, as the man makes it to the shore, his glorious catch mostly devoured by sharks.

That’s pretty much it. There’s not much more to the summary of a two hour book, nor was there a way to avoid that spoiler, but it was well-written and engaging, as it painted a picture of ultimate futility. Honestly, it’s brevity was what I liked most and not just because I wanted to check another book off my total. It made for a more exciting story and a more relatable protagonist. It was a simple tale, told simply, with no forced happy ending. I give The Old Man and the Sea three stars.

10. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle was assigned to me in my high school AP U.S. History class. If I recall, I read about half of it, before the English teacher everyone hated ruined the ending for me and I quit. I do remember thinking it was boring and depressing and that the names were all very confusing, so I wasn’t really looking forward to reading it, this year. Y’all, this was one of my favorite books. While the Lithuanian names were indeed a bit confusing, I listened to the audio, which substantially mitigated my troubles and I’d highly recommend the same, if you have similar struggles.

The Jungle tells the story of Jurgis Rudkus, who starts off as a brawny, hardworking immigrant, eager to support his family. Despite overcrowding of immigrants wanting a job in the Chicago meat packing district, Jurgis finds work immediately, as a strong and hardy man, as do the other members of his large family. Despite their dreams and willingness to work for them, however, the Rudkus family is doomed from the start, by the sheer number of every day villains, waiting to take advantage. I can say little more about the plot, without ruining the story for you, but I found Jurgis and his family to be compelling portrayals of immigrants done wrong, who can therefore never catch a break. The only criticism I have of this story is that the last chapter reads as Upton Sinclair’s personal Socialist manifesto, which really didn’t fit the tone of the book, regardless of my political opinions.

Speaking of which, I am a Capitalist. I consider our system flawed, of course, but I also think it’s the only political system that will ever work in the United States, agreeing with Theodore Roosevelt that “Radical action must be taken to do away with the efforts of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist.” That being said, the political themes of this work didn’t turn me off until the end, when they became overtly preachy. Before that, they were both organic and historically accurate. The turn of the 20th century was a dark time to be alive and anyone who says we haven’t come a long way isn’t paying attention, as The Jungle is largely credited with the creation of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, due to the deplorable and stomach-churning conditions outlined in this book, despite Sinclair’s intent to call attention to the absues of workers. In time, however, that has clearly improved, as well, since pickle factory workers no longer lose their feet. I give The Jungle four stars and warn the reader that there really is no happy ending.

11. The Pearl, by John Steinbeck  ⭐⭐⭐

For me, John Steinbeck is the author I love, while completely understanding others’ distaste for him, as he’s often overly wordy and descriptive. This was a novella, however, so I got all the bleak joy of Steinbeck in just a couple of hours.

The Pearl tells the story of poor pearl diver, Kino’s, discovery of “The Pearl of the World,” that one pearl that will make him rich beyond his wildest dreams, just when he needs it most. His fortune almost immediately turns sour, however, with the doctor he needs trying to overcharge him, market buyers trying to swindle him, and even blatant thieves coming after him.

As Kino and his wife, Jauna, escape into the night to find somewhere to sell the pearl, tragedy strikes and Imma just give you the #deadbaby trigger warning. Kino and Juana make their way back to their home, realizing that the pearl was never a blessing, but a curse as Kino heartbrokenly flings the pearl back into the ocean, scorning mans greed and inate evil.

Have you ever read those stories about people who win the lottery, only to have it completely destroy their lives? That’s essentially The Pearl, as Kino’s world is torn apart by finally acquiring the riches he’s spent his life seeking. No amount of wealth can overcome the doctor’s racism and avarice. His community and friends turn against him. Strangers chase after him, bringing the ultimate tragedy down on him. It’s not a happy tale and doesn’t have a happy ending, but I enjoyed the bleak symbolism, despite occasionally feeling that the better path would be obvious, even to Kino. I give The Pearl three stars.

12. Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Not a single person has recognized this title, when cited, but Alas, Babylon is a classic post-apocalyptic novel, set in 1959, during the Cold War. The premise sees the scales tipping, when through a series of unfortunate events, the Soviet Union perceives a first strike and attacks the United States, wiping out all power and communication in fictional Fort Repose, Florida.

Randall Braggs is living an aimless life when his older brother, an Air Force Intelligence officer, warns him that the world is essentially about to end and sends his own family to Florida, in hopes of securing their safety, while he stays behind in Nebraska, knowing he won’t make it, himself. Randy finds himself the keeper of his grieving sister-in-law, nephew, and niece, in addition to a band of townspeople, including the spinster town librarian (fuck you, Pat frank), the Black farmers up the road, his girlfriend and her family, and the local doctor after “The Day,” when the entire state has become a contaminated zone. Throughout the book, the group faces many threats, from lack of food, to illness, to highwaymen, as they try to survive the aftermath the blast.

I won’t lie and tell you that this book necessarily holds up well in 2020. At times, it’s both racist and sexist. Though Randy is considered a “progressive” in his rural township, in the context of Alas, Babylon, that just means that he considers Black people to be humans, ranking slightly above women. I do not have a hard time putting these things into context, for the day they were written, but I could certainly understand if they weren’t someone else’s cup of tea, so consider that a trigger warning of sorts.

Aside from the above, Alas, Babylon is a great read. Where many modern post-apocalyptic media leans too heavily on clichés and tropes of the genre, such as the diabetic and the prepper uncle, this one stars a protagonist who has very little warning of the coming blast and actually regretted some of the preparations he forgets. Since many of the men are recent veterans of the 1950s, their survival instincts are far more organic than that of Rick Grimes. The struggles they face are ones few would consider today, such as a lack of salt and their solutions are clever, without reaching. Jake hates when I read this stuff, because I always want to order bugout bags and that backpack you can put your cat in for travel, but if I could find more titles like Alas, Babylon, I’d devour them. I give Alas, Babylon 4 stars.

13. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley ⭐⭐⭐

I think I mentioned, in my last post of reviews, that 2020 was the wrong year to read a bunch of weird political dystopian novels, but I must say, Brave New World was probably my favorite of the genre, due to it having so many parallels to modern day society, while still managing to be delightfully bizarre.

The book begins with world building, as we see different classes of society being conditioned from birth to appreciate their lot in life, from babies being trained to fear sunshine and flowers to older children learning acceptance and docility through “sleep learning.” These things are a stretch for modern civilization, but Huxley then goes on to describe a society that encourages children to experiment with one another sexually and derides adults who practice any sort of monogamy, including playing favorites with one of their many lovers. The concept of parenthood and pregnancy are ones of shame and disgust, as are aging and religion and it is the societal norm to dose oneself with Soma to rid the mind of all negative thoughts and emotions.

Upon threat of being sent to Iceland for his vocal criticisms of World State, our protagonist Bernard takes a trip with his favorite gal, Lenina, to visit the “savages” on a New Mexico reservation. There, they feel disgust for all they see as these people value religion and actually repair their clothing (shudder). It’s here that Bernard and Lenina discover a woman from their own society, who was abandoned years ago and committed the disgusting and shameful crime of birthing a child. They return to London with her and her now-grown “savage” son in tow and all hell breaks loose.

I read Brave New World in college and it remains my favorite dystopian novel. Both U.S. political parties like to compare the other to 1984, but I find that to be much more far-fetched than the general societal norms of Aldous Huxley’s world of mandatory promiscuity, waste, and assumed drug use. Meanwhile, there are just enough weird quirks, like the engineered classes of Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons to keep this book firmly in science fiction territory, as opposed to relegating it to the more political fiction of Orwell or the symbolic story of We. I give Brave New World three out of five stars.

I’m Reading 26 Classics, So You Don’t Have To: Part 1

At the beginning of this year, I set a lofty new year’s resolution, as I tend to do. Last year’s resolution was to finish 52 books, in an effort to end my habit of beginning seven and maybe finishing two. I accomplished that goal… barely. I literally finished listening to Little Women on New Year’s Eve, at double speed, but I did it. So, this year, I decided to take it up a notch. Not only would I read at least 52 books, half of them would inarguably be titles of substance, meaning not werewolf/mafia/motorcycle club/time travel/alien romance novels. Since my library teens still have to read classics for school and my one and only act of rebellion in high school was to put more effort into not completing assigned reading, than it would have taken to actually read the books themselves, I decided that all 26 books would be classics. It seemed an overly ambitious way to make myself better at my job, of course, but then a pandemic hit, freeing up an awful lot of time for me to read 26 classics, so you don’t have to…

  1. Dracula, by Bram Stoker ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Dracula was my first classic of the year and, if I’m honest, I was dreading my entire project at this point and wasn’t enthusiastic about a book that is essentially a compilation of diary entries and letters. I don’t even like graphic novels, because the writing style takes me out of the story. Fortunately, however, I was able to download the audio for free, from work, and that completely removed the distraction. While I was confused, at times, as to why something was being shared, I did find that all of the pieces ultimately lined up into a genuinely scary tale. Jonathan Harker looking out his window to see Dracula climbing the side of the castle was quite possibly one of the creepiest things I’ve ever read. It was refreshing to experience horror without gore or smut, despite the many trashy movie adaptations, with all their genitalia. I give Dracula five stars and it’s easily one of my favorite books, now.

2. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I’ve never loved stories told through weird mediums, like court documents or interviews. It’s done in non-fiction for transparency and in fiction, to better resemble non-fiction, but I don’t enjoy either. I find it really difficult to get into a story, if I’m still putting together the puzzle while reading. Maybe I’m just lazy, but I feel like that’s the author’s job, before publication. That being said, it’s ironic that my first titles, of such a lofty goal, were both written in this style.

When I started In Cold Blood, I assumed it would be dry, as was the way of most non-fiction of the time. I had also had dental surgery just a few days before, so I was high as a kite when Jake came home for lunch and found me sitting on the couch, crying.

Jake: “What’s wrong?”
Me: “Nothing.”
Jake: “That’s not true. You’re crying.”
Me: “They were just all so scared! Even the dog was scared and then all of his owners died and it doesn’t even say what happened to him!”

While I wouldn’t recommend reading this one on hydrocodone, I can attest to it being not only engaging, but truly disturbing, as you’re made to empathize with two vicious murderers. In fact, only after I’d finished this title, did I discover that Truman Capote was actually somewhat obsessed with the killer, Perry Smith. Some speculated that he held romantic feelings for him, while others theorized that he saw himself in the man. That’s… even more disturbing, so kudos to Capote for taking it to the next level. Simply for the slow pacing that is unavoidable in most non-ficion, I give In Cold Blood four stars.

3. Lord of the Flies, by William Golding ⭐⭐

Lord of the Flies has always sounded fascinating to me. Just the concept of an utter breakdown of society amongst young boys, who aren’t as strictly indoctrinated into social constructs of acceptable behavior, sounded thrilling and I never understood why all of the teens I worked with hated it. Color me surprised when I, too, was driven far more insane than the main characters, by my complete and utter boredom.

Y’all, nothing happened throughout most of this book. The first 10% of the story revolved around establishing a rudimentary society of gentlemanly norms, while the next 80% depicted the destruction of said norms, and the last 10% revealed the consequences. The beginning of the story was interesting, as young boys scrambled to build a way of life and a hierarchy that closely resembled the only one they knew. About 10% out of the next 80% was engaging, as the carefully constructed society devolved, while the other 70% was largely internal monologue. The final 10% woke me up, with an exciting chase scene and a surprising twist. Despite the rousing ending, however, over 2/3 of this book was simply filler and a failed attempt at suspense. While I enjoyed the concept, the execution left me wanting… three more stars. Two disappointed stars for Lord of the Flies.

4. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck ⭐⭐⭐⭐

If I were hard-pressed to name a favorite author, who doesn’t turn out cozy and predicable romances, it would be John Steinbeck. I understand that people dislike him for being too descriptive, but unlike certain contemporary authors (here’s looking at you Diana Gabaldon and Stephen King), Steinbeck is actually good at it. Like Tolkein, Steinbeck isn’t wordy, because he’s in love with himself, but in love with the world he’s creating, specifically his characters. Can that be tedious, regardless of his motivations? Sure, but I love good characterization so much, I find I don’t mind. Of Mice and Men, however, hit a sweet spot, managing to have deep characters, despite its novella length.

When I told friends that I was reading this story, many of them shared that the ending made them cry. Judging by reviews online, that was Steinbeck’s intent, as he painted a rather dated picture of the plight of Lennie, a man who was likely on the autism spectrum. In 2020, however, I felt little for Lennie and all sympathy went to George, because I know several people on the spectrum… and zero of them are psychotic. I know, I know, he was a big guy, who didn’t realize his own strength, and was misunderstood. That’s the story described by George, anyway, as he recounts all the jobs and plans that haven’t worked out and all the times he had to take Lennie and run, because George is the real MVP. His life could’ve been so much simpler, were he to have Lennie committed to some sort of home, but he was loyal and acted as his protector, through all of his mishaps… until the very end.

I realize that Steinbeck meant for Lennie’s final actions to be an accident, a tragedy beyond his control, but I don’t accept that, with the understanding we have for special needs people, today. I’ve met too many of them, in my line of work, to believe that murder is such a small step, regardless of strength. Lennie had severe anger issues and was truly dangerous. He got what was coming to him. My heart went out only to George, in the final scene, as he bestowed such heartbreaking mercy on his lifelong friend. I give four stars to Of Mice and Men, despite feeling very differently about the characters than basically all of mankind.

5. Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I admit it. There was a month, where I Googled the shortest classics, so I could more easily accomplish my goal and Metamorphosis was one of them. Unlike most of the titles I’ve chosen this year, Metamorphosis is a symbolic, artistic piece and I loathe that stuff. As a teen librarian, I spend all of April, National Poetry Month, ranting about how poetry is stupid. I’ve been known to declare that it’s not art, if I can do it. I’m simply too direct for metaphors and beautiful prose, so I figured an art piece wouldn’t be my jam and researched what it was supposed to be about, before reading. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. Knowing that Kafka intended this novella as an allegory for his relationship with his father, painted a portrait that was both haunting and heartbreaking. Even Kafka’s mother and sister apparently had their limits on their affection for their source of income. He was a meal ticket and when he wasn’t that, he was an insect. Four painful stars.

6. We, by Yevgeny Zamyat ⭐⭐⭐

This might not have been the year to read a bunch of disturbing political classics, now that I sit here in terror, sporting my foil hat, beneath my bare lightbulb; but I’m a sucker for classic dystopian and I’ve always wanted to read the source material on which virtually all of them were based. We tells the story of One State, a supposed utopian society made of steel and glass, removing any and all sense of privacy from a totalitarian state. There are no individuals, only parts of the whole, as is reflected in the one and only pronoun: we. The only delineator for each of these parts is a letter/number combination, as we see in the spacecraft engineer, D-503. Society’s laws and rules are based entirely on mathematic formulas and emotions and dreams are considered a sickness, of which the consequence is death.

Y’all, I think one of the reasons I love these books so much, is that they’re all so very bleak. No one gets a happy ending in a world of government corruption, far surpassing anything we could imagine in our modern society. In this regard, We is no different than the books it inspired and I quite enjoyed the overall plot, as D-503 rebelled against his beloved One State, with the help of a beautiful woman, I-330, in a tale as old as time. Much like Eve, I-330 offered D-503 the curse of knowledge, inducting him into Mephi, an organization plotting to overthrow One State, despite the risk that they could both be destroyed by the Benefactor’s Machine. I won’t ruin the ending for you, since no one has actually heard of this book and I genuinely enjoyed the story, but I can attest to it being a somewhat confusing read.

Perhaps because it was translated from Russian or due to the fact that it’s literally 100 years old, We wasn’t a leisurely read. Much of the story is told in prose and imagery, to the point that the reader is not always entirely sure what’s happening and what’s metaphorical, a disruption only compounded by the use of invented terminology, along with words that have simply fallen out of fashion in the last century. There was some definite rereading required and that made for a tedious experience. I’d ultimately recommend the book, but it’s by no means light. The juice is still worth the squeeze, however and I give We three stars.

7. Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I tried and failed to read this book about 10 years ago, when I was going through my divorce, and that was probably for the best, because this is not a book to read when you’re already depressed. Flowers for Algernon was another title that was told entirely through first person journal entries and medical reports, so I’m thrilled that I spent the last couple of years training my brain to comprehend audiobooks. People often judge the quality of an audiobook by the reader, but unless it’s either really good or really bad, I rarely care. The narrator for Flowers for Algernon, however, was fantastic. As the book progresses and simple-minded Charlie Gordon undergoes the same procedure as test subject mouse, Algernon, the narrator becomes noticeably, but gradually, more articulate. As Charlie surpasses his colleagues, his voice becomes more arrogant, espousing scientific jargon and passing judgement on everyone around him. As he sees Algernon failing and his own mind begins to degrade, he sounds frantic with terror and humiliation. This is a good book, but an excellent audiobook and quite possibly one of the few that left me near tears… at least without a dog dying. Five devastating stars.

Belle of the Book Blogs

Ugh! FINE. I LIED, OKAY?!?!

I claimed the reason I never started a book blog was that I’m just too opinionated. That’s not strictly true. It’s really because I was too lazy. About a year ago, I set one up. I chose a name, formatted it, even made a custom header. I just never did anything with it. You see, my favorite book bloggers, they’re just so… wordy. They go on and on about their favorite titles and how the characters made them feel and what they liked and didn’t like and who they’d choose to play the roles and what they hope to get out of the next installment and for the most part…. I’m just skimming. Also, that was an intentional run-on sentence to create a feeling of endlessness. Anyhoo…

As much as I value the opinions of my favorite book bloggers and appreciate a good review before I spend time trying to get into a story… if I wanted to read that much on the subject, I’d just read the book. Why can’t someone create a book blog where they just tell me whether or not the book is worth my time and give a brief description of why? I mean, if you didn’t like the story because the man was too bossy, step aside and give me a copy, because I love a good fictional alpha male. On the other hand, if you wanted to cut the heroine, because she was so obnoxious, thanks for saving me the time and pennies. Regardless, those sentiments can be shared in very few words and we can fangirl in the comments. Which brings me to my final point: If I wanted to make a book blog, why would I spend hours reviewing a title, when I admittedly skim everyone else’s reviews?!?!

So, I invited y’all to follow me on Goodreads, which I do maintain, but any reviews I might write quickly get lost in the sea of clever, GIF filled, three-page-long critiques. So, alas, I am going to be the change I wish to see in the world… cuz that’s where Gandhi was going with that. He wanted me to review smut and such… in 250 words or less, at Belle of the Book Blogs. It’s the Twitter of book blogging.