Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson (spoilers?)

Disclaimer: I can't discuss this book without describing some aspects of it that could be construed as spoilers, so I'm mentioning this up front in case you'd prefer to avoid them. 

What can I say about this classic novella (which I didn't realize was so short until I started reading it - that will teach me to do some research before I choose books for the Back to the Classics Challenge!) that hasn't already been said? I have managed to avoid any kind of movies or stage productions of this book, so before I started reading, I only knew that the main story consisted of the titular doctor, who takes a potion of his own invention and turns into Mr. Hyde, a criminal and sociopath. I was surprised that the book tells us this story through peripheral characters; I had expected it to be told more from Dr. Jekyll's point of view. Instead we as readers are also bystanders who find out what occurred through letters written by Dr. Jekyll and some other characters. This was actually effective, because it keeps the main conceit of the plot a secret until the very end.

And what to make of the end? Is Hyde redeemed? Was Dr. Jekyll able to prevail, even though Hyde had appeared to take over completely? I like that there is some room for uncertainty. This would be a fun book to discuss in a book club or college level class. Recommended.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Ask the Dark - Henry Turner

FTC Compliance Statement: I received a free, time-limited, electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.com in exchange for my honest review, which is provided below. I have not been compensated for this review and my opinion is my own.

Wow, this was a truly compulsive read! I couldn't stop reading once I started - the story goes along at a fast clip and keeps you turning pages. The narrator is someone who seems like he could be a real pain, but at the same time we are immediately drawn into his inner world and he becomes enormously sympathetic right off the bat. In fact, he made me think of a teenage Daryl Dixon from the Walking Dead TV show. This is a great debut and I can't wait to see what this author comes up with next. Recommended.

The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales - Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, translated by Maria Tatar, edited by Erika Eichenseer

FTC Compliance Statement: I received a free, time-limited, electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.com in exchange for my honest review, which is provided below. I have not been compensated for this review and my opinion is my own.

Fairy-tale, myth, and legend fans will love this collection of stories originally collected in the mid-1800s but lost until being rediscovered in 2012. As a child, I read many Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen stories, and these tales make a great accompaniment to those famous collections.

I think my favorite stories in this book were "The Figs," "The Portrait," "Ashfeathers" (a Cinderella-type story), "The Scorned Princess," "The Traveling Animals," "Woodpecker,""Hans Dudeldee," and "Oferla." I must say I found a few of the stories puzzling; I wondered if there was supposed to be a lesson to take away. Maybe not - it's easy to imagine these stories being told by a fire in a cozy cottage, maybe to provide entertainment on a winter night. Or maybe the lesson isn't something that easily translates into one we would understand as people living at the beginning of the 21st century.

This book includes a section of brief commentary on each story, which provides background information as well as information linking these stories to other tales and legends, as well as discussion of common themes, incidents, and motifs. There's also a section of notes on the sources of the tales. Recommended.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

February - This Month in Reading

At the end of January, I wrote that I wanted to read at least 1 book for each challenge and take care of a couple NetGalley reviews I needed to do. I didn't exactly manage this, as there were some challenges that went "unread" this month, but that's OK. I read a respectable 13 books in February, including several for the Harlem Renaissance Reading Challenge (which went unread in January) so I'm happy with this progress.

For March, I need to do some metaphorical spring cleaning and "catch up" with some outstanding reading items. I have some NetGalley reviews that need to be done, so they will be a priority for a few days, and I also have 1 library book that I need to complete before I go on another NetGalley/library diet for a couple months so I can get back to reading from the physical TBR pile. I'll do my best to work on challenges in March but I'll be happy if I can just get to a place where I can really attack the TBR pile in April.

How was your reading in February? Do you have any book-related "spring cleaning" planned?

February Reread - Having Our Say - Sarah L. Delany and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth

The subtitle of this wonderful book is The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years and that really says it all. This book contains the autobiographies of Sadie and Bessie Delany, two remarkable women who lived through Jim Crow, the Harlem Renaissance, two world wars (and then some), the Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, and really made their mark on the world. I first heard of these amazing ladies many years ago through a stage production based on this book (it was great, if you haven't seen it and you get the chance, definitely go!), and then I got this book soon after that. I've been wanting to reread it for a while, but I kept putting it off because of the enormous TBR pile, but I decided now was the time. This book is written in a conversational style that makes you feel like you are sitting with the sisters and they are speaking directly to you in a conversation. It's a great read, and I recommend it highly.

When this book was originally published in the 1990s, the sisters were 105 and 103 respectively, still living on their own and evidently still sharp as tacks. They have both since passed away. Their life stories are amazing; their father was born into slavery, and eventually became the first black person to be elected a bishop in the Episcopal church in the U.S. Sadie was the first black person allowed to teach high school domestic science (what we later called home ec) in New York City, and Bessie was only the second black woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York State. These ladies were in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance and they knew Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Dubois, and other prominent people of color of that time. They had close encounters with racist organizations like the KKK and everyday racist creeps, and lived to tell the tales; they had to deal with the entrenched racism in society and managed to work around it as much as they could. I can't imagine having to deal with some of the things they dealt with.

There are two other books I haven't yet read, The Delany Sisters' Book of Everyday Wisdom, and a book written by Sadie, On My Own At 107: Reflections on Life Without Bessie. I'll have to add these to my ever-growing virtual TBR pile. I hope to live as long as these ladies, and to be even half as wise and smart and hardworking. This was a great way to wrap up this month's reading.


Monday, February 23, 2015

Native Son - Richard Wright

Well readers, I have been knocked back on my heels by a powerful classic book yet again. Before I started reading, I didn't read so much as the back of the book, so I had absolutely no idea what to expect going in. This turned out to be great, as the story took a turn I couldn't possibly have predicted. This relentless book maintains an almost unbearable tension and level of suspense throughout. I can't say I liked the main character particularly; for many reasons, I believe he isn't meant to be all that likable, he's meant to help the reader think through the author's main points - and this is very effective. The naturalistic use of language and description was skillful and made me feel I was right there in the story. In the final part of the book, one character gives a multi-page speech that is a scathing indictment of the entrenched racism in American society - I believe this speech should be required reading for everyone. All in all, this is a book that will linger in my mind and influence my thoughts for a long time. Highly recommended.

The particular edition I happened to read, which I found at the library, was made up of the original version of the book (which had been altered to remove some potentially offensive material before being offered as a Book of the Month Club selection in 1940), an introduction by Arnold Rampersad of Princeton, extensive notes, a biographical timeline, and some early criticism and Wright's responses to these critiques. This version also includes Wright's essay "How 'Bigger' Was Born," which provided a fascinating view into how the novel came to be, the inspirations, and insights into the process, which I enjoyed. I recommend this particular edition because all the other material is really relevant and adds to the reading experience.

I'm going to claim this book for the Harlem Renaissance Challenge, as Wright evidently wrote the book in Harlem in the last 1930s. The book is also #27 on the ALA's list of frequently challenged classics (the link doesn't specify, but I can guess some of the reasons, including a smattering of somewhat frank talk about sexuality).

Friday, February 20, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr

What a luminous book. I found it captivating, and I liked the way the two main stories came together. The book did a wonderful job at showing how people get swept up in war. The description brought vivid images to my mind while I was reading - I could vividly picture the settings, characters, and events. The main characters were entirely sympathetic, and we are fairly clearly able to see their motivations - even if we don't necessarily agree with them. Recommended.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Ways of White Folks - Langston Hughes

Reader, if you can read even one of these beautiful, heartbreaking, witty, haunting stories without becoming deeply angry or deeply depressed (or both), you are a person more in control of their emotions than I could ever hope to be. This collection made me deliriously happy to be alive in the early part of the 21st century, because the progress we have made now, while still very much a work in progress, is at least a major improvement on the daily conditions of the lives of so many African American people at the time these stories were written (the 1930s). Like I always say though, it's so important to have these stories to show us how much things have changed, and to point out what still needs work.

Since the time that I discovered Hughes' poetry, I've been a fan, but I hadn't read his prose until I read his novel Not Without Laughter and Mule Bone, the play he co-wrote with Zora Neale Hurston last year and became even more of a fan. His writing is just so fluid and elegant, that even when the subject matter is unpleasant, as a reader it's impossible to stop reading. I have some other books for the Harlem Renaissance Challenge that are up next, or I'd be reading more - maybe later this year when I have made more of a dent in the TBR Pile. Highly Recommended.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen

The Dusky Literati recommended Nella Larsen to me for the Harlem Renaissance Reading Challenge, and I'm really glad she did - I really enjoyed Larsen's writing. This book is deceptively slender, which is a shame, as Larsen was a very talented writer. Because I tend to prefer novels to short stories, I must say I enjoyed the two novels, Quicksand and Passing, that are both included in this volume, a bit more than the stories, but only just. I wish I had read Larsen in college, as comparing the two novels would have made for a great thesis. I think both are really about security, and what one might give up to feel secure. I don't want to say more lest I provide spoilers, but I urge you to read for yourself, and then leave me a comment so we can discuss :) I see there is a biography called In Search of Nella Larsen that I need to add to my virtual TBR pile for future reading. Recommended.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - L. Frank Baum (spoilers?)

Disclaimer: I can't discuss this book without describing some aspects of it that could be construed as spoilers, so I'm mentioning this up front in case you'd prefer to avoid them. 

I somehow made it through childhood without reading this book, although of course I have seen the movie numerous times. Strangely, I seem to remember owning copies of Ozma of Oz and Tik-Tok of Oz as a child, but for some reason I didn't read this book, or the entire series - ? What a strange child I apparently was! In any case, I have now read this book and enjoyed it considerably.

The movie adaptation mainly follows the book, with notable exceptions that I assume were made to simplify the plot and create a bit more drama. It's too bad that some parts, such as the china/porcelain town and the hammerheads, were cut, but I can see why they were. Movie making is often about condensing a story into a set timeframe, and many of these incidents didn't really do much for the overall plot and were more like creative interludes. I suppose too it would have taxed the special effects department, which did a fantastic job on the movie considering that they had none of the computer-generated tricks we rely so heavily on today for special effects.

Something I really liked about the book was that the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion all got a cool new life to lead after Dorothy left them to go back to Kansas. This was a nice detail that added closure to the story, where the movie left them hanging - we don't know what will happen to them.

All in all, this is a sweet and imaginative book for children that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.

This book has the distinction of being the first book that I read entirely on my cell phone. As the book is out of copyright, I was able to download a copy for free; the drawback, of course, is that there are no cool illustrations (I adore the art from the beginning of the 20th century, so it's a shame I wasn't able to see any original art that may be included with other editions of this book). I don't have a Kindle, so this is a nice way to always have a book or 2 on hand, and to take advantage of those times when I have to wait for something by doing something good for my brain instead of something more mindless. I still prefer actual paper books, and I probably always will, but having options is nice too.