For a short month, I packed a lot of reading into February. I read two books for book clubs, re-read a few of my favorites, and then dedicated a few weeks the rest of the month to celebrating Black History Month with books. (I picked out five, but forgot how long it takes me to read Roots. I’m reading the other four in March and April.)
Here are the books I read in February:
Flight (2007) by Sherman Alexie
Foster teen “Zits” channels his rage into senseless acts of violence. In his worst moment, he is thrown into history to experience horrible violence in bodies of both his Native American ancestors and white authority figures. At once dark and funny, Flight is a story of empathy, acceptance, and the need for belonging.
I re-read this as part of my favorites project. I love this book because it is quintessentially Alexie: dark, laugh-out-loud funny, real, and above all else: a plea for empathy and human kindness. The time traveling doesn’t hurt either. The book wisks you through a first-person account through so many perspectives that it is difficult to keep your heart from bursting with love of all humankind. I love everything Alexie writes: adult books, poetry, and short stories. But this is the young adult book I wish I had as a young adult, and that makes it even more beautiful to me.
*P.S. I love Alexie’s defense of dark themes in young adult literature.
Sweet Tooth (2012) by Ian McEwan
In Cold War Britain, recent university graduate Serena finds herself working for a spy agency on the recommendation of an old lover–though in a clerical position, the highest a woman could expect to rise at MI5. Through her love of reading, she finds her break out of the and is recruited to an undercover assignment to support struggling artists who might push the government ideological agenda. Serena finds herself struggling to balance her undercover work life with her love life while trying to discern for herself between fact and fiction.
This book was Wendy Smedley‘s first pick for our just-us book club, which we’re conducting on Google Hangouts. It is pretty much the most fun thing ever. Also: technology is amazing.
What I loved most about the book was the setting in the UK during the Cold War. I’ve read American and Satellite State novels from this time period, but this is the first I’d read that takes place in Britain. I was interested to see the effects of the threat of communism on the mindset there as well as the view on the cultural revolution. This was especially interesting from the perspective of the conservative female protagonist, who viewed the cultural revolution with disdain, but profited it through the sexual freedoms she found with several lovers.
The book jumpstarted some really interesting discussions about propaganda, trust in relationships, misinformation, and underemployment of women.
There were a lot of things that bothered me about the novel (non-credible explanations, a fair amount of misogyny, some gimmicky plot devices). These things made more sense after the plot twist at the end, but I don’t necessarily think a sweeping explanation at the climax really makes up for having to sit through those things for the rest of the book. This made me feel a little less like the plot was building to the climax and a little more like a deus ex machina.
The Fault in Our Stars (2012) by John Green
*I love the publisher’s synopsis on this one, so I’m sharing theirs rather than my own:
Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.
Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw, The Fault in Our Stars is award-winning author John Green’s most ambitious and heartbreaking work yet, brilliantly exploring the funny, thrilling, and tragic business of being alive and in love.
This was the February pick of my newly-joined-through-a-friend book club. I’m glad it was, because I loved the book and probably wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise.
I love that this is a wholly different take on the concept of star-crossed lovers: their relationship is not doomed because of societal forces, but because of disease. This results in not only an interesting romantic relationship, but an exploration of the meaning of life from the perspective of a person who is terminally ill. This hits close to home for me, because I lived with my grandmother in the years she was dying from breast cancer.
I’m also a sucker for nerdy, outsider teenagers and coming of age stories, so I fell in love with Hazel easily.
For those of you who have read it, the egging scene is my favorite part. What a way to turn an act of teenage rebellion on its head! Cancer perk.
*P.S. I read this whole book before realizing that the author is the John Green I know and love from Crash Course. And that lead to the realization that he and Hank Green are brothers (which has set the bar for Jake’s and my goal of raising awesomely nerdy children). Then I feel down the wonderful rabbit hole of Vlogbrothers videos. I realize I’m late to the party with these things, but February was a very happy month of You Tube watching for me.
The Dark Elf Trilogy: Homeland/Exile/Sojourn (1990-1991) by R. A. Salvatore
In this prequel to The Icewind Dale Trilogy, Dark Elf Dizzit must find a way to uphold his honor and morals in the cruel and competitive society of Menzoberranzan, in the harsh world of the Underdark, and finally in his new role as an outsider on the surface.
These books are from my favorite fantasy series while I was in Middle School. I thought it would be fun to revisit the series as an adult. I love Drizzt, the protagonist, and find the workings of Menzoberranzan, his harsh under world city of origin, fascinating. However, I do think there’s something inherently problematic about having entire evil races of people–even more so when metaphors of “light” and “dark” equated as “good” and “evil” are translated into skin color. (Also, this annoys me even more because races living underground, like most subterranean fauna, would likely have a lack of skin pigmentation. C’mon, fantasy nerds. Cross over into just a LITTLE science nerdom to give yourself some credibility.)
In a weird way, I love that the evil society of Menzoberranzan is matriarchal. The social stratification of males in the society is part of the evil of the dark elves, but it combats the notion that females are naturally nurturing and passive. It is a pretty deep concept for the genre.
As an adult, I realize that the prose isn’t great and some of the writing is a bit amateur, but I still enjoy reading it.
Roots (1976) by Alex Haley
Haley traces his familial roots back to Africa in this epic story of an American family through seven generations. Haley claims to have found his direct ancestor, Kunta Kinte, through his family’s oral history passed down through generations and extensive historical research. Haley then uses this family history to provide a realistic fictional account of his family. From life in the Gambia, the horrors of the Transatlantic slave ships, to enslavement in America, Kunta Kinte’s life and that of his decedents depicts the true horrors of slavery as well as the familial love and bonds that were formed in bondage.
This is my second time reading this book (I was about 11 or 12 the first time). I loved the book then because it helped answer many of the questions about American slavery I found unsatisfactorily explained while I was in school: Why weren’t there more slave revolts? How were so many people kidnapped in Africa? Why did so many slaves convert to Christianity? How could ridiculous stereotypes about black people be held by white people for so long? How was the “one drop rule” justified? How could any white people buy into pro-slavery arguments? How has the culture developed during slavery impacted culture today?*
Of course, these questions are better answered by actual historical accounts, but at that age, a realistic fictional account was what I needed to be able to start to understand what the life of a slave was actually like.
On this reading, I was impressed by the rich range of memorable characters and the detailed descriptions of so many settings that was obviously the result of vast amounts of research. I did find the female characters to be much less developed than the male characters, but otherwise I have few negative things to say about this novel.
The critisisms of the novel are important to note, however. There are many controversies surrounding this book, including accusations of plagiarism from the book The African by Harold Courlander and criticisms of Haley’s genealogy (it is likely that Kunta Kinte was not Haley’s ancestor).
*Those are all questions I remember actually having at that age, though I’m sure they were much less eloquently stated in my pre-pubescent brain.
Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Make sure to put a big SPOILERS warning in your comment to warn others if you have ’em.
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