Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
After Huckleberry Finn's drunken father returns to town, demanding Huck's money, the young boy and an escaped slave named Jim set off on a raft down the Mississippi River. They run into storms, schemes, a king, a duke, and numerous other adventures as they make their way south.
My thoughts on this book are tangled in more knots than headphones that've been in your pocket. I liked it a lot more than I thought I would, but I can't say that I really enjoyed it, either.
For one thing, it was a struggle just to read the book, what with the improper grammar and spelling. After a while I got used to Huck's misspellings and could understand him a lot better, but some of the other characters were just hopeless. Twain notes that he studied the dialects of the characters extensively, and took great care to show the differences in their pronunciation. Although this added a lot of realism, it also made it impossible for me to understand what some of the characters were saying. I found myself skimming over most of Jim's dialogue without comprehending most of it.
Anybody who had read this book for English class or Banned Books Week knows about the controversy surrounding it. Twain (or rather, Twain's characters) uses racial slurs rather liberally, and his descriptions of black characters aren't exactly politically correct. Jim is portrayed as dim-witted but loyal, and even though Huck befriends him and comes to care about him he often talks about that friendship damning him to hell. I'm not going to discuss whether the novel is racist or not at length (I'm sure your English teacher would be more than happy to), so I'll let you make up your own mind about it.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was entertaining enough that it wasn't torture to read it, but there are certainly more compelling books out there. Even during the numerous scrapes Huck and Jim found themselves in, I didn't get particularly excited. Some of the scenes were funny - especially with the king and the duke - but not hilarious, and some of them were exasperating (I'm looking at you, Tom Sawyer).
I can't recommend this book based on plot or characters or overall message, but I am recommending it. You should read this book simply because it's become such an important part of American literature - but I suggest you get it from the library and keep your ten bucks.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now...
Speculative fiction is about recognizing uncomfortable truths. Authors take everyday things that may only be slightly disturbing to us and introduce a society where they've become the law. We want to believe that societies like Gilead couldn't exist, and it's the author's job to convince us, to make us believe.
Set just after the initial rise of Gilead, when there are still people who remember "the time before," The Handmaid's Tale sets itself apart from most other spec-fic/dystopian books. Atwood builds the world of Gilead slowly; Offred doesn't so much explain it as mention in passing its various workings. Some parts of the rise of Gilead are less plausible than others, but taken as a whole, the world-building is convincing. The result is a complete, unsettling portrait of a society where all actions are policed, women are only valuable as domestic servants and childbearers, and no one is truly free.
Offred's narration is brutally honest and expressive. She relates daily life as a Handmaid personally but without complaining; her flashbacks to the time before are filled with longing. Readers will ache for Offred - whose real name we don't even know. I read this book with a mix of fury, shock, and frantic hope. The plot is driven mainly by Offred and her reactions to life in Gilead, and it's the strong connection readers will find with her that keeps the book interesting.
Through Offred and Gilead, Atwood explores the impact of misogyny and religious extremism (as well as a few other important ideas) by taking them to excess. Regardless of whether or not you find the idea of a Gilead-like society far-fetched (as some do), this is an important read. While it's unlikely the government will strip women of their names and right to property, there are dozens of organizations and politicians lobbying against women's rights bills, and women are not yet equal to men socially, politically, and economically - in 2014. This is the uncomfortable truth Atwood wants us to recognize when reading The Handmaid's Tale.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
Willy Loman, the protagonist of Death of a Salesman, has spent his life following the American way, living out his belief in salesmanship as a way to reinvent himself. But somehow the riches and respect he covets have eluded him. At age 63, he searches for the moment his life took a wrong turn, the moment of betrayal that undermined his relationship with his wife and destroyed his relationship with Biff, the son in whom he invested his faith. Willy lives in a fragile world of elaborate excuses and daydreams, conflating past and present in a desperate attempt to make sense of himself and of a world that once promised so much.
This play has been hailed as an "epitaph for the American dream" and "one of the finest dramas in the whole range of American theatre." Frankly, I don't agree. The story wasn't all that bad; a father trying to reconnect with his sons, a man whose life's work has come to nothing - a story most people can sympathize with. But I couldn't sympathize with the characters; there was no character development and I found Willy to be rather annoying.
The characters' conversations swing wildly from subject to subject and from yelling to crying to celebration. There were no scene breaks and few segues between topics, so the action felt very disjointed and patched together. In a play, dialogue is the most important part, and Miller didn't really hit the mark with it.
The play is written with a lot of flashbacks, which happen at the same time as the present action. Willy speaks to the people in his flashbacks while carrying on a conversation in the present, which is somewhat confusing. It's also rather clever, showing Willy's mental state pretty plainly, and is probably a lot less confusing on stage. The whole play is most likely much better on stage, but I can't really testify to that since I haven't seen it.
Death of a Salesman had a few good points - the ending, a couple of Biff's lines, and the portrayal of Willy's confusion and disillusion - but I doubt I'll read it again.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to destroy the most illegal of commodities, the printed book, along with the houses in which they are hidden. Montag never questions the destruction and ruin his actions produce, returning each day to his bland life and wife, Mildred, who spends all day with her television "family." But when he meets an eccentric young neighbor, Clarisse, who introduces him to a past where people didn't live in fear and to a present where one sees the world through the ideas of books instead of the mindless chatter of television, Montag begins to question everything he has ever known.
It's really hard to sum up my feelings about this book. I loved it, but I can also see why some people would hate it. Also, I hate typing the word "Fahrenheit."
Fahrenheit 451 is a cautionary tale, and one that's relevant even sixty years after its publication. As people take sides on the e-book/printed book debate and declare that the printed word is on its way out, Fahrenheit 451 asks, what if there weren't any books at all? Written around the time TV was becoming popular, Bradbury predicted a world where television replaced books and complacency replaced curiosity. However, despite the growth of technology, good old-fashioned books aren't going anywhere, and our world isn't about to end.
So while the ideas in Fahrenheit 451 are still relevant, they're exaggerated a whole lot. Technology isn't all bad, and not all TV is "mindless chatter." For some people, the amount of exaggeration in the book is just too much. Reading it as the cautionary tale it's meant to be, that's completely understandable. I chose to read it as a story about the importance of books and the ideas they contain. On that front, Fahrenheit 451 hits every mark. Like the expression "You don't know what you have until you lose it," Bradbury emphasizes the importance of books and critical thinking by creating a world without them.
For me, the exaggeration in the book is part of what makes it so good. Occasionally Bradbury goes off on a tangent, some of which are very lengthy, that sound more paranoid than philosophical, but most of them had a few good quotes. One the whole, the book was extremely good, and one I will probably read again.
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
Holden Caulfield narrates the story of a couple of days in his sixteen-year-old life, just after he's been expelled from prep school.
To be completely honest, I hated Catcher in the Rye. It's about as interesting as the summary suggests, and if we hadn't been reading it for school, I would happily have passed this one by. The writing deserves one star at best, but I'm not feeling that generous towards Catcher in the Rye. It gets one star only because of Holden himself.
I spent most of the book wanting to slap some sense into Holden, and he was definitely not likable for me. He was whiny, judgmental, and one of the most annoying narrators I've ever read. Holden is obviously pretty messed up, and the only part of the book I found interesting at all is his internal conflict. I understand that Holden's internal conflict is what the book is all about, but it's shrouded in so much junk it's not worth more than one extra star.
The writing is repetitive, to the point that I wanted to tear my hair out every time I saw the phrases "that killed me" or "I really did." There was little to no plot or character development. Holden isn't writing about anything important, just a basic three days in which he talks constantly about how phony and depressing everything is. Holden is almost exactly the same at the end of the novel as at the beginning. In the words of a friend, "Take a novel, erase the plot, bring it down to a fourth grade reading level, sprinkle it with expletives, and you've got The Catcher in the Rye."
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
In some of the most harrowing scenes ever written in modern literature, Upton Sinclair vividly depicted factory life in Chicago in the first years of the twentieth century. The horrors of the slaughterhouse, their barbarous working conditions… the crushing poverty, the disease, and the despair - he revealed all through the eyes of Jurgis Rudkus, a young immigrant who came to the New World to build a home for himself and his family.
Sinclair’s writing style is somewhat dense, some of his characters flat and plot points improbable. But at the same time, it’s interesting and rife with scandals and insights into life in the early twentieth century. Sinclair is an expert at making every misfortune that falls Jurgis and his family personal to the reader, even if we don’t live in the early 1900s.
Parts of this book had me on the edge of my seat, praying for Jurgis’ life right along with him. However, towards the end (after chapter 28 or so), Sinclair deviated from his story of the stockyards and tyrannical packers to talk politics and Socialism. The last few chapters read more like propaganda pamphlets than a novel, and Jurgis actually has very little to do in them besides listen to long political speeches and debates. Up until that point, though, Sinclair kept me interested in every paragraph, and I enjoyed his book.
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
Bilbo Baggins was a hobbit who wanted to be left alone in quiet comfort. But the wizard Gandalf came along with a band of homeless dwarves. Soon Bilbo was drawn into their quest, facing evil orcs, savage wolves, giant spiders, and worse unknown dangers. Finally, it was Bilbo–alone and unaided–who had to confront the great dragon Smaug, the terror of an entire countryside …
I am not completely in love with The Hobbit. I do like it, but it wasn’t what I expected. It’s more a problem of the hype being so great, the book could never live up to it. This may be one of the few instances where the movie is better than the book.
The book was long-winded and a little boring at times. It keeps going long after it could have ended, and I almost didn't want to read anymore. There are definitely adventurous, exciting parts of the book, and they were great, but there was so much filler in between them I nearly fell asleep. Some of them - like killing the dragon - were mentioned only in passing.
Because there are so many characters, there isn't a lot of character development. Bilbo changes through the story, but almost no one else does. There are also no female characters in the entire book.
Middle Earth is complicated, and Tolkien obviously put a lot of effort into his world-building, though. He invented a language, for god's sake! Learning about the different peoples and creatures inhabiting Middle Earth was fascinating and my favorite part of the book.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
With his sublime parting words, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…” Sydney Carton joins that exalted group of Dickensian characters who have earned a permanent place in the popular literary imagination. His dramatic story, set against the volcanic fury of the French Revolution and pervaded by the ominous rumble of the death carts trundling toward the guillotine, is the heart-stirring tale of a heroic soul in an age gone mad.
Just so you know, I’m a little bit timid to post a review of such a classic. So all you Dickens fans, don’t hurt me.
My first impression of Tale was complete and total hatred of it. The first chapters were unbearably slow, and so laced with metaphor and symbolism that I reread them several times. But the book didn’t stay boring at all. Once Doctor Manette is introduced, it’s all uphill. The more you read Dickens, the better you understand him, until his symbolism and foreshadowing, etc, only add to the story. The beginning is slightly painful to get through, only because nothing’s happening. The middle is vaguely interesting, and occasionally quite suspenseful. The end of the book is by far the best part. It’s written wonderfully and emotionally, with both suspense and dramatic irony. The last chapter is the most amazing; the last few pages are written beautifully.
If you can get through Dickens’ slow beginning, you’ll fall in love with A Tale of Two Cities. It takes him a while to get going, but once he does, he’ll leave you crying and smiling and speechless.
Once Upon a Time...
As a longtime lover of stories and a believer in the power and magic of books, I've spent my life seeking out the best reads. This blog is dedicated to reviewing the books I read - good, bad, or magnificent - to help other readers find their next favorite books.