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 Help by Kathryn Stockett
Aibileen is a black maid in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, raising her seventeenth white child. She's always taken orders quietly, but lately it leaves her with a bitterness she can no longer bite back. Her friend Minny had certainly never held her tongue, or held onto a job for very long, but now she's working for a newcomer with secrets that leave her speechless. And white socialite Skeeter has just returned from college with ambition and a degree, but, to her mother's lament, no husband. Normally Skeeter would find solace in Constantine, the beloved maid who raised her, but Constantine has inexplicably disappeared.
Together, these seemingly different women join to write, in secret, a tell-all book about what it's really like to work as a black maid in the white homes of the South. Despite the terrible risks they will have to take, and the boundaries they will have to cross, these three women unite with one intention: hope for a better day.
I don't know where to start.
I loved everything about The Help. Reading it feels like time-travelling back to Jackson, Mississippi, circa 1962 - 1964. Stockett's attention to detail is impressive, especially when it comes to the interactions between characters. The subtleties in the way Hilly, Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny talk to each other showcase the racial tensions of the early 1960s vividly. Stockett doesn't gloss over her subject. She tells the good, the bad, and the ugly - which is entirely the point of The Help. She doesn't try to cast the white women in a positive light, just an accurate one. The relationships between the maids and their employers; the maids and the children they take care of; and the maids and Skeeter are complicated - sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter.
All of the characters are complicated and dynamic, too. The three narrators are easy to sympathize with for a plethora of reasons. Their stories are very different, but each one is full of heartbreak, humor, and courage. Each woman has a distinctive voice and a lot of personality. Stockett presents their stories as sympathetic but not pitiful; the narrators don't complain about their situation, they just tell the truth of it. I especially love that Skeeter isn't portrayed as a saint. She doesn't escape the influence of racism, and it's obvious that she has to go back on what she was taught and overcome it. It was touching, to see her making that effort.
A teacher once told me that the reason we learn about history is so that we don't make the same mistakes out ancestors did. Jim Crow is a mistake I hope we never repeat. Reading about the lives of Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter was like stepping into a different world for me, but many of its lessons are still relevant today. The Help is fiction, but it isn't false, and that's what makes it so important. NPR called it "one of the most important pieces of fiction since To Kill a Mockingbird," and I have to agree. The Help is a heartfelt, wonderfully written book that leaves an impression even after the final page has been turned.
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.
Conversion by Katherine Howe
(Available July 1, 2014)
It’s senior year at St. Joan’s Academy, and school is a pressure cooker. College applications, the battle for valedictorian, deciphering boys’ texts: Through it all, Colleen Rowley and her friends are expected to keep it together. Until they can’t.
First it’s the school’s queen bee, Clara Rutherford, who suddenly falls into uncontrollable tics in the middle of class. Her mystery illness quickly spreads to her closest clique of friends, then more students and symptoms follow: seizures, hair loss, violent coughing fits. St. Joan’s buzzes with rumor; rumor blossoms into full-blown panic.
Soon the media descends on Danvers, Massachusetts, as everyone scrambles to find something, or someone, to blame. Pollution? Stress? Or are the girls faking? Only Colleen—who’s been reading The Crucible for extra credit—comes to realize what nobody else has: Danvers was once Salem Village, where another group of girls suffered from a similarly bizarre epidemic three centuries ago . . .
I read Conversion with three black cats on my lap, feeling very witchy (even though cats don't really have anything to do with witches traditionally), reluctant to put it down for more than five minutes at a time. I was completely and totally absorbed in Howe's book. What first piqued my interest was the Mystery Illness, and Howe delivered all the tension, unease, and fear you'd expect to find in a book about an epidemic. But Howe also incorporated Ann Putnam's account of the events at Salem in 1692, with the same elements. Colleen's place in the middle of an epidemic and Ann Putnam's place of power in the Salem Witch Trials paralleled each other in a lot of ways, so that even when they weren't directly related to each other, they were connected. There was a great deal of subtlety in Conversion, from the implied causes of the outbreak and the way the girls' relationships progressed to the way Howe incorporated a piece of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. (I grinned like an idiot when Connie showed up. No shame).
Even though the Salem Witch Trials happened over 300 years ago and a mystery illness like the one that befalls St. Joan's seems too strange to be true, Howe writes them realistically. I can't begin to imagine the hours of research it must have taken to get Ann's story down, or to follow the progression of the Le Roy Mystery Illness of 2012 (which Colleen's story is based off of). My hat is off to Howe for that. She even managed to create a fairly accurate portrait of high school, which is damn near impossible. To be fair, not every little detail was spot-on realistic - Howe definitely added some flair to Colleen's story to make it even creepier - but even the more outlandish bits felt plausible.
The atmosphere of Conversion practically earns a star all on its own. I got shivers up my spine reading it. Colleen's story freaked me out because an unknown "illness" was infecting a bunch of people with no known cause and that's just a bit scary. Ann's story was creepy more because there wasn't any illness, just a whole load of lies that led to hysteria and paranoia and 20 deaths. A lot of stories about the Salem Witch Trials are told from the point of view of an outsider or an accused woman; it was interesting and a little freaky to hear Ann Putnam's version of events. I was hoping Conversion would be a little eerie, and it was.
I loved the diversity of the characters in Conversion, from their personalities to their backgrounds. Both the modern and historical casts were developed (some more than others, of course) and helped to drive the story. A few times their interactions became a bit cheesy, but to be honest high school is pretty cheesy, and I'm no holding it against anyone.
Definitely, definitely read Conversion if you like creepy-but-not-scary books or have any interest in either the Salem Witch Trials or the Le Roy Mystery Illness. It would also make a great book club read; there's plenty of things to discuss. Conversion was a very well put-together book, and it's made me a fan of Katherine Howe's. I want to see what else she can do.
Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman
In 1930s Munich, danger lurks behind dark corners, and secrets are buried deep within the city. But Gretchen Müller, who grew up in the National Socialist Party under the wing of her "uncle" Dolf, has been shielded from that side of society ever since her father traded his life for Dolf's, and Gretchen is his favorite, his pet.
Uncle Dolf is none other than Adolf Hitler. And Gretchen follows his every command.
Until she meets a fearless and handsome young Jewish reporter named Daniel Cohen. Gretchen should despise Daniel, yet she can't stop herself from listening to his story: that her father, the adored Nazi martyr, was actually murdered by an unknown comrade. She also can't help the fierce attraction brewing between them, despite everything she's been taught to believe about Jews.
As Gretchen investigates the very people she's always considered friends, she must decide where her loyalties lie. Will she choose the safety of her former life as a Nazi darling, or will she dare to dig up the truth—even if it could get her and Daniel killed?
My heart is still pounding from reading Prisoner of Night and Fog. The last 200 pages of the book are non-stop suspense and action scenes. The book starts off much slower, as Gretchen searches for answers regarding her father's death and the lies her Uncle Dolf has been feeding her for her entire life. Blankman does not excel at writing mystery; half the time Gretchen would talk to a witness, who would tell her something she already knew or had figured out, and then treat it as a huge revelation. Since the majority of the book revolves around her father's death and supposed martyrdom, a good portion of the book was kind of annoying to read. Not that the murder mystery wasn't interesting, it was, it just wasn't presented very well. Blankman repeated herself too many times; if you want an example, look on pages 119 and 261; almost an entire paragraph is repeated (I won't type it here because of spoilers).
If I disliked the beginning so much, why in the world would I give Prisoner of Night and Fog four stars? Because even though the mystery wasn't amazing, the writing was solid and everything else going on was marvelous. Most books about Hitler's Germany take place during WWII, and feature Hitler as a distant, cruel power. In Blankman's book, Hitler is featured as a character with much more depth - and it's terrifying. Blankman resurrects Hitler through her story, showing him not as a figure in a textbook but as an ordinary human. Just, you know, an ordinary human who manipulated his country into killing millions of Jewish people and feeling righteous about it. The parallels between Hitler and Gretchen's brother, Reinhard, were frightening and added even more depth. It was both interesting and horrifying to read about Hitler's rise to power, and Blankman depicts pre-WWII Germany without sparing any greusome details.
Besides the unique aspect of having Hitler as a character, Prisoner of Night and Fog also has the best case of character development I've read recently. At first, I couldn't really connect with Gretchen - not while she was talking about the "Jewish infection". As she changed throughout the book, I found myself liking her more and more. The way she transformed from the brainwashed Nazi sweetheart into a kind girl who could think for herself was exceptionally realistic. So was the relationship between her and Daniel; strained at first and eventually loving and unmarred by hate. I really loved that bit.
The book, like Gretchen, got better as the story progressed. If you're willing to stick with it through a bit of a slow beginning, Prisoner of Night and Fog is an excellent read. One of the blurbs on the back cover mentions a sequel, but it could easily be a stand-alone if you don't want to start a series. I highly recommend this book for fans of the WWII genre, historical fiction, and anyone looking for a thrilling summer read.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin needs to spend her summer doing research for her doctoral dissertation. But when her mother asks her to handle the sale of Connie's grandmother's abandoned home near Salem, she can't refuse. As she is drawn deeper into the mysteries of the family house, Connie discovers the story of Deliverance Dane. This discovery launches Connie on a quest--to find out who this woman was and to unearth a rare artifact of singular power: a physick book, its pages a secret repository for lost knowledge.
This book was not "spooky" or "bedeviling." It was, however, an awesome piece of historical fiction. The interludes featuring Deliverance and her ancestors were the most interesting parts of the story. Unfortunately, Connie's end of the story didn't quite keep up. It wasn't boring so much as drawn out. Towards the end of the book, Connie's story was just as interesting as Deliverance's, although the two were very different. The historic parts of the book were fascinating because of the light they shed on the Salem Witch Trials and what it was like for the accused women. Connie's story was more academic, but the love story was sweet.
The biggest reason Connie's story didn't interest me as much as Deliverance's is the book's extremely long exposition. Two thirds of the book, at least, are mainly exposition, detailing Connie's search for the physick book. It was interesting, peppered with historical facts with a good amount of research behind them. But a description of a scholarly hunt for a historical book should not take up over 200 pages. Again, however, once Connie's story picked up, it was really very good. It just took a while to get there.
I have a couple other little problems with The Physick Book, but nothing else major. Howe uses the suspense technique of keeping her character from realizing something excruciatingly obvious, which annoys me to no end. And I found some of her generalizations about New Englanders, "Yankees," a bit untrue. But I must admit that Howe is a talented writer, even if she draws her story out a bit too long.
Despite being a realistic, thought-provoking piece of historical fiction, I can only give this book three stars. After all, the actual historical fiction chapters make up less than a third of the book, and their contemporary counterparts don't quite match them in quality. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is a book I would recommend to anyone interested in the Salem Witch Trials or America's occult history, because Howe does a very good job with that material. I would not recommend it to anyone looking for a book about magic, spells, and Harry Potter-like things.
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
It is 1875, and Ann Eliza Young has recently separated from her powerful husband, Brigham Young, prophet and leader of the Mormon Church. Expelled and an outcast, Ann Eliza embarks on a crusade to end polygamy in the United States. A rich account of her family’s polygamous history is revealed, including how both she and her mother became plural wives. Yet soon after Ann Eliza’s story begins, a second exquisite narrative unfolds–a tale of murder involving a polygamist family in present-day Utah. Jordan Scott, a young man who was thrown out of his fundamentalist sect years earlier, must reenter the world that cast him aside in order to discover the truth behind his father’s death. And as Ann Eliza’s narrative intertwines with that of Jordan’s search, readers are pulled deeper into the mysteries of love, family, and faith.
I was born in Salt Lake City, where almost all of our neighbors were Mormons and sacred underwear hung on the laundry lines. We left when I was still a baby, so I don't remember living there, but my mom's stories about the city and her Mormon friends always interested me. And of course the scandalous history of polygamy was a draw to Ebershoff's book.
The 19th Wife is centered mainly around polygamy (which is a fascinating topic itself), but it also recounts the beginning of the LDS Church and their evolution. Ann Eliza's story is a mixture of praise for the church and scorn for it. Her story offered a really cool look at the beginnings of a religion and life in a theocracy. Jordan's story allows readers a glimpse at modern-day cult life as he revisits the Firsts of Mesadale. The practices of both the early Mormons and the Firsts are controversial today, but Ebershoff points out the flaws in their belief systems without condemning the Mormons.
Both Ann Eliza and Jordan's stories are both well researched, though I'm not sure which of the historical documents included (if any) are real and which are fabricated. Either way, the variety of texts, from letters to diaries to interviews, creates a many-sided and cunningly interwoven story. Jordan's story and Ann Eliza's go together well, combining the historical fiction and mystery dramas. They are both fantastically paced for the most part, although the book begins to drag towards the end. The romance in Jordan's part of the book also felt a little bit forced, but that and a few slow spots were the only major flaws I found.
Right about now you're probably wondering why I read this book when it says right in my Policy that I don't read religious titles as a rule. And here's the reason - Ebershoff manages to write about religion and characters who are extremely devout without shoving the religion's values down your throat. The sermons included in The 19th Wife serve as background to the story, not as incentive to join the Latter-Day Saints. The 19th Wife is more about education than indoctrination, which suits me just fine.
The 19th Wife appeals to many audiences, and it should be equally fascinating to all of them. If you're looking for a historical epic, this is your book. If you want a book with a little murder, mystery, and Mormons, this is your book.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Orphaned and penniless, Jacob Jankowski jumps a freight train in the dark, and in that instant, transforms his future. By morning, he's landed a job with the Flying Squadron of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. By nightfall, he's in love.
In an America made colorless by Prohibition and the Depression, the circus is a refuge of sequins and sensuality. But behind the glamour lies a darker world, where both animals and men are dispensable. Where falling in love is the most dangerous act of all...
Every little kid dreams of running away with the circus at one time or another - and when they do, they undoubtedly envision the canvas-tent circuses that traveled by train. Those circuses always seem more intriguing and exciting than the ones showing in TD Garden.* In Water for Elephants, Gruen revives those long-lost circuses and the performers
Gruen's book is set amid both the grandeur of old-time circuses and the desperation of the Great Depression. The vibrant, dazzling circus acts contrast with the corrupt and dangerous events behind the scenes. The setting draws you in with its combination of historical facts and immersive details, complimented by characters who are just as richly imagined.
The power of Jacob's story comes from both the realness of its setting and the impressive characters Jacob encounters. Every character has several sides to them, ulterior motives and very real emotions. Readers connect with both human and animal characters easily, and no one will be able to resist falling in love with Rosie.
Reading Water for Elephants, it's easy to forget that the characters don't exist off the pages. I found myself wrapped up in the drama and strange politics of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth and couldn't help caring about the outcome of the story. Told from the perspectives of both young and old Jacob, the story contains several layers. A balance of romance, action, suspense, and insight into Depression-era circus life keeps the story interesting and riveting. Although several scenes are somewhat sexually explicit, the book is overall tasteful. The love story in Water for Elephants compliments the plot nicely and is well developed. Fans of suspense, historical fiction, and good books will relish Water for Elephants.
*For those who don't know, TD Garden is a large arena used for basketball games, concerts, and special events in Boston.
Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick
Based on the true story of Cambodian advocate Arn Chorn-Pond, who defied the odds to survive the Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979 and the labor camps of the Khmer Rouge.
When soldiers arrive in his hometown, Arn is just a normal little boy. But after the soldiers march the entire population into the countryside, his life is changed forever.
Arn is separated from his family and assigned to a labor camp: working in the rice paddies under a blazing sun, he sees the other children dying before his eyes. One day, the soldiers ask if any of the kids can play an instrument. Arn's never played a note in his life, but he volunteers.
This decision will save his life, but it will pull him into the very center of what we know today as the Killing Fields. And just as the country is about to be liberated, Arn is handed a gun and forced to become a soldier.
Until I picked up this book, I had never heard of the Khmer Rouge. The thought that such awful events - the murder and imprisonment of an entire people - has been overlooked by history is almost criminal. This is a book that everyone should read. Not only is it written extremely well, but it tells an incredibly important story. McCormick's decision to use improper grammar and syntax only strengthens Arn's voice and the impact of the story. Never Fall Down captures the suffering of a nation with a voice of innocence.
We read about history to learn from it, to see its mistakes. One of the reasons I love historical fiction so much is that it teaches about the past so much better than a textbook. Textbooks are factual and apathetic, while books carry empathy. McCormick captures the emotions of a child soldier so vividly with Never Fall Down that it was nearly impossible not to cry, reading this.
There were so many times during this book that I wanted to pull him out of the pages and into safety. A story like Arn's is unforgettable. I am horrified at my own ignorance of the Khmer Rouge, which only goes to show how important it is that stories like Arn's are told. McCormick does a remarkable job telling it, and I strongly urge you to read this book.
Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys
It's 1950, and as the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer. She devises a plan get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street.
Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test.
New Orleans is pretty high up on my list of places to travel to, despite the stories of dirt and crime in the city. Josie's New Orleans isn't without dirt and crime of its own, but it has a charming side, too - surprisingly found in a brothel. Sepetys describes the setting well, but the book's real strength lies in its characters.
The characters in this book are downright brilliant. First off, you have the prostitutes. Sepetys doesn't write them as simple, sex-minded women; they're funny, loving, and most definitely not cookie-cutter. The brothel madam, Willie, is just as uniquely imagined. Instead of fitting the stereotype of a cruel and unfeeling boss, Willie is both tough as nails and sweet as pie, acting as a mother figure to Josie. The cast of colorful characters continues, from Sadie, the mute maid, to Cokie, the lovable cab driver, to Josie herself. Josie is my favorite part of this whole book. She's realistically flawed and absolutely lovely, the perfect heroine for a book like Out of the Easy.
The book doesn't have one central plot line, instead, it has a jumble of stories that make up Josie's life. Because of that, it feels much more realistic than a lot of books that focus on just one thing, but it also isn't what a lot of readers would be expecting. From Josie's longing to go to college and escape the Big Easy, to her horrendous mother's troubles with the mob, and a few other plot lines, there's a lot going on in Out of the Easy. Sepetys does a great job of keeping the numerous plots from overwhelming readers. Usual a book with as many plot lines as this would be too all-over-the-place, but in Out of the Easy, it takes the attention of the events and puts it on the characters. More than anything, Out of the Easy is about Josie, and because she's such a great character, it works really well.
The moment I saw that Ruta Sepetys was the author of this book, I knew it was going to be good. The same raw emotion and subtle but powerful prose from Between Shades of Gray is part of Out of the Easy, and although the two books are about very different subjects, they both leave a lasting impression on readers. Those who love historical fiction will devour Sepetys' books, and anyone on the fence about the genre will love it after reading her work.
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.