Hello, little autumn leaves. This month, I come to you short. That is to say, I read almost nothing in October. Months prior, I had all these dreams of diving into all my spooky books I’ve been saving. Yet I simply had neither time nor interest to devote to reading. October should be forthwith known as “The Big Reading Slump 2k15.” I’m starting to feel that it has a lot to do with this reading challenge list. As much as it pains me to consider it, I’m considering throwing in the towel. You see, I’ve discovered that I don’t do well following a list. I am a freeform reader; my mood and tastes change on a dime. Being forced to stick to certain books (or to add books to my TBR simply because the list warrants it) is kind of a bummer. That’s decided, then–no more reading challenge. Till the end of the year, I’m going to read exactly what I want.
So, here’s what I read in October.
Guests on Earth by Lee Smith
This was the second book I had to read for my Southern Literature course. Immediately it was like a breath of fresh air, because it wasn’t Faulkner. Yay! This is the story of a young woman named Evalina who is admitted to Highland Hospital (a mental institution) after her mother’s death. The book takes us through her early years living with her mother in New Orleans to her life at Highland, and her encounters with a variety of colorful people in between–one of those people being the famous Zelda Fitzgerald.
This is a very “book club” book. By that I mean I can picture this book being discussed by a group of middle-aged women over watercress sandwiches. If I were in a book club, this isn’t the type of book I’d bring for discussion. I feel like the story sets itself up for this big climax, but rather than hitting that high peak, the story kind of flat-lines. This really isn’t a spoiler because it’s mentioned on the very first page: Highland Hospital catches fire and kills nine women, Zelda Fitzgerald included. I feel if that hadn’t been mentioned at the very start of the story, the climax would have been more effective. I liked the writing style of the story, and many of the characters were very entertaining and three-dimensional. But this just isn’t my type of book, and it’s not something I would have picked up on my own. Two stars.
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
This was another novel I had to read for Southern Literature. I use “had to” in the loosest sense possible, because this is the best book we’ve had to read so far. It’s the story of a black schoolteacher in late 40s Louisiana who is commissioned to give “a lesson before dying” to a black man named Jefferson, who was given the death penalty. The main character, Grant, tries to impart to Jefferson a sense of pride before he is executed, and struggles with the gravity of the situation as the execution date draws nearer.
I found A Lesson Before Dying poignant and sorrowful at times, but not throughout. It draws on themes of racism, friendship, religion, and societal expectations. Gaines does a great job illustrating these themes with emotion and intelligence, but I didn’t find that the entire story represented this. To be honest, the best part of the book is the last third (holy cow, the tears). I don’t really have anything negative to say about the book, but it wasn’t a five-star one for me. I didn’t find myself totally hooked throughout, but when it was good, it was quite good. I think it’s definitely worth a read for those interested in African-American literature, but I can’t say it’ll be in my “best of 2015” list. Three stars.
A book with nonhuman characters: Watership Down by Richard Adams
Oh, man. I was NOT prepared for this. Okay, deep breaths. This is a book about rabbits. I beg of you, please don’t brush this one off because it’s about rabbits. Watership Down is nothing short of epic. It is the story of a group of rabbits driven out of their home by a premonition of violence, and their journey to reestablish themselves elsewhere. Much of the story is the rabbits (with names like Hazel, Acorn, Bluebell, and Pipkin) settling in Watership Down. By the way, a down is another word for a hill, and it has nothing to do with ships. Much of the conflict in the story comes from the Watership Down rabbits being threatened and attacked by an opposing warren called Efrafa.
I really, really enjoyed this book. It takes everything you love from the adventure, fantasy, and folktale genres and combines them into a spectacular mash-up. The writing is some of the very best; it reminds me of Tolkien with its whimsy and infectious charm. The characters are charming as well; you have steadfast Hazel, gruff yet softhearted Bigwig, jokey Bluebell, and countless others. There are quite a lot of characters in this book, yet I never found myself getting lost in them. In fact, I loved all of them! There are also quite a few spots in which I teared up (and subsequently thought to myself, I’m crying over rabbits…). The long and short of it is that this is a book everyone should read. I could see this being a great book for someone just starting out with the fantasy genre. Four stars.
What did you read in October? I’d love to hear it.