Bridge to Terabitha

img_0492Date Read: May 28 to June 1, 2019

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

Bridge to Terabithia is one of those classic children’s novels that I somehow never read when I was a kid. Even as an adult reading it, I was quickly drawn in to the story. Jess is a boy that feels himself on the fringes of society. He does not quite fit in with his family, and does not quite fit in with the kids at school either. What seems to start off rocky with a new girl at school develops into the most meaningful friendship of his life. Jess finds a refuge in his friendship with Leslie, and their made up world of Terabithia.

While I was able to avoid direct spoilers for this one, I had been forewarned that it was sad and dealt with loss. Even knowing that, this one hit me harder than I was expecting. This is not merely a sad story, it is the kind of sad that I want to tell everyone I know that they need to read this book—but I also do not want to pass this profound sadness on to others. I usually try to avoid major spoilers when writing, but I do not know how I can give this book justice without them. Stop here if you do not want to know. Leslie dies, unexpectedly and tragically. Jess is away, having a “perfect day,” when this happens. The later chapters, as Jess begins to process and accept what has happened, are full of so many things that are difficult but so important.

Stepping away from the book for a moment, I need to talk about Samantha. Samantha was one of my closest friends in high school. She was fun, she was sweet, and she was one of those people that you knew you could always count on to be on your side when you needed her. We created cartoon characters to draw in each other’s notebooks, and talked about all of the things that we would do after high school. I was a few years older, and we started to see less of each other after I graduated. Despite ending up at the same college a few years later, we only saw each other occasionally. Although we were no longer every day friends, each time we saw each other, it was as if no time had passed. She was still my friend that would always be there—until she wasn’t. Samantha died unexpectedly at 22.

I don’t know if it’s fair to generalize the loss of a friend as a young adult to the loss of a friend as a child—but I do know that many of the actions, thoughts, and feelings of Jess after losing Leslie reflected my own experience. Paterson perfectly captures the essence of a great loss, and Jess’s reaction to his loss is so genuine that I grieved for him as well as Leslie. Every new piece hit home for me, starting from the initial shock and unreality, the sorrow of the loss itself, and then adding on secondary pain caused by the reactions of others, or even your own thoughts.

In the end, Jess does begin to see hope in a future without Leslie—while he misses her terribly, he recognizes the impact that she made on him, and uses that to move forward. I still think about Samantha often. I cannot say what path our friendship would have taken if she were still here, but I can say with certainty that I am fortunate to have known her. There are bits of her in many of the things that I do and think every day. I remember a gift she gave me for my birthday one year—a necklace and a pair of flashy earrings that I had admired at the store, but decided not to buy. She told me she knew I thought they were impractical, but that I needed them: it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks if I like them, and there’s never a good excuse not to wear hot pink. What an attitude to have.

Boris’s thoughts: “I think I would have liked her. 4 paws.”

Girl with a Pearl Earring

img_0339Date Read: May 1 to May 27, 2019

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

This book was my pick for May’s Unread Shelf Project prompt: bought because of the adaptation. I was not exactly sure how I should define this one, so I looked through my to read list for books that had adaptations. Generally speaking, I like to pair book and movie adaptations. If I see a movie I like and find out there is a book, I add it to my list; similarly, I usually make a point to see movies based on books that I’ve read. This was one that has been on my list the longest: I found out this was a book while renting the movie shortly after it came out in 2003. I purchased it for my kindle a few years later, but never seemed to get around to reading it for some reason.

I like the idea behind the novel: historical fiction meant to touch on the mystery of a painting. The painting itself is intriguing, and coupling that with a background that is generally unknown makes this a perfect subject matter. The writing was excellent, and I found Griet’s perspective interesting. However, despite enjoying the book, I felt the plot was a bit lackluster. Not much happens, there is very little character development, and while the mystery of the painting source is solved, we still do not get much of a picture of the artist.

Griet’s experience is treated as scandalous, but it is hardly that. She is merely trapped into the drama of a higher class that is unable to take blame for their own actions. With the whole novel being from her perspective, it’s difficult to say whether the intimacy she describes is truly present. Of course, I imagine that there must be some level of intimacy reached between painter and subject, but Griet perhaps exaggerates it, or simply wishes it to be something deeper. There is no doubt from her words that she has feelings for the painter, but there is nothing in his actions that really suggests he sees her as anything more than an assistant and model. Griet seems to find some resolution in her reflections on that time after Vermeer’s death, but then this is thrown into confusion and further mystery with the revelation of the letter and Vermeer’s request for the return of the painting.

Despite some issues with the plot, I did enjoy the artistic aspects included: Griet’s descriptions of the paintings to her father, the references throughout the book to other works by Vermeer. More than once I was drawn to seek out the paintings described. I also really enjoyed the discussion of color, including the actual making of colors for the painting and Griet’s discovery of color as something deeper than she imagined.

Boris’s thoughts: “Sounds a bit like a snoozer. I like snoozing. 3 paws.”

The Immortalists

img_0238Date Read: April 16 to April 29, 2019

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

Would you want to know the day that you are going to die? This story is built around a fairly simple premise, but unwinds into an intricate and complex tale of family and relationships. As children, four siblings, Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon, visit a woman that people say can tell your future—specifically the day that you will die. Over the course of the novel, the following 40-ish years, we get to know each of the siblings a bit better in their own rite, as well as in relation to their family.

While reading, I loved and hated each one of the siblings. I adored their individuality, I cursed their faults, and I grieved each of their subsequent deaths. There were so many points that I could not put it down, even when I had a sinking feeling of what was coming. The story of each sibling is vibrant and emotional; despite the huge differences in how they chose to live in the time they were told they had remaining. The obvious discussion, which is even mentioned on the back cover, is the intertwining of fate and choice. Would Simon have lived so recklessly if he had not anticipated dying young– would he have lived longer if he had played it safe? How did knowledge of a death date play into Klara’s obvious mental illness, and would she have met the same end without it? Even Daniel, who claims to not believe the prophecy, is driven by the knowledge to actions that seem spectacularly out of character. While there could certainly be much said here, I thought the sibling relationship aspect was even more interesting, in the context of the impending dates.

After each death, we get a glimpse of that character from the view of the next, with trails of these through each sibling’s story. In each case, the surviving siblings carry with them some perceived responsibility for those before them. Is Klara responsible for Simon because she encouraged him to live his life? Is Daniel responsible for any of this by convincing his siblings to see the woman in the first place? What about Varya, who was oldest and should have known to put a stop to it? In her meeting with the woman, Varya asks, “what if I change?” Was her destiny determined before she asked, or was it the knowledge of her death date that changed her?

As expected, the novel overwhelmingly centers on death. However, it is also full of life—the richness of each story is intriguing and compelling. I loved the ending, which I thought contrasted with the first sections, but fit perfectly in the context of the full story. In a novel about death, we end on a note of life and hope for the future.

Boris’s thoughts: “After all of that… no, I don’t think I want to know the day I will die. I would, however, like to take a nap. 2 paws.”

The Remains of the Day

img_0221Date Read: March 18 to April 16, 2019

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

Although it took me a painfully long time to get through this one, I actually quite enjoyed it. The story unfolds slowly, with the past and present interspersed. The narrative is a sort of stream of consciousness, a trail through present circumstances and reflections on the past as our narrator, Stevens, drives himself through the countryside. It is beautifully written, and the style was striking to me– the type of mind wandering is very much like the train of thought that I often find myself in when driving alone for a length of time.

Stevens is intriguing as a narrator, in that he is both extremely reliable, and completely unreliable. He recounts events themselves with extreme precision, but with no acknowledgment of emotion. He talks at length of dignity, but never truly defines it for himself. His definition, it seems, is that dignity means detachment. He separates himself from reality, making himself into what he believes his employer wants him to be. As he gets closer to his meeting with Miss Kenton, we start to see some small cracks in this shell. Although he does not yet admit it, he denies his connection to his former employer. While he will defend Lord Darlington to readers, he will not do so publicly. He begins to admit that perhaps he was misleading himself to believe Miss Kenton wants to return to Darlington Hall with him.

The ending we get is both tragic and hopeful. While his reunion with Miss Kenton is heartbreaking (he even admits this himself!), he seems to get some closure he was lacking. At that moment, Stevens becomes a bit more understandable as a character. His conversation with a stranger on the pier gives us a little hope for his future– perhaps he will seize upon the remains of his day, even if it is simply in his mastering of bantering with his new employer.

Boris’s thoughts: “You need to start reading some happier books. 2 paws.”

Brave New World

img_9303Date Read: March 3 to 18, 2019

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

Third time is the charm, so to speak. After starting this book on two other occasions, I finally made it all the way through!

I had a bit of difficulty with March’s prompt from The Unread Shelf Project: the book that has been on your shelf the longest. Here’s the thing– I have about 60 books that have been on my shelf the longest (the books that I added within the first two days of starting my Goodreads account 8 years ago). Part of the reason that I chose this one over the others is that I had started it before, but never made it very far in. A friend of mine also lists this as one of her favorites, so I thought it would be worth powering through! (It was.)

I am not sure that you can get more “classic dystopia” than Brave New World. While I think we can all agree why the society is problematic from any viewpoint, there is an interesting balance struck. Society is functional, as it balances productivity with consumption, and meets human needs on a very basic level (really, what more do we need than food, sex, and entertainment?). To top it off, everyone is trained from birth to know what they want and to be happy with their place.

While I was not really crazy about the writing style (a bit dry, matter of fact, like I would expect in a textbook), I did like the way that the society was initially set up for us. We get a basis of how the society is built by its introduction to the students touring the hatchery, and then the details are filled in from three perspectives: Lenina, who is wholly satisfied in this world; Bernard, who knows enough to be critical, but is content enough to do little more than push boundaries; and finally the Savage, a complete outsider who is horrified by what he sees happening around him.

One other piece to this that I found interesting, is that this is a problematic society that recognizes that it is problematic. Those at the top realize the monotony of life for the individual, but choose to maintain it as is. Being “in the know” gives them to freedom to think and even criticize society, but this must be kept secret from the masses. This puts quite a spin on the punishment of being transferred to an island– the islands are the only place where people can live and think freely! Even the Director admits at the end, it would be a sort of unknown luxury to live on an island. Perhaps I should see about being transferred to Iceland.

Boris’s thoughts: “Any society that does not include CATS is not worth considering. 1 paw.”

Station Eleven

img_9223Date Read: February 15 to 23, 2019

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

From the beginning, I was completely enthralled by this book. I have read a fair share of dystopian fiction, but this had a different feel to it that I immediately loved. Rather than a long view into the future, we enter the new world just 20 years from the world as we know it. I love that we get to see the before, after, and during the fall of civilization. The mix of characters in the Traveling Symphony adds another interesting aspect– we have a group varied enough in age that there are those who were adults and children at the time of the fall, and then also a few characters who have known no other world than their present.

While the plot is not exactly full of action, it was gripping enough that I constantly wanted to find out what was going to happen next. There is a bit of perspective jumping, which I sometimes find annoying as a reader, but was done very well in this case. As I mentioned, there are three different timelines running through the book– before, after, and during the outbreak of an epidemic illness. In addition, there are several characters that carry over from each of these time periods, each with somewhat overlapping narratives. Each time the perspective or time changed, I found myself feeling two things: disappointed to be leaving the current perspective, but excited to find out what the next character had been up to while I had been otherwise occupied.

One thing that I personally found interesting here was the setting– in particular the geography. A fair amount of time is spent describing the route taken by the Traveling Symphony, including the names of cities that we recognize, as well as a few “new” cities that were recreated after the collapse. I loved that there were some concrete locations that I know for certain, and just enough clues to piece together a real picture of the area that they are traveling. I admit I may be a bit biased– I am fairly convinced that much of the action in the “after” portion of the novel occurs right in my own backyard (so to speak). Based on the information included, I am quite certain that the “Severn City” mentioned as a destination must be Grand Rapids, MI. It’s not an exact fit, but too close to be anything else either.

Moving a bit away from the actual story, while I was reading this book I also heard a new song on the radio, and the two will now forever be linked in my mind: Come Along by Cosmo Sheldrake (you can hear it here). Something about the style and story of the song fits so well with Station Eleven. Even though they are certainly a more classical group, I can imagine the Traveling Symphony playing and sing as they move from town to town. Of course, it is not an exact fit (much less of a fit than my conclusions on geography), but something about this link just seems right to me. Each time I heard it on the radio, it made me want to rush home to read a bit more!

Boris’s thoughts: “This all sounds rather complicated. I’m glad you enjoyed it though. 3 paws.”

Cannery Row

img_8918Date Read: January 20 to February 2, 2019

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

Cannery Row is not so much a novel, as a capturing of a moment in time. Light on plot, but heavy in description, it features dozens of characters that each play a part (however small) in the central story. Although there’s a long and winding road to get there, the main story centers on the planning of a party for Doc, orchestrated by Mack and the boys, a group of homeless men who have taken over an old warehouse. Their initial plan is ill conceived and leads to minor disaster, but eventually circles around through the community for a happier ending.

Taking place in a relatively quiet California coastal town during the Great Depression, the story is told through a series of vignettes of various length. There are some clearly driving the plot, and others that link to the main story in ways that are not obvious as you are reading. The style gives the book a inextricable feeling of community. The small details of each moment, the strings of each life in Monterey interwoven.

Part of what is interesting to me, is that each character seems to know their place and their part in the scheme of their own world. Most are destitute, but content where they are. Mack and the boys certainly know what they need to do to improve their situation, but are content to get by with life as it is. They have a roof over their heads, the little dog Darling to care for, and just enough niceties to make the Palace Flophouse home. Another character I found interesting was the woman who loves to throw parties, but cannot afford to actually put on a party herself. When she’s not able to help in planning for others, she contents herself with tea parties with the neighborhood cats. Well, why not?

Boris’s thoughts: “I am concerned with the collecting of cats for Doc… but would really enjoy a tea party, so I’ll even it out: 2 paws.”