Books

KILLING LINCOLN by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard | Review

10587120The anchor of The O’Reilly Factor recounts one of the most dramatic stories in American history—how one gunshot changed the country forever. In the spring of 1865, the bloody saga of America’s Civil War finally comes to an end after a series of increasingly harrowing battles. President Abraham Lincoln’s generous terms for Robert E. Lee’s surrender are devised to fulfill Lincoln’s dream of healing a divided nation, with the former Confederates allowed to reintegrate into American society. But one man and his band of murderous accomplices, perhaps reaching into the highest ranks of the U.S. government, are not appeased.”

{Goodreads.com}

Where/when did I read this book?: I listened to this audio book in the car on my hour commute to work this past winter break.

Why did I read this book?: My friend recently listened to this audio book and wanted to know my thoughts on it.

+ Writing style. I’m actually a bit conflicted about the writing style, but I figured I would highlight the positive aspects of it before explaining why it didn’t 100 percent work for me. Before the actual meat of this book begins, Bill O’Reilly explains that it is written like a thriller. What does a non-fiction book written in the style of a thriller look like? Present tense. Detailed imagery. Short chapters. Intense suspense. In this way, Killing Lincoln is unlike any non-fiction history book I’ve read before. The advantage of such an interesting writing style for this blended genre is that it makes for an incredibly engaging, gripping read. This is definitely a great book to pick up if you want to get more into history or non-fiction in general.

+ Details. I thought I was fairly familiar with the events surrounding the assassination of Lincoln before reading this book, but afterwards I realized that I had only known the basic details of what actually happened. I really enjoyed learning about all the details leading up to the assassination as well as the chaos of the aftermath. I also appreciate the attention given to the women involved in this event (although some of the descriptions of women were slightly problematic…). It’s interesting to read about the simultaneous timelines of Lincoln, Grant, Booth, and other people involved rather than just focusing on one perspective the entire time.

– Writing style. Unfortunately the writing style was a bit of a double-edged sword for me. While writing this book as if it were a novel certainly makes it more engaging and entertaining, I feel as though it also makes the information less credible. How can O’Reilly possibly know all of these tiny details about time, the weather, and people’s innermost thoughts? Reality isn’t a thriller novel, but O’Reilly certainly makes it appear otherwise. At times the sheer amount of rather irrelevant details was almost distracting. I don’t need to know that someone was “backlit by the sun” as they rode into battle–just tell me how Lincoln was assassinated!

– Pacing. Another frustrating aspect of this book was its rather slow pace. While providing several different perspectives on events makes the book more suspenseful, after a while it also makes the pacing feel incredibly slow. It doesn’t help that the first hour and a half or so of this audio book was just about Civil War battles with very little mention of Lincoln. Although this is useful background information to have, it definitely could have been summarized more briefly so that the actual plot of the book–the events leading up to Lincoln’s assassination–could finally start.

Killing Lincoln is certainly an interesting reading experience: I don’t think I’ve ever been so intrigued by the writing style of a nonfiction history book before. With that said, I have to say that I do prefer the more traditional ways of writing about these events. However, I would be interested in reading another of Bill O’Reilly’s books to see if this “thriller” style of writing history works better in the context of a different historical event.

What are your thoughts on Killing Lincoln? Which Bill O’Reilly book would you recommend that I read next? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

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Books

FIRST FAMILY by Joseph J. Ellis | Review

“The Pulitzer Prize-winning, best-selling author of “Founding Brothers” and “His Excellency “brings America’s preeminent first couple to life in a moving and illuminating narrative that sweeps through the American Revolution and the republic’s tenuous early years. John and Abigail Adams left an indelible and remarkably preserved portrait of their lives together in their personal correspondence: both Adamses were prolific letter writers (although John conceded that Abigail was clearly the more gifted of the two), and over the years they exchanged more than twelve hundred letters. Joseph J. Ellis distills this unprecedented and unsurpassed record to give us an account both intimate and panoramic; part biography, part political history, and part love story.”

{Goodreads.com} 

When/where did I read this book? I listened to the audio book version of this book while commuting to work an hour each way. Since the audiobook is about eleven hours long, it took me about a week.

Why did I read this book? I’ve always been interested in Abigail Adams, but it can be tricky to find whole books written about women in history like that. When I saw that Ellis–one of my favorite historians–had written a book about the Adams marriage, I knew that I had to read it!

+ Focuses on Abigail. This book almost feels as though it focuses more on Abigail than on John, perhaps because she tended to write longer, more emotional letters whereas his were often just quick notes. Whatever the reason, I really liked the focus on Abigail!

+ Presents a Founding Father as a flawed person. I completely would have guessed that this book was written by a woman if I hadn’t known who the author was ahead before reading. It seems quiet biased against John, pointing out all the ways he prioritized fame, status, and political prestige over his duties as a husband and father. For instance, he went on and on about politics in a series of letters at one point, completely neglecting to ask how Abigail was doing as she gave birth to a dead child while he was away. I love how this book helps deconstruct our vision of the Founding Fathers as these heroic, flawless, moral gods that could do no wrong.

+ Spotlight on a marriage. At its core, this book revolves around the marriage between John and Abigail. Not many books focus on historical marriages, especially in the balanced, nuanced, thoughtful way that Ellis does in First Family. Before reading this book I had no idea that John and Abigail spent so much time apart–it’s remarkable that they were able to hold their marriage together throughout their entire lives.

+ Quotes. I’m a sucker for a good meaningful quote, and this book is brimming with them. In particular, I love Abigail’s words: “When he is wounded, I bleed” and “A woman may forgive the man she loves an indiscretion, but never a neglect.” Nothing better than a good quote!

Questions of subjectivity and credibility. It’s no secret that the reach of historians only extends so far. While dates and names can often be surmised from old belongings, newspapers, and letters, there’s one aspect of the past that historians will never be able to fully uncover: people’s innermost thoughts and emotions. One may point to a diary entry or personal letter written to a loved one as evidence of this inner dialogue, yet even those kinds of documents cannot always be trusted as being completely accurate. Ellis even describes this problem in First Family, pointing out the performance aspect of the letters Abigail and John wrote back and forth to each other while John was overseas on diplomatic duties. Apparently John insisted that Abigail make a copy of all of the letters she sent him in order to keep a record for posterity. John did the same–he was acutely aware that they were part of an important moment in American history that would be looked back on for years to come.

With this in mind, I found it a bit hypocritical that Ellis clearly relied on such subjective, posing documents in order to create such a detailed account of this marriage. I suppose that an aspect of history is making educated guesses, and so long as they are recognized as such up front I’m okay with it. However, at times it was difficult to distinguish hard fact from Ellis’ subjective best guesses. A clearer distinction between the two would have made this an even more powerful, striking read.

Joseph J. Ellis has a way of making frequently idealized historical figures feel so human, and his portrayal of John and Abigail Adams here is no exception. I would highly recommend this book (and the audio book version!) to anyone looking to learn more about Abigail Adams and her marriage with John. Without her, I would argue that John would never have become the successful man he was.

What are your thoughts on First Family? Have any recommendations for other books about Abigail Adams? Let me know in the comments section below!34

Yours,

HOLLY

Books

Thoughts on a Semester of Reading Roth

Everyone at my college is required to take a senior seminar in their major in order to graduate, and mine happened to be a class solely dedicated to reading the texts of Philip Roth. My professor decided to focus on Roth in light of the author unfortunately passing away in May of 2018. We were uniquely positioned, my professor impressed upon us, with the opportunity to look at the whole of an author’s bibliography before the publication of a definitive biography on Roth’s entire life. This sort of limbo period of waiting would allow us to come to our own conclusions about Roth’s bibliography before many critics of other writers did. Of course, there was no way we could possibly get around to reading and discussing all of Roth’s texts in a single semester; rather, my professor selected about a dozen for us to focus on.

It became clear from the very first class that our professor was incredibly enthusiastic and excited about the prospect of such a seminar. The rest of us, however, were not entirely convinced. We were supposed to spend an entire semester reading Roth’s thoughts on Jewish American identity in the latter half of the twentieth century, adultery, breasts, and penises?! (if you’ve read his infamous novel Portnoy’s Complaint, then you surely know what I mean by those last two points.) My classmates and I made a not-so-silent conclusion all on our own: we were going to wholeheartedly dislike this senior seminar.

Our hypothesis seemed to hold strong for a solid few weeks. We criticized how the few women characters were portrayed as mere one-dimensional lovers or mothers in Goodbye Columbus (1959), denounced his blatant, outrageous sexism in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), and balked at his near sexual fantasy about a fictionalized version of Anne Frank in The Ghost Writer (1979). For a second I thought about simply not finishing The Counterlife (1986) because it saddened me to read about so much flagrant adultery with absolutely no regard for how it impacted wives or families–until we were introduced to the character of Maria. Maria is a wife and mother who chooses to have an affair with the narrator of The Counterlife, a woman who is unexpectedly portrayed as intelligent, independent, and capable of railing against an uneven power dynamic in their affair. She is calm, composed, and the complete opposite of Portnoy’s “Monkey.”

My fellow classmates and I didn’t know what to do with this sudden, uncharacteristically non-sexist portrayal of women from Roth. Was it intentional, a sign of Roth’s own personal growth and maturity? Or was it an outlier, one that we would never see again as we continued on our Rothian journey? Perplexed, we felt ourselves shift gears a bit as we read more and more of Roth’s work.

To my great astonishment, I found that I actually enjoyed myself. While the women characters in Roth’s novels were not always justly portrayed–and we were sure to bring these instances up at every open opportunity–he also wrote several women who we couldn’t help but applaud. There was Drenka in Sabbath’s Theater (1995), Faunia in The Human Stain (2000), Philip’s mother in The Plot Against America (2004)… it was almost as though Roth had just come to the realization that women characters could be written about with just as much complexity and depth as men. Although I would never go so far as to laud Roth for his impeccable portrayal of fictional women. I did become much more willing to engage in dialogue about these characters that did not solely involve my classmates and I frustratedly ranting about how it’s all just breasts and penises in Roth’s eyes.

Roth’s sexist struggles aside, I also found myself enjoying his work from the perspective of narrative structure. Reading so many Roth novels in chronological order helped me see the remarkable strides he made in terms of experimenting with how stories can be told. The conflicting, layered levels of The Counterlife and the alternative version of history depicted in The Plot Against America are far, far departures from the straightforward monologue that is Portnoy’s Complaint. I couldn’t help but admire his impressive attention to detail. One of my classmates researched the specific stamps mentioned in The Plot Against America and lo and behold, Roth’s descriptions perfectly align with the images found. There’s something to be said for a writer that pours this much thought, energy, time, research, and attention into his work, and I was captivated by Roth’s seemingly never-ending ability to do just that.

So where does this leave Roth and I? I must admit that I stand corrected, at least to an extent: I handed in my final senior seminar paper with a greater appreciation for Roth’s works than I ever thought possible months ago. Does he have significant faults as a writer? Absolutely. Yet when read chronologically, one can see that he tried to remedy these flaws over time. And isn’t that the most any of us can ask?

What are your thoughts on Philip Roth and his writing? Have you ever read an author’s works chronologically? Has a class ever changed your perception of a writer? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Books

MEN WITHOUT WOMEN by Haruki Murakami | Review

Across seven tales, Haruki Murakami brings his powers of observation to bear on the lives of men who, in their own ways, find themselves alone. Here are vanishing cats and smoky bars, lonely hearts and mysterious women, baseball and the Beatles, woven together to tell stories that speak to us all.

Marked by the same wry humor that has defined his entire body of work, in this collection Murakami has crafted another contemporary classic.

{Goodreads.com} 

When did I read this book?: In one sitting on New Year’s Eve! So nice to end the reading year on such a high note.

Where did I read this book?: In a cozy bed–the most comfy reading location there is!

Why did I read this book?: A few of my friends and I always choose a book to read during breaks between semesters and this was our choice for our winter weeks off.

The main strengths of this short story collection can be summed up in three parts: the subject matter, Murakami’s writing style, and how he writes about the subject matter.

+ Subject matter. The title of the story collection implies a very intriguing topic in itself: What about men without women? Is this an advantage? A disadvantage? What struck me as ingenious about these stories is that none of the men are truly without women, for there are a plethora of women characters; rather, these men must go without the woman they truly desire to be with. Some are widowers, some were recently divorced, some cheat on their wives, and some discover that their wives have been cheating on them. These stories do not exude the feeling of celebration; instead, they read as a lament.

+ Writing. Since this collection was my introduction to Murakami, I had no idea what to expect from his writing style–particularly since I would be reading a translation from the original Japanese. I must admit that I’m a sucker for any writing style that for some reason clicks with me–it can completely alter my thoughts on a text–and this collection is no exception. From the first page I was captivated by the simple elegance of Murakami’s writing: not too flowery, not too choppy, not too languid, not too hurried. Personally, I feel as though writing style becomes even more important in short story collections. Apart from overarching themes or topics, the writing style is often the common thread that ties a collection together into a cohesive unit. Here Murakami strikes the perfect balance between changing his style slightly to fit the tone of each story while still maintaining the simplicity and elegance characteristic of his narrative voice.

How he writes about the subject matter. I was a bit hesitant to read this particular collection due to the nature of the subject matter. It’s fairly easy for discussions of failed or past relationships to get pretty ugly (as a semester of reading novels by Philip Roth has shown me), and reading those kinds of texts is never a good time. Reading about adultery always really bothers me, especially when it’s written about in a nonchalant way, as though the person having an affair has every right to do so. However, Murakami writes about this difficult subject matter with tact and emotion, always making the reader feel the weight and gravity of the situation. As a woman reading these stories I did not feel offended; in a strange, unexpected way, I almost felt understood.

The only major weakness of this collection that stuck out to me was the confusing nature of the story “Samsa in Love.” It seems as though another life form has entered the body of a young man for the first time, but it is unclear as to how or why this occurs. I’m sure this lack of clarity is the entire point of the story; however, it’s quite jarring to read after several stories that are fairly straightforward and clear. A bit more solidity from this story would have made it a more powerful, poignant read.

I honestly enjoyed Men Without Women a lot more than I expected to. This was my first book by Murakami, but it certainly won’t be my last!

What are your thoughts on Men Without Women? have any recommendations for what Murakami book I should read next? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Books

WHEN THE CURTAIN FALLS by Carrie Hope Fletcher | Review

Welcome to my first book review in MONTHS. I’ve decided to switch up the way I write my reviews, to let me know if you like this new format! 

In 1952 two young lovers meet, in secret, at the beautiful Southern C ross theatre in the very heart of London’s West End. Their relationship is made up of clandestine meetings and stolen moments because there is someone who will make them suffer if he discovers she is no longer ‘his’. But life in the theatre doesn’t always go according to plan and tragedy and heartache are waiting in the wings for all the players . . .

Almost seventy years later, a new production of When the Curtain Falls arrives at the theatre, bringing with it Oscar Bright and Olive Green and their budding romance. Very soon, though, strange things begin to happen and they learn about the ghost that’s haunted the theatre since 1952, a ghost who can only be seen on one night of the year. Except the ghost is appearing more often and seems hell bent on sabotaging Oscar and Olive. The young couple realise they need to right that wrong from years gone by, but can they save themselves before history repeats itself and tragedy strikes once more?

{Goodreads.com}

When did I read this book?: All in one day on December 13th. (This seems to be a trend for me with Carrie’s books…)

Where did I read this book?: In the library at Wheaton. It was towards the end of finals week but I was done with work and wasn’t leaving campus until that night. I didn’t want to just sit in my room alone all day, so I went to the library with my friends who were still working on finals and read while they typed away on their essays. Definitely felt strange being in a college library and reading something purely for fun! 

Why did I read this book?: A dear friend gave me this book for my birthday (the same friend with whom I saw Carrie perform live in London while abroad!) and I couldn’t wait to read it. Plus, her books are perfect for reading all in one huge chunk.

Pros: 

  • Although the romance was a little over-the-top for me at times, there were also moments where it felt incredibly real, particularly regarding how muddy and confusing dating can get. There was a nice balance between a classic “star-crossed lovers” type romance in the past plot line and a more nuanced, complicated, bittersweet romance in the present plot line.
  • Speaking of plot lines, I really enjoyed the intertwining stories of the old case and the new cast of the play that the novel revolves around. Discovering the parallels between them was really fun, and learning the details of the full back story made what was happening in the present plot line a lot more meaningful. I think this was a great way to add depth and intrigue to this novel’s main premise.
  • Perhaps my favorite thing about this novel is how real Olive’s emotions feel. I’m not usually one to cry while reading–watching movies is an entirely different story–but I actually found myself tearing up a few times while reading this novel. Carrie captures what it feels like to be let down time and time again by someone you thought cared about you. While it was immensely sad to read during certain scenes, it was also surprisingly reassuring; in a way, it’s nice to know that other people have felt the same way at some point in their lives.
  • Last but not least, I really loved how you could just feel that Carrie was in her element while writing this novel. As a professional actress on the West End, Carrie is no stranger to cast dynamics backstage, what it’s like to live based on a stage schedule, or the pressure of constantly being scrutinized by the public eye. When the Curtain Falls just exudes Carrie to me, and for this among many reasons I’d say that it is her best novel yet.

Cons: 

  • While I adored the story of this novel, the writing style was not quite my cup of tea. Some phrases and sentences sounded a little off, as though they could have benefited from another round of editing.
  • As much as I enjoyed the realistic aspects of the romance, there were nevertheless still parts that were a bit too “insta-love”-ish for me. Yet perhaps this is a problem not so much with Carrie’s novel but more so with the genre itself and what I was in the mood to read at the time. There’s only so much realism that can go into the development of a fictional relationship in a few hundred pages, so I suppose some element of this kind of portrayal may always exist. (Thoughts? I’d love to hear what you think about this topic!)

Overall:

Again, I would absolutely argue that When the Curtain Falls is Carrie Hope Fletcher’s best novel to date. From ghosts and dark theatre lore to modern celebrityhood, romance, and life on stage, this novel encompasses topics and twists that I never saw coming. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a quick but emotional, exciting read–especially if you’re already a fan of Carrie Hope Fletcher in general!

What are your thoughts on this novel or any of Carrie Hope Fletcher’s other books? Do you think that some degree of “insta-love” is inherent in fictional romance? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Books

WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys | Review

“Wide Sargasso Sea, a masterpiece of modern fiction, was Jean Rhys’s return to the literary center stage. She had a startling early career and was known for her extraordinary prose and haunting women characters. With Wide Sargasso Sea, her last and best-selling novel, she ingeniously brings into light one of fiction’s most fascinating characters: the madwoman in the attic from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This mesmerizing work introduces us to Antoinette Cosway, a sensual and protected young woman who is sold into marriage to the prideful Mr. Rochester. Rhys portrays Cosway amidst a society so driven by hatred, so skewed in its sexual relations, that it can literally drive a woman out of her mind.”   {Goodreads}

As discussed in a past Classic Couple post, I have finally read Jean Rhys’s famous prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. First published in 1966, Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of what happened to Antoinette–otherwise known as Bertha Mason–who we only ever meet as the “madwoman in the attic” in the classic Victorian novel. Here Rhys turns what we think we know about this story on its head, providing an alternative look at what may have really happened to the first wife of Mr. Rochester.

What I love about this novel is that it unabashedly exposes the layers of racism, colonialism, and sexism present in Jane Eyre. Rhys does this largely by playing around with perspective. The novel begins by focusing on the experience of Antoinette, showing the reader that she is an intelligent, rational, emotional human being with family, desires, and fears just like anyone else. Rhys then switches the focus to that of Rochester, revealing the inner workings of his prejudiced mind. Rochester openly admits to the reader that he hoped Antoinette would become “more English” through marriage to him and that he is disappointed when she doesn’t change in this way. By switching perspectives, we see that Antoinette is not the one who is “crazy”; rather, the real “madwoman in the attic” is the “Bertha” figure that Rochester portrays her as in order to get what he desires.

Another major strength of the novel is the way Rhys seamlessly ties it into Jane Eyre without being glaringly obvious or over-the-top about it. The final few pages of the novel place Antoinette in the attic of Thornfield Hall, yet she is not portrayed as Rochester would have her represented. Instead, she longs for the past that she used to have and the future that Rochester ripped away from her with this twist in their distorted marriage. Jane is presented as more of a ghost than Antoinette, the two-dimensional figure that we only hear about but don’t really know. Instead, the reader can’t help but empathize with this woman who was torn from everything she knew simply because Rochester didn’t like her non-English background and customs. In this way, Rhys connects her novel with that of Charlotte by suggesting an alternate reading of one of its characters rather than entirely changing the classic’s story. 

With that being said, it feels as though Wide Sargasso Sea does invite us to go back and read Jane Eyre with this new perspective in mind. In fact, I think it would be a great idea to teach these novels alongside each other in classroom settings rather than simply encouraging students to read Brontë’s novel on the basis that it is yet another classic. I believe that more can be learned from reading these two together rather than apart.

Overall, the only regret I have about reading Wide Sargasso Sea is not having read it sooner. This is a brilliant novel that everyone who reads Jane Eyre should absolutely pick up.

What are your thoughts on Wide Sargasso Sea? Have you read any of Jean Rhys’s other writing? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Books, Feminist Fridays

Feminist Fridays: Masturbation Madness?

As I mentioned in my review of Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus collection, I’m currently taking senior seminar that solely focuses on Philip Roth. A few weeks ago I was assigned to read his 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint, and I have some thoughts. 

Portnoy’s Complaint is essentially one man’s long tirade about sex to his therapist. He starts by recounting his early years of experimenting with different ways of masturbating, from his sister’s bras to the liver that his family then ate for dinner. Throughout the novel we learn all about the women he’s hooked up with over the years, from prostitutes to random women he meets in his travels. Everything is described in graphic, explicit detail, including both the physical events as well as Alex’s (the narrator) thoughts about his many sexual experiences.

I don’t have a problem reading explicitly sexual books in class. What I have a problem is the blatant sexism in Roth’s novels and how it is often brushed off as being a mere “product of the time period.” Nope. Not an excuse. Just because something was written in a specific time and place does not mean it get’s a free pass to be read without any sort of discussion about its problematic elements. 

It also doesn’t help that the only women represented in Portnoy’s Complaint are those objectified for their bodies and who are thought of strictly in sexual terms. Even Alex’s mother is portrayed in this way, as shown when he implies that he wants to have sex with her (this novel is the definition of Freudian). And don’t get me started about Roth’s portrayal of menstruation: not only does he compare menstrual blood to that of meat, but he also claims that it was “better she should have bled herself out on the bathroom floor, better that, than to have sent an eleven-year-old boy in hot pursuit of sanitary napkins” (Roth 44). Why is this okay? And why don’t we talk about how it’s not okay?

Upon leaving my senior seminar on the day we discussed Portnoy’s Complaint, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed by all the things we hadn’t talked about. What about the way Alex calls one of the women he hooks up with “The Monkey”? What about how he only values women for their bodies, and once they start to talk about committed relationships or (gasp!) marriage, he calls them crazy and leaves them? Or what about the scene toward the end of the novel where he nearly rapes a woman? In what setting is it okay for these things to be brushed off in order to talk about Roth’s portrayal of Jewish identity for the millionth time this semester instead? 

Reading so much about masturbation from a man’s point of view also made me ask another important question: Why aren’t we reading about this from a woman’s point of view? Is there even an equivalent of this book written by a woman? If so, why isn’t it being talked about? If not, why hasn’t it been written? In a class dedicated to talking about the experiences of a man, I would hope for a bit more discussion about those of women. Considering recent events (particularly those in the United States), I feel as though Roth’s voice may not be the one that most desperately needs to be heard right now.

I understand the literary significance of Portnoy’s Complaint: it was revolutionary for its time, exploring topics of sex and masculinity in ways that hadn’t been done in such an explicit, graphic nature before. With that being said, there is absolutely no reason why we can’t discuss its enduring literary merit while also criticizing its problematic, sexist aspects. To do otherwise is to imply that what I feel as a woman reading this text doesn’t matter, that I should be able to turn off those emotions simply because it’s a “product of its time.” I’m sorry–I guess I’m just a product of my time, too.

Click here to check out other Feminist Friday posts!

What are your thoughts on Portnoy’s Complaint or about reading problematic/sexist texts in class? Have any feminist texts you would recommend? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Books

THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP by Marie Kondo | Review

“Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo takes tidying to a whole new level, promising that if you properly simplify and organize your home once, you’ll never have to do it again. Most methods advocate a room-by-room or little-by-little approach, which doom you to pick away at your piles of stuff forever. The KonMari Method, with its revolutionary category-by-category system, leads to lasting results. In fact, none of Kondo’s clients have lapsed (and she still has a three-month waiting list).

With detailed guidance for determining which items in your house “spark joy” (and which don’t), this international best seller featuring Tokyo’s newest lifestyle phenomenon will help you clear your clutter and enjoy the unique magic of a tidy home – and the calm, motivated mindset it can inspire.”   {Goodreads}

Sometimes it seems as though this book is everywhere. From bookstores to blogs, it felt like everyone had read this small, strange book but me. Until now.

Listening to this audio book was a… surprising experience. Once I adjusted to the soothing yet strangely robotic narrator, I found myself having mixed reactions to much of what Kondo proposed. What I imagined would be a practical book about tidying up actually advocates an emotional journey to find what brings you joy and to foster a stronger, more reciprocal connection with your home. While this is a fine turn for the book to take, I just wasn’t expecting such a rollercoaster ride of emotions.

 

Amidst this book’s strangeness (I’ll get to that later), there were several parts of that made me want to grab a pen and write down a quote to look at when I feel lost. Kondo is an excellent writer, able to construct the motivational, lyrical messages out of fairly simple concepts.

“The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”

While some of her advice struck me as quite ridiculous, quotes like the one shown above helped me stay rooted to her narrative. Without gems like these, I probably would not have enjoyed the book very much. However, this momentary eloquence is precisely the issue: one minute she would be saying something motivational in a realistic, practical, and applicable sense, and the next she would be arguing that socks go on vacation and deserve to live the life of luxury:

“I pointed to the balled-up socks. “Look at them carefully. This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they can get any rest like that?” That’s right. The socks and stockings stored in your drawer are essentially on holiday. They take a brutal beating in their daily work, trapped between your foot and your shoe, enduring pressure and friction to protect your precious feet. The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest. But if they are folded over, balled up, or tied, they are always in a state of tension, their fabric stretched and their elastic pulled. They roll about and bump into each other every time the drawer is opened and closed. Any socks and stockings unfortunate enough to get pushed to the back of the drawer are often forgotten for so long that their elastic stretches beyond recovery.”

I’m sorry: WHAT?! My socks cannot adequately rest because they bump into each other in my sock drawer? Is being balled up giving them wrinkles? Is that little buzzing I here sometimes actually my socks screaming out in agony from my dresser? I distinctly remember listening to this section and pausing my audio book so I could soak up the ridiculousness of this passage. I was genuinely bothered by the fact that Kondo could actually think that socks have feelings. Surely this is just a metaphor? Someone please tell me that she doesn’t expect me to cater to the whims of my socks?

But the bizarre statements didn’t stop there. She often urges the reader to foster a deeper relationship with their belongings, talking to them physically and emotionally through touch.

“Open the drawer and run your hands over the contents. Let them know you care and look forward to wearing them when they are next in season. This kind of “communication” helps your clothes stay vibrant and keeps your relationship with them alive longer.”

I can see it now: my roommate wakes up one morning to find me running my hands over all of my clothing, whispering sweet nothings to them as I take years to decide what to wear. How do I choose something when I know that all of my other outfits will be desperately disappointed that I didn’t pick them? The danger of these sections is that they diminish the credibility of Kondo’s other advice that may be valuable and rational. It’s difficult to take someone seriously when they’re suggesting such ridiculous ideas.

To be fair, there is some great advice in this book. Despite my sarcasm, I do appreciate Marie Kondo’s overall message: our surroundings are influential aspects of our lives that can work with us or against us. Changing our environment for the better means that many things about our personal lives (motivation, organization, mood, etc.) may also improve. However, Kondo could certainly have shared this important message in a way that didn’t make me question whether or not I should be chatting with my underwear drawer. 

Would I read this book again? Probably not, although parts may be useful to turn back to in the future. Would I recommend this book? Yes, but with the caveat to take everything with a grain of salt. As much as I love a clean room, I’d rather not have to worry about being an expert conversationalist with my wardrobe.

What are your thoughts on this book? Have you put any of its advice into practice? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Books

GOODBYE, COLUMBUS AND FIVE SHORT STORIES by Philip Roth | Review

I’m currently in the middle of senior seminar all about Philip Roth. That’s right: I’ll be reading a dozen books by Philip Roth over the course of the next semester. In an effort to gather my thoughts on these similar yet disparate texts, I’ll be reviewing them throughout the upcoming months. How far will I be able to get without turning into Philip Roth himself? Only time will tell!

Published in 1959, Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories is exactly what the title promises: a collection including Philip Roth’s first novella Goodbye, Columbus as well as five short stories. Although quite different from one another, these stories are tied together through the common threads of Jewish American identity, class, growing up, memory, tradition, and community. These themes prevent the collection from feeling disconnected or disjointed, making for a seamless reading experience in which the texts build on one another. Rather than continue to talk about this collection generally, I’ve decided to discuss each story more specifically in an attempt to do them justice.

Goodbye, Columbus

This novella is the first and longest part of the collection. Here Roth tells the story of Neil and Brenda, a college-age couple from different socioeconomic backgrounds in New Jersey during the 1950s. I was particularly interested in the way relationship dynamics are described, from conversations about family and the future to birth control. How things have changed since then!

“The Conversion of the Jews”

Focusing on a thirteen-year-old boy, this story questions religious authority and forces the reader to wonder why we insist on upholding the traditions that we do. While a bit bizarre (a common theme with Roth), the ending of this story made it all worth it.

“The Defender of the Faith”

This is my favorite story out of the collection, perhaps in part because it was the most controversial of the bunch when it was first published. Roth has been accused of being anti-semitic by negatively portraying Jewish soldiers as manipulative, selfish, and conniving; however, one could argue (as I do) that Roth is simply writing about flawed characters that happen to be Jewish rather than trying to make a statement about Judaism.

“Epstein”

This story made me genuinely angry due to the overt sexism of the protagonist. At one point he describes the sagging, aged body of his wife and ultimately has an affair with the women who lives across the street, completely ignorant of the fact that his own aging body likely looks equally unpleasant, if not worse. While I understand the literary function of this sexism (Roth later exposes Epstein, forcing him to realize his own bodily flaws), it still is jarring and unsettling to read.

“You Can’t Tell A Man By the Song He Sings”

I always forget about this story because it seems like an outlier in this collection. Nevertheless, the high school setting and convict characters are clever, hilarious, and make for a surprising and thought-provoking conclusion.

“Eli, the Fanatic”

Arguably the strangest story in the collection, Roth somehow makes its bizarre elements combine into one cohesive narrative. While I was left with the most questions after reading this story, they were questions that I didn’t mind asking myself. “Eli, the Fanatic” forces you to consider human difference, community, law, and tradition from new perspectives, providing this collection with the ideal conclusion.

Overall, my first foray into Roth’s writing entertained, captivated, and frustrated me all at the same time. I’m looking forward to seeing how these short stories compare to the novels we will be reading as this Philip Roth seminar progresses.

What are your thoughts on Goodbye, Columbus and Five Other Stories? Do you have a favorite novel by Philip Roth? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Books

LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE by Laura Esquivel | Review

“The number one bestseller in Mexico and America for almost two years, and subsequently a bestseller around the world, “Like Water For Chocolate” is a romantic, poignant tale, touched with moments of magic, graphic earthiness, bittersweet wit – and recipes.

A sumptuous feast of a novel, it relates the bizarre history of the all-female De La Garza family. Tita, the youngest daughter of the house, has been forbidden to marry, condemned by Mexican tradition to look after her mother until she dies. But Tita falls in love with Pedro, and he is seduced by the magical food she cooks. In desperation, Pedro marries her sister Rosaura so that he can stay close to her. For the next twenty-two years, Tita and Pedro are forced to circle each other in unconsummated passion. Only a freakish chain of tragedies, bad luck and fate finally reunite them against all the odds.” {Goodreads}

I had never heard of Like Water for Chocolate until my boss recently recommended it to me after I told her the vague plan for my honors thesis. “There’s a film,” she explained to me, “but knowing you, you’re probably more interested in the book.” As per usual, she was correct.

At first I was taken aback by the outrageous drama of this novel. There are points in the plot when the events are so ridiculously unbelievable and the relationships between characters (especially romantic ones!) are so intense that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at times. This unrealistic sense is exacerbated by the fact that there are some supernatural elements threaded throughout the story: for instance, Tita can unconsciously make people feel her emotions through what she cooks or bakes, such as when she cries into a dish and everyone who eats it feels deep sorrow. In this way, Like Water for Chocolate almost reads like a fairy tale.

However, these rather unbelievable moments are intertwined amongst a careful balance of realistic, understandable, relatable human emotions. The reader can empathize with Tita’s feeling of betrayal by Pedro, the injustice of Mama Elena’s enforced tradition, the freedom Gertrude embraces as she flees the home, the overwhelming emotions following childbirth, etc. These human emotions are what ground the novel in an innate foundation of truth, the pulse that keeps the reader glued to every page. While a reader may not be able to relate to the wild events of the plot, they can certainly see themselves in at least one of the emotions that fill Tita’s heart over the course of the book.

One of the most fun things about this novel is how it revolves around food. From the structure of the book itself with monthly recipes to the emphasis on cooking and baking in Tita’s life, Like Water for Chocolate is overflowing with references and imagery to work (and play!) in the kitchen. Not only does this emphasis give the reader a sense of the culture of the family, but it also helps conjure a distinct image of the setting in the reader’s mind. One can easily picture a bustling, crowded kitchen that exudes the most tantalizing smells right before dinner is served. These are the kinds of scenes that made me understand why this novel has the potential to be turned into an excellent film.

Overall, I enjoyed Like Water for Chocolate for the wild, unpredictable, tumultuous rollercoaster on which it brings its reader. This is a beautiful, moving, heart-wrenching novel that won’t easily be forgotten.

What are your thoughts on Like Water for Chocolate? Have you seen the film? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY