At Fault

2016 Reading List #48: At Fault, by Kate Chopin

I think it’s time we all just take a moment to recognize the joy that is reading Kate Chopin’s works.

I think I’m a little late to the game with Chopin, especially as far as English students are concerned, but I love her. True, deep love.

In high school, I only encountered her short story “The Story of an Hour,” partially because I opted to read something else over The Awakening. I only read The Awakening a few years ago, but I think I had a much better appreciation for the novel with a bit more maturity than the other people who hated it when we were juniors in high school. High school students aren’t really prepared to like novels in which things don’t end happily, but my 21-year-old self could handle it.

In college (and grad school), I revisited “The Story of an Hour” more than once and became acquainted with “The Storm,” which is perhaps the steamiest way you can spend 10 minutes of reading.

I received the Chopin’s complete novels and stories for Christmas and hadn’t gone too deep into it until a few days ago when I was inspired to jump in with At Fault, the first of Chopin’s two novels, originally published in 1890.

To say Kate Chopin is a badass is probably one of the most objective assessments of her character. She was crazy smart, kept a sassy journal, survived the deaths of siblings, parents, and her husband, had six kids in eight years, dealt with the massive debt left to her after her husband’s untimely death, had hushed affairs with men while maintaining a living to provide for her family, and wrote some really great early feminist literature.

At Fault, Chopin’s first published work, wasn’t even written until after she had her kids and lost her husband, and since she died at the age of 54, that’s pretty impressive. When the novel was rejected, she paid for its publication herself.

Did I mention that I love her?

I think one of the craziest things about Chopin’s writing is how very approachable it is—both in terms of content and style—more than a century after original publication. Her stories are often romantic in nature and she’s incredibly bold in the way she addresses female sexuality. I can’t believe there hasn’t been greater effort to adapt her works into TV or film because her writing feels very contemporary.

The only aspect of this novel that really ages it is some of the language used to describe the black servants. Chopin spent plenty of her adult life on a plantation in Louisiana, so it’s not exactly surprising that the treatment of black characters wouldn’t be great, but her clear feminist stance might make you hope she’d write something a bit more tolerant. The best thing to note about her black characters is that they seem much more significant and involved than in many other pieces of Civil War-era writing, but there’s still something to be desired here.

Now that I’ve finished At Fault, I’ve decided to continue through this collection to Bayou Folk, a collection of Chopin’s short stories. I’ll likely be pairing a novel with this reading since balancing short stories and a novel is fairly easy and gets me reading more. Funny how easy self motivation comes when it’s about reading…

Green Hills of Africa

2016 Reading list #47: Green Hills of Africa, by Ernest Hemingway

I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately, though I’m getting plenty of reading done. I’ve just been caught at an odd time when, every time I finish a book, I stare blankly at my shelf, unsure what to read next.

Green Hills of Africa wasn’t really on my original reading list for the year, though reading something by Ernest Hemingway was. I’d planned on working through Hemingway’s complete collection of short stories, but, after the first 200 pages, I watched the book sit unopened, so I’ve reshelved for a later time (though I have read somewhere in the realm of 30 of his stories, so I know I’ll happily return to it when the time is right).

Green Hills of Africa was one of the shorter selections on my shelf that also meant I would be accomplishing one of my 2016 goals of reading a work for a few select authors. After falling in love with Hemingway and Faulkner in a lit class four years (!) ago, I’ve tried my best to read something new by each of them every year.

This wasn’t my favorite of Hemingway’s works, but that’s mostly because I don’t care about hunting. This is all about hunting. It’s not a bad book at all, it’s just a book that doesn’t quite align with my personal interests.

Hemingway even says in a very short forward to the book that this is his attempt at seeing if a book without plot or romance can still be true and interesting to readers, and I think he accomplishes that. Near the book’s conclusion, he has a few beautiful pages about the majesty of the earth and how people corrupt its beauty. His appreciation for nature is at a serious high in this book.

He also refers to a hunting guide who’s overly expressive and annoying as “Theater Business” and speaks of himself as having the “evening braggies” after whiskey makes him overconfident, both of which are tidbits I enjoy tremendously.

If you can forgive Hemingway’s casual racism and whiteness here and there (he was writing in the 1930s, after all), Green Hills of Africa is a pretty pleasant read. Maybe not my favorite, but it’s hard to go too wrong with Papa.

Cursed Child

2016 Reading Lis #46: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Perhaps the quickest version of this post is to say that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child left me feeling… conflicted.

But I can’t really just leave it there.

In anticipation of Cursed Child, my feelings waffled between trying to limit my expectations and really, really wanting to like it. And I did like it. But I didn’t love it. At all.

Here’s my biggest problem: in the scope of all things Harry Potter, nothing can match the magic of the original series. Though I preordered my copy of the play months ago from Amazon, I paid a visit to the local Barnes & Noble midnight release party because I so enjoyed them years ago. None of this experience could be the same. The anticipation I felt was more anxiety than excitement this time around. I didn’t want to read something that would mess with a perfect series.

And Cursed Child doesn’t really mess with the original series, at least in my opinion. Because I see the original seven books as sacred, I refuse to allow something new (that wasn’t even really written by J.K. Rowling) to affect that world. Cursed Child is fine—likable, funny, sweet, somber—but it’s a mere shadow of the original works.

There are many reasons for this, I think, apart from Rowling’s limited input. First, jumping from a set of long and detailed novels to a two-part play is a big leap. The play is comprised of lots and lots of minuscule scenes, and by the end it felt like a Shondaland TV show to me—every scene break had a dramatic cliffhanger that kept the pace moving ever-forward. There’s no time to live in the show’s moments, especially when the expanse of the play crosses decades of time.

Though I might feel different seeing the stage production rather than just reading it, I also felt like the magic was heavy-handed. I’m curious to know how so many of these effects are done (the play contains Polyjuicing, dementors, Time Turning, underwater stunts, Transfiguration, etc.), but it reads like someone trying to cram in as many oohs-and-ahhs as possible before the curtain falls. At its core, Cursed Child is meant to be about the difficulties Harry faces with his son, so I’d have preferred a much simpler play to tell an intimate story.

In fact, the way this difficult relationship is pushed forward is through an odd and complicated overarching plot that I found really unnecessary. For one, when we came to know Voldemort as a villain over the course of seven novels, trying to introduce and conquer a new villain in one play seems doomed to fail. And without giving anything away, I personally predicted the villain and their connection to the characters from early on. The “big reveal” isn’t exactly on par with, say, the revelations of “The Prince’s Tale.”

And speaking of the Half-Blood Prince… I may have been most disappointed by the Snape and Dumbledore cameos (done in alternate reality and via portrait, so no one is resurrected or something equally strange). Though these are two characters I love dearly, they both had beautiful final scenes in the original series, and neither of them felt at all authentic to me in the play. Their individual dialogue was clearly an imitation of the real thing, and I wish they’d remained in the past where their stories belong.

Finally, on that same note, it’s very touchy to revisit such beloved characters and try to make them what readers know them to be already. Harry felt most true in the first scenes of the play, which are just lifted from the Deathly Hallows epilogue, but otherwise, he’s a big drag and kind of bad father. Ron is a caricature of himself—sure, Ron’s always been the most light-hearted of the trio, but he’s also got substance—and Hermione is a leader without having the characteristic bossiness that makes her so endearing.

Okay, I want to stop complaining to talk a bit about the good. The Albus/Scorpius dynamic is very sweet, and I’m glad no one tried to turn it into a second-generation version of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. I was very happy to see several young people—people who would’ve been too young to be original Harry Potter readers—quickly walking to the shelves when I went to a bookstore yesterday. I’m glad to know a young generation might be getting excited about the theatre and seeing that very real magic happening live.

In the end, though, I’m much more excited about the prospect of the Fantastic Beasts film adaptations for two reasons. First, J.K. Rowling really wrote the screenplay and I’d trust her with anything, and second, though we’re staying in the Wizarding World, we’ll be meeting an entirely new crop of characters and can’t be disappointed by recreations of people we already know and love.

In 2011, when the final film in the series was released, J.K. Rowling said Hogwarts will always be there to welcome us home. She’s right. But for now, I think I’ll stick to those perfect books she gave us nearly a decade ago.

The Creation of the World and Other Business

2016 Reading List #45: The Creation of the World and Other Business, by Arthur Miller

As I said it my last post, I broke my pattern of reading Miller’s collected plays in threes to add this fourth selection because I was curious about it. The Creation of the World and Other Business is a modernized telling of the events in the Garden of Eden, and I couldn’t really ignore the chance to see how Miller would tell the story.

It wasn’t my favorite play ever, but it was fun to see Miller do something that veers closer to comedy than many of his other works. Seeing God, Adam, and Eve talk in very contemporary ways is jarring and enjoyable, though I’m not really sure I understand what Miller hoped to accomplish with this play.

Ah, well. Onto the next one, I suppose!

The Price

2016 Reading List #44: The Price, by Arthur Miller

Something I’m learning from having read nine of Arthur Miller’s plays this year: if you run into a play about two brothers with an unsettled familial past, you can pretty much bet who the author is.

The Price is another simple work by Miller, featuring only four characters and a single set. The action follows a middle-aged man who’s brought an appraiser to buy the remaining possessions of his parents, who lost their fortune during the Depression, before their home is demolished. When the protagonist’s long-absent older brother suddenly returns for the appraisal, unresolved conflicts quickly emerge.

The Price is likely a lesser-known of Miller’s works because it has many of his classic elements without being particularly groundbreaking. If you’re looking for this brother-to-brother dynamic, why go any further than the American classic that is Death of a Salesman? There’s nothing wrong with this play, it just lacks the emotional punch present in Miller’s most famous and beloved works.

Though I’ve been reading Miller’s plays in threes and this would mark the end of my latest trilogy, I’m going to knock one more out before moving on to something else because I’m curious about it. Stay tuned to see my reaction to The Creation of the World and Other Business.

Incident at Vichy

2016 Reading List #43: Incident at Vichy, by Arthur Miller

My journey with Arthur Miller continues.

After rereading After the Fall (which I’m not posting about), I was both excited and a little nervous to move into the later years of Miller’s writing career that I know little about. I’ve already worked through his most famous titles, but knowing that 11 plays remain in this collection after his best-known works, I know there’s much more to see from Miller.

Incident at Vichy surprised me. It’s a one-act play that takes place in a waiting room in Vichy, France, where a group of (presumably Jewish) men have been brought to show their identification papers during World War II. Though the play is just short of fifty pages in length, Miller is able to capture the increasing anxiety in this group of strangers as they slowly realize why they’ve been brought together.

One of the most upsetting things about the dialogue here is that the action takes place fairly early in the war, and the characters are discussing the rumors they’ve heard about concentration camps. The action precedes knowledge about what exactly was done to Jews, and though someone mentions rumor of gas chambers, the characters mostly think that’s too horrible a story to be true.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Incident at Vichy was its relevance to contemporary society. When discussing hatred and war, one character asks, “why does loving your country mean hating all others?”

We might ask a certain Republication presidential nominee that same question.

In Incident at Vichy, though a lesser-known work, Miller continues to prove why his works are some of the best loved in American drama.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

2016 Reading List #39: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis

Sometimes the best answer to a lazy day is spending it in bed with a good book.

Welcome to my Tuesday.

After returning last night from a 4-day trip to visit friends in Nebraska and thirteen-hours in the car, I think it was fair to enjoy a quiet day in. Everyone needs a little time to recover.

I started The Twelve Tribes of Hattie while we were on vacation, but I’d hardly made any progress in my reading. Today, though, I read 240 pages and finished this multi-generational tale.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a bit difficult to categorize—it’s a novel, but in some ways it reads more like a short story cycle. Hattie Shepherd is at the novel’s center, but each chapter focuses on one of her eleven children. The book spans 55 years in the life of Hattie’s family, offering limited glimpses into each of her children across time.

I appreciated the simplicity of Mathis’s novel. Because of the book’s style, we really do only get small glimpses into these characters’ lives, which is sometimes unsettling, but also bring an air of authenticity to the reading experience. These are not necessarily extraordinary moments in their lives, but moments of clarity or growth. I wished to know more about some of them before the novel’s end, but I think Mathis’s decision to remain a bit ambiguous maintains the book’s realistic qualities.

Since I sped through The Twelve Tribes of Hattie so quickly today, I’m a bit unsure where to turn next in my reading ventures. Here’s to many more quiet days spent with good books.