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Ellen's Choice: Reading Challenge Digest - Books 5 through 10

For this week's Ellen's Choice, I'm going to run down a month's worth of Reading Challenge books.  It's going to be a long one, so feel free to skim through for the titles in bold if you just want to see which books I read and not my reviews of each one.
 
Book 5: "Catch-22," by Joseph Heller
"A book with a number in the title"
 
This one was to tackle “A book with a number in the title”. Of course, I could not pass up a chance to finally read a book that I’ve been wanting to read for years now – “Catch 22″!

The title has since become synonymous with the idea of a self-contradicting statement, a predicament you can’t get out of because of its self-referential nature. Catch 22 follows the experiences of a bomber pilot in WWII whose superior officer keeps raising the number of missions required to complete a tour so that nobody can go home. The protagonist’s efforts to worm his way out of flying missions repeatedly bump up against the impassable wall of ‘Catch-22′ – crazy people aren’t permitted to fly missions, but you’d have to be crazy to fly them in the first place, so if you try to have yourself declared insane to get out of flying more missions, you’ve just proved you’re sane and are immediately sent back up in the air.

What surprised me most about this book was the consistency and density of its contradictions. Going into the book I was expecting it to be about that self-contradictory paradox – but nearly every sentence contains a contradiction! Descriptions are always couched in mutual exclusives, such as saying a character loves a girl because he hates her, or describing one of the colonels as brave and insecure. It gives the surprising effect of showcasing just how little rational sense the world these pilots live in makes, while simultaneously giving a perfectly clear impression of the story and characters.

This book is by its very nature pretty difficult for me to describe, but I definitely enjoyed the experience of reading it. Anyone with a military background would find it especially entertaining, as would anyone who enjoys logical puzzles or quirky tongue-in-cheek humor.
 
Book 6: "Jurassic Park," by Michael Crichton
"A book that became a movie"
 
My hubby and I were chatting about this particular movie during our trip, and when I finished Catch-22 with a few days to spare I decided to dive into this one on ebook. Yes, it's "Jurassic Park"!

Jurassic Park is by no means the most jewel-like piece of literary genius I've ever read, but it was a pretty fun "beach read". A lot of the issues people have with plot holes in the movie are actually more explained in the book, though the explanations do seem kind of token, as though Crichton was trying to anticipate what people would say and explain it up front. Overall it does seem like a book that started with the idea "dinosaurs running loose and eating people" and backtracked its plot from there, but it gives a decent enough rationale for what it is. I thought the descriptions of the dinosaurs were creative, and the range of behaviors that the scientists weren't expecting were just barely plausible given the world of the novel. I did find myself smacking my head at their stupidity several times throughout the book and thinking "how could you not expect that?!", but it was certainly entertaining. As long as I didn't take it too seriously it was fun to read the extreme train wreck of one eccentric old man's misguided dream to build a dinosaur zoo. My recommendation? Turn your brain off at the door, and have fun reading about Hammond drowning his denial in ice cream.
 
Book 7: "To Kill A Mockingbird," by Harper Lee
"A book you were supposed to read in school but didn't"
 
Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, has read "To Kill A Mockingbird." It's a high-school rite of passage. Everyone, it seems...except me. For some reason, my high school English classes were following a "Non-Western Authors" curriculum, so while we did read novels like The Good Earth and Things Fall Apart, the great American and English novels got slighted by our teachers. Well, since one of the line items is "A book you were supposed to read in school but didn't," I figured it was time I read it.

I was surprised by how readable Mockingbird is - I'd just assumed it would be the same sort of dense, difficult-to-parse novel that we often find in high school classrooms. But the story of Scout and her big brother goofing off and learning about the ways of the folks of Maycomb is entertaining and amiably-paced. Not exactly racing, but more like a Maycomb citizen out for a pleasant constitutional stroll after dinnertime.

It's easy to see why Mockingbird is an English-class staple; the contrast between the supposedly idyllic life of the Maycomb citizens and the underlying prejudice and racism endemic to the town is palpable. Scout's frustrated lack of comprehension of the adults' obvious hypocrisy is thoroughly relatable, and I finished the book bursting with profound thoughts about who exactly was the Mockingbird in the story. If you haven't read it yet, it's definitely worth a look.
 
Book 8: "The Lies of Locke Lamora," by Scott Lynch
"A book a friend recommended"
 
My friend Nathan Bohn suggested I read this one for my BYOBook club this month, so it's filling the line item for "a book a friend recommended".

Wow. This has got to be one of the best books I've read so far, and I've enjoyed every book so far, so that's a huge compliment. Our topic for BYOBook club this month is "Conspirators, back-stabbers, and otherwise untrustworthy characters," so Nathan suggested I read "The Lies of Locke Lamora." This amazingly fun read concerns Locke Lamora, plague orphan, who is sold to a priest of the god of thieves and taught to be a con man. The book concerns Locke and his fellow "Gentlemen Bastards" in their attempt to pull off the con of their lives.

I was intrigued by the structure of the book quite a bit. Every few chapters throughout the novel, the narrative is interrupted by an "Interlude," which tells a short story about an event from someone in the group's training, usually tangentially related in the sense that the information in the interlude explains why so-and-so knows how to do such-and-such. It gives the book as a whole the effect of telling two separate stories at the same time, one concerning teenage Locke learning to be a con man, and one concerning 30-year old Locke pulling off the big con.

I also love this idea of the "Lies" of Locke; at many points throughout the book Locke is forced into bigger and harder cons, with the reader constantly wondering how he's going to pull this one off. Highlights for me were Locke finding out that he has to be not just two people at the same time, but two people IN THE SAME PLACE at the same time, and Locke having to con someone into giving up their clothing to him in the next hour or the whole con is blown. The narrative is riveting and entertaining, and I genuinely felt for every single character.

I checked when I finished the book, and this is just the first in a long series - yet another amazing book series to add to my to-read list!
 
Book 9: "Beloved," by Toni Morrison
"A Pulitzer Prize-winning book"
 
I tackled "A Pulitzer-Prize-winning book" for a chance to pick up a novel I've been wanting to read for a while now: Toni Morrison's "Beloved."

This is one of those books that, when you've finished it, you just want to sit quietly and let the waves of resonance wash over you for a few minutes. It's a beautiful, poetic work that truly captures the essence of "thick love," that powerful kind of love that causes mothers to do things they never would have thought themselves capable of - for good or bad. It also toys with the idea of what the characters call "rememory," and the need to cling to stories and memories of their past to help them get through the present. The final pages' insistence that "It was not a story to pass on" speaks to how high the stakes truly were, if a story this thick was not worth remembering...

Throughout the book I kept wanting there to be a play adaptation of it, or possibly a modern dance retelling. The hauntings in the house and the disjointed inner monologues seem perfectly suited to staging with dramatic lighting and sound. The play I'm imagining would be a disconcerting, abstract piece, structured to beautifully capture the emotional heart of the novel.
 
Book 10: "Shakespeare Saved My Life," by Laura Bates
"A memoir"
 
Poking around my library's eBook site as I usually do when looking for a new book, I was intrigued by this book on the front page, part of a new project called the "Big Library Read". Apparently the Big Library Read is a thing where libraries around the country all put this same title on their eBook centers, with no wait list or holds necessary, for about 10 days. People all over the country read the book and participate in an online discussion group, answering questions provided by the publisher. I decided to give it a read, so it'll be checking off the line item for "a memoir."

Shakespeare Saved My Life is the story of a middle-aged Shakespeare professor in Indiana who begins an Intro to Shakespeare class at a maximum-security prison nearby, specifically starting her program in what they call "Supermax" - the solitary confinement unit filled with the supposedly "most dangerous" of the hardened criminals. She meets one particular inmate who really takes to the work, and her memoir chronicles his mental transition through studying the bard, and how he influenced her own understanding of the work.

I was struck by the contrast between the way the inmates are treated (horrifically, as rabid animals) and the side of them she got to see through working with Shakespeare (intellectual, compassionate, capable of empathizing with their victims and their fellow inmates). Projects such as the collaboration with a neighboring facility housing women who have been victims of domestic abuse, where the women and the abusers in Bates's prison communicated back and forth through letters in order to come to an understanding of each others' mindsets, shone a light on the potential for growth and rehabilitation that would be present, if only the system would permit it.

At the same time, without Bates ever outright stating it, I got the distinct sense that the solitary confinement system used on these prisoners was truly inappropriate - and pretty darn inhumane. Not in the way I would have originally thought it - beatings, verbal abuse, etc. - but in the sensory deprivation itself. The conscious, reasoned thought that was obviously put into their living arrangements very nearly made my stomach turn - no human being deserves to be purposefully incarcerated in such a way that they never see another human face and are intentionally fed bland grey mush for food - "Forget about spices; any identifiable flavors are prohibited." (Chapter 29) I guess I'd always assumed that if conditions were bad, it was due to lack of funding or some such restriction; this memoir paints a picture of conscious, deliberate dehumanization.

I highly recommend this book despite its somber subject matter - it'll certainly make you think, and thanks to the Big Library Read, there'll be someone to chat with about its big questions when you're done!
 
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Stay tuned for more updates in the coming months - I'm about six books ahead of this point at the moment, so there's lots more to come!
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