And We’re Back (with Recommendations!)

Hey all, sorry for the hiatus! About three months ago, I wrapped up my final semester of college (which was a whirlwind of teaching sixth graders and researching Chaucer), so I decided to take a break from blogging and writing for a little bit. However, I didn’t stop reading, so I figured I’d share some shorter thoughts about books I read before getting back into deeper book reviews.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

I tackled this beast of a novel via audiobook and the best summary of my thoughts is: This Is Every Dickens Novel, But In Slow Motion. I think Dickens does some really great things like humanizing the poor characters that populate the margins of the story, but the central focus of the book being largely middle/upper-class drama makes the majority of this book a slog. I’d love to return to this book someday and write about a specific focus (maybe the nature vs. nurture discussions running through it), but the initial read just left my head spinning.

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin

When I took a young adult literature class in college two years ago, I ended up reading Sheinkin’s excellent Port Chicago 50 and was pleasantly surprised by it. Sheinkin has a knack for writing about lesser-known events in America’s history and not sugar-coating the injustices and abuses that America’s institutions and leaders have committed. Most Dangerous tackles the Vietnam War through the perspective of Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers to press outlets (which is widely cited as the event the emboldened the press against Richard Nixon, due to his attempted suppression of the leak). Ellsberg’s yarn is turned into a compelling espionage story with double crosses and near-misses, but it also contains a very thoughtful critique of the Vietnam War and American imperialism. Best of all, the book is written with middle-schoolers and teens in mind, so introducing teens to critical perspectives on history has never been easier!

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

I bet I am going to write about this book in some deeper capacity, so I’ll keep my thoughts brief. Please read this book as soon as possible, this book has upended a lot of my beliefs and got me thinking about my relationships, my politics, and everything else in a more critical way. The summary is pretty pulpy (Scientist comes from his anarchist planet to study physics in an analogue for Cold War USA and experiences deep culture shock), but the prose is so beautiful and the characters are so well-developed that I’m convinced it’s impossible to not get sucked into this book. Please read it!

Stoner by John Williams

This novel has a reputation for being an underrated classic of mid-2oth century American fiction, and… I thought it was Alright. The novel follows William Stoner‘s life from being born on a farm in rural Missouri to discovering a love of literature in college to wasting away in a loveless marriage and a dead-end career. Williams taps in to the moments of solitude and listlessness that dominate our lives (in between the juicy bits) in a way that makes the reader appreciate the extraordinary things that we do. Stoner is an average man who (as a protagonist in a fictional work at least) doesn’t really accomplish that much worth noting, but Williams writes his successes and his conflicts in a grand, engaging fashion (for instance, a moment in the latter half of the book features an English department conflict that is easily the most exciting office spat committed to print). I don’t necessarily think everything sticks and there are loads of “so what?” moments, but it’s a breezy, self-contained read that many people probably haven’t heard of.

Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg by Kate Evans

This fictionalized account of Polish economist and revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg’s life contains a lot of hard edges that may scare people away who want to learn more about her life without consulting her large body of (complex and dense) writing. For one, the artwork distances itself from traditionally clean graphic novels, presenting Rosa’s life in messy black-and-white sketches. There are large tracts of the book that are devoted to explanations of her theories in her own words, slowing the story to a halt. These may seem like big roadblocks to enjoying this book, but they are so outside the norm of most graphic novels that it’s refreshing and unique. Evans doesn’t just use the book as a vehicle to present Luxemburg’s theories, but she works through her personal struggles that get lost in adaptations and summaries of her life (most notably, Luxemburg was mistreated for a hip injury as a child that stunted the growth in one of her legs, a fact that isn’t even mentioned in her wikipedia page). My main gripe about this book is that it isn’t super appropriate for children, primarily because of raunchy sex scenes, otherwise I would definitely make this a fixture in my classroom library.

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