What I Read in October

Nov 23, 2018

It was another slow month of reading for me, but all three of these books were enjoyable, or at least un-put-down-able, in their own way.

1. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
There was a point when I was reading this book that I thought, This story has become unmoored. Its downward spiral is completely out of control; it's on a trajectory that can't be stopped.

Up until that point, I had been loving the book: Leni's dad, Ernt, has just lost another job when he receives a letter saying that an old army buddy from his days in Vietnam has left him a tract of land in Alaska. It sounds perfect . . . to Ernt. He will be off the grid, living life his way, in a place where hopefully it won't matter that he has horrible nightmares that won't let go of him.

Leni and her mother are not thrilled by the prospect, but once Ernt has made up his mind, there's no changing it. They pack up their VW bus and drive north. They arrive in late spring, and even though it's the season of the midnight sun, they are completely ill-prepared for life in the Alaskan wilderness. Luckily, they have neighbors (Large Marge, Tom Walker, Mad Earl) who show them the ropes and chip in with help and supplies.

When winter comes, and it always comes early in Alaska, they're at least not going to starve (but everyone is quick to remind them that there are a million ways to die in Alaska). But as the cold and dark settle down over the land, Ernt's flashbacks and nightmares get worse. He becomes obsessed with planning for some future apocalyptic day. The littlest things will trigger him, and Leni's mom, Cora, always gets the worst of his anger. Leni realizes: "Mama could never leave Dad, and Leni would never leave Mama. And Dad could never let them go. In this terrible, toxic knot that was their family, there was no escape for any of them."

And that's when I couldn't handle this story anymore: the situation seemed so bleak and desperate, and then it got worse. Much worse. And there didn't seem to be any end to this chain of bad events. If you've read it, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

But I pushed through, partly because I was desperate for some sort of redemption to bring the story out of the black pit of despair it had fallen into, and partly because I wanted to discuss it with my friends, so I had to finish it.

And for me, the ending helped save it. One of my friends thought it was trite and cliche and wrapped up things a little too neatly. I have certainly thought that same thing about many endings (Before We Were Yours is a recent example), but in this case, I think I was so relieved for something (anything!) good to happen that it was this story's saving grace.

I won't give away any of the details in case you want to take yourself on this complete basket case of a journey, but I will say that one of my favorite parts of the story was Leni's relationship with her mom. There were times when it was frustrating because they stood by each other to a fault (how many times did I internally scream, "Run away! Get out of there!"), but their love was loyal and fierce: "In a breathtaking instant, Cora's life crashed into focus, became small. All of her fears and regrets and disappointments fell away. There was just one thing that mattered. How could she not have known it from the beginning? Why had she spent so much time searching for who she was? She should have known, always, from the very beginning: She was a mother. A mother."

Content note: a lot of swearing, but no F-words; one sexual scene (that I skipped over and that made me angry)

2. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
This was, without a doubt, a perfect book for October, but I don't think I quite understood what I was signing up for.

It was intensely dark and disturbing, and I made a strict rule for myself that I could not listen to it after 5:00 pm each day because I had to have a few hours to process it and let the details fade away. Even so, there was one night when my brain would not let go of it, and I went to bed with all sorts of irrational fears haunting me.

Part of what makes this story so much worse than other murder mysteries is that it really did happen. In November 1959, Mr. and Mrs. Clutter and their two teenage children were brutally murdered in their home in the middle of the night. With no readily apparent suspects or motives, detectives were puzzled by the complete randomness of the horrific act. And as the details slowly unfolded and the pieces were put together, the chilling aspect of this crime was not lessened but intensified.

There is no question that Truman Capote is a masterful storyteller. This book is something of a classic as it was one of the first true crime novels and set a high standard for the genre. It deserves every accolade it has received.

Once I had started, I couldn't not finish it. It was gripping. But it isn't a book I could stay in for long periods of time, and I breathed a small sigh of relief when it was finally, mercifully, over.

As I was listening to it, I found myself thinking about another book I read earlier this year, Just Mercywhich was about our flawed justice system, particularly in the area of corporal punishment. After reading that book, I became convinced that the death penalty was wrong and inhumane. But oh how quickly my opinion changed when, instead of reading about those who had been falsely condemned under our justice system, I was reading about two men who were so cold and merciless that they couldn't receive their death sentence fast enough for me.

Lucky for me, I read it for my book club in October, which meant I wasn't left hanging with a bunch of unresolved and complicated feelings but could talk through them with my friends who were feeling just as conflicted as I was. And the truth is that even though part of me wants to say, "Run from this book!," I can't deny that as soon as I finished it, I told Mike that he should read it, too.

Content note: This story is intensely disturbing, and Truman Capote is not really sparse on details, if you get my meaning. 

3. Betsy Was a Junior by Maud Hart Lovelace
I still needed to read one book for my goal to "read three older (pre-1970) young adult novels," and I decided to return to an old favorite of mine. As a teenager, I fell in love with the Betsy-Tacy series. I think many people are familiar with the first couple of books (Betsy-Tacy and Betsy, Tacy, and Tib) and consequently think of this as a children's series because Betsy is so young in the first books. What they don't realize is that by continuing on in the series, Betsy grows up and reaches adolescence and young adulthood, and I remember being deeply invested in Betsy Ray's love life.

I chose this book at random from the later books in the series, and it turns out that it's the book in her high school years where there's very little boy drama: She's moved beyond her childhood crush of Tony Markham and her silly infatuation with Phil Brandish and hasn't yet developed her more mature friendship with Joe Willard (although she'd like to . . . ). Instead, this book holds a different sort of drama: one of inclusion and exclusion and the consequences that go along with such choices.

After hearing about the sororities at the university where Betsy's sister, Julia, is attending her freshman year, Betsy and her friends decide to form their own sorority. At first, the fun all seems innocent, but it doesn't take long before all of the secrecy and special invitations takes their toll on Betsy's other relationships. Later in the book, Betsy realizes, "Perhaps . . . she and Hazel might have had a friendship independent of the Crowd. After all, you couldn't go through life rolling your friendships into one gigantic snowball. You wanted different kinds of friendships, with different kinds of people. She might like someone awfully well whom Tacy wouldn't care for at all. You ought not to go through life, even a small section of life like high school or college, with your friendships fenced in by snobbish artificial barriers."

One thing I had forgotten about with these books is how much I love Mr. Ray. He is very much an involved father and dotes on his three daughters in the sweetest ways. I love this image of him on Christmas Day: "Theoretically each one unwrapped a gift in turn but it didn't work out that way. Mr. Ray always forgot to open his; he cared more about watching other people open theirs and sat with crossed legs, smiling benevolently, or moved about, gathering up the discarded paper and ribbons, folding what was usable and burning what wasn't. He handed out the larger boxes which were piled under the Christmas tree and kept going to the table to replenish breakfast plates."

For being an old book from an earlier, supposedly less complicated time, I found it surprisingly relevant. Part of my desire to return to this series as an adult was to see if it held up to modern scrutiny and would be worth recommending to today's teen. And the answer was unquestionably a yes. I loved it so much, and, maybe I'm naive to think it, but I think teenagers would, too. Upon finishing, I wanted to immediately pick up the next one in the series, but unfortunately, all of my reading time right now is dedicated to finishing up my reading goals.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think?

1 comment:

  1. I also wasn't crazy about "The Great Alone." Like your friend, I found the ending to be trite, and many of the characters were caricatures -- including the "sassy Black woman" trope, the conservative parents who just don't understand, the angry preppers vs. the handsome wealthy businesse owner, overly-mature teens, etc. It seemed contrived and emotionally manupulative. That said, I did enjoy the descriptions/writing of life and harshness of living in Alaska -- that was both compelling and interesting!

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