Reading Challenges

Middlemarch by George Eliot

My sophomore year of college I was assigned Middlemarch by George Eliot as part of my Major British Authors class. Though I didn’t do this too often, for Middlemarch, I used my dad’s method of reading the beginning, middle and end, and close-reading (he could always memorize, but my brain is not as good at that) several other sections. (The professor also decided to assign this ‘big book’ over spring break, a popular move, to give students an extra week to finish it-but it’s still hard to get into when you’re vacationing on the beach!) So 4 years later, I added it to my TBR 2008 Challenge list. And this time around, I managed to read it cover to cover. Middlemarch is the provincial English town setting, and Eliot’s sprawling novel interweaves the stories of many of its denizens. Middlemarch‘s main characters include the aristocratic Brookes (particularly the religious and idealistic Dorothea), Rev. Casaubon, his young cousin Will Laidslaw, and the bourgeois Middlemarch burghers: the Featherstones, the Garths, the Farebrothers, the Bulstrodes, the Vincys (especially young siblings Fred and Rosamond), and Dr. Tertius Lydgate. Like many stories (or soap operas) with large casts-I certainly had my favorite characters in Middlemarch whose stories I was eager to get back to (and those whom I could have happily forgone). Many of the middle class villagers seemed uninteresting or extraneous to me. The descriptions of Dorothea Brooke and Rev. Casaubon’s relationship also reminded me (frighteningly) of Isabel Archer and Gilbert Osmond in one of my favorite novels, Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady . I could see the image of “the candle and the snuffer” equally applying to Dorothea and Casaubon. I found the story lines centering on Dorothea Brooke to be the most compelling. Similar to her other novels, I found Eliot’s narrator to be too moralizing and intrusive. However, akin to Son of a Witch, I was really thrilled by the novel’s climax. The climactic scene of Middlemarch deals with a confrontation between Dorothea and Rosamond that transforms into an open and compassionate dialogue. This scene to me was so powerful because it felt like the first time in the novel where the characters were speaking honestly with each other. Writing about this depiction of the interminable force of honesty in the face of gossip, appearances and reputation reminded me of Gossip Girl, suggesting parallels between the two universes. (And there will be more to come on Gossip Girl). Other Middlemarch readers, weigh in!

Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire

I finished my first TBR Challenge 2008 book: Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire. It’s been many years since I read his Wicked, of which Son of a Witch is a sequel of sorts. At first I felt a little lost, and I think that I may have missed some of the nuances of Emerald city and Munchkinland politics, and which I might have better understood if I had just finished Wicked. But soon enough, I found myself enjoying the novel on its own merits. Son of a Witch is an orphan’s coming-of-age story. It’s an absorbing tale that focuses on Liir, who may be the son of the late Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba Thropp. Maguire really creates an appealing and fully realized alternate universe, and because even the bare bones outline of the Wizard of Oz is so well-known, it works. The novel spends many of its pages going into detailed vignettes from Liir’s past. A large middle chunk of the novel deals with his military experience, and while it’s a fantasy novel, it’s hard not to draw parallels to real soldiers, be they in Iraq, Vietnam or Germany. Son of a Witch weaves together a large cast of characters-some as well-recognized as Dorothy and the Scarecrow, and other original creations like Elphaba’s nefarious brother, Shell. Having read most of Maguire’s other adult fiction, a shared trait across his novels that I really admire is his thoughtful characterization. Maguire really seems to respect his characters, and even if they’re not exactly human, he almost always conveys a weighty sense of their humanity. I found myself particularly engrossed towards the end of the novel, which I felt, succeeded in striving towards a big crescendo. This also made me think about book endings. I know there are books that I’ve felt have been shattered or redeemed by their endings. What do you think? How much does a book’s ending impact your feelings toward it? Share those titles! And if anyone’s read Son of a Witch, please weigh in!

Reading Challenges

After taking a look at several reading related blogs, I’ve seen that many blogging readers participate in “reading challenges.” The main prize seems to be the pride of checking a book off your list, and the joy of reading something new or different from your usual selection. But I still might have more to learn about readerly ‘street cred.’ I’ve decided to undertake a few (when the blog goes live, I’ll sign up officially).

One is “TBR Challenge 2008”, in which you assemble a list of twelve books that have been on your “to be read” list and plan on finishing them over the course of the year. Readers also select up to twelve ‘alternates,’ in case they decide that one of their first selections isn’t quite their cup of tea. I’ve included my list, and throughout the year, as I complete books, I’ll be updating you on my progress.

1. Middlemarch by George Eliot

2. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

3. Saturday by Ian McEwan

4. The Dower House by Annabel Davis Goff

5. The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

6. Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire

7. Still Life by A.S. Byatt

8. Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

9. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

10. The Wings of the Dove by Henry James

11. The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

12. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

My Alternates:

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World by Haruki Murakami

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

The Ambassadors by Henry James

The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman

(Some of these are books that I’ve received as gifts over the years, all are available through NUCat, and if they’re checked out, try reserving through NExpress).

Have any of you ever undertaken either organized or impulsive reading challenges? How did they go? And have you read any of the books? (Not too many spoilers, please!)