One of the best things about my Winter Term this year was that I had some free time to ~gasp~ pursue hobbies! I love to read, but during the school year I usually don’t have time, because I’m too busy reading things for class or running about making sure I go to everything my Google calendar tells me to. But this Winter Term my calendar was significantly less full, so I used that opportunity to read some books that I’ve been wanting to read for awhile! Here’s a list of what I read: what the books are about, and what I liked. Enjoy!
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
On Beauty, written in 2005, follows an interracial family: mother, father, and three children, living in the fictional New England college town of Wellington. The father, a British man named Howard, is an art history professor at the college, also called Wellington. The book follows a few years in the family’s life as it deteriorates, mostly because men are stupid (read: he cheats on his wife) and Howard’s rival, also an art professor, moves to Wellington, more man drama (read: masculinity is fragile).
Reading this book was an interesting and, frankly, often troubling experience. When I borrowed this book from my friend before leaving Oberlin, they told me it was, in some ways, a modern classic, because it’s already taught in high level college courses despite having been published not too long ago. I can see why. While on the surface, the book is about the trials and tribulations a family goes through when the patriarch acts badly, there is so much more to the book about race, class, and how they interact in the institution of higher education. As a current college student who was raised by two college professors, college life and politics have been and are still ridiculously prominent in my life. A lot of the strife in the book could easily be real debates… about the exclusivity of higher education, about the myriad privileges it requires to make it to college, about the merits of affirmative action… I could go on. But Smith raises all these questions in such a nuanced way that it’s easy to overlook the deeper commentaries and just focus on the book as a work of fiction.
As I mentioned above, On Beauty could very easily be placed on a college syllabus. That’s why reading it was a bit strange at times, yet also so effective. It has so many elements that were so relevant in my life and that really hit home, coming from a family of academics and having heard all about university politics my whole life.
Xenogenesis trilogy by Octavia Butler (includes books Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago)
I read the first book of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy (also called Lilith’s Brood) science-fiction series during my senior year of high school. Dawn follows the story of Lilith Iyapo—a survivor of a planet-wide nuclear war that almost killed off humans—as she is rescued and revived by an alien species called the Oankali. Inherently curious and scientific, the Oankali travel the universe and engage in genetic “trades” with other beings to advance their own species. Dawn is all about Lilith’s adjustment to her new role: as the ambassador to other humans who will prepare them to return to Earth, and to eventually merge with the Oankali. She is the first mother of a brand-new species. Naturally, a lot of the first book raises questions about xenophobia, human nature, ethics, and free will.
The second and third books of the trilogy follow future generations who came from Lilith, each protagonist the first of their kind. Like Lilith, they have specific destinies, and are different enough from those around them that their existences span the border of ostracism and heroism.
I enjoyed reading the full trilogy, since I was only able to read the first book during high school. I didn’t love the last book because it seemed a bit rushed and less thorough than the other two, but I had to finish to find out what happens in the end. Naturally, the book comments on the nature of humanity, including what the Oankali call the humans’ “deadly contradiction,” intelligence paired with hierarchical tendencies. Octavia Butler is one of the first African-American science-fiction writers to rise to international prominence for her work. Some consider her work an early contribution to the Afrofuturism genre. Undercurrents of race, class, and other arbitrary divisions run throughout her narratives. The books handle intolerance, xenophobia, and fear subtly and effectively. The books leave me wondering “What would I do in this situation?” Would I run from the Oankali like so many of the humans in the story? Or would I choose to join them and overlook my fear of the unknown?
It goes without saying that literature is powerful (but I’m saying it anyway). It allows the reader to transplant themselves into a different reality while still questioning very real things. Fiction, particularly fantasy and science fiction, provide a very unique framework for this hypothetical questioning. Butler does an amazing job portraying realistic humans in a situation where humanity’s existence and legacy is compromised. I recommend this trilogy for anyone interested in science fiction, or anyone who likes thinking about tricky issues transplanted into a world that is not our own.
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
If you’re a fan of sarcastic fire demons, walking castles with funky chicken-looking legs, and strong-willed, silver-haired women, you may have seen Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle film. As a big fan of all Miyazaki’s films, I’ve seen Howl’s Moving Castle many a time, but I had never read the book, even though it was on the bookshelf in my room for a very long time (well, it was on the bookshelf in my room after my furniture got completely changed around during my absence unbeknownst to me).
For those who haven’t seen the movie or read the book, a summary (of the book): Sophie, the eldest of three sisters, inherits her father’s hat shop after her younger sisters go off to “seek their fortunes.” Unfortunately, Sophie sells a hat to a witch who, unsatisfied, curses Sophie and turns her into an old woman. She ends up leaving her town and stumbles upon the walking enchanted castle of the Wizard Howl, infamous for being a wicked man who uses his good looks and charm to steal innocent girls’ hearts. After moving into the castle, Sophie is introduced to a perfectly whimsical cast of characters, magic shenanigans ensue, and in the end several curses are broken.
The movie was based on the book, and normally I’m a firm believer in the “read the book before seeing the movie” rule, but this time it was the other way around. It was nice to have the familiarity of certain aspects of the movie, especially in the beginning, but the book is definitely different from the movie in a lot of ways. However, I still really enjoyed reading it, and it was just the sort of whimsical, light fantasy novel I like to read when I need to be entertained without expending too much mental effort. As a kid I read voraciously, and especially loved the fantasy genre. It was nice to return to that as the last book I will read for fun for quite a long time, since the spring semester starts up in just a few days!
I really enjoyed getting to read some things that weren’t assigned to me on a syllabus during this Winter Term. Did you read anything during Winter Term? Let me know in the comments below (read this in your best YouTuber voice). I’m always down to talk books, so give me your recommendations! Let’s go to a coffee shop and READ A BOOK!
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