50/50 Reading Challenge Update: July Books

By now it must be fairly obvious that I don’t really review the books I read.  Instead, I give an overview of each story and then offer a primarily emotional response to what I’ve read.  July will be no different, and thank goodness for that.  Considering the fact that I read The Name of the Rose and The Picture of Dorian Gray, a highbrow post filled with in-depth intellectual reviews would take me forever to write and be none too exciting to read, either.  And so, once again, I offer complete fluff based on my feelings and filled with very little solid, literary value.  Enjoy!

July Books

The Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.  I chose this murder mystery involving  monks in a prosperous Italian monastery in the early 1300’s for three reasons.  1) The book is forever popping up on those inadequacy-inducing 100 must-read book lists that I am continually torturing myself with.  2) Because I’d seen the movie several years ago and enjoyed it (although I remembered very little about the actual plot), I thought I’d enjoy reading the book and marking it off the must-read book list.  Looking back, I probably liked the movie simply because Sean Connery was in it.  He clouded my judgement.  3)  I found the book at the library.  A free, must-read book list book?  Irresistible.

This was not an easy book to read.  The narrator is an old monk of the 1300’s who is recalling events that took place when he was a just novice.  He often wanders from the topic at hand or describes, in-depth, related subjects that definitely increased my understanding of the situation but made my eyes glaze over.  A fair amount of text is in Latin, which was appropriate to the setting but frustrating and meaningless to me.  I struggled to want to read this book.

What Mr. Eco did with astounding skill was present complex and interesting characters, a detailed and vivid setting, and an engrossing mystery steeped in the religious history of the Middle Ages.  These were the things that kept me going, even when the other minutiae threatened to snuff out my enthusiasm.  Themes that span the centuries, such as consequences of the pursuit of knowledge, the dangers and politics of organized religion, and theories of deliberate design versus chaos or randomness are expertly woven throughout the story.  While The Name of the Rose is no easy read, it was worth the effort just to experience 14th century monastic life during the Inquisition.  I’m still mulling over some of the more philosophical points of the book.  (4.25/5 stars)

The Serpent's Tale

The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin.  The Serpent’s Tale is the second book in a series of mysteries occurring during the reign of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.  The female protagonist, who is the equivalent of a modern-day forensic pathologist trained in Salerno, works for the king to solve particularly heinous murders or those that threaten the stability of the crown.  Because I really enjoyed the first book, Mistress in the Art of Death, I snatched up this book as soon as I saw it at the library.  It was exactly what I expected – a fast-paced and interesting mystery that was a pleasure to read.

The plot for this book centers on the murder of King Henry’s mistress.  Blame for the murder is placed squarely at Eleanor’s feet, which threatens war between Henry and Eleanor (they aren’t getting along at this point in history).  Adelia Aguilar is ordered, much to her great frustration (she does not like being at the beck and call of the king), to find the real murderer so that war can be averted and peace can be maintained in England.

This is first and foremost a murder mystery.  I love the medieval setting that offers glimpses into life during that time period.  For someone who enjoys historical fiction, I recognize this book for what it is.  Pure entertainment with an accurate and straight forward portrayal of the culture of the Middle Ages.  The Name of the Rose it is not.  Nor is it trying to be.  Approach it from that perspective and everything will be fine.  It is not necessary to read Mistress in the Art of Death to enjoy The Serpent’s Tale, but I would recommend it.  Mistress in the Art of Death is a better book and the information from it will enhance the reading of A Serpent’s Tale.  (3.75/5)

Rebecca

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.  Rebecca was not at all what I expected.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy reading it.  I just had to make an abrupt mental turn in the middle of the story from ghost story (which for some reason is what I thought I was getting into) to hypertension-inducing suspense.  The narrator is the young second wife of Max de Winter, the much older wealthy owner of Manderly and recent widower.  Although Max’s first wife, Rebecca, drowned at sea eight months earlier, her presence is still felt in every corner of Manderly.  The housekeeper, in particular, seems determined to keep Rebecca’s memory alive and torment the new wife, which causes the narrator, who is never named, to feel like an unwelcome (and often unloved guest) in her own home.  The final third of the book takes a completely unexpected turn when deep, dark secrets are finally revealed.  Let the nail-biting commence as consequences of those secrets play out.

I loved everything about this book – the dark atmosphere, the setting of manor and sea, the characters, the plot – everything, but the narrator.  While I thought she had an incredible imagination, her uncertainty and self-doubt for most of the book annoyed me to no end.  Even though it was absolutely appropriate behavior for a twenty-something girl of no standing who suddenly finds herself married to a wealthy middle-aged man with societal obligations, I still cringed at her behavior much of the time.  That is my only qualm.  Rebecca a fantastic modern gothic read and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  By the way, Rebecca also shows up on lots of must-read book lists.  So, that’s another book I can check off the list.  (4.25/5 stars)

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wild.  In a nutshell, a young and handsome Dorian Gray wishes to remain young and handsome and so desires that a portrait do the aging instead.  The wish is grant and Dorian does indeed maintain his youth.  He spends his life being influenced by the vapid but alluring Lord Henry (perhaps the devil?), pursuing experiences and knowledge, and leaving in his wake a slew of deaths and ruined lives.  As Dorian’s portrait ages, his features are contorted by the sins he has committed. It maddens Dorian to see the wretched portrait, so he keeps it hidden from the world, but he feels compelled to look at it.

I am struggling to decide what I want to say about this book.  Even though I despised most of the main characters, the writing is beautiful and the story is excellent, touching on themes like beauty, genius, pursuing experience and even knowledge without conscience, sin and its consequences, pride, temptation, perspective, selfishness, disregard for others, accountability, homosexuality.  I could go on and on.  There is much to mull over in a relatively short and fast read.  This is the perfect literary classic with exceptional prose, an interesting plot, fascinating characters, and universals themes worth contemplating.  (4/5 stars)

Because The Picture of Dorian Gray also makes a regular appearance on many must-read books lists, that makes three more books I can mark off as read.  If nothing else, it’s been a very successful month for becoming a more well-read individual.  I was really hoping to get more reading in this month.  My choices probably slowed me a bit.  Without making up any lost ground, I’m still four books behind my anticipated pace.  With a few weeks of relative freedom before the fall semester begins and I start teaching again, I’m hoping to get back on track.  I already have two books devoured for August which is very, very good.  Hopefully, the back stretch of summer will be good to me and my reading endeavors.

Any suggestions for good, quick reads?  I just finished Artemis Fowl so you can see I’ll take any suggestions. 🙂

15 thoughts on “50/50 Reading Challenge Update: July Books

  1. I’ve read 2 Umberto Eco novels (The Island of the Day Before and Foucault’s Pendulum) and neither were easy reads. But like you say, both of them were worth it. He goes off on interesting tangents that don’t really do anything for the story, plot, characters, setting, or anything else but just add to the tapestry of the book.

      1. Yeah, I probably won’t be visiting him again. I don’t have a lot of time for reading at the moment (writing, plus three kids under 5 doesn’t leave a lot of time) and I’m a slow reader at the best of times, so I don’t have 6 months to spend on tangents, no matter how interesting.

      2. I remember life with three kids under five. I don’t think I read anything more difficult than Dr. Suess and and Sandra Boyton for years. Sounds like you’re forsaking Eco for far more worthy endeavors.

  2. Love this post. I’ve seen the films of both Rebecca and Dorian Gray so maybe it’s time to read them. Mistress In The Art Of Death sounds good, too. Suggestions for a quick read? Try to find Comedy In A Minor Key by Hans Keilson. Written in 1947, just recently translated into English and published in the United States, it was on quite a few “100 best books of the year” lists in 2010.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation. I will definitely check it out. Now that I’ve read Rebecca and Dorian gray, I’d love to see the movies to see how they compare to the books. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. 🙂

    1. Royal Enigma sounds very interesting. It’s quite a departure from the type of books I normally read. Thanks for the suggestion. I’m putting it on my list.

    1. If you like historical fiction that isn’t too heavy, The Serpent’s Tale is fun and quick. I read it in less than two days. No big time investment involved.

  3. Rebecca is one of my favourites! At some points, I did just want to shake the narrator and tell her to pull herself together, but every time she almost does the evil Mrs. Danvers manages to make her fall to pieces again. It really does have the feel of a ghost story, even though it isn’t. It’s just so clever!

    1. You are so right. Mrs. Danvers never gave her a chance to take control. And when it really did matter, she was able to pull herself together and be strong. I’ll probably read Rebecca again at some point because it was so good.

  4. Really love this post and it reminded me I have a copy of How to travel with a salmon by Eco on my shelves needing to be read for a second time as I enjoy Eco’s acute vision of the absurdities of modern life

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