Sugar

by Bernice L. McFadden
ages: adult
First sentence: “Jude was dead.”
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I don’t quite know what to say about this.

On the one hand, it’s a really well written story about acceptance and redemption (of sorts), of prejudice in a small Southern town, of friendship.

On the other hand, it’s about sex. All kinds of sex. Violent sex. Prostitute sex. Married sex. Lustful sex. How women react to sex. How men need sex. How sex drives so much of what we do.

Sure, the book’s about a prostitute, and it starts with a violent murder/rape. But, I’ve read other books about prostitutes that were less about the sex and more about the person than this book was. It was a bit heavy on the sex for me. Perhaps McFadden meant for it to be this way; perhaps the story couldn’t have been told any other way, but I often felt that the sex was weighing down the story, not allowing the real story — the relationship between our two main characters, Pearl and Sugar, and their respective needs to heal — to come through.

And so, being distracted by all the sex, I wasn’t really able to appreciate what McFadden was attempting to say. Attempting, because I’m not sure she even succeeded without all the sex. The story was well-written — there was some beautiful descriptive language, and sometimes even the vulgarity was used effectively — but meandering. At first, I liked the flashbacks and back story, but by the end, when I as a reader knew more than the characters in the book, it felt wearisome. I wanted more of a redemptive story, and I was given the hopes of one. Then, at the last minute, it was taken away from me; Pearl was sent back into mourning, Sugar went back to her old lifestyle, and Pearl’s husband, Joe, was thrown into the metaphorical fire. Not a happy or even hopeful ending.

However, I’m sure you can chalk this one up to it being just me, for whatever reason.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy
ages: adult
First sentence: “On an evening in the latter part of May a middle-aged man was walking homeward from Shaston to the village of Marlott, in the adjoining Vale of Blakemore or Blackmoor.”

Men are jerks.

Really.

That’s basically the bottom line that I got from this book, the one that I stomped around the house growling about, that I vented on the phone to a friend about, once I finished the book.

Men — all men, from fathers to lovers — are just basically going to take a woman’s innocence, their good hearts, their good will, and stomp. all. over. them.

Cheery, isn’t it?

For those who are unfamiliar with this classic, Tess Durbeyfield is part of the Victorian working poor — oldest daughter of a lackadaisical farmer. When her dad inadvertently finds out that he’s a decedent of a noble family — the d’Urbervilles — he decides (practically pushes out the door) to send his daughter to a branch of the family who lives in a nearby town in order to beg them for money.

Male jerk #1.

Tess, being the kind, good, loving daughter that she is, does her father’s (and mother’s — she’s not much better!) will, and heads out. There she meets Alec: pretty boy, ladies man, and who is completely and utterly smitten with his “coz”. (Because as these things go, Tess is not only pure, but beautiful as well.) He pursues her very aggressively, and while she’s able to withstand his advances for quite a while, eventually he rapes her. Or at least, that’s how I see it.

Male jerk #2.

A short while later, Tess up and leaves the house and ends up back at her parents’ place. She gives birth and while the baby dies shortly thereafter (a very touching, passionate scene with her desperately trying to get the baby baptized before it dies), she’s determined to move on with her life. Fast forward a couple of years, and she gets a job at a dairy farm where Angel Clare is working.

A bit about Angel — he’s a gentleman’s son, and an enlightened Soul. He was meant for the Church, but unable to commit because of a lack of faith. And so, he decides to be a gentleman farmer, setting about visiting farms to get training. He falls head over heels in love with Tess, because of her purity and earthiness. She tells him she’s no good for him, that it would be better for him to marry one of the other dairymaids. He persists, and eventually she gives in (either these guys were REALLY persistent, or she really didn’t have much of a backbone), agreeing to marry him. On the wedding night, they decide to be confessional (word of advice: the wedding night is not a good time to be confessional). Angel confesses to having a short affair, whereupon Tess gets hopeful: perhaps he will be sympathetic to her plight. So, she tells him about her past.

Male jerk #3.

Actually — at this point, I don’t know who I was more incensed at: Alec for abusing and using Tess for his own personal pleasure or Angel for being such a merciless hypocrite. I had to put the book down for quite a while (a day or so) before I could deal with the story again.

Tess is totally the victim here, and it’s very frustrating for me as a reader to experience that. Especially since Tess is really the only sympathetic character in the novel. All that said, Hardy is a brilliant writer; engaging, descriptive, gorgeous language. And able to span all the emotions — from love to hate to disgust; he’s a master. The rest of the book is totally downhill, of course. A criticism of Victorian society and norms and a portrait of good intentions gone horribly wrong couldn’t have a happy ending.

That said, I’m not sure I’m going to run out and get more Hardy any time soon. Unless someone can convince me that it’s not full of horrid men. Because, I’m not sure I can handle much more of that!

Speak

by Laurie Halse Anderson
ages: mature 12+
First sentence: “It is my first morning of high school.”

I was wandering through the bookstore a couple months back, and I chanced upon a display with the 10th anniversary edition of this book. Some part of my brain recognized it (aside from “Hey, that’s the woman who wrote Chains!”) as an important/noteworthy book, and willed me to stop. I picked it up, read the back and the first section, and was hooked. I didn’t walk away with it that night (ah, self control!), but went home and put it on hold at the library. (I think I may have to go buy it now, though.)

Melinda is beginning her freshman year as a complete and total outcast because she called the cops on a party a few weeks prior to the beginning of school. And the year goes downhill from there. Melinda spends the year trying to survive (and not always making it), while her grades fall and she spends more and more time locked inside her head. As it turns out, calling the cops wasn’t so much a tattling thing (as one might initially suspect) but a real cry for help from Melinda, who was raped at the party. As the year progresses, Melinda comes to terms with what happened to her that night, as well as the person who did it to her.

Jen Robinson pointed out two things in her review that I thought were worth mentioning. One, that it’s a scarily accurate portrayal of someone who is monumentally depressed. Melinda is hopeless, and while she spends much of the book living in her head, and trying to escape her world, it’s not a hopeless book. She’s funny on occasion, and her powers of observation are keen, especially about the stupidity of the high school world. Secondly, Jen mentioned that Anderson hopes that teenage boys will read this book, if only to get a sense about what a young woman who has been raped would possibly go through. One of the things I liked most about the book was realizing that while Melinda was suffering in silence, she wasn’t necessarily the only one suffering; her actions caused her parents, teachers, and, yes, even old friends (at least the ones who noticed) worry, and while that worry was often misdirected and misapplied, they were affected by her.

But the thing that got me most was that Anderson was able to take something as harsh as rape and put a human face on it, and make you feel something (depression, anger, triumph) for Melinda. That’s a mark of a good writer. And a good book.