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Adult Blog

Adult Book Review: The Castle of Crossed Destinies

CalvinoCastleI spotted The Castle of Crossed Destinies at Barnes and Noble on the same trip in which I found So Big. I was randomly browsing the shelves when I came across this one, large for a Calvino book. The margins of almost every page are lined with tarot card engravings. I was intrigued. Not so intrigued, however, that I couldn’t wait for a used copy to come from Amazon. It got here yesterday, just in time: I’d just finished So Big.
I’m a huge fan of Calvino, but I really didn’t like this one. It’s a game of sorts: Calvino challenged himself to arrange a deck of tarot cards, lining them up so he could make stories out of them. It’s sort of like the Decameron or The Canterbury Tales. A weary traveler wanders upon an old castle, goes inside, and discovers that it’s full of other weary travelers. Except no one inside can speak, and nor can he. Each table is supplied with a deck of tarot cards, and each character lays out cards to tell his or her story. The narrator fills in the blanks. After that deck is exhausted, the narrator moves on to a tavern, where another game begins with a similar deck.
Calvino’s idea is a good one. His work seems more like art to me than literature – read Invisible Cities, and you’ll understand what I mean. The cards are the center of this short novel (if you can call it a novel).
It got old really quickly. If this book wasn’t so short, it would have ended up in the Fail Pile. When I don’t like a book but insist on finishing it, I get through it as quickly as possible. I started reading it last night in bed, and I only got about fifteen pages in. After work today, as usual, I went to Starbucks, finished the second chapter of my thesis(!), and stayed for a couple more hours to finish The Castle of Crossed Destinies. That was pretty fast.
I’m not in any way saying that this isn’t a good book. It’s an interesting experiment, and it’s worth reading. If you’re interested in Calvino, though, I’d recommend you start with Invisible Cities or If on a winter’s night a traveler. I liked both of those much more. Also, keep in mind what I said about more art than literature: Calvino isn’t easy, but he’s totally worth it. If you’re into reading something short and dense, give him a try.

Adult Book Review: So Big

SoBigI discovered So Big the other day when I was wandering around Barnes & Noble. I had just finished East of Eden, and I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to read next. I was also really tired of reading on a Kindle. These days, I very rarely buy books at full price. For one, I work in a library! If I want a book, I can usually pick it up while I’m there. If it’s not at the main branch, I can wait a couple of days and have a copy sent from the other branches; if none of the branches have it, we have a great interlibrary loan system. But that takes longer than a few days, and I like my books delivered Netflix streaming style. So I wanted instant gratification, and I was willing to put down a bit of cash for it.
I started with the summer reading tables, and I didn’t find anything that interested me, so I started browsing the As. The fiction section at Barnes & Noble is continually shrinking (they obviously don’t care about selling books anymore), so I made it to the Fs pretty quickly. The design of the book’s spine caught my eye (sometimes I do judge books by their covers), and I picked it up and read the back. It sounded interesting, and I saw that it had won the 1924 Pulitzer Prize. A point in its favor. Then I looked it up on Goodreads and saw rave reviews, with comments like “I feel like I’ve been let in on some literary secret!” I’m always into discovering new writers, so I couldn’t help myself. I was intrigued. Book in hand, I confidently walked up to the checkout and paid the full $14 (remember when trade paperbacks were, like, $7?).
And it was so worth it.
I really liked So Big. It made me smile more than most books do. The characters felt alive. I’m pretty sure this is one of those books that I’ll confuse with a movie at some point. I guess a plot rundown is in order.
So Big is the story of Selena DeJong and her son. It begins with Selena’s background: her father was a professional gambler, and they traveled around the country, living well when he did well, and living poorly when he did poorly. Eventually, they settled in Chicago, and no matter what his financial situation, he kept her in a good school. Most of the other students had more money than they did. When Selena was 19, her father died, and she was left with about $500, which was a good deal of money in early twentieth-century Chicago. Her best friend, Julie Hempel, had her family get Selena a job as a schoolteacher in High Prairie, a Dutch farming community not far from Chicago. (I’m going on a bit long with this summary…) She moves in with a Dutch family. The oldest child, Roelf, is brilliant and attaches himself to Selena almost instantly. He wants to learn, but his parents make him work on the farm instead. Soon, Selena meets Purvus DeJong, and they marry and have a child, Dirk. Roelf, only thirteen, runs away to meet his destiny. Selena leads a hard life on the farm and wants something better for Dirk. Life keeps happening. This plot summary is long enough already. Just read the book.
So Big is a beautiful portrait of wealth and poverty in Chicago in the early twentieth century, and it’s totally worth a read. I’ve been trying to figure out why Edna Ferber, despite writing many critically acclaimed books, wasn’t canonized. The best explanation I’ve seen is that the academics don’t like commercial successes.
I’m not sure how I’d never heard of Edna Ferber. She’s best known for writing Show Boat, of movie fame. I’ll definitely be checking out more of her stuff. The library has a pretty good collection.

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