2015 Reading Challenge: “A book you were supposed to read but didn’t”—A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

Okay, I confess — I never read A Gate at the Stairs, which I was supposed to before arriving on campus at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York freshman year. It was required reading for all first-years, for the purpose of discussion during our freshman seminar courses. The author, Lorrie Moore, was from Glens Falls, New York, just a stone’s throw away.

My freshman seminar of choice, Virtual Republic, was fascinating and taught by one of the kindest professors I ever had, Ron Seyb (picture Stephen Colbert, but sweeter and nerdier, in the best way). Still, I was not inspired to read the book. I have a hunch that not many classmates in my seminar did either, nor most of the kids in the Class of 2015. I knew for sure neither of my roommates did.

It didn’t really matter then, though, because our syllabus was over-scheduled even without a discussion of Moore’s most recent novel. I’m pretty sure many of the other courses’ were as well (they had titles like Heretics & Visionaries, The Federal Reserve: More Money, More Problems, Care of the Heart, Human Dilemmas, What is Noir? and Can Literature Save the Environment? to name a few and to give you an idea of what being a Skidmore first-year is like).

I digress.

About the book: wow. I haven’t been struck so hard by a novel since I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. None of the punishments in this book seemed to fit the crimes. Is redemption disallowed? Is no one spared? I identified with the protagonist, Tassie, so strongly that I surprised myself — except in a very barebones way (Tassie and I both came of age and attended college in a post-9/11 America), we really have little in common.

This book is about growing up in that for the first time, and that I was familiar with. The narrator experiences so many firsts over the course of the story: she is forced to confront race, religion, self-identity, love, sex, terrorism, war, family issues and loss (and all in just 336 pages, the poor girl). She dates a man who is not who he seems. Her brother ships off to join the military after graduating from high school (Class of 2002). Tassie takes a job as a nanny for a family, and these people become the fabric of her life, until the fabric starts to fray and suddenly all that’s left is a pile of string. All the while, she’s still a college student, and has no choice but to soldier on.

It’s wonderful and heartbreaking all at once and I’m glad I delved back into it after letting it fall by the wayside in 2011. Thanks, Skidmore.

Fulfilled “A book you were supposed to read but didn’t” on my 2015 Reading Challenge checklist

336 pages
Vintage Contemporaries
Published: 2009

Up next? “A book you own but never read” — Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

Reading Challenge: ‘A book with nonhuman characters’ — Watership Down by Richard Adams

It would be an understatement to say Watership Down took me way longer to finish than anticipated. If you couldn’t tell from my recent lack of blog posts, I had a hard time getting through this particular part of my reading challenge.

The book was actually quite a delightful read — it just wasn’t a page turner. It’s an adventure novel about a few members of a community who sense an inevitable upheaval, and to avoid it, go out on their own. There was action, but it wasn’t the kind that makes it hard to put the book down. I can see why this novel was a classic when it was first published in 1972. It was groundbreaking, and even today the idea of an action novel starring not just animals, but rabbits seems sort of strange (oh, yeah — the characters are bunnies. They also don’t speak English: they speak Lapine). Another obstacle of this novel is that a lot of the words need translation (there’s a glossary at the back for major terms, lest you forget the definition of a Lapine word from when you read its footnote). “Hrududu” is anything with a motor. “Elil” is any enemy of the rabbits, i.e. a stoat, fox or badger. “Frith” is the sun, and also the rabbits’ God. It seems confusing, but Adams does a good job smoothly injecting these words into the prose. The use of this made-up language isn’t overwhelming, but it’s present enough that it might deter some readers.

I really just loved the characters and their self-awareness. Perhaps because, as the author explains, rabbits rely so heavily on their natural instincts to survive, each character knows his or her strengths and weaknesses and adjusts accordingly to be an asset to the “warren” (their community). Hazel, the protagonist, is a natural-born leader. Fiver can sense danger before anyone else. Bigwig is the strongest and largest and is the best fighter. Blackberry is the cleverest (and so on and so forth). They work together to achieve their goals and combat enemies that threaten their progress. It’s a very through-provoking read, but it takes commitment.

I’d recommend this book to someone looking for a leisurely read or hoping to dive into a classic they may have overlooked. This was one of my dad’s favorites after he read it in the ’70s and while I enjoyed it a lot, I wouldn’t put it in my top ten.

watership downFulfilled “A book with nonhuman characters” on my 2015 Reading Challenge checklist

474 pages
Published: 2005

Up next? “A book you were supposed to read but didn’t” — A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore