Read Harder Challenge 2017: first month down

Photo of person holding book with #ReadHarder for the Book Riot Challenge 2016It's time to check in after the first month of the 2017 Read Harder Challenge. We've switched out regular writers - this year it will be Karen and Betsy with other folks chiming in as they take on certain aspects of the challenge. Read our crowdsourced picks post with ideas for all the categories!

Karen will be taking on the challenge in order, while Betsy will be picking out two different challenges each month. The first challenge for Karen was to read a book about sports and to read a debut novel.

Karen: I'm giving myself an additional challenge when possible this year. My to-read list is over 1700 books long. Anytime I can knock off a challenge book with a book on my to-read list will be a double bonus.

A book about sports - are you kidding me? I am one of the least sporty people I know. Sigh. But what do I see, a book on my to-read list that involves running. Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron is about a lot more than running (although the main character is attempting to train as an Olympic runner) - the main story is about the civil war in Rwanda in the 1990's. I will admit that I don't know a lot about the situation and this novel is an introduction, and a powerful one at that. It is beautifully written (and won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction) but is very difficult to read due to the violence. As someone who grew up in the suburban United States, the daily seemingly random violence is incomprehensible. But this is how life is in many parts of the world, including today. We should read books such as this one to be aware of what is happening - to better understand our community and our world. I didn't mean to get on the soapbox, but reading this book reminded me what a sheltered life I live in comfortable Tucson, and it is not remotely that way for way too many people.

A debut novel - one of my favorite genres. Every year I look forward to lists of debut novels and this year was no different. I actually found at least five debut novels on my to-read list and decided to jump into The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. The movie is currently showing at the cheap movie theater but I wanted to read the book first. I realize everyone and their brother has already read this one, so nothing new to say here. Except, I read it in one day - definition of a page-turner right there. And it gave me bad dreams, so don't read it into the evening if you are prone to that kind of thing. I'm glad I read it just so I know what all the hype is about, but frankly I don't need to see the movie and have even grislier images in my head. I have a few more debuts I want to read before I have to worry about next month's books - only one of them is a mystery, thank goodness.

Betsy:  Europe at war ended up being the theme for January as I embarked on the 2017 Read Harder challenge. I studied World War I and II when I lived in England during my junior year in college, but it’s not a topic I would lean towards today.

This one qualified for a book that takes place more than 5,000 miles away - A Gentleman in Moscow.

It’s 1922 and after having faced a Bolshevik tribunal, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel located across the street from the Kremlin, in Soviet-era Moscow. His room is tiny, but he fills his time inside with good food and wine, emotional discovery and fascinating friends. You can’t help but help but fall in love with his wit, kindness and patience as he befriends a small neighbor and eventually adopts her daughter.

This is not a page-turner in the traditional sense, but if you love gorgeous prose and exquisite detail, this book is for you. The writing is so lovely, you will get lost in the pages. It’s a great reminder about slowing down and spending some time with your thoughts. Be prepared, however, this novel is 462 pages long and was a bit tricky to finish in three weeks!

Put A Gentleman in Moscow on hold and pick up Rules of Civility while you wait. Towle’s debut novel takes place in 1930s Manhattan, where two women friends end up taking two very different paths…

In reading a book about war, I discovered Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler by Trudi Kanter, a unique memoir from a middle class perspective. It’s written like a novel and pulls you in with detailed descriptions. Kantor didn’t write it until she was in her seventies in the early 1980s. It was put out by a small press in England, went out of print, and was discovered in a second hand bookstore by someone in the publishing industry who brought it back to life.

Trudi finds herself traveling between her home in Vienna and Paris (for work) and in London (as a refugee) through Nazi-occupied Europe in the 1930s and 40s. She’s a women’s hat designer and finds the job affords her opportunities to cross borders and boundaries easier than most. This is a work by someone who took control in a time when women had fewer choices than they do today. She certainly had bouts of deep anxiety and didn’t take anything for granted as she used her connections wisely. She fell in love with Walter Erlich, who became her second husband, and she did everything she could to try to get him and her parents out of Vienna before it was too late.

The Introduction to the book mentions that it was published before memoirs really took off and WWII was mostly covered in serious solemnity. “Trudi must have seemed too shallow, too preoccupied with hats and men to be a sympathetic narrator of the life of the refugee.” This is true, but I think the details she noticed as she navigated life -- the feel of a fabric, the taste of a cocktail, the nuances of flirtation -- these are the preoccupations of someone who was truly alive (and in love), living in the moment.

William: I read one book for the challenge, and it actually fit the criteria for both. My book was a debut sports novel. Beanball by Gene Fehler. This book involves the story of a high school boy, Luke "Wizard" Wallace, who has a promising career ahead of him and college scholarships. During a game, he is struck in the head by a pitch -a beanball- nearly killing him and sending him into a deep concussion. Luke's story is told in narration by the people in his life, including himself, and coaches, family and friends. Luke is a flawed individual, so he is not painted as a saint by those who know him, so it is fascinating going inside the heads of those witnessing this tragic incident and how it changes and affects them. New friendships are formed and Luke himself must adjust to the fact that his life and his future may be very different than he imagined. This is a quick read at just over 100 pages and is suitable for young adults and grownups, especially those who enjoy baseball.

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