Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Popsugar 2018 Challenge: From In Cold Blood to Matilda

Last year, I decided to try the Popsugar reading challenge.

The Winemaker:  "What is that? Some sort of anti-diet thing?"
Me: "Ha. It's some kind of online magazine? Maybe? I don't really know, but I know they have a reading challenge with interesting prompts, so I'm doing it."

Knowing that I read well over 100 books a year, I figured I could handle their "advanced" challenge of 52 books. As it turns out, I only made it through 47 of them. Most of those were just a matter of reviewing the categories and thinking about what I'd read lately. Like "a sequel to a series you've already started" or "a book with a GLBQT focus" were going to be hard to find, right? Much like the "Beat the Backlist" and "Library Love" challenges I half-jokingly undertook for 2018, this was more a matter of acknowledging what I read than actually being challenged to do anything new or different.

But a few books I did indeed read specifically for the challenge, and I'm glad of that.

In July I took a look at what I was missing and what would be hard to read "by accident," and decided to read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood for the "true crime" category. I don't like true crime, because a) it freaks me out, and b) I don't like the feeling of being entertained by others' misfortunes. But I feel like enough time has passed in this crime's case, and I know Capote's work is something of a literary classic. It is, indeed, an excellent book, with everything I like about a well-researched piece of nonfiction. It was the first book of 2018 that I rated "all the stars" in my personal reading log.

In September, I picked up Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud at the library, specifically to satisfy the "micro-history" category. It wasn't bad, but neither was it amazing. I wish I'd read some Mary Roach instead.

I was stymied by the category "a book mentioned in another book," since usually when that happens, it's a classic, and I've either read it or, if I haven't, it's because I didn't want to read it in the first place. But I remembered that several times in Gary D. Schmidt's Orbiting Jupiter the author mentions books by M. T. Anderson--Octavian Nothing in particular, which I've already read, but also in general, which I figured opened the category up to any book by him, even those published after Orbiting Jupiter came out. I'd only seen the cover of The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge and wasn't sure if I'd like it, but come November I knew I was running out of time, so I grabbed this off the library bookshelf, despite my misgivings.

It was a hoot! Plus, what with the author and illustrator being brilliant, it was also thought-provoking and would stand up to multiple readings. I don't give a lot of five star ratings to middle grade, but I didn't have to think twice about it for this one.

In December, the crunch was on. I'd meant to finally pick up a Wendy Mass book, since her books are all over my classroom library, and could probably use some enthusiastic book talking from me, but then I came across a book by a Cuban Wendy--specifically a SHORT book, which was becoming more important at that point. My boss is Cuban, and I keep thinking some of the more frustrating aspects of working with him are cultural rather than personal, so that was another reason to pick it up. Well, it was...not my kind of book. Very intellectual and adult and bleak. I'm sure those who love it are not wrong, but for me, it was a rare two star book.

A few days before the year ended, I went through the remaining books on the list and decided how to finish as many as possible. I went to the library on the 29th and found some board books that met the categories of "About or set on Halloween" and "contains your favorite color [purple] in the title." Behold:

Then I went on a binge read to get through as much as I could before the end of the year. Again, I may have focused on shorter options where I could. For example, for a book published in the year I graduated from high school (which, it turns out was supposed to be a BEST SELLER, but oh well)--Ellen Foster came in at 126 pages. I think it would have blown me away in (gasp) 1987, but I've read similar books since then. Ella Minnow Pea ("fruit or vegetable in the title") is not only short at 208 pages, but is an epistolary novel, which reads nearly as quickly as a novel in verse. Well, except for the final few chapters in which most letters of the alphabet aren't used. 

The final two were among the best books of all. The Cuckoo's Calling fitted the category of "a work by a woman using a male pseudonym," and how funny it was to read the blurbs on the back praising "Robert Galbraith's" assured debut novel. To be sure, there was very little hint of J. K. Rowling in the detective novel, but thankfully there was also very little hint of A Casual Vacancy, which I low-key hated.

Finally, one of the categories was "a children's classic you've never read." I just recently realized that I'd never read Matilda, and that the reason is because it came out in 1988--too late for me, too early for me to be buying my nieces and nephews. It was, of course, a joy. For awhile I was perturbed that Matilda's mother's fatness is part of her general horribleness, but then again, Matilda's father is thin, and the librarian who sets Matilda off on a life of reading is decidedly plump. Knowing that Roald Dahl was physically and emotionally abused in English boarding schools makes Miss Trunchbull even more horrible, and her comeuppance even more satisfying.  I also really admire how Quentin Blake was able to bring a sweetness to his illustrations of Matilda and Miss Honey (Dahl is about as subtle of a name-giver as Dickens) while still sticking to his famously wacky style.

So thank you to the minds of Popsugar, whoever you are, for pushing me into some terrific adventures in my 2018 reading. You can bet I'm signing up for 2019 right quick.


  1. Congratulations! I liked In Cold Blood and Matilda. I did this challenge, too, but I only finished 41 of the prompts. I bought books that fit the others, but I didn’t read them. I’m not going to be doing any challenges this year because I failed at all of last year’s.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. I skipped Pop Sugar last year, but I am going to try it this year. The prompts look achievable for me. I don't know about those advanced ones though.


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