Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds

Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds by Kara Richardson WhitelyThe thing about being a writer is that, if you are gainfully employed, it’s likely you spend your time writing about other people. I am a “content specialist,” which is the new term for copywriter because it implies I write for both web and print. Which means I spend (some of) my days interviewing and writing about people who do cool things in order to market the organization I work for.

That organization happens to be a major “highly-selective” university, for which I am producing a series of stories and videos about some of our most outstanding first-year students.

And let me tell you, my self-esteem can really plummet in the face of children (because that’s what 18-year-olds are to me now) who are already: published novelists, award-winning activists, award-winning athletes, award-winning Telemundo stars, and the children of semi-famous people—which, while not an accomplishment itself, often offers the means a driven student might use to achieve incredible accomplishments.

I literally come back from every interview and say to my coworkers, “Guys, why am I not doing anything with my life?”

All that unnecessary preamble is to say that I really enjoyed reading Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds by Kara Richardson Whiteley because damn, is she relatable.

Here is a middle-class, underemployed, overweight mother just doing her best to make a living and be a good mom and wife all while wrestling her formidable demons. I relate so hard.

In this memoir, Whiteley tells the story of her third (yeah, third!) climb up Mount Kilimanjaro.

“But, Shannon, I thought you said she was relatable. This super-athlete doesn’t sound very relatable,” you say.

Well, I say to you, remember the subtitle of her book. This athlete weighs 300 pounds!

And, in addition to the difficulty her weight adds to this third climb, Whiteley is actually coming off a disappointing second climb of Kilimanjaro, when she didn’t make it to the top due to altitude sickness. Apparently, that is a very serious thing, which she details in the book. I had heard the term, but as Whiteley and her group ascend throughout the book, it becomes more and more of a factor. You almost start to feel light-headed and nauseous along with the climbers.

Whiteley alternates the tale of the climb with episodes from her past. She talks about her strained relationship with her father, who left when she was little, and how that affected her and her mother and brothers. She also tells the story of being molested by her brother’s friend at the age of 12 and of the backlash she faced from schoolmates after reporting her attacker. She was also bullied because of her weight all through her childhood and adolescence. If you were bullied too, the episodes she describes may bring back those difficult memories. I know they did for me.

As with many people carrying “too much” fat on their bodies, Whiteley is a dieting veteran. She tries everything and, in adulthood, ends up at Weight Watchers. Through the program, she loses 120 pounds and embraces a life of fitness, leading her to climb Kilimanjaro for the first time with her husband.

Unfortunately, a lot of the weight piles back on after she gives birth to her daughter Anna. And a cycle of dieting and bingeing continues. After her failed second Kilimanjaro climb, Whiteley comes home disheartened, feeling sure that her weight played a part in her “failure.” She plans another climb, this time with several friends, and begins to build up the trip in her mind as the possible resolution to her food and weight issues.

Have you ever wildly pinned your hopes on something you thought would save you from your own designated issue? I have. So I get it.

Whiteley has several realizations on the mountain as she’s forced to be alone with her thoughts. She doesn’t resolve her food and eating issues while climbing because, of course, the mountain cannot magically change her relationship with food and her body. Instead, she resolves to continue to work through them. I’m reminded of the annoying adage, “Wherever you go, there you are,” meaning, you can’t run from your problems. You always take them with you. But I think that’s Whiteley’s overarching point. She took her problems to the mountain to wrestle with them under stressful physical conditions that required her to face her body and her feelings about her body.

I had one very judge-y thought while reading. As I got through the first few chapters, I thought, she doesn’t have much of a style. But that’s OK. She’s not a writer practicing the craft of writing. She’s a woman who climbed a mountain telling us the story of how she climbed the mountain. But further reading proved me wrong as Whiteley is actually a writer. Before the period of unemployment she mentions in the book, she was a full-time newspaper reporter. Whoops.

So, there’s my judgement: her writing is pretty basic and straightforward with no real style. Voice for sure. Style, no.

I didn’t care though. This book made me feel like I could climb Mount Kilimanjaro and I think Whiteley would be happy to know that. I’m not a published novelist or an award-winning activist, but if someone like Whiteley can wrestle her demons on the tallest mountain in Africa, surely this overweight Midwestern mom has a chance with her own demons.

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

Where the Heart Is: I should have known better

WheretheHeartIsbookThere are so many books I come across and think, “Why isn’t this a movie?”

Take, for example, one of teenage-Shannon’s favorites, Downtown by Anne Rivers Siddons. It’s a well-written novel by a doyenne of Southern literature with a lovable protagonist, Smokey, a small-town Georgia girl who moves to big city Atlanta to write for a premier magazine under an infamous editor during the escalation of the Civil Rights movement in the South. This. This should be a movie. But it’s not.

And yet, some agent or producer read Billie Letts’ 1995 novel Where the Heart Is and said, this. This should be a movie.

Which, I guess I can see. It was a successful film as films go, right? It starred Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, and Stockard Channing. And, sure, it features Novalee Nation, a lovable teenage protagonist from small-town Tennessee who is pregnant and delivers her baby at a Walmart by herself….OK, nevermind, I just convinced myself that, yes, this book could have made a good movie.

The subject, yes. The writing – ehhhh. Like, why was it chosen by Oprah’s Book Club? The writing is not that good. It’s all melodrama. (I know, the more fool I, right? I mean, it’s called Where the Heart Is for heaven’s sake.)

I picked it up because I have a weirdly fond and somewhat poignant memory of watching the movie on TV. I was 19 and around seven months pregnant with Jacob. I was living with my parents and had woken up in my childhood bedroom that morning with severe cramping. My mom and best friend nursed me through the worst of it and laughed with me when it turned out to be……………gas. Yeah. Anyway, we watched the movie on TV while I was coddled and fussed over due to a debilitating case of pregnancy gas.

The point is, I remember it fondly and, thus, when it came up as a newly available Kindle book at the library, I checked it out. It was an easy read and I was in the mood for something light. Something heart-warming. Something you might pick up in the line at the supermarket. This seemed like just the ticket.

And it was except for one small issue. I’d be reading about little Novalee and her encounters with the kooky yet endearing people she meets in the Walmart parking lot and suspending my disbelief just fine when – BAM – turns out the boyfriend who left her there was raped in prison and his rectum was torn!

Criminy. Too sudden and too real, Billie!

The whole book was like this. Novalee is doing great and falling in love and maybe having a few problems here and there but generally doing OK when – BAM – the person she’s closest to dies! Sheesh. I was not prepared.

And that’s why, in my mind, this book will always be a Lifetime Book. The movie should have been a Lifetime movie and the book is most certainly a Lifetime-style book.

Be careful what you read.

BAM!

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2019 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

Excellent Women

29927840I had a blast the past two weeks listening to the audiobook version of Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, narrated by one of my favorite voice actors, Jayne Entwistle.

I only learned of Pym’s existence in the past year, having come across her novel Quartet in Autumn via a list of books about friendship on Five Books (such a great rabbit hole of a website, btw!).

As Excellent Women is a “high comedic” novel, I thought it’d make a great choice for the Comic Novel category in the Classics Challenge. It did not disappoint.

Protagonist Mildred Lathbury is a mild-mannered spinster in post-WWII England. A now-orphaned clergyman’s daughter, Miss Lathbury is one of society’s “excellent women,” those helpful, supportive types who live heavily tied to their duties toward their families, neighbors, and parishes.

The novel follows Miss Lathbury as she welcomes new neighbors to the flat above hers, a couple that includes a hopelessly sociable and handsome flag lieutenant husband and a stylish wife who is an anthropologist pursuing a love interest outside her marriage.

Miss Lathbury quickly gets pulled into their affairs, including the wife’s relationship with her love interest, a rather stiff and stoic fellow anthropologist bearing, I am delighted to report, the name “Everard Bone.” Pym excels at naming characters.

Miss Lathbury is also a very active member of her parish and, before widow Allegra Gray moves into the neighborhood, is somewhat expected to marry the local vicar Julian Malory. Malory, who has remained single into his 40s, lives with his sister Winifred, who has taken on the role of vicar’s wife in the parish. His life, it seems, depends on the excellent women around him.

Each of these relationships has its little dramas throughout the novel. Through it, we watch Miss Lathbury come into her own somewhat, as she becomes fed up with people’s expectations that she involve herself in their unnecessarily complicated romances and relationships.

I enjoyed the whole romp. The village itself reminded me a bit of Middlemarch with its quirky characters and tedious dramas. I loved Miss Lathbury too, especially when she becomes irritated with the people around her and starts laying down boundaries. I loved that she gets annoyed with being the kind of woman who’s always making a cup of tea in a crisis. And , moreover, that she lives a quiet life with which she’s quite happy. There are lots of charming comments on domestic life.

“My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.”  

I can truly relate to that.

Would love to know your thoughts if you’ve read this one!

P.S. As stated, this is my entry for the Comic Novel category of the 2019 Classics Challenge.

 

 

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

More depressing true crime for me

I can’t stop reading it. The more depressing the better.

On Sunday I finished The Family Next Door: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and Their Extraordinary Rescue by John Glatt. Tuesday it was 3,096 Days in Captivity by Natascha Kampusch, translated by Jill Kreuer.

Both were harrowing reads. I had to take breaks so as not to become totally creeped out and depressed by the depredations of the world. But, I soldiered on with my typical voyeur’s interest. :/

The Family Next Door: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and Their Extraordinary RescueThe Family Next Door is the story of the Turpin family. You may recall a devastating news story breaking in early 2018 when one of the 13 Turpin children, sneaked out of her house before dawn to call 911 and report that her parents were abusing her and her brothers and sisters.

The siblings, several of whom were chained to their beds when police arrived, were rescued that day when police followed up on the phone call. A horrifying story of abuse and neglect and pure, unadulterated crazy came to light. You can read the basic details on Wikipedia. In the book, John Glatt paints a picture of the parents’ background, which includes their strict religious upbringings, combined with a truly saddening history of sexual abuse for Louise.  It’s hard to read, but I thought Glatt a competent writer. I saw some complaints on Goodreads about his style and people pointed to repetitiveness, but I found anything repetitive helpful as there were so many characters and children’s names to remember.

If you’re interested in the story, here’s a nice update on the children. The parents are both in prison where they belong.

3,096 Days3,096 Days is a memoir written by an Austrian woman, Natascha Kampusch, who was kidnapped at age 10 and kept in a basement prison for 8 years. Her kidnapper starves her and turns out the lights in her dark, scary basement world in order to discipline her and keep her in line. She is also molested, beaten, and forced to cook, clean, and do hard labor for the kidnapper. She escaped in 2006.

This is a translation and the author is not really a writer, so the writing is very simple, with no real style. But the story is so compelling that I couldn’t put it down. If you’re interested, but don’t want to read the book, I suggest googling her name. There are lots of interviews and videos.

And those are my depressing reads for this week. Good things I am listening to something lighthearted: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym.

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Friday Fives

Friday Fives

And because I’m such a good blogger this week, I’ve got a Friday Fives post comin’ atcha!

Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby

Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby

What I’m Watching:

I finished up a series of Gardener’s World via BritBox and next up is a thorough spooky movie watch list for October:
-Rosemary’s Baby (So good.)
-The Omen
-The Conjuring
-Amityville Horror, old and new
-Paranormal Activity
-Psycho (I’ve never seen it!)
-Practical Magic
-The Turn of the Screw (starring Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey fame)

41150394What I’m Reading:

Ok, don’t judge: The Family Next Door: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and Their Extraordinary Rescue.

I have to find out what the deal is with these people. So far, it seems the parents come from a family of incestuous religious zealots. Ick. Those poor children.

29927840What I’m Listening to:

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, narrated by none other than Jayne Entwistle. It is delightful! I just discovered Pym and plan to read her novel Quartet in Autumn. Isn’t it fun to discover new-to-you authors? And even better when you love them.

What I’m Making: 

Quite a bit, actually. I’ve just finished a Day of the Dead themed mantel at home, and I’ve been making a collaged postcard a day as part of the 100 Day Project. I’m late to the project and it’s officially over, but I’m still going to do 100. You can see them all here. 

 

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Day of the Dead wreath and a favorite postcard

What I’m Loving: 

I could spend hours falling down the rabbit hole of the Five Books site, where they interview experts who recommend the five best books on a particularity topic.  Vikings, Sylvia Plath, World War II. It’s all there.

And that’s it for this Friday. Tell me what you’re into right now!

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Hidden Nature

29328188._SY475_I’m really back with fervor this week, I guess. So, hello again, here’s a post about this great book I just read called Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery by Alys Fowler.

It is Fowler’s story of exploring the extensive Birmingham, England, canal system via inflatable raft. I enjoyed it so much, mostly because of Fowler’s talent for describing the composition of a manmade landscape overrun by nature. Canals, a unique part of Birmingham’s built history, seem to exist at a crossroads of the developed and the natural.

I found Fowler adept at describing the convergence:

I lay back in the boat and allowed the grey sky to descend like a blanket. Then I noticed fireweed, or rosebay willowherb. It gained the first name because it likes to colonise burnt-out spaces, and famously turned post-war Britain into a blaze of pink. Its common name refers to the soft grey leaves that look like those of the willow. In late summer it is crowned with bright pink flowers, but in autumn it does something marvellous: it burnishes its fire-loving nature so that it looks like an autumn bonfire as those grey leaves turn red from the outer edge in, like burning embers, a brilliant orange-red, the seed heads wisping up like smoke. Here was a whole uninterrupted bank of colour, burning away. It was beautiful and fiery, unapologetic about its final call. It singed my retinas against all the grey gloom. Like a touch-paper, it lit up the bit of me that lives outside, and I remembered who I was and why I was there.

I mean, that’s why I go outside at all, if we’re going to get deep here—to remind me of who I am.

There are many more descriptions like this. Fowler also gives us some canal history, goes on adventures with a couple of friends, and makes some good entertainment of her foibles as a first-time rafter. The first time she uses the raft, the weather is stormy and it all but blows away. She ends up looking a bit ridiculous as she endeavors to clamber in. How can you not see yourself in that? If you can’t, you’re much more capable than I am and should be congratulated.

 

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Not a canal, but the river near my house.

The part of the book I didn’t care for was an important theme in the book, I’m afraid. Fowler is working out her feelings for another woman. She is married to a man with a progressively debilitating illness and they end up separated after she comes out to him. There are a wealth of feelings to feel and things to work out between them and, to be honest, I found myself skimming these parts.

I don’t quite know why. Is it because I’m a boring straight person who can’t relate? I kind of think it’s because I felt Fowler is better at writing about the nature stuff than the life/feelings stuff. For example, she refers to her husband by an initial “H” and conversations with her new lover, Charlotte, are often described in vague terms rather than actual dialogue given. Because of her nebulous exposition, I don’t really feel I had the chance to familiarize myself with the people in her life, so I can’t really empathize with the issues that develop between them. Does that make sense?

She was actually wonderful at talking about the adventures with her friends, conversations with her mother, and even exchanges with other boaters/paddlers. So I wonder if maybe she was too close to the husband/girlfriend issues to offer much perspective? Or perhaps she was purposefully not revealing much to protect them.

At any rate, I wanted more canal and less “I’m sad about my divorce and don’t know how to navigate my new self.” That sounds harsh and I’m probably being too critical and unfair. Perhaps someone who’s struggled with the same issues would appreciate those sections.

What I personally took from this book was quite valuable, however, as Fowler confirmed for me an idea I have had but couldn’t put words to: It is possible, not to mention totally wonderful, to look for the nature available to you in your city’s landscape (if you live in a city). You can find solace there. You don’t always need a mountain or a forest or an ocean if you don’t have them at hand. It is both possible and OK to find peace in an environment where ivy climbs a bridge wall or where a river runs next to a road. In other words, if you, too, kind of dig the weeds growing between the cracks in the driveway, this book may be for you.

If you’ve read this one, I’d love to know what you think!

And, finally, to prove a point, here are two garden pics I took on a walk around my neighborhood in August showcasing two totally different styles.

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2019 Classics Challenge, What Shannon Read

Ibsen: Four Major Plays

3399467Miracle of miracles, I read another classic!

For the “Read a Classic Play” category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge, I read a collection, Four Major Plays by Henrik Ibsen, translated by James McFarlane and Jens Arup. The four plays included are: A Doll’s HouseGhostsHedda Gabler, and The Master Builder.

Ben, Jake, and I go to performances of Shakespeare at the university where I work (and where Ben went to school, and around which our lives tend to revolve), and the last time I read a play, I was prepping for one of those shows. I like to refresh my brain before I go.

Aside from those, I can’t think of a play I’ve read since college. So I wasn’t sure how much I’d like reading plays. I attempted this category with an eye toward getting it over with.

But it turns out I like reading plays! Fun to discover something new about your reading preferences at 38, isn’t it?

Anyway, the play I intended to read for this item in the challenge is A Doll’s House, but I ended up reading all four plays because I just wanted to. They were all interesting in their own ways.

But getting to my main selection, I see why A Doll’s House caused a ruckus when it was first performed and also why it is a classic. From the first scene my feminist hackles were raised. And I found the ending wonderfully satisfying in that regard.

Here’s a great plot summary by Encyclopedia Britannica:

The play centres on an ordinary family—Torvald Helmer, a bank lawyer, his wife Nora, and their three little children. Torvald supposes himself the ethical member of the family, while his wife assumes the role of the pretty and irresponsible little woman in order to flatter him. Into this arrangement intrude several hard-minded outsiders, one of whom threatens to expose a fraud that Nora had once committed without her husband’s knowledge in order to obtain a loan needed to save his life. When Nora’s act is revealed, Torvald reacts with outrage and repudiates her out of concern for his own social reputation. Utterly disillusioned about her husband, whom she now sees as a hollow fraud, Nora declares her independence of him and their children and leaves them, slamming the door of the house behind her. 

I couldn’t ask for more in a feminist work. And watching the drama play out, I identified right away with Nora as she struggled in the role assigned to her by society and, most significantly, her husband. Apparently, despite being a modern woman, I’m not alone in appreciating that exposition as Wikipedia tells us A Doll’s House was the world’s most performed play of 2006, the centennial anniversary of Ibsen’s death.

Would Ibsen consider this play “feminist,” I wonder? Now, I’m down an internet rabbit hole looking for an Ibsen biography. Sorry there’s not much commentary from me, or comments in general on the other plays in the book. Sometimes when I read classics, I have a hard time doing anything but deferring to the work others have already done. There are more capable reviewers and critics than I voicing opinions about these works. And I don’t often find I have anything interesting to add.

Do you know what I mean?

p.s. As mentioned above, this is my selection for the Read a Classic Play category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge.

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