Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

The Polysyllabic Spree

4260When my favorite book blogger, Sarah of Citizen Reader, suggested an essay reading project for 2018, I thought, man that sounds boring. Essays? But she’s my favorite book blogger and I can be kind of a joiner despite my introvert tendencies, so I went ahead and checked out the first book under discussion: The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity, About a Boy, and a number of other excellent, I assume, novels and memoirs. I haven’t read any of them, honestly. But I loved High Fidelity the movie starring John Cusack.

Anyway, it turns out, I like essays. I’d forgotten that. I mean, I read blogs and articles all the time, and those are kind of like essays. But as soon as you categorize something as an essay, it takes on this heightened status in my head. It starts to feel like a blobby cloud of LITERATURE hanging over me, judging me for not wanting to read it.

But Hornby is a witty guy and he loves books and generally lives a very writer-ly life. And all of that, plus his signature sardonic tone, made this collection of essays, first published separately over a year in The Believer, quite enjoyable.

Things I Liked:

  • At the beginning of each essay are two lists: Books Bought and Books Read. I love seeing what intelligent people read (and buy) and why.  And I love that he includes this directive, “I don’t want anyone writing in to point out that I spend too much money on books, many of which I will never read. I know that already. I certainly intend to read all of them, more or less. My intentions are good. Anyway, it’s my money. And I’ll bet you do it too.”
  • Hornby reads books I don’t really read and it’s great to get exposure to the interests of other people. I don’t care at all about Tobias Wolff, for example, but I’m happy to hear what Hornby has to say about his work.
  • Hornby makes a distinction between “literary” novels and regular novels. He continually asks what the difference is and that became a theme threaded through almost all of the essays.
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The cat ad on the back of the Country Living issue on my nightstand was all the paper I had at hand.

I came away with a few recommendations (see phone pic, right). And as you can see from the scribbled entry “Try to read Mystic River again?,” I enjoyed Hornby’s essays so much that I’m even considering re-trying books I’d given up on. So that’s a plus.

And, bonus: there are three or so more collections just like this one. Gonna’ delve into one of those next.

 

 

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

Attachments

8909152Sometimes you just need to settle in with some old friends. Last week I re-read Rainbow Rowell’s first novel Attachments. Set in 1999 during the Y2K craze (that took me back), Attachments centers on Lincoln O’Neill, a quiet guy who loved school – he has two master’s degrees – and has recently moved home to live with his mom while saving up some money and plotting his next move.

But he feels stuck. He’s taken a night job in IT with the local newspaper and his main task is reading employee emails that get flagged because they contain inappropriate words (porn, swear words, etc.) and writing up reports, fixing printer problems and the like.

The highlight of his boring nights is reading flagged emails exchanged between two best friends, editor Jennifer Scribner (hah) and movie reviewer Beth Fremont. And he gets involved in their stories.

If you’ve never read a Rainbow Rowell book, I can tell you that she excels at dialogue and pop culture references. Because this is a book with a lot of emails in it and one of the writers is a movie reviewer, these two elements abound.

Also, I found Lincoln to be a really sympathetic character. He’s really kind of stuck in his life and doesn’t know what to do next. He doesn’t have anything that he’s particularly passionate about, other than school, and his network of family and friends is small. But there’s something really endearing about him. He plays Dungeons and Dragons with a group of friends and loves his mom and sister. He’s also really open-minded and congenial. I just enjoy spending time with a character who’s kind of a quiet introvert.

In the end Lincoln takes slow steps to get his life up and running again and he falls in love. I won’t give away how that happens except to say that I found it somewhat unrealistic, but Rowell wraps everything up neatly and the love story is very sweet without being too sappy.

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Nonfiction

I’m still reading about how French women do it better

Despite coming across the astute reporting in this 2017 Racked piece with the great title How to Sell a Billion Dollar Myth Like a French Girl, I’m still reading about how French women do it better.

I realize that no woman is perfect, but somehow, as I told Ben last week, the idea that there is a whole class of women out there who eat what they like and don’t get fat, enjoy wine, always look elegant, and wear only matching lingerie somehow gives me hope for myself.

FrenchThe first book I finished last week was All You Need to Be Impossibly French: A Witty Investigation into the Lives, Lusts, and Little Secrets of French Women by Helena Frith Powell. This book was great for prying open the myth of the perfect French woman. Frith Powell interviews a dozen or so French women, most known for their contributions to the world of fashion, business, or politics, and runs through their opinions and tips on a slew of style-related topics, from workouts to botox.

The women Frith Powell describes are mostly “pencil thin” and always “well turned out.” Normally, reading things like this would be an opportunity for me to give myself a hard time for my distinct lack of elegance, penchant for junk food, and myriad other sins. But to be completely honest, I felt inspired. It seems like Frith Powell was too. Her writing about these women is part tribute, part exposé with a tone along the lines of “You can’t be the perfect woman all the time…but tell me your secrets just in case!”

And, of course, the book raised my feminist hackles. Are these women really wearing matching lingerie for themselves? Are they really staying stick thin for themselves? Or is this just the patriarchy (apparently alive and well in France) doing some of its best work? Frith Powell gives the impression that it’s some of column A and some of column B.

ParisInLoveAnother woman worshiping with me at the altar of French style is academic and romance writer Eloisa James. I listened to the audiobook version of her memoir Paris in Love last week.

After her breast cancer went into remission, James and her husband, also a professor and originally from Italy, take a teaching sabbatical and move with their two kids to Paris.

James warns us that the memoir began as a series of Facebook posts on her personal account, which she used to keep her family up to date on their lives in Paris. But her observations are so interesting and humorous that they ended up forming a memoir. James is an adept writer with a knack for imagery and creating a narrative in both the short, post-style entries and the longer, more essay-like parts. I found I liked them both but wished some of the short pieces delved deeper into the topics at hand.

Instead, the memoir is a simple but enjoyable reflection on the Parisian lifestyle and her family’s forays into and foibles within it. James covers the usual ground: French parenting, style, weight loss, food, smoking, and romance, among the chief explorations. But she also talks about her children, whom she admits provide most of the humor in the story, as they navigate the local Italian school at different levels.

All in all, two good reads in which to indulge my obsession and I’ll be looking at reading books by both authors in the future.

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2018 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

Middlemarch: Vanquished at Last

19089This post used to be subtitled “Waving the White Flag.” You guys, I almost gave up. Middlemarch by George Eliot is a novel that I felt was leaving a gaping hole in my literary repertoire. Now that I think about it, I believe I chose to take a class on the Romantics in college rather than a class on the Victorian novel. So, I missed this novel somehow.

And I almost gave up on it.

Honestly, between Dorothea Brook, whom I found insufferable, and the lengthy expostulation on politics, I could not take it. I’m not against politics in books on the whole and this one, especially, is known for its exploration of Parliamentary reform. So, I get it. That stuff was important to Eliot. It shaped both her world and the world she wrote about. But, man, it just bored me to tears. I even tried to listen to the story via Audible, read by my all-time favorite narrator, and that was worse because I got bored and tuned it out.

Last week, when I looked ahead on my Kindle and realized I was only halfway done, I thought, “It’s time to wave the white flag.”

But then, thanks to the LitHub daily newsletter, I was alerted to Jennifer Egan’s post for The Guardian on how Eliot’s love life played into her writing of Middlemarch. I read it and that bit of context gave me a new appreciation for the novel, so I decided to plug on in the interest of seeing what happens to these characters.

Anyway, as Egan says, this is the story of three marriages of different classes and kinds. The primary is Dorothea’s marriage to Mr. Casaubon, who is an aging scholar intent on researching his latest project. His personality is dry and not many people find him anything but a bore, but Dorothea, who is strikingly beautiful but quite pious, is drawn to him because she’s made it her life’s goal to help and support a great man with a great mind. It’s a telling situation because Dorothea has lots of ideas and opinions of her own, and she wants desperately to live a large and meaningful life, but she can only see putting her desires to use via passionate support of a good husband.

Sadly, Casaubon just wants a wife who will keep him company and keep his house:

Providence, in its kindness, had supplied him with the wife he needed. A wife, a modest young lady, with the purely appreciative, unambitious abilities of her sex, is sure to think her husband’s mind powerful. Whether Providence had taken equal care of Miss Brooke in presenting her with Mr. Casaubon was an idea which could hardly occur to him. Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy.

I feel for Dorothea but I also found her piety exasperating. She gives up riding, even though she loves it, because, as far as I could tell, it’s a form of self-indulgence because she enjoys it. Uuugh. This is what religion does to some people.

Anyway, I much prefer sensible Mary Garth who is of the middle class and must work for her living as rich Mr. Featherstone’s nurse. At one point early on Rosamund Vincy, niece of Featherstone and daughter of the town mayor, who’s brother Fred is in love with Mary Garth (I know, I’m digging into the weeds), asks Mary what she’s been up to, and Mary replies “I? Oh, minding the house—pouring out syrup—pretending to be amiable and contented—learning to have a bad opinion of everybody.”

She became my favorite character, along with Mrs. Cadwallader, the rector’s wife, and Dorothea’s beloved sister Celia. They’re the women in the novel who possess the endearing combination of good sense and wit. They add some much needed jocularity and even sarcasm to counteract the seriousness of the other characters.

This is a very superficial discussion of likes and dislikes about the novel, but if you’d like to plumb the depths, I’d recommend Egan’s post to get you started. I’ve also checked out Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. We’ll see how much patience I have for it.

If you’ve read Middlemarch, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter

30231738I know it’s early goings yet, but this book is a definite contender for my favorite book of the year (it wasn’t published this year, but I read it this year).

Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill is a collection of essays and memories written and published by the author/retired editor in her 90s.

If you haven’t read anything by Athill, I highly recommend you do so. She’s a distinct personality and that comes through in her writing, which, I know it’s cliche to say, is both poignant and humorous and most of the time humorously poignant.

Each chapter covers a specific memory or topic. Or memories as the vehicle for addressing big topics that include but are not limited to Athill’s miscarriage, aging, her childhood in Norfolk, fashion, WWII, colonialism in the Caribbean, her various love affairs, and her preference for being the “other woman.”

She writes it all in matter-of-fact prose with acknowledgement of her own “prosaic” tendencies. And yet, she does cover beauty, writing a passage on “looking” that, I’ll admit, gave me permission to enjoy a pastime I couldn’t have put a name to, which is looking, observing, really seeing something that interests you.

“Looking at things is never time wasted. If your children want to stand and stare, let them. When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But there it has remained, tucked away in hidden bits of my mind, and now out it comes, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring. And giving me this book, of memories, thoughts and reflections, which does – roughly – add up to being a report on what living for ninety-seven years has taught one rather lucky old woman.”

SargentPortrait

 A pic I took on my phone to remember the moment

Personally, I think of wandering the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where I went for the first time last summer. I was in a state of bliss, content to stand in front of the Sargent portraits til my eyeballs fell out. Now I know that looking is a thing, I’m going to spend more time doing it.

I also found out that I am not alone in how I have grown to perceive poetry and its place in my reading life over time.

“However, when someone asks me for my favourite poem and I answer Lear’s ‘ The Owl and the Pussy Cat ’, I am not being facetious. I really do prefer poems which tell a story to those that plumb the depths of experience, and those that depend largely on associations hooked up into a poet’s mind by words and images are lost to me. I read to see something, not to decipher codes.”

This was so validating for me. I got the impression that living life in your 90s is very freeing in the sense that you don’t worry about what people think of you (which Athill confirms for herself in the last chapter of the book). Wouldn’t it be great if I could give myself permission to live like that now?

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

How to Read a Dress: AKA, I love a book with pictures!

HowToReadADressJust wrapped up How to Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards. It was such a treat. If you have any interest in women’s fashion or historic dress, this is a fun book to add to your collection.

And if you’re a novice in this area like I am, it’s a great primer. I now feel like I know which parts of a historic dress to notice, from bodice to skirt, sleeves, and trim.

The book is organized into chapters spanning specific periods from 1550-1600 to 1960-1970. Each spread introduces the dresses being featured and gives some historical background along with a short overview of the specific trends the dresses exemplify. We also get some commentary on who might’ve worn such a dress and what for—day, evening, wedding, etc.

Dress1

Just looking at the fabrics is treat enough for me. I mean those stripes are 1

And here’s the dress from the intro to the 1710-1790 section. Can you imaging wearing something like that?

Dress2

One thing I really like about this book is the fun graphics. Each section begins with a page of silhouettes featured in the following pages.

My own pic – excuse the bad lighting:

Silhouettes

The whole book is just so put together. I think I’m going to buy a copy just to have it as a resource. Also, if you’re interested in fashion history, Lydia Edwards’ Instagram account is a fun one to follow. She features a lot of dresses that aren’t in the book.

How fun is it to read a book with pictures?

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Audiobooks, Top Ten Tuesday, What Shannon Read

10 of My Favorite Audiobooks

Walking

Walking home, listening to an audiobook, like I do

Top Ten Tuesday is sponsored by That Artsy Reader Girl.

I’m a day late, but I decided to post anyway. This week’s TTT is a “freebie,” meaning “make up your own topic.” So, because I love a good audiobook, I thought I’d highlight 10 of my faves.

In order for me to stick with an audiobook, I must must must like the reader’s voice, accent, inflection, and style. There are notable exceptions—Sweet Lamb of Heaven, for example, where the story/writing is so good that I’ll tolerate a terrible reader. But, for the most part, the reader is paramount.
So, with that bit of preamble, here we go.

10 of My Fave Audiobooks



049561. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, read by Davina Porter

Historical fiction, romance, sword fighting, and a great reader. The romance gets slightly ridiculous, but hey, that’s why you read this kind of book, for the dramatic departure from real life. And Davina Porter’s reading is on point.

This audiobook was on repeat in the car for awhile when Jake was younger. I think Harris’ voice is burned into my brain. But it’s a delightful book and the narration is fantastic.

Actress Juliet Stevenson is my top favorite reader. There’s something about her British accent. And she’s just great at doing voices without overacting those kinds of things. I’m hoping she’ll record herself reading the phone book someday just so I can fall asleep to it. One good thing about following a great reader is that they usually pick awesome books to read and I can always depend on Stevenson for that.

4. The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry, read by Jayne Entwistle

95607Another actress and reader with a fantastic British accent. But Entwistle’s voice is completely different and she really shows what it can do with the various characters in this very British children’s novel. It’s a Victorian boarding school, so you know I’m all about it. Entwistle is another reader I can count on to lead me to great books.

War5. The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, read by Jayne Entwistle

Another Entwistle for your listening pleasure. I adored this story. Usually I don’t pick up stories set in WWII, but this one touched on a topic of interest: children sent away from London during the bombing. The main character, Ada, will tug at your heartstrings from the get-go.

Flight.jpg6. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, read by the author

Kingsolver isn’t my favorite reader, but she does, as the review on audiofile says, nail the main character’s Appalachian twang. And the writing is just so beautiful that I willingly overlooked Kinsolver’s imperfections as a narrator and got sucked into the story.

Kitchen7. The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, read by Bahni Turpin and Orlagh Cassidy

I almost don’t want to write about this book because I loved it so much. I couldn’t do it justice. The story features two narrators as different characters, though the story centers on Cassidy as Lavinia, an indentured servant on a Southern plantation.

Cool story time – I actually emailed author Kathleen Grissom after I finished this book in tears and told her how much it affected me. She wrote back such a warm, kind response. One of my top author interactions ever.

Mare8. The Mare by Mary Gaitskill, read by Kyla Garcia, Christa Lewis, Sean Pratt, and Nicol Zanzarella

This book was more about the story than the readers for me, but, actually, I can still hear Ginger’s voice in my head. And it’s been two years since I listened to this book.

OCT9. The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery, read by the author

Another one where the story did more for me than the reader. Ask Ben. I’m still talking about this book. It’s one of those animal books that makes me want to be a vegan out of respect for the animals in it. But now we know plants have feelings, so if I keep on like this, I’ll have to start photosynthesizing.

BAD10. A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket, read by Tim Curry

Tim Curry is a great reader. I highly recommend listening to the books in the series that he reads. Lemony Snicket himself takes over at some point in the series and Jake and I were upset by this bait and switch.

Note: All links (except for Henry and Ribsy) go to book reviews on Audiofile because I think it’s a fantastic resource for audiobooks.

Here’s a link to the TTT post on That Artsy Reader Girl.

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