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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2018 Classics Challenge, Fiction, Uncategorized, What Shannon Read

Of Mice and Men

890Read my first Steinbeck novel yesterday. Somehow I managed to get through high school and college as an English major without reading a single volume of his work. Of Mice and Men looked like a nice, tidy little novella, so I picked it up at the library last week and read it in a couple of hours.

What a pleasure to go through such a tightly written work of fiction. I’ve been steeped in Brit lit from the 1700s and 1800s lately, so I just appreciated Steinbeck’s comparatively concise sentences.

Anyway, let’s see, given how tired I am today, if I can do this book any justice…Set during the Depression, Of Mice and Men is the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two itinerant ranch workers. We first find them on their way to Soledad, California, heading to a ranch to work. They’ve just left Weed, California, where Lennie, who’s mentally disabled, was accused of rape by a young woman on a ranch there. In truth, Lennie is fixated on touching soft things and when he saw the woman’s red dress, he wanted to touch it. But then he refused to let go of it and, apparently, scared her.

The pair make it to the ranch in Soledad and there, we meet the other ranch hands and learn some of their backstories. Wikipedia has a great run-down of those if you’re interested.

Lennie’s obsession with touching soft things leads to trouble that you can see building throughout the novella. Each time another character noticed or wondered about poor Lennie, I could feel my anxiety rising. Eventually, things come to a head and the ending is nothing short of poetic.

What struck me about this story was the absolute powerlessness of so many of the characters. George and Lennie dream of owning a parcel of land where they’ll farm and enjoy peace and quiet, with warm fires on cold nights and plenty to eat. It’s such a simple dream and yet, by the end of the novella, George despairs of ever achieving it.

Candy, an elderly ranch hand, has lost a hand in an accident. He’s still allowed to work odd jobs but he’s really not capable of much. In a blatant metaphor, Candy loses his beloved dog, who was also old and somewhat useless other than as a companion. A fellow ranch hand puts the dog down as it’s always in pain and can see Candy worrying the same thing will happen, or is happening, to him.

Those are just two examples of powerlessness in the novella. You get plenty more in the other characters, including the lonely wife of the owner’s son and Crooks, the African-American hand, who is isolated from the other. Throughout the novella is a pervasive sense that things are generally pretty terrible thanks to the down economy. While not hopeful, the story builds to a powerful ending. Thoroughly worth the read and I am pumped to find a few other Steinbeck novels to sink my teeth into. I’m comin’ for ya’, Grapes of Wrath…

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2018 Classics Challenge, Fiction, Kids books, What Shannon Read

Black Beauty

BBI thought I’d read a nice animal story after spending a delightful couple of days with The Secret Garden, you know, since I was in the mood for a classic children’s book. So I picked up Black Beauty by Anna Sewell and guys, I WAS NOT PREPARED FOR THIS.

I now know the particular effects of the mistreatment of horses, including but not limited to:

  • Forcing a bit into a horse’s mouth rather than coaxing the horse gently
  • Whipping a horse to make it go faster
  • Taking a jump that’s too high or far for the horse
  • Not feeding a horse correctly
  • Using a check rein to force the horse’s head higher than is natural for the sake of fashion

Omg. I was telling a coworker about how unprepared I was for an animal cruelty story, which inspired her to look up the wikipedia entry for Black Beauty. This is the quote she read me:

The impact of the novel is still very much recognised today. Writing in the Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, Bernard Unti calls Black Beauty “the most influential anti-cruelty novel of all time.”

Geez, no one told me.

Anyway, Black Beauty is the story of a horse of the same name born in 19th-century England. The book is written in the style of an autobiography, so Black Beauty is telling his own story. From his perspective, we watch as he is sold to several different owners, witnessing mistreatment of other horses and experiencing it himself along the way. He befriends other horses and we get their back stories too.

While the content was sometimes tough for me to read (especially the part where we learn how horses are trained to wear bits and harnesses – Jesus, why do we do this?!), the tone and Black Beauty as a narrator were both fun. He sometimes comments on the things humans do that seem strange to him and, as readers, we’re in on the joke. Anthropomorphism is great for revealing human foibles and giving us a chance to laugh at ourselves as well as reflect on our mistakes and correct them—apparently Sewell’s main objective.

Black Beauty takes us through all his owners and describes the work he does as well as the conditions under which he works. He has a few kind owners and a few awful owners. But there is a happy ending. The moral of the story is that horses need kind treatment and a certain amount of freedom, just like humans.

Also, we should stand up for what’s right:

Our friend stood still for a moment, and throwing his head a little back, “Do you know why this world is as bad as it is?” “No,” said the other. “Then I’ll tell you. It is because people think only about their own business, and won’t trouble themselves to stand up for the oppressed, nor bring the wrongdoer to light. I never see a wicked thing like this without doing what I can, and many a master has thanked me for letting him know how his horses have been used.”

Once I accepted that this was going to be a tough read, I got into the story. But I can’t say I enjoyed it.

Side note: I’m counting this one in the children’s classic category for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge.

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2018 Classics Challenge, Fiction, Kids books, Uncategorized, What Shannon Read

The Secret Garden

2998I always want to re-read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett in the spring. Watching things come alive for sad little Mary Lennox is such a delight and this time around it definitely helped me pay attention to the small signs of spring around here. I’m also cataloguing it as my re-read of a classic for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge.

Anyway, if you don’t know the story, the book is a classic of children’s literature set in England in the early part of the 20th century. It’s the story of ten-year-old Mary Lennox, who is born and raised (and spoiled) in India. She’s raised mostly by Indian servants who bow and scrape to her and, again, she’s generally a spoiled brat.

As the book starts, a cholera epidemic wipes out her family and her servants leaving her alone in the house at the same time. Once discovered, she’s shipped to England to live at Misselthwaite, a manor in Yorkshire belonging to her uncle Archibald Craven.

Thus begins my dream life: Mary is pretty much left to her own devices. Servants wait on her and, while she’s lonely at first, she has the run of the mansion as well as the grounds. She makes a friend of Martha, the serving girl who brings her meals, and hears from her about a special garden that’s been locked up for ten years, since the death of the mistress of the house.

Some Things I Love About This Book:

  • IMG_20180405_173333298

    Spring in Northern Indiana is about crocuses and waiting…

    The change in Mary from a skinny, bratty sourpuss to a little girl experiencing the wonders of the natural world as children should. The idea is that nature is transformative: “…and after she had stared for a while she realized that if she did not go out she would have to stay in and do nothing — and so she went out. She did not know that this was the best thing she could have done, and she did not know that, when she began to walk quickly or even run along the paths and down the avenue, she was stirring her slow blood and making herself stronger by fighting with the wind which swept down from the moor. She ran only to make herself warm, and she hated the wind which rushed at her face and roared and held her back as if it were some giant she could not see. But the big breaths of rough fresh air blown over the heather filled her lungs with something which was good for her whole thin body and whipped some red color into her cheeks and brightened her dull eyes when she did not know anything about it.”

  • Exercise is transformative too: “Mary felt lonelier than ever when she knew she was no longer in the house . She went out into the garden as quickly as possible , and the first thing she did was to run round and round the fountain flower garden ten times . She counted the times carefully and when she had finished she felt in better spirits.”
  • And lastly, so are thoughts: One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts — just mere thoughts — are as powerful as electric batteries — as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison. To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live. So long as Mistress Mary’s mind was full of disagreeable thoughts about her dislikes and sour opinions of people and her determination not to be pleased by or interested in anything, she was a yellow – faced, sickly, bored and wretched child. Circumstances, however, were very kind to her, though she was not at all aware of it. They began to push her about for her own good. When her mind gradually filled itself with robins, and moorland cottages crowded with children, with queer crabbed old gardeners and common little Yorkshire housemaids, with springtime and with secret gardens coming alive day by day, and also with a moor boy and his “creatures, ” there was no room left for the disagreeable thoughts which affected her liver and her digestion and made her yellow and tired.

I’m leaving lots of details out, but that’s because I think you’ll enjoy reading them yourself. All the above is to say that this novel is many things for me: it’s a romp in Yorkshire; it’s about having a mansion to yourself; it’s about making friends when you are friendless and alone; and it’s about the power of nature and beauty and even your own thoughts. I loved every freakin’ minute of it.

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2018 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

Evelina by Fanny Burney

Note: This is the first of my books read for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge for the author that’s new to me categoryEvelina

Evelina…so young, so innocent…so freakin’ afraid of everything.

I live down the street from one of my college English professors. When I moved in, six years after I’d graduated from college mind you, she popped an old graded essay of mine in my mailbox. She’d had it all that time. I got an A, by the way.

Anywho, last summer Ros saw me reading on the porch and stopped by to talk books. She told me some of the story of Evelina: Or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World by Frances (Fanny) Burney, which she had never read. She was delighted by it and I must say, I agree, despite the somewhat irritating greenness of the protagonist.

Dog in the sun on a porch

Someone else that likes to hang out on the porch

Evelina is a sheltered young woman (as were most young women of her era and station) who, as the full title says, makes an entry, somewhat accidentally, into 18-century British society.

Here’s a great plot summary on wikipedia. I’m not going to summarize the plot because, honestly, the ins and outs of the characters and locations may lose or bore anyone without an assured interest in the novel. Also, if you’ve read widely, you know that classics of this era (the book was first published in 1778) contain many complicated details and subtleties possibly only interesting to those who’ve read them.

A few thoughts I had while reading Evelina

The letters: This is the epistolary novel at its finest. The book consists mostly of letters from Evelina to Reverend Arthur Villars, her guardian and the man who raised her, from whom she is parted for most of the book.

Evelina Anville grows up: We spend a lot of time with Evelina as she learns to navigate the society into which she is thrust. This character development is both entertaining and gratifying as she transforms from a shy, nearly speechless (to anyone outside the Mirvan women), nearly motionless (refusing dances at a ball) girl with no real will of her own to a woman who competently stands up to her harassers, like Sir Clement (eventually) and the Branghtons, Evelina’s London relations, along with Madame Duval, who are a family of absolute boors.

At least she’s self-aware:

“Unused to the situations in which I find myself, and embarrassed by the slightest difficulties, I seldom, till too late, discover how I ought to act.” 

Evelina is irritating: I must admit, though, the process was somewhat frustrating. There’s a point at which Evelina writes to Orville to thank him for use of his carriage which her awful Branghton cousin requested in her name without her consent. He writes back assuring her that it wasn’t a big deal and, not only that, he’s delighted that she’s begun a correspondence with him and eagerly awaits her reply. Evelina is telling all this to her friend, Maria Mirvan, and spends the rest of the letter castigating herself for allowing him to think her so forward. It’s obnoxious. (The letter from Orville, by the way, turns out to be a trick by Sir Clement. We find out in the end that he’d intercepted her original letter and concocted a response, putting Orville’s name to it.)

The Branghtons and Madame Duval: Ok, it was kind of fun to watch them screw around and make a mess of their own interactions in a society which they are rich enough but too boorish to navigate properly. Also, the exchanges between Madame Duval and Captain Mirvan, a complete ass, are kind of hilarious as the captain spends most of his interactions inciting offense. It’s enjoyable to watch until it becomes simply tiresome.

Mrs. Selwyn: I felt the novel was seriously lacking in wit until this lady showed up in the last third or so. (Any wit to be found is mostly in the social commentary Burney is making along the way, I suppose.) Here she is throwing shade at two noblemen who’ve made a ridiculous bet over a carriage race:

“These enterprises,” said Mrs. Selwyn, “are very proper for men of rank, since ’tis a million to one but both parties will be incapacitated for any better employment.” 

Roasted.

Sentimentality: This is a sentimental novel written by a master of the genre. It went hand-in-hand with the gothic novel of this era, both of which were considered popular fiction. Reading it now, however, the big emotions come off as melodramatic.

Here’s Sir John Belmont after reading a letter from his long-deceased wife:

“Oh that thou could’st witness the agony of my soul!- Ten thousand daggers could not have wounded me like this letter!” 

There’s a lot of this. And to a modern reader, it’s a bit grating. But that’s the genre for ya’.

I’m sure I’m missing some important things about the fates of women in the era. Indeed, the book deals entirely with the fates of its female characters. But I’m sure someone other than me has made a better study of that than I could, so I’m going to nope out on that topic.

 

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Pillow Fort blog: 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge
2018 Classics Challenge, That Reading Life

Getting back to the classics

I usually pepper classics throughout  my regular reading, but in the past few years I haven’t read very many.

I re-read Jane Eyre last year. In 2016, I re-read The Color Purple. In 2015, I read Sons and Lovers and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (I think it was free on Kindle).

That’s it, folks. Kind of shabby for a former proud English major.

Anyway, when I stumbled upon Books and Chocolate and Karen’s Back to the Classics challenge, I thought this is for me. I know I said I would read whatever I wanted this year with no pressure, but the English major inside of me won’t let go of the idea of reading the classics I’ve missed.

So, here’s the plan.

I’m going to participate in Karen’s challenge and see if I complete it. If not, no biggie. If so, yay literature!

These are the categories and, next to them, the book(s) I’m thinking of reading for each one…

Dickens

I’ve barely read any Dickens.

1.  A 19th-century classic – any book published between 1800 and 1899.

Anna Karenina or some Dickens, I think.

2.  A 20th-century classic – any book published between 1900 and 1968. Just like last year, all books MUST have been published at least 50 years ago to qualify. The only exception is books written at least 50 years ago, but published later, such as posthumous publications.

Brave New World, which I somehow escaped reading in high school, Mrs. Dalloway, Animal Farm, or an outlier: Cold Comfort Farm

3.  A classic by a woman author.

The House of Mirth, Middlemarch, My Antonia, so many options…

4.  A classic in translation.  Any book originally written published in a language other than your native language. Feel free to read the book in your language or the original language. (You can also read books in translation for any of the other categories). Modern translations are acceptable as long as the original work fits the guidelines for publications as explained in the challenge rules.

This would be the perfect place to insert some more Russians: Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Gogol; or maybe The Three Musketeers, which I’ve always meant to read.

Phantom Tollbooth5. A children’s classic. Indulge your inner child and read that classic that you somehow missed years ago. Short stories are fine, but it must be a complete volume. Young adult and picture books don’t count!

This category is dear to my heart. I once set out to read all the Newbery winners and nominations and I think I read about 30 maybe? Of course, the Newbery is a modern invention and some of my contenders pre-date it. I’m just saying, I heart children’s books.

Possibilities:
The Phantom Tollbooth
Black Beauty
Heidi
Peter Pan
Robinson Crusoe

In Cold Blood6.  A classic crime story, fiction or non-fiction. This can be a true crime story, mystery, detective novel, spy novel, etc., as long as a crime is an integral part of the story and it was published at least 50 years ago. Examples include The 39 Steps, Strangers on a Train, In Cold Blood, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, etc.  The Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones list is an excellent source for suggestions. 

In Cold Blood or The Moonstone maybe? Agatha Christie? Sherlock Holmes?

7. A classic travel or journey narrative, fiction or non-fiction. The journey itself must be the major plot point — not just the destination. Good examples include The Hobbit, Around the World in 80 Days, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, Kon-Tiki, Travels with Charley, etc. 

I’m already re-reading the Lord of the Rings series. So, maybe I’ll count that or branch out. Top contenders would be On the Road, Grapes of Wrath, and Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Middlemarch

My literary fate?

8. A classic with a single-word title. No articles please! Proper names are fine — Emma, Germinal, Middlemarch, Kidnapped, etc.

So many good categories for Middlemarch. Is it destiny?

9. A classic with a color in the title. The Woman in White; Anne of Green Gables; The Red and the Black, and so on. (Silver, gold, etc. are acceptable. Basically, if it’s a color in a Crayola box of crayons, it’s fine!)

The Scarlet Pimpernel maybe. Or The Black Stallion. In researching titles for this category, I have to say I’ve already done a decent job of reading the important “color name” books (The Scarlet Letter, The Color Purple, The Woman in White, to name a few).

10. A classic by an author that’s new to you. Choose an author you’ve never read before.

I’m thinking of just going and standing in front of the classics section in the library for this one. I’m sure I’ll find a hundred authors I haven’t read.

War and Peace and Moby Dick

Where to begin?

11. A classic that scares you. Is there a classic you’ve been putting off forever? A really long book which intimidates you because of its sheer length? Now’s the time to read it, and hopefully you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

Is everyone reading War and Peace for this? I will have to do some digging to figure out anything else for myself.

12. Re-read a favorite classic. Like me, you probably have a lot of favorites — choose one and read it again, then tell us why you love it so much. 

As I mentioned, in the past couple of years I re-read The Color Purple and Jane Eyre. Both would make my top ten list for sure. The Secret Garden might be a contender. Or The Turn of the Screw, which I loved but haven’t read since high school.

On your mark, get set, eek!

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