2019 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

Anna Karenina: I’m in it for the love stories, tbh

155I’m gonna’ need a major palate cleanser after plowing through Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina in one month. I’ve read 7 books so far in 2019 and I feel like I’ve read 20.

Anna Karenina is Tolstoy’s great novel centering on Anna’s love affair with Count Vronsky and, despite its doorstop status, this tome had me from the get-go.

About a zillion issues affecting 19th-century Russian society are covered in the novel and I do not know enough to talk about them intelligently but, to name a few, they include: liberal reforms (especially the Emancipation reform of 1861), the Industrial Revolution, education reform, military conflict, and the decline of the landed gentry. Also, art, beauty, and religion. I can see why it’s known as “the best novel ever written” (I read that somewhere) because it covers a lot of ground and covers it eloquently with sympathetic and multifaceted characters.*

But like the delinquent former English major I am, I noticed these themes and, rather than ponder their great truths, rushed through to the bits with the love stories. I’m hopeless, apparently.

The will-they-won’t-they gets me every time.

And the characters are just so wonderfully diverse and interesting. Who has time for social issues?

For starters, there’s Prince Stepan “Stiva” Arkadyevich Oblonsky, Anna’s brother and a civil servant who, at the beginning of the novel, is wrapped up in a drama with his wife Dolly. She’s just discovered his infidelity and while I felt for her, I couldn’t help but thoroughly enjoy Oblonsky. As Tolstoy described his morning routine, I had A Well Respected Man by the Kinks running through my head.

“There was no solution, but that universal solution which life gives to all questions, even the most complex and insoluble. That answer is: one must live in the needs of the day—that is, forget oneself.”

Oblonsky goes about his business like the well-respected man about town that he is and, while his obliviousness and lack of empathy for Dolly infuriated me, I still found myself enjoying his scenes.

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I’m going to watch the Keira Knightly movie this week, even though I find her to be something of a tomboy who inappropriately clomps about most costume dramas.

There’s Anna, of course, who’s just so desperate and foolish-in-love and totally likeable. She shows remarkable self-awareness as she carries out an affair with Vronsky, but I was irritated as I watched her become powerless over the emotions that carry her away to her last fateful action. Which, tbh, I did not really understand. The build-up to this dramatic end was just not there for me.

And next, Kitty (Princess Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya – man, Russians have long names) with whom Levin (Konstantin “Kostya” Dmitrievich Levin) falls in love, provides the other love story in the novel. At the beginning of the novel, she’s actually  in love with Vronsky, who’s not in love with her, but is leading her on like the incorrigible fuckboi he is.

Levin pursues her and there is a great skating scene at the beginning that really gets you in the mood for some Russian weather. You can’t beat the sense of place in this novel. But anyway, by the end of the novel, Kitty is married to Levin and has given birth to their first child. She becomes a woman and because of her darling personality I think, it’s a joy to watch her grow.

And thus ends my terribly lacking discussion of the novel. I loved it and as far as I know, it is a fantastic introduction to the classic Russian novels. As translator Rosemary Edmonds says, (I read this on Wikipedia) it covers the “vast panorama of Russian life” and I certainly finished the novel feeling as though I’d gotten a foot in the door with Tolstoy.

*(All the while I’m typing this, I know that books and papers and studies have been written on this novel and by much smarter people than me, so my discussion of it pales in comparison to what’s available. I’m not worthy and I know it, so this is a basic, man on the street-type review.)

p.s. This is my entry for the Translation category of the classics challenge.

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2019 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

The King’s General

6349535Raise your hand if you read Rebecca like six times as a teenager. Just me?

The movie adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s best-known novel, Rebecca, was released in 1940. It starred Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and somewhere in the 90s ended up on AMC where little Shannon watched it probably on a sick day.  I had strep throat a lot as a kid.

All that was my introduction to Daphne du Maurier. As a grown-up I read Rule Britannia and, in honor of the classics challenge this year, I plowed through The King’s General, her novel set in Cornwall during the English Civil War.

It was…interesting.

The story centers on narrator Honor Harris, who tells us about her childhood, betrothal to a gentleman scoundrel (my favorite character – think Rhett Butler), and, sadly, her loss of the use of her legs in a riding accident on the eve of her marriage.

What I Liked:

  • The gentleman scoundrel: Richard Grenvile is your classic spoiled rogue. His life revolves around being a badass soldier, swindling relations out of their fortunes, and scandalizing the county with his carousing. Like any good romantic hero, he also possesses a tenderness reserved only for the heroine. In other words, he’s a Blanche in the streets and a Dorothy in the sheets. 😉
  • Honor’s personality: She’s a bit rebellious herself and, because she’s a “cripple,” her family attributes her with a certain amount of wisdom she doesn’t necessarily possess. But she admits that right away, is amused by it, wields it to her advantage, and thus shows a certain endearing self-awareness.
  • The house: Menabilly is an actual estate in Cornwall and du Maurier lived there and restored it while writing this novel. It is also the house where Rebecca is set, though it’s, of course, called Manderley in that story. You get a real sense of Cornwall and of the estate in this book. There is lots of sneaking around secret passages and the like.
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Menabilly gatehouse via Wikipedia

What I Didn’t Particularly Like:

  • The pace: This story began to drag about halfway through. When the war reaches the doorstep of Menabilly, where Honor and some of her relations are holed up waiting out the fighting, things get interesting. But when the parliamentary army leaves again and Honor and her associates are no longer prisoners in a mansion, the trickle of action slows to a drip. I got bored and had to really focus to plow through.

A tidbit: This novel reminded me very much of, well, every novel I’ve read from, say the 18th-19th centuries, in that its characters and the situations were somewhat typical. By situations, I mean the situations in which characters found themselves and the ways in which they reacted.

So, Honor loses the use of her legs. She then considers herself a burden, doesn’t want to burden the man she loves (Richard Grenvile), and also doesn’t want to be seen as a cripple by the man she loves. So she refuses to see him and cuts off all communication with him. He moves on with his life and ends up marrying a rich widow.

Now if that doesn’t scream heroine of classic European fiction, I don’t know what does.

Seems to me the main issue of unrequited love in the novel could’ve been solved with a good talking to.

Do read it, though, if you like interesting heroines. Du Maurier never fails me there.

p.s. This is my entry for the classics challenge Classic by a Woman Author category.

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2019 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

Emma Bovary: victim of circumstance or classic narcissist?

30374787Finished the last third of Madame Bovary by the great Gustave Flaubert last night and I have the eye strain to prove it.

As I read and iced my temples with the cool glass of the ice water I was drinking, I began unconsciously adding up Emma Bovary’s crimes against reason in my mind and it dawned on me that I was cultivating a very negative opinion of her. In fact, I was tallying her failures as I perceived them and feeling quite smug about it.

As you may or may not know, this is the classic work of French ennui. It is Flaubert’s first novel, published in 1865, and caused a scandal that resulted in litigation because of its salacious content (thanks to Emma’s affairs).

The story centers on Charles Bovary, a country doctor, and Emma Bovary, his pretty, well-educated (in a convent) wife who, to quote Disney’s Belle, wants much more than this provincial life. Charles is in love with his wife and does his best to please her, though, like any man of his time, he requires a hot supper each night and the little woman to provide him the many comforts of home.

Over time, Emma’s interest in Charles dies with her longing for a more interesting life and he quickly becomes odious to her. In fact, I can’t remember if she liked him in the first place. But anyway, her increasing dissatisfaction prompts her to initiate a couple of affairs with other men and, especially in the last half of the novel, she also drives the couple deeply into debt, making one terrible financial decision after another, losing Charles’ inheritance to boot, and resulting, as you also may know, in Emma’s suicide.

I should have pity for Emma. Her boredom, fickleness, selfishness, and general negativity are all understandable given her station and this particular moment in history. She’s a woman, first of all, and her options are limited, despite her good education, to, um, marriage. As a member of the middle class in rural France, there’s literally no other respectable role for her but wife and mother.

I should also be kind because, honestly, I really sympathize with Emma. I wholly identify with her disappointment in the monotony of day-in, day-out life as it comes, and with her longing for excitement and her inability to create any of her own. Her life is lived in a constant paralysis.

“She longed to travel or to go back to her convent. She wished at the same time to die and to live in Paris.” 

I mean, I get it. I’m not paralyzed, but I see how one could be.

And yet I can’t help feeling terrible for poor Charles. He’s a good man and a decent doctor and he cares deeply about his wife, even if his expectations of her reflect the chauvinism of the times. I go back and forth on Charles: he was duped and cuckolded and is just living out the prescribed circumstances for a man of his station. On the other hand, he’s a willing cog in the machine of a Western society that, generally speaking, raises men above women in all aspects of life. But how would he know any different? I realize that’s a stretch and I’m bringing a really contemporary and feminist perspective to this novel and I’m not sure I’m meeting it where it lives.

Back to my original idea and the title of this post. As I was reading, I developed the fun game of of tallying up the qualities in and behaviors of Emma that resembled the classic narcissist.

  1. Emma is emotionally manipulative of (with?) her husband and her lovers. She alternately showers them with love and then withholds love to serve her purposes. She expertly “handles” Charles, at turns cooing and browbeating him to get what she wants (for example, when she obtains his permission and the money to go to Rouen ostensibly for piano lessons, but really to see her lover).
  2. Emma is overly concerned with status and disappointed in Charles for not being a more prominent doctor. Along with Homais, the local chemist, she is the engineer and primary champion of a surgery that Charles attempts on a servant man which goes horribly wrong.
  3. Emma exhibits lack of empathy. Things happen to her and her feelings matter more than anyone else’s (especially when she’s manipulating people to get what she wants).
  4. Evident in her affairs, Emma is preoccupied with fantasies of ideal romance.

So, I’m conflating actual symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder with a lay-person’s understanding of what narcissism is, but you get my point. Some of Emma’s problems are self-created but the personal qualities or emotions that drive her to create them are born of her circumstances. If that makes sense.

How did I feel about the book in general? I loved it. And I was sad at the end when things went horribly wrong. Having been in debt myself, Emma’s financial missteps were especially agonizing. That bothered me more than the suicide, tbh.

Have you read it? Would love to know your thoughts!

p.s. This is my book for the “Classic Tragic Novel” category in the 2019 Classics Challenge.

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2019 Classics Challenge, Uncategorized

2019 classics challenge

BTCC Berlin BooksI started the 2018 Back to the Classics challenge with hopes high and ended up reading six of 12. I’m not upset about it. That’s six more than I otherwise might’ve read.

With equally high hopes but no illusions, I’ve decided to start the 2019 challenge (info. here). 

Here are the categories and my plans for them. 

1. 19th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1800 and 1899.
This will most probably be Dickens. The Pickwick Papers? May as well start at the beginning I suppose.

2. 20th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1900 and 1969. All books in this category must have been published at least 50 years ago. The only exceptions are books that were published posthumously but were written at least 50 years ago.
So many options for this, but I’m thinking Memoirs of a Woman Doctor by Nawal El-Saadawi. This would also qualify for #s 3 and 4.

3. Classic by a Woman Author.
A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Lucy Bird. I brought this back from a family trip to Arizona 20 years ago and haven’t read it. But I kept it all those years with plans to read it. That’s dedication to a TBR list, people.

 4. Classic in Translation. Any classic originally written in a novel other than your native language. You may read the book in your native language, or its original language (or a third language for all you polyglots!) Modern translations are acceptable, as long as the book was originally published at least 50 years ago. Books in translation are acceptable in all other categories as well.
It may be time for Anna Karenina.

5. Classic Comic Novel. Any comedy, satire, or humorous work. Humor is very subjective, so if you think Crime and Punishment is hilarious, go ahead and use it, but if it’s a work that’s traditionally not considered humorous, please tell us why in your post. Some classic comic novels: Cold Comfort Farm; Three Men in a Boat; Lucky Jim; and the works of P. G. Wodehouse.
I’m thinking Cold Comfort Farm.

6. Classic Tragic Novel. Tragedies traditionally have a sad ending, but just like the comedies, this is up for the reader to interpret. Examples include The Grapes of Wrath, House of Mirth, and Madame Bovary.
Will likely slog through Madame Bovary for this.

7. Very Long Classic. Any classic single work 500 pages or longer, not including introductions or end notes. Omnibus editions of multiple works do not count. Since page counts can vary depending on the edition, average the page count of various editions to determine the length.
War and Peace? Les Mis? Doctor Zhivago?

8. Classic Novella. Any work of narrative fiction shorter than 250 pages.
I’m thinking: Passing, Silas Marner, or O Pioneers! Just found this helpful list.

9. Classic From the Americas (includes the Caribbean). Includes classic set in either North or South America or the Caribbean, or by an author originally from one of those countries. Examples include Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (United States); Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Jamaica); or One Hundred Years of Solitude (Columbia/South America).
So many great options: The Stone Diaries (Canada); The Purple Land (Uruguay); Treasure Island (the Caribbean)

10. Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania (includes Australia). Any classic set in one of those continentss or islands, or by an author from these regions. Examples include Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt); The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki (Japan); On the Beach by Nevile Shute (Australia); Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Nigeria).
Possibly The Pillow Book by Sei Shonago (Japan) or The Grass is Singing (Zimbabwe)

11. Classic From a Place You’ve Lived. Read locally! Any classic set in a city, county, state or country in which you’ve lived, or by a local author. Choices for me include Giant by Edna Ferber (Texas); Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (Chicago); and Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (Germany).
Looks like this is the year I read A Girl of the Limberlost.

 12. Classic Play. Any play written or performed at least 50 years ago. Plays are eligible for this category only.
I do not enjoy reading plays, but here we are. I’m thinking A Doll’s House, Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Death of a Salesman, which I have neither read nor seen.

There you have it. Quite a multicultural list this year and I’ve been wanting to work on reading more diversely, so I’m looking forward to so many of these!

Are you doing any reading challenges this year?

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