Fiction, What Shannon Read

The Wife

3942551I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed The Wife by Meg Wolitzer. If you are a wife or, more likely, if you were a wife and are now divorced, I imagine there are some themes here that will pique your interest. 

The novel’s narrator Joan Castleman is the wife of a literary giant, Joe Castleman. The couple’s lives revolve around Joe’s incredibly successful writing career and, as the book starts, they’re on their way to Helsinki so he can receive one of the world’s most prestigious awards for literature. 

Joan spends some time in the present, using the couple’s trip as a springboard for flashbacks on their history. She tells us how they fell in love in the first place (he was married, she was his student), about Joe’s struggles to become the preeminent novelist he is today, and about the experience of raising their three children. 

Along the way, we see how their relationship became what it is. We get all the resentments and struggles, which may sound tedious as I’m describing them, but I thought the book moved along at a great pace. I didn’t get bored with the background story as I often do. The story itself is interesting and Joan has a great dry tone that made me like her immediately. 

What fascinates me most about Joan is that she makes a big choice as a young woman that sets the stage for the rest of her life. We see her at that crossroads. She’s running away with her married professor and commits, with only slight hesitation, to being his wife, yes, but also his secretary, his sounding board, his bosom companion, and his number one supporter. She lives for him, essentially making his literary career possible. 

Also, the writing is fantastic. 

“Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives. Wives tend, they hover. Their ears are twin sensitive instruments, satellites picking up the slightest scrape of dissatisfaction. Wives bring broth, we bring paper clips, we bring ourselves and our pliant, warm bodies. We know just what to say to the men who for some reason have a great deal of trouble taking consistent care of themselves or anyone else. ‘Listen,’ we say. ‘Everything will be okay.’ And then, as if our lives depend on it, we make sure it is.”

All this builds up to a big reveal, which you may have guessed by now. And then, there is a very final ending, which I thought was rather uninteresting, just too easy an out. You’ll know what I mean if you read it.   

A warning: If you have any overarching anger surrounding men in high places, this novel could fuel your fire. But I recommend it anyway. 

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

The Perfect Mother was meh

35887193I finished The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy last week. I love a good kidnapping (not in real life, you know what I mean) and enjoy well-written thrillers, so this seemed like a good fit. I found Molloy to be a competent writer, but otherwise wasn’t too enamored.

The story centers on the May Mothers, a group of women living in NYC who gave birth in the same month and joined an online forum. They meet up in person to, you know, trade mom secrets and stories and try to one up each other as is usual in mom groups (I’ve found).

That’s one of the things that drew me to the book. I love the cattiness of the typical mom group. And I knew there’d be some in a thriller that focuses on motherhood.

One member of the group is a gorgeous woman, Winnie, the only single mother in the group. Because she seems to be suffering from the baby blues, the May Mothers organize a moms night out, providing Winnie with a babysitter, and meet up at a local bar for some fun.

Except that Winnie spends most of the evening looking at the baby monitor app on her phone. Her friend Nell surreptitiously deletes it in order to encourage Winnie to let go. Drinks are had. And, inevitably, the night ends in disaster when Winnie goes home to discover her baby is missing.

Here’s how Goodreads describes the rest of the book:

Though none of the other members in the group are close to the reserved Winnie, three of them will go to increasingly risky lengths to help her find her son. And as the police bungle the investigation and the media begin to scrutinize the mothers in the days that follow, damaging secrets are exposed, marriages are tested, and friendships are formed and fractured. 

Sounds juicy, right? But I found the book to be completely disjointed as it switches from mother to mother, changing perspective, revealing some complicated drama in each mother’s home life, but never giving a thorough examination of any.

SPOILER ALERT

The baby is found and it turns out it’s one of the May Mothers, Scarlett, who we don’t really get much background on until the end. So it feels a bit untidy as an ending.

In my opinion, this wasn’t much of a thriller. The best parts of the book, for me, were the glimpses into early motherhood and how the four or so main characters were handling it. I’d honestly read a book like that without the thriller elements and be OK with it.

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

In which I am annoyed by a book review

MyYearofRestandRelaxationWelp, after a four-month hiatus, here I am again. If anyone is reading, sorry about that.

And sorry for being sorry. Any time I visit a blog I haven’t read before and see that the most recent post contains an apology for lack of posts, I judge the writer as unreliable and pretty much never visit their blog again.

I truly hope there are more forgiving people out there than me.

Anywho, I’m back to say that I was appalled to read a NYRB book reivew by none other than the famous Joyce Carol Oates that was LARGELY SUMMARY. Well, summary supported by quotes.

Aren’t we all taught in third grade that in a book report you do not just summarize? No, nine-year-olds of America are required by their teachers to express original (if not unique or interesting) thoughts on what they have read.

JCO’s book review didn’t cut the mustard for either a book report or a review and I think I’m mostly annoyed because I just finished and loved the book she reviewed: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.

The title of the book, while not entirely misleading, somewhat belies the drama and struggle within. In fact, when I heard that the author of the disturbing Eileen had a new book out, I was interested, but then I saw the title and passed it up. My thinking was, if the main character is resting and relaxing, where’s the drama? What’s in it for me as a reader?

Turns out, plenty. In truth, the unnamed narrator’s year of rest and relaxation is a drug-fueled attempt at blotting out her own consciousness. Which she seeks to escape for a number of reasons, including a pervading/overwhelming ennui that I can honestly really empathize with. Other issues in her life include the recent deaths of her parents and a shitty on-and-off boyfriend, Trevor. The plot line I most enjoyed is her antagonistic relationship with her so-called best friend Reva. There’re a lot of sardonic moments like this one:

“I took a Polaroid of [Reva] one night and stuck it into the frame of the mirror in the living room. Reva thought it was a loving gesture, but the photo was really meant as a reminder of how little I enjoyed her company if I felt like calling her later while I was under the influence.”

LOL. That’s cold.

Several of the reviews of MYoRaR on Goodreads talk about how much the reviewer disliked the main character and how selfish she is. But I liked her. I got her ennui. I got that she was tired of the world such as it is. I could see why she was acting selfishly and I could even appreciate the dynamics in her relationship with Reva that led her to be straight up mean to her best friend. (I should add that there are redeeming moments for her, including attending Reva’s mother’s funeral because Reva wants her there.)

The narrator is a little bit spoiled brat and a little bit truth-teller. She’s honest enough to say what she wants and be who she wants and deal with her shit the way she feels best, even if that is via narcotic-induced stupor.

Also, in addition to empathizing with her feelings about life/the world, I think I’m less hard on her than the Goodreads reviewers because, in the end, she ventures back into the world. She doesn’t give up completely. She simply needed time to press the reset button. I can understand that. Though, does that say something about how I am willing to overlook misbehavior as long as one doesn’t give up on becoming a functional member of society? If she had, say, committed suicide in the end, would I have been less understanding and harder on her for giving up? I have a feeling that I would have been disappointed.

And speaking of being less judgmental, I’ll give Joyce Carol Oates a break here too. I can understand that JCO was probably on deadline with the Review and is probably also working on her next novel and probably also editing like 20 new short story compendiums. Sometimes, one only has the brain space for summary. Ask my third grade teacher.

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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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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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