2019 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

A Girl of the Limberlost

915344b6c5624cc02e5fc17c9e45894662815b80A Girl of the Limberlost by novelist and naturalist Gene Stratton-Porter is an Indiana classic. And since I live in Indiana and needed a book for the Classic from a Place You’ve Lived category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge, I thought this was the year I should read it.

First published in 1909, the novel follows the story of Elnora Comstock, a farm girl growing up near the Limberlost Swamp in northeastern Indiana. The swamp, a real place, was eventually drained between 1880-1910 for agricultural development.

Elnora lives on a farm with her widowed mother Katharine Comstock, a hard woman that reminded me of Marilla Cuthbert (from Anne of Green Gables) but without the obvious love that underlies her tough exterior. In fact, Katharine was giving birth to Elnora as her husband drowned in quicksand in the swamp, and so Katharine blames her daughter for her husband’s death—because apparently she thinks she would’ve been there to save him if she wasn’t giving birth?

A true leap of logic there, but whatever. Anyway, poor Elnora bears her mother’s scorn her whole life. In the beginning of the story, she’s an outsider, starting high school as a bit of a pariah because she’s poor and doesn’t wear the right clothes to begin with. But she a loving neighbor couple who act as her aunt and uncle. They buy her clothes and browbeat her mother into helping provide what Elnora needs for school.

To earn money to pay for school and the things she needs, Elnora sells specimens left to her in a box in the woods by Freckles, the title character of Stratton-Porter’s previous novel. I didn’t know until I’d finished it that A Girl of the Limberlost is actually considered a sequel to Freckles. I just saw the character Freckles mention in AGOTL and was like, “Who the hell is Freckles?” Anyway, I guess I’m not as careful a reader as I think I am because I probably should’ve figured that out.

As time goes by, Elnora makes friends at school, befriends an orphan boy that her neighbors adopt, has a climactic altercation with her mother that brings them closer, and gets involved in something of a love triangle with a nature-loving young man and his former fiance.

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Limberlost State Historic Site in Geneva, IN

All the while she makes money selling specimens from the box or those she collects herself to the “Bird Woman,” a naturalist character who apparently stands for Stratton-Porter herself.

I feel like, other than summarizing the plot for you, I don’t have much to say about this story. I felt it was kind of like an Indiana version of Anne of Green Gables, except that I didn’t care about the characters as much. I liked learning about the flora and fauna of the swamp as I am a nature-lover myself, but even that kind of bored me after awhile.

That said, I’m definitely going to find a book on Stratton-Porter because she must’ve led a really interesting life for an Indiana girl. Wikipedia says she was one of the most popular novelists of her time. I’d heard of her, but I didn’t know she was that popular. I’m also going to visit her former home and greenhouse, which are now part of a state historic site.

So that’s what I really felt I got out of reading this novel. I learned more about a whole realm of Indiana literature that I have yet to explore. And that excites me.

p.s. As mentioned above, this is my book for the Classic from a Place You’ve Lived category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge.

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2019 Classics Challenge, Fiction

Theater

31326Have you heard of the author/playwright W. Somerset Maugham? I hadn’t. Not until I pulled his 1939 novel Theater from a library shelf at random a few weeks ago. I enjoyed it so much that I’ve added some of his other novels to my TBR.

This story is tightly centered on Julia Lambert and her husband Michael, both London actors. Julia has become known as one of the greatest actresses of all time at this point, and Michael, while a serviceable actor, learned early on that his talent lay in producing and directing.

The book tells the story of their rise to success in the theater world. And like many stories about successful women, we meet Julia at mid-life, when her career is the best it’s ever been, and yet…there’s something missing.

She ends up having a brief affair with an accountant who takes a shine to her, but is mostly interested in her lifestyle. Julia and Michael are very rich by this point. The affair muddies up her sense of self and her confidence in who she is as a person outside of her art.

The story pulls in many themes in the examination of Julia’s marriage and her rise in the London theater scene. All of that is quite fun.

But the most interest in this story for me lies in Julia’s dance with her own image. Throughout the story, she’s constantly confronted with reflections of who she is and who she thinks she is as these concepts battle for emotional real estate.

Essentially, what people think of her and what she thinks of herself are intertwined, as they are for almost all people. But the fact that she’s an actress magnifies this and makes mining through her emotional landscape difficult.

There’s a great ending scene where her son Roger confronts her, telling her what she’s been like as a mother and where that’s left him in life. Julia has a choice about whether to take in what he’s saying and become willing to look at herself from an honest perspective. The will-she-won’t-she kept me reading to the end.

p.s. This novel counts as my entry for a 20th-century classic in the 2019 Back to the Classics challenge.

 

 

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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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Fiction, What Shannon Read

The Woman in the Window

40389527I knew what I was in for with The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn and I read it anyway. Apparently, the world is not yet tired of unreliable, boozy narrators a la The Girl on the Train and the violence they can’t seem to prevent from their proverbial perches.

Why is this a thing?

So, yeah, I didn’t really like The Woman in the Window. But I didn’t hate read it either. I just kind of went along wanting to see what would happen. Also, I love a good shut-in story. Aside from the agoraphobia, the estrangement of her family, and her impending divorce, narrator Anna Fox is kind of living the dream. She’s educated, wealthy, lives in a 4,000 sq. ft. NY brownstone, drinks a lot of wine (Ok, too much; alcoholism is not funny), and does pretty much whatever she wants all day. So…

Anyway, Anna is a children’s psychologist who is, we assume, estranged from her husband and daughter, though she talks to them every day. She’s agoraphobic and can’t leave her house. She spends part of her time watching the neighbors through the viewfinder of her camera. She also plays online chess, helps other agoraphobics through an online forum, and she is a classic film buff who is passionate about thrillers. Hitchcock and the like. There are a ton of classic films mentioned. It’s sometimes fun and sometimes borders on obnoxious. Like, OK, you don’t have to compare every mundane situation to an event or character in an obscure classic thriller.

Anyway, the real drama enters when Anna spies on her new neighbors. She meets the mother of the family, named not surprisingly after an old move star, Jane Russell, and eventually becomes embroiled in that family’s drama in a kind of Rear Window situation.

Tbh, I found this book to be a less adept version of The Girl on the Train. As I said above, the themes were similar, but the writing was also not all that captivating, and I also felt that the story did not build logically to one of the big reveals at the end—the answer to the question, “Who is the real Jane Russell?” I totally predicted the other big reveal about Anna’s family in, like, chapter 2.

Rating: 2.5 blood-curdling screams

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

Memoirs of a Woman Doctor: A Novel

817660Is this fiction or nonfiction? Honestly. I have never had such a difficult time figuring it out. I’m pretty sure it’s a memoir though, right? Even though the subtitle is “a novel.” ???

Ok, I just reread the intro. It’s a novel. Sheesh.

At any rate, these reflections, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor: A Novel by Egyptian author Nawal El-Saadawi (Catherine Cobham, translation), make up a collection published beginning in 1958 as chapters in a serial as far as I understand. The intro. was a little confusing. I was going to count this as a selection for my classics challenge but if, as I understood from the intro., this collection wasn’t published together until the 80s, well, that blows that idea.

All that is beside the point, however, as I enjoyed this peek into the brain of a truly brave feminist. The narrator tells of her upbringing in a traditional Arab (I know, broad, but that’s how she refers to it) household in Egypt where her father rules the roost, her mother aims to please, and her brother is afforded privileges the narrator can only dream about. Her mother is raising her to be a  proper wife, which ultimately results in rebellion.

As a child the narartor sees that unlike her, her brother is allowed the freedom to play all day, the best cuts of meat at the table, and the fun of turning somersaults or running when he wants. Meanwhile, the narrator is taught to cook and keep house. She’s outright told that she exists to serve the men in her life and is often paraded before potential husbands. Instead of assuming traditional expectations, however, El-Saadawi rebels. She devotes her adolescence and early adulthood to learning and  eventually becomes a medical doctor.

There are some icky descriptions of bodily functions, so watch out for those if they’ll bother you. But mostly the narrator takes us along as she uncovers the mysteries of the human body, fascinated by their function.

Her studies prove what she suspected all along: underneath their clothes, e.g., as cadavers lying on tables in a classroom about to be dissected, men’s and women’s bodies are mostly the same. She feels affirmed, despite the blatant sexism directed at her throughout a program filled with men, and concludes that men and women are, in fact, the same. Equals.

She goes on to practice medicine but there’s an odd section where she leaves her job and retreats to the hinterlands to “find herself.” And, weird though it was, I really liked that section. She leaves society in search of her true wants and needs and comes away with a sense of who she is on the inside, without the pressure of medical science or societal expectations of womanhood.

The thing I liked most about El-Saadawi’s writing was the way that she put things kind of bluntly. She explores complex topics but her writing is straightforward and self-assured.

“Why had God created me a girl and not a bird flying like that pigeon? It seemed to me that God must prefer birds to girls. But my brother couldn’t fly and this consoled me a little. I realized that despite his great freedom he was as incapable as I was of fling. I began to search constantly for weak spots in males to console me for the powerlessness imposed on me by the fact of being female.”

You feel the longing and the disappointment and the hope all at once in that simple passage.

The writing itself and the ideas therein are the star of the show here. The plot is secondary, in my opinion. The romantic ending – I wasn’t too sure about that. After all this strife, the narrator ends up happily married and that seems the end of her story. While it’s heartwarming and gratifying that she found love after a divorce, I can’t help but sigh at the story ending with a typical happily ever after. I console myself that the bulk of the novel was about self-discovery really, and for this character, that culminated in her ability to demand more of her relationships.

Also, there’s one scene where she and her boyfriend are sitting on a bottom stone of one of the pyramids, just hanging out, chatting. How cool would that be?

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