Fiction, What Shannon Read

Where the Heart Is: I should have known better

WheretheHeartIsbookThere are so many books I come across and think, “Why isn’t this a movie?”

Take, for example, one of teenage-Shannon’s favorites, Downtown by Anne Rivers Siddons. It’s a well-written novel by a doyenne of Southern literature with a lovable protagonist, Smokey, a small-town Georgia girl who moves to big city Atlanta to write for a premier magazine under an infamous editor during the escalation of the Civil Rights movement in the South. This. This should be a movie. But it’s not.

And yet, some agent or producer read Billie Letts’ 1995 novel Where the Heart Is and said, this. This should be a movie.

Which, I guess I can see. It was a successful film as films go, right? It starred Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, and Stockard Channing. And, sure, it features Novalee Nation, a lovable teenage protagonist from small-town Tennessee who is pregnant and delivers her baby at a Walmart by herself….OK, nevermind, I just convinced myself that, yes, this book could have made a good movie.

The subject, yes. The writing – ehhhh. Like, why was it chosen by Oprah’s Book Club? The writing is not that good. It’s all melodrama. (I know, the more fool I, right? I mean, it’s called Where the Heart Is for heaven’s sake.)

I picked it up because I have a weirdly fond and somewhat poignant memory of watching the movie on TV. I was 19 and around seven months pregnant with Jacob. I was living with my parents and had woken up in my childhood bedroom that morning with severe cramping. My mom and best friend nursed me through the worst of it and laughed with me when it turned out to be……………gas. Yeah. Anyway, we watched the movie on TV while I was coddled and fussed over due to a debilitating case of pregnancy gas.

The point is, I remember it fondly and, thus, when it came up as a newly available Kindle book at the library, I checked it out. It was an easy read and I was in the mood for something light. Something heart-warming. Something you might pick up in the line at the supermarket. This seemed like just the ticket.

And it was except for one small issue. I’d be reading about little Novalee and her encounters with the kooky yet endearing people she meets in the Walmart parking lot and suspending my disbelief just fine when – BAM – turns out the boyfriend who left her there was raped in prison and his rectum was torn!

Criminy. Too sudden and too real, Billie!

The whole book was like this. Novalee is doing great and falling in love and maybe having a few problems here and there but generally doing OK when – BAM – the person she’s closest to dies! Sheesh. I was not prepared.

And that’s why, in my mind, this book will always be a Lifetime Book. The movie should have been a Lifetime movie and the book is most certainly a Lifetime-style book.

Be careful what you read.

BAM!

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2019 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

Excellent Women

29927840I had a blast the past two weeks listening to the audiobook version of Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, narrated by one of my favorite voice actors, Jayne Entwistle.

I only learned of Pym’s existence in the past year, having come across her novel Quartet in Autumn via a list of books about friendship on Five Books (such a great rabbit hole of a website, btw!).

As Excellent Women is a “high comedic” novel, I thought it’d make a great choice for the Comic Novel category in the Classics Challenge. It did not disappoint.

Protagonist Mildred Lathbury is a mild-mannered spinster in post-WWII England. A now-orphaned clergyman’s daughter, Miss Lathbury is one of society’s “excellent women,” those helpful, supportive types who live heavily tied to their duties toward their families, neighbors, and parishes.

The novel follows Miss Lathbury as she welcomes new neighbors to the flat above hers, a couple that includes a hopelessly sociable and handsome flag lieutenant husband and a stylish wife who is an anthropologist pursuing a love interest outside her marriage.

Miss Lathbury quickly gets pulled into their affairs, including the wife’s relationship with her love interest, a rather stiff and stoic fellow anthropologist bearing, I am delighted to report, the name “Everard Bone.” Pym excels at naming characters.

Miss Lathbury is also a very active member of her parish and, before widow Allegra Gray moves into the neighborhood, is somewhat expected to marry the local vicar Julian Malory. Malory, who has remained single into his 40s, lives with his sister Winifred, who has taken on the role of vicar’s wife in the parish. His life, it seems, depends on the excellent women around him.

Each of these relationships has its little dramas throughout the novel. Through it, we watch Miss Lathbury come into her own somewhat, as she becomes fed up with people’s expectations that she involve herself in their unnecessarily complicated romances and relationships.

I enjoyed the whole romp. The village itself reminded me a bit of Middlemarch with its quirky characters and tedious dramas. I loved Miss Lathbury too, especially when she becomes irritated with the people around her and starts laying down boundaries. I loved that she gets annoyed with being the kind of woman who’s always making a cup of tea in a crisis. And , moreover, that she lives a quiet life with which she’s quite happy. There are lots of charming comments on domestic life.

“My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.”  

I can truly relate to that.

Would love to know your thoughts if you’ve read this one!

P.S. As stated, this is my entry for the Comic Novel category of the 2019 Classics Challenge.

 

 

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Fiction, Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

And there went all of August and September…

I started this post about four times and couldn’t think what to say…which is exactly the problem! I haven’t had much to say over the course of the last two months. And while I’ve thought about my blog every day during that time, it was only with a vague wistfulness and the thought that I really should maintain it if I expected anyone to read it ever again.

So, here I am, attempting to get back into a bloggy mode and I do, in fact, have a few thoughts about the books I’ve been reading. So here’s a bit of a round-up post.

Books I’ve Read Recently and Also Had Some Thoughts About:

35580277Blood Sisters by Jane Corry: This book is just about completely ridiculous. Especially the last chapter. And the one where the sister with brain damage gets pregnant and marries her boyfriend with Down’s syndrome in her care home, defying logic and good sense. Not because he has Down’s syndrome, but because of the circumstances surrounding the pregnancy and both party’s inability to care for the coming baby, or have a marriage at all, come to think of it. In fact, the whole novel defies good sense throughout. But…I still read it through to the end and if you’re looking for a light thriller-y read, I would actually recommend it. One of my favorite audiobook narrators, Jayne Enwistle reads a part in the audiobook version. Read it and commiserate with me over the ridiculous, slap-dash final chapter.

Fascinating. This is a memoir by one of the best friends of Anna Sorokin (alias Anna Delvey), a young Russian woman who conned New York City’s wealthy out of their pocket money. But DeLoache Williams was a not-so-wealthy close friend of Anna’s who also got conned. Working in the photo department for Conde Nast, DeLoache Williams has some ins to the fashionable City scene. She is so young and trusting and listening to her read her own book via the audiobook version was quite touching. It’s full of millennial speak, including real text message exchanges, and a delightful glimpse into certain New York City hotspots at a very particular moment in history.  Further reading via the New York Times and The Cut will give you all the background you need. But even after reading those articles, I still wanted to read DeLoache Williams’ book and I’m glad I did. I found her to be a capable and charming, if youthful, writer.

17333432Man Repeller: Seeking Love. Finding Overalls. by Leandra Medine: And speaking of New York City fashion, I also read Medine’s book in an afternoon. It’s…OK. I honestly quite enjoy the Man Repeller site and, while I find Medine’s personality somewhat grating, I still wanted to know the story behind it. Come to find out, there isn’t much of a story. Just a young, privileged, though hardworking, New York City woman obsessed with fashion who possessed a unique viewpoint: fashion that makes the male gaze irrelevant. Enough of a stance for me to get behind, but I was surprised at the complete lack of exploration of this viewpoint in the memoir. Instead, we get her childhood, the beginnings of her eating disorder, which is also not well-explored (I imagine because it is ongoing), and only the very start of her blog. Which is fine. Medine is a solid fashion writer and I found myself wishing for more descriptions of clothes and outfits and less about her childhood. I’ll still read the blog.

32819894Restart by Gordon Korman: I really enjoyed this young adult novel, which is the story of a school bully with amnesia that causes him to mend his ways. It’s pretty straightforward with somewhat stock characters and a familiar theme to anyone who’s read A Christmas Carol and the like. But I enjoyed Korman’s writing and the quirks of the various characters in the novel. I thought Chase’s character development was a bit of a stretch given that he was a bully before his accident—even with memory loss, can a bully transform into a compassionate friend and champion of justice? Perhaps so. Would recommend this one.

42270835._SY475_The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: This novel by the author of bestseller The Underground Railroad has received a lot of acclaim this year. And for good reason. It’s pretty much a Shawshank Redemption set in Jim Crow-era Florida. It’s the story of Elwood Curtis, a nearly college-age black boy sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called The Nickel Academy. Injustices and hardship abound and there is a devastating ending in store. Highly recommend.

 

Have you read any of these? Would love to hear your thoughts!

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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.

AnnaKareninaMovie

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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