Fiction, Re-reading Project, What Shannon Read

Re-reading Project: Object of My Affection

ObjectofMyAffectionBookA while ago I realized I was slowly buying and re-reading all the books I loved as a teenager and young adult.

When I remember a book, I buy it and am slowly re-stocking my library with books I loved during those formative years.

I thought it would be fun to track this, sort of a side reading project. You know how I love a reading project: Exhibit A, Exhibit B.

Last night I finished Object of My Affection by Stephen McCauley. I enjoyed it. I had to laugh at Teenage Shannon though. Why this book in particular? What drew me to it in the first place? Why did I read it five or so times at the age of 16? How odd and endearing.

The story is about narrator George Mullen, who is gay and lives in Brooklyn with his closest friend, Nina. When Nina becomes pregnant and decides to keep and raise the baby, she asks George to raise the baby with her.

The narrative becomes a peculiar will-they-won’t-they, but not between two lovers, as we’re generally used to. Instead, we follow the friendship between two people who are wholly devoted to one another, but must navigate a huge change ushered in by circumstance.

I love the character of George. He’s just so relatable. He has fears about being underemployed, for one thing. He’s a kindergarten teacher at a private school in Manhattan and he gets criticized for this even though he’s clearly good at his job.

McCauley excels at writing dialogue and I particularly enjoyed George’s conversations with his little student Doran Dunne, whose parents are battling through a divorce and constantly fighting over him. At one point, George loses his temper with Doran, then apologizes (Daniel and Theodora are Doran’s parents):

Excerpt I also enjoyed the tight focus on the main characters. There’s George and Nina, of course, but also Nina’s boyfriend Howard and George’s coworker, Melissa.

Howard is a wonderful character. He’s a big personality, a take-charge legal aid attorney, who is deeply in love with Nina and has hilarious nicknames for her “She’s a Dumpling!” he declares to George at one point, crying on the couch after Nina begins to push him away.

All in all, I wonder if it’s the unique characters and Brooklyn setting that captured the attention of Teenage Shannon. I’m going with that.

I’m leaving out whole parts/themes of the book in this review, like George’s love life, but maybe you’ll want to discover those for yourself. I recommend it and am glad I re-read it. Good find, Teenage Shannon.

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Audiobooks, Fiction, What Shannon Read

Two decent thrillers with unreliable narrators

I was painting the trim in the upstairs bathroom this weekend and used the opportunity to listen to a couple of audiobooks while I worked.

Both psychological “thriller” type novels, they really captured my attention and I ended up just lying in bed part of yesterday and finishing the second one. This may or may not be related to the fact that I, ahem, overindulged a bit on Saturday night.


49199918._SX318_The first was The Housekeeper by Natalie Barelli.

I mentioned last Friday that I was listening to this, saying how much I loved the narrator, Susie Berneis, who totally made the experience for me. I honestly don’t think I would have read this in regular hard copy format. But Berneis’ wry tone and husky smoker’s voice kept me listening.

The story follows Claire, a young woman on a mission to clear her father’s name and enact justice on the woman, former nanny Hannah Wilson, who Claire believes ruined her family’s lives.

It’s a twisted tale with a somewhat unreliable narrator. Claire is underemployed, lazy, conniving, and really kind of a mean person. She’s out for revenge and you don’t really know why until about a third of the way through the story when it is revealed that as a young woman Hannah worked in Claire’s family’s home as a nanny while Claire was growing up. After a few months, Hannah went home and then accused Claire’s father of molesting her. The wealthy family lost everything during her father’s trial and both Claire’s parents died in dramatic fashion.

Now, Claire is working as a housekeeper under a fake name in Hannah’s home, also caring for Hannah’s baby, Mia. But as she gets more involved in their lives, from reading Hannah’s diary to attempting to lure her husband Harvey into an affair, it turns out Claire is not the only one in the household living a double life.

Dum dum dum…..

This book was just good, juicy, dramatic (and yes, sometimes melodramatic) fun.

I did think the reveal about Hannah’s accusations came a bit too soon. And the drama-filled ending was kind of rushed. Too many reveals all at once. It was kind of cheesy. But I still enjoyed it, the way some people would enjoy a soap opera. It’s generally well-written and the characters are interesting.

Claire reminded me of Marie in Bad Marie or the protagonist in My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Not a great person, but you kind of root for her anyway.


49188648._SX318_Next, Hoopla, the app I listen on through the library, recommended The Wives by Tarryn Fisher and I cued it up.

It’s read by a talented narrator and actress,  Lauren Fortgang. I quite enjoyed her young-sounding but very clear voice.

The narrator of this story, who we know as “Thursday,” begins by telling us about her relationship with her husband Seth.

She is Seth’s second and official wife. But he has two others. This is an arrangement Seth has offered Thursday and she has agreed to live the life of a polygamist, never meeting or talking to Seth’s other wives, attempting to be satisfied with seeing her husband only on Thursdays.

Out of curiosity and rising jealousy, however, Thursday begins to investigate Seth’s other wives. She knows only what he tells her about them, that his first wife, Regina, never wanted children and instead was focused on her career as an attorney. That’s why Seth sought out a relationship with Thursday. He wanted a family and Thursday was in love with him, happy to bear his children. Unfortunately, Thursday became pregnant and her baby died. She then had an emergency hysterectomy. And then Seth added a third wife, Hannah, to the mix. Hannah is currently pregnant with Seth’s child.

This drama is all forced to a head by Thursday’s snooping and what you think you know about each character is called into question at the halfway point. From there, Thursday reveals herself to be unreliable as a narrator, but we only see the story from her perspective.

It’s a fascinating tangled web and there are some very dramatic revelations toward the end. Some tidy, some cheesy, all enjoyable.


I find I get frustrated with unreliable narrators. It’s a trope I tend to avoid. But both of these books were so fun, specifically because you couldn’t trust the protagonist’s points of view.

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

What We Lose

33280160You know how people sometimes compliment a nonfiction book by saying that it reads like fiction?

Well, What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons is a novel that reads like nonfiction—but I mean that as a compliment!

Thanks to the first-person narration, the interspersed photos, and the very real history, this book read like a memoir to me in the best possible way.

The excellent first-person narration is the star of Clemmons’ show. Protagonist Thandi has been raised in Philadelphia by a South African mother, who is a nurse, and American father, who is a professor and administrator at a private college. They are close with Thandi’s mother’s family in South Africa and they own a vacation home there.

Due to her light skin, and being raised in a suburban neighborhood, attending schools with mostly upper-middle-class white kids, Thandi walks a cultural tightrope, feeling neither here nor there when it comes to race.

In high school, a white classmate tells her she’s “not like a real black person,” meaning it as a compliment. And, when Thandi gets into a prestigious college, another sneers “affirmative action.”

Meanwhile, we learn how apartheid South Africa has shaped her mother’s world view and Thandi grapples with her mother’s opinions and big personality, coupled with grief now that she is dying of cancer.

Clemmons hits you with this grief from the first scene of the novel, where Thandi and her father are sharing a meal together, her mother’s absence a paradoxical presence between them.

Interspersed throughout the story are historical discussions that range from apartheid to women who marry serial killers, often complemented by black and white photos. There are also pages with just one poetic sentence, like “Sex is kicking death in the ass while singing.” Surprising, but totally relevant within the context of the story. Both ugly and beautiful at the same time.

The whole arrangement of parts gives a sort of “collage” feel to the book and you really do have to read the entire thing, viewing it as a single body, if that makes sense, to appreciate it.

Clemmons is an immensely talented writer and she makes it work. I read it in an evening and I’m glad I did.

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2020 When Are You Reading? Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

When Are You Reading? Challenge: The Ballroom

This year, I’m participating in the When Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sam of Taking on a World of Words.

This book is my selection for the years 1900-1919.


26797014I don’t seek out books about insane asylums, but when one presents itself, I am certain to check it out from the library.

In particular, The Ballroom by Anna Hope presented itself on my last library trip.

Set in 1911, the story revolves around three central characters, Ella Fay and John Mulligan, two patients (inmates), and Dr. Charles Fuller, a doctor at the asylum. The asylum is located in Yorkshire, England at the edge of those moors wandered by Jane Eyre & co.

The asylum is everything you’d expect a 1911 insane asylum to be. There are terrible people in charge, Nurse Ratchets everywhere, and the accommodations are lacking in basic necessities, heat for example.

The inmates work to keep the asylum running, doing laundry and growing food, etc. John, in fact, digs graves at the beginning of the story, and Ella is put on laundry duty.

The circumstances around Ella’s imprisonment are heartbreaking. A worker in an Irish clothing factory, Ella is driven by sheer boredom and despair to an action that lands her in the asylum. I won’t spoil it for you though. John’s story is equally sad.

As the book progresses, Ella and John find each other at one of the asylum’s Friday dances, which take place in, you guessed it, the ballroom. The fact that they even have a ballroom is wild, but that is explained in the story too.

Lording over the ballroom is Dr. Fuller, Charles, as we come to know him, who is not just a doctor, but a talented musician and official band director for the asylum. A man of his times, Charles is, I’m sorry to tell you, interested in eugenics, and wants to pioneer sterilization of the poor and insane at the asylum.

Throughout the story, we get a peek into common treatments of the “insane” and daily life in an asylum in Edwardian England. That’s really what I was in it for. If you are too, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

The book was immensely readable. Hope is a talented writer who pulls you right along from the beginning. I did wish the story focused on the perspective of one character, Ella, but then we wouldn’t know as much about Charles, a complex character with a secret.

In the end, I enjoyed this book very much, though I don’t see it becoming a favorite.

Sorry for the bland review. My brain is full thanks to work right now.

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Fiction, Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 historical fiction books I loved

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The three loves of my life in one pic

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly top ten list hosted by Jana at Artsy Reader Girl.

This week, the theme is ❤ love ❤ . Since I’m doing a historical reading challenge this year, I thought it might be fun to share historical fiction I’ve read and loved in the past.

Here goes!


1. The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton

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I discovered Anya Seton’s excellent historical fiction last year and started with The Winthrop Woman. It features a strong female character in colonial America. I now want to read all her books.

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2. The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier

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Featuring another strong female in a different era – the English civil war. Funny, I always think of du Maurier as one of my favorite authors and yet I’ve only read two of her books. This and Rebecca. Must remedy that.

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3. Clara Callan by Richard B. Wright

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Set in rural Ontario, this one is about two sisters and their relationship, as well as their different choices during a time of cultural upheaval. Clara’s sister moves to NYC to become a radio star and something terrible changes Clara’s life. Just talked myself into re-reading it…

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4. The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

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Murder at an English boarding school. What could be better? I’ll tell you. The audiobook version being read by the talented Jayne Entwistle, that’s what.

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5. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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Lesbian characters, 1920s London, murder, Sarah Waters’ incredible storytelling. Audiobook read by Juliet Stevenson. You can’t go wrong.

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6. The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

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More strong female characters, this time enslaved women of the antebellum South.

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7. Doc by Mary Doria Russell 

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I freakin’ love Doc Holliday. And at the hands of Mary Doria Russell, he comes to life, as does the 19th-century American West.

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8. The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

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Starring the woman who is hired to be the chaperone of early film star Louise Brooks. I might re-read this one too, actually.

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9. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles 

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If you enjoy tangled webs of tricky and codependent relationships played out to great drama in historic settings, you’ll probably like this as much as I did.

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10. Brief Gaudy Hour: A Novel of Anne Boleyn by Margaret Campbell Barnes

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One of my favorite English queens through the eyes of Margaret Campbell Barnes, a talented writer who probably doesn’t get remembered as she should. And isn’t that a great book title?

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I could go on, but this is a top ten. I just adore this genre. As you can tell, I lean toward women’s stories, though the books I’ve listed here are mostly focused on white women’s stories. I aim to read more diverse books this year.

That said, got any historical fiction recommendations for me? Bonus points if they feature minority women characters!

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2020 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

2020 Classics Challenge: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

TwentyThousandLeaguesUndertheSeaJules Verne, you entertaining S.O.B.

My reaction while reading the initial chapters of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne was one of utter amusement. As I remarked to Ben, anyone who says the classics are boring isn’t reading the right classics.

I was vastly entertained by the plot and characters of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. One of Verne’s classic adventure novels, this book is the origin of numerous names and tropes that would live on in the science fiction genre in perpetuity.

The novel follows narrator Professor Pierre Aronnax, a French marine biologist who joins an expedition on an American frigate, the Abraham Lincoln, in hot pursuit of what is believed to be a rowdy narwhal causing trouble in the open seas.

Of course, the narwhal turns out to be that contraption you see on the cover of the book, a uniquely designed submarine called the Nautilus, which boasts a full crew commanded by the formidable Captain Nemo.

I knew the name Captain Nemo, but didn’t know where it came from. Isn’t it funny how bits of culture become so universal that you can be aware of them most of your life without knowing the origin?

This is exactly why I take joy in the classics challenge. I feel like I am getting an education on all the important books I missed in school, despite having covered a lot of ground as an English major.

I digress.

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How cool is this pic? I really want to learn more about actual Narwhals now. Source

Noteworthy notes about the book:

  • The most interesting conflict in the book, to me, is the fact that the professor and his two companions are held captive on the Nautilus. From the time they are rescued from death at sea by Captain Nemo, he warns them that they are to live out their days on the submarine. Death at sea is the other option and they are alive at his pleasure. So, while traveling in the submarine is a grand adventure, it is also a prison for the three captives which keeps the reader asking “Will they escape?” until the end.
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  • Team Ned Land forever. Ned Land, a Canadian harpooner, is along for the ride. He’s a classic jock/meathead type who is quite disgruntled at having been taken captive and eager to get back to land. One of my favorite lines of his is in reaction to Aronnax encouraging him to look forward to their first meal aboard the Nautilus:
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    “Bah!” said the angry harpooner, “what do you suppose they eat here? Tortoise liver, filleted shark, and beef steaks from seadogs.” Lol.
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  • This is very much a book of its time, by which I mean there is racism. When Aronnax and his companions come upon the people of Papua New Guinea, I’m afraid they refer to them as savages, cannibals, and wretches. Ick.
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  • Science fiction readers will be accustomed to some of the technical descriptions in the book. These are especially lengthy while Captain Nemo is explaining the workings of the submarine to Aronnax.
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    I found passages like these mind-numbingly boring, however:
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    “When you are about 1,000 feet deep, the walls of the Nautilus bear a pressure of 100 atmospheres. If, then, just now you were to empty the supplementary reservoirs, to lighten the vessel, and to go up to the surface, the pumps must overcome the pressure of 100 atmospheres, which is 1,500 lbs. per square inch.”
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    Sorry, but I have no patience for this sort of thing.
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  • I loved the awe-inspiring scenes of underwater travel. Coral reefs, an ice tunnel, an underwater volcano, majestic ocean animals, and schools of fish are all featured.
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  • That said, I should have known that spending time, even in my imagination, in a submarine under the sea would give me anxiety. Anything that hints remotely at possible loss of oxygen makes me nervous and cringey and moments in this book were no exception. I had to remind myself to breathe at times.
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  • The ending was not. satisfying. at. all.

I’ll leave it there as I’ve run on much longer than I intended, per usual. Overall, worth the read. But I’m still mad about the ending.


Back to the Classics 2020This is my selection for category 9. Classic with Nature in the Title for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen of Books and Chocolate.

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2020 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

2020 Classics Challenge: Ethan Frome made me mad at first

5246Not the book, the man.

As you can see, I am continuing my theme of reading short classics that pack a punch (à la Passing by Nella Larsen).

I sped through Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton this week. It is my first Wharton novel. It just happened to catch my interest on the library shelf and, at an easy 99 pages, I thought it may be a way of easing myself into her oeuvre.

In the beginning, Ethan Frome looks to me like a man who only wants to see himself reflected in the woman he loves, rather than loving the woman for who she is.

He falls hard for his wife’s cousin, who, 20, orphaned, and unmarried, comes to be a sort of caregiver and helper to Frome’s sickly wife Zeena (Zenobia—isn’t that a great name?).

Ethan’s story starts off with a scene where he is creeping around a church hall, spying on the dance happening inside, and specifically on the young woman, Mattie, who he is in love with.

He watches her through the windows and then hides in the shadows where she can’t see him. Watching her brief interactions with the various young men, Denis Eady, son of the town grocer, in particular, Ethan’s jealousy mounts.

Turns out, this creeper was there to walk her home and instead of just walking up to her, he decided to creep on her instead. This pissed me off to no end. And because it made me mad, I kept reading. Way to keep me involved, Wharton.

After my initial irritation with Ethan, further reading led me to understand what drove him to seek himself reflected in the eyes of the woman he loves. First, he led an austere childhood in rural New England in the aptly named fictional town of Starkfield. He cared for sick parents, whose illnesses, coupled with the utter silence in his home, left him bereft of human contact.

WinterSky

Austere winters – hmmm, sounds familiar.

The following passage helped me to develop some compassion for Ethan:

There the silence had deepened about him year by year. Left alone, after his father’s accident, to carry the burden of farm and mill, he had had no time for convivial loiterings in the village; and when his mother fell ill the loneliness of the house grew more oppressive than that of the fields. His mother had been a “talker” in her day, but after her “trouble” the sound of her voice was seldom heard, though she had not lost the power of speech. Sometimes, in the long winter evenings, when in desperation her son asked her why she didn’t “say something,” she would lift a finger and answer: “Because I’m listening”; and on stormy nights, when the loud wind was about the house, she would complain, if he spoke to her: “They’re talking so out there that I can’t hear you.”

Can you imagine? Wharton so thoroughly communicates the loneliness Ethan must have felt through those sentences. The silent, oppressive winters of rural Massachusetts are a perfect backdrop.

Given his history, and the fact that his wife, Zeena, has descended into the same preoccupation with illness, along with the same pervasive silence, it’s no wonder Ethan longs to be seen.

This post is already too long and I feel like I could write a book about this book. So, I will just offer a few more bullet points to sum up my thoughts:

  • I loved the character of Zeena. Could have used more development there, but I didn’t mind that she was a somewhat two-dimensional villain.
  • The broken red dish. What a scene when Zeena discovers it!
  • Unfortunately, the character of Mattie, Zeena’s cousin and Ethan’s object of affection, is just that. She is a two-dimensional ingénue, simple, sweet, endlessly good-natured, and pretty, and serves only to motivate Ethan’s feelings and actions. That makes the story nice and tight, but I would like to have seen more focus on her perspective.
  • There is a surprising and sad, sad ending. The novel ends in great irony, which I will leave you to discover for yourself.

Goodness, if you read all that, I applaud and thank you!

Obviously, I so loved this book. It’s a quick read, yes, but if you love exquisite writing, you may enjoy lingering over the language and perfectly constructed sentences as I did. Likewise, the tragic events of the plot.


Back to the Classics 2020This is my selection for category 7. Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen of Books and Chocolate.

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