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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2018 Classics Challenge, Fiction, Kids books, Uncategorized, What Shannon Read

The Secret Garden

2998I always want to re-read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett in the spring. Watching things come alive for sad little Mary Lennox is such a delight and this time around it definitely helped me pay attention to the small signs of spring around here. I’m also cataloguing it as my re-read of a classic for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge.

Anyway, if you don’t know the story, the book is a classic of children’s literature set in England in the early part of the 20th century. It’s the story of ten-year-old Mary Lennox, who is born and raised (and spoiled) in India. She’s raised mostly by Indian servants who bow and scrape to her and, again, she’s generally a spoiled brat.

As the book starts, a cholera epidemic wipes out her family and her servants leaving her alone in the house at the same time. Once discovered, she’s shipped to England to live at Misselthwaite, a manor in Yorkshire belonging to her uncle Archibald Craven.

Thus begins my dream life: Mary is pretty much left to her own devices. Servants wait on her and, while she’s lonely at first, she has the run of the mansion as well as the grounds. She makes a friend of Martha, the serving girl who brings her meals, and hears from her about a special garden that’s been locked up for ten years, since the death of the mistress of the house.

Some Things I Love About This Book:

  • IMG_20180405_173333298

    Spring in Northern Indiana is about crocuses and waiting…

    The change in Mary from a skinny, bratty sourpuss to a little girl experiencing the wonders of the natural world as children should. The idea is that nature is transformative: “…and after she had stared for a while she realized that if she did not go out she would have to stay in and do nothing — and so she went out. She did not know that this was the best thing she could have done, and she did not know that, when she began to walk quickly or even run along the paths and down the avenue, she was stirring her slow blood and making herself stronger by fighting with the wind which swept down from the moor. She ran only to make herself warm, and she hated the wind which rushed at her face and roared and held her back as if it were some giant she could not see. But the big breaths of rough fresh air blown over the heather filled her lungs with something which was good for her whole thin body and whipped some red color into her cheeks and brightened her dull eyes when she did not know anything about it.”

  • Exercise is transformative too: “Mary felt lonelier than ever when she knew she was no longer in the house . She went out into the garden as quickly as possible , and the first thing she did was to run round and round the fountain flower garden ten times . She counted the times carefully and when she had finished she felt in better spirits.”
  • And lastly, so are thoughts: One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts — just mere thoughts — are as powerful as electric batteries — as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison. To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live. So long as Mistress Mary’s mind was full of disagreeable thoughts about her dislikes and sour opinions of people and her determination not to be pleased by or interested in anything, she was a yellow – faced, sickly, bored and wretched child. Circumstances, however, were very kind to her, though she was not at all aware of it. They began to push her about for her own good. When her mind gradually filled itself with robins, and moorland cottages crowded with children, with queer crabbed old gardeners and common little Yorkshire housemaids, with springtime and with secret gardens coming alive day by day, and also with a moor boy and his “creatures, ” there was no room left for the disagreeable thoughts which affected her liver and her digestion and made her yellow and tired.

I’m leaving lots of details out, but that’s because I think you’ll enjoy reading them yourself. All the above is to say that this novel is many things for me: it’s a romp in Yorkshire; it’s about having a mansion to yourself; it’s about making friends when you are friendless and alone; and it’s about the power of nature and beauty and even your own thoughts. I loved every freakin’ minute of it.

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

The House Next Door

HouseNextDoorAs I’ve mentioned before, I’m constantly on the lookout for good ghost stories and The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons has been on my list for a while. I finally got a copy from the library and read it on my recent trip to Seattle, which was kind of a weird location in which to read something by one of the doyennes of Southern lit.

The story centers on Colquitt (yep) and Walter Kennedy who live in an upper-middle class neighborhood among a group of neighbors with whom they’re very close. A little too close, frankly. Everybody in this book is an introvert’s worst nightmare. But even extroverted Colquitt, who narrates the story, begins to feel shy about the people living in the house next door, especially around the time the third couple moves in. At that point, anyone would be gun-shy.

The first couple, Pie (lol) and Buddy Harralson, actually build the house next door with money from Pie’s father. They’re newlyweds who bring by everyone in their sphere to meet the Kennedy’s, including the home’s architect, Kim Dougherty, who becomes a good friend.

Turns out Kim and the Harralsons are building a contemporary-style home in an old, established neighborhood, which ends up working out beautifully because of the way the light-filled home works within its forest-y surroundings. Unfortunately, the Harralsons don’t live in it long as things start to go wrong while the house is being built.

Haunted house fans will recognize the telltale signs:

  • Small animals wind up dead (like, their remains are viciously decimated) including the Harralsons’ obnoxious new puppy.  😦
  • Pie, who’s pregnant, falls on the site and loses the baby.
  • The architect becomes more and more consumed with the house, which takes up all his time and energy, to the detriment of his talent and general architect mojo (obsession is a key element in haunted house stories).

Things go terribly and irreparably wrong at the Harralsons’ housewarming party. And in the end, things go totally wrong for all three families that live in the house. It turns out, the house preys on the families’ weaknesses to wreak havoc on their minds and in their relationships. It even starts to work on the closest neighbors, including the Kennedys and anyone who spends too much time there.

That said, none of the scenes gave me that particular don’t-wanna-get-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-to-pee thrill I’m always looking for. Nothing in the story was downright scary. Also, there was no explanation for why the house, a brand new build, ruined the lives of all its owners.

But, honestly, I didn’t mind. I liked Colquitt enough as a narrator and enjoyed the interactions between all the neighbors. Siddons brings you right into the world of their “set” and part of the fun was living that upper-middle-class life right along with them. An island vacation house? Where do I sign?

All in all, I’d rate the haunting a 3/5 and the book overall a 4/5 because it really suited my tastes.

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Fiction, What Ben Read

Revenger

revengerRevenger: The hype quotes on books have gotten way out of hand.

“A swashbuckling thriller,” “Packed full of adventure…The most enjoyable book Reynolds has ever written,” (ellipsis as quoted) and from the publisher “Revenger is a rocket-fueled tale of space pirates, buried treasure, and phantom weapons, of unspeakable hazards and single-minded heroism…and of vengeance.”

I read Reynold’s acclaimed debut novel, Revelation Space and thought it was really cool albeit a tad ponderous. So this seemed perfect: same great real-scientist science fiction, spicy new space pirate content. And a not-so-daunting 400ish comfortably spaced pages. I’m in.

The reality was…not quite what I’d hoped.

It was slow getting started. Just when I was starting to lose patience it picked up. Things started humming along nicely, and then inexplicably started to drift again. But the action rallies in the end, building to a satisfying climax.

The plot and characters didn’t quite feel completely real. I could sometimes see the puppet strings as characters were dragged through scenes and plot points to get them where they needed to be. Somehow the book seems to both move slowly and rush through character development.

And for all the piratical hype, very few buckles were swashed. Spoiler alert:
*****Pirates appear a total of twice in the book. And it’s the same pirates both times. No other pirates even really merit discussion, let alone an appearance. There might only be one pirate ship in all of space.******
I’m picking on Reynolds here, but there have been plenty of worse books plastered with the same breathless acclaim. This was just the last straw in a long line of shameless blurb mongering.

I didn’t hate the book. I read it all the way through. The universe is intriguing, with hints of grander and darker forces than are revealed in this volume. I think I probably would have liked it more if I’d been able to take it for what it is rather than going in with the wrong expectations.

So please enjoy this new, more accurate version of the publisher’s description:

“Revenger is a tale of glorified junkyard pickers, stashes of old technology, and phantom weapons, of fairly serious danger and eventual heroism…and of vengeance.”

Final verdict:
Kinda cool if you take it for what it is. 3/5 ion drives
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