2020 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

2020 Classics Challenge: Passing

349929Well, I don’t know how any of the classics I read next can possibly measure up the 1929 Harlem Renaissance-era novel Passing by Nella Larsen.

It’s a quick read, clocking in at around 122 pages. And those pages are packed with tightly focused prose which, along with the set-up of the book, felt very much like a play.

The book is divided into three parts, like acts in a play: Encounter, Re-encounter, and Finale.

Throughout each, protagonist Irene Redfield encounters and re-encounters former schoolmate Clare Kendry Bellew in both Chicago (their hometown) and New York.

Both women are black, specifically African American. Both are light-skinned. The book examines the consequences of the various ways in which the women have chosen to “pass” or not pass as white in society.

Irene married a black man, Brian, after school and they have a family. She passes when it’s convenient to do so. For example, in the first scene, she’s actually passing when she stops at a fancy hotel to have some iced tea and recover from the summer heat. That’s where she runs into Clare, also passing.

But Clare’s situation is different. She is living a secret life, totally passing as a white woman. In fact, she has married a white man who doesn’t know she’s not white. And—dramatic pause—that man is a terrible racist.

The re-encounter actually takes place at Clare’s home in New York City, where Clare’s husband comes home and, not knowing that Irene, along with another school friend who passes, are black, spouts off with a number of racists slurs, even jokingly greeting his wife with one.

Author Nella Larsen 1928 via Wikipedia

Author Nella Larsen in 1928, via Wikipedia

The irony is incredible. The language and outright racism are shocking to me. But, I’m not on the receiving end of any racism, so I’m guessing the disgusting jokes are all things many black Americans have heard before, in general if not directed at them.

The relationship between Irene and Clare is at the center of this book. It’s the lens through which race and the idea of passing are examined. Their interactions reveal their emotions and motivations around passing, as well as what leads each to the final action of the novel.

There are moments of incredible irony and even moments of humor. Larsen manages to elegantly pack in a wealth of themes in addition to that of race, from women’s friendship to marriage and adultery. The writing is lovely. The setting, against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance, gives one a real sense of the era.

I’m off to read more about Nella Larsen’s life. I know she has a couple of other books, most notably the novel Quicksand, which I will also be reading.


Back to the Classics 2020

This is my selection for category 5. Classic by a Person of Color for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen of Books and Chocolate.

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Audiobooks, Fiction, What Shannon Read

Paper Wife

45171444._SX318_The protagonist of Laila Ibrahim’s novel Paper Wife is one bad bitch. I loved listening to the audio version of this book read by Nancy Wu.

Set in the early 1920s, the novel follows Mei Ling, a young Chinese girl who is married to a widower that lives in San Francisco. She goes in place of her older sister, who becomes too ill to travel the night before her wedding is to take place. So Mei Ling, working through a Chinese matchmaker, is compelled to pretend to be her sister. Once wed, she finds out that in order to get into the U.S., she must now pretend to be her new husband’s deceased wife. She is also now mother to his four-year-old son Bo.

Bo becomes Mei Ling’s constant companion throughout the long and harrowing journey to San Francisco. Because it’s 1923, they go by ship and men and women, including husbands and wives, are separated on the ships. Children go with their mothers and so Mei Ling travels alone with Bo. It takes two ships, one from China to Hong Kong, and another from Honk Kong to Angel Island off the shore of San Francisco.

Thus, Mei Ling is thrust into a new life in which she must immediately navigate being married to a stranger, pregnancy, mothering a young child, grueling travel, and nervewracking immigration interviews in both Hong Kong and the U.S. And she must do it all while pretending to be someone else entirely. This is where the book’s title is taken from. She’s her husband’s deceased wife “on paper” and her papers get Mei Ling into the U.S.

What makes Mei Ling such a badass in my mind is her strength. Through the many daunting challenges of immigrating, she draws strength from her family back home. The parting words of her beloved grandmother echo in her mind. And she also relies on her faith, praying to goddess Quan Yin for protection and strength through adversity.

On the second ship, Mei Ling also cares for a six-year-old girl, Siew, who was brought aboard by an uncle, but separated from him while on the ship. Over the months-long journey, Mei Ling, Bo, and Siew become a family. June, an older woman who has already lived in San Francisco, befriends Mei Ling and helps her prepare for her immigration interviews.

Once they arrive in San Francisco, both Siew and June remain a part of Mei Ling’s life, though Siew is separated from her new little family. Searching for her and rescuing her from a terrible future consumes Mei Ling, even as she struggles to adjust to life in a new country.

This is an immigration story. While I came to care about the characters, I also appreciated the many details Ibrahim includes about the process of immigrating from China to the U.S. in the early twentieth century.

Because Mei Ling doesn’t understand English, narrator Nancy Wu reads the English spoken in front of her with the correct tone but only emits gibberish sounds. I don’t know how it’s written in the book because I don’t have a hard copy, but I thought that a brilliant way to show how a forgein language sounds to someone unfamiliar with it.

On her first trip to the Chinatown post office, Mei Ling learns that mail isn’t picked up. It’s delivered right to her home instead. She doesn’t know how many stamps to buy for a letter and a kind postal worker speaks to her in Cantonese and helps her learn the ropes.

Experiences like these, along with the overt racism on the part of white people on the street, drives home the isolation an immigrant might live in when unable to speak the language of their new country or attempting to understand unfamiliar customs. If you want to read a book that lays bare the immigrant experience in the 1920s, I highly recommend this one.

You’ll find many other joys along the way. They include the growing love between Mei Ling and her new husband, the incredible scene in which Mei Ling gives birth, and her and her husband’s dreams for the future of their family.

All in all, it was a wonderful listening experience and I was disappointed when it ended.

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

Woman No. 17

36030995._SY475_.jpgI’m always impressed when an author can move successfully between two different voices and perspectives in the same novel. Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki is a good example of this. The story features two separate narrators. The first is Lady Daniels, fledgling writer and recently separated mother of two sons living in the privileged world of the Hollywood Hills. The other is Esther “S,” the young nanny Lady hires to look after her toddler, Devin.

The story alternates between the two perspectives, both voices distinctive. I though Lepucki did an especially good job of making S sound young, though, for her youth, she probably displayed remarkable self-awareness. On the other hand, Lady doesn’t so much. And that’s part of her character.

Throughout the book, the women form a friendship. Lady has her first book deal and is struggling to write a memoir about herself and her older son, Seth, an 18-year-old who is mute. Seth is the son of Lady and an ex-boyfriend, Marco, who left the two when Seth was a baby. Now, lady is married to rich husband Karl and they have two-year-old Devin together.

S is a recent college graduate embarking on an art project that involves imitating the personality of her unreliable mother. She dresses, speaks, and drinks like her mom did in her youth, presenting a facade to Lady, while intensifying her “project” (aka, a lot of drinking) at night in the pool cottage where she lives. In the meantime, S and Seth form a relationship.

Mothers are a major theme in the novel as both Lady and S have fraught relationships with their mothers. Lady gives us background on her mother, also unreliable, but firmly in the past. And S’s feelings about her mother are revealed through current interactions throughout the book.

Social media plays a key role too. Lady is new to Twitter and her tweets are at turns funny and sad, but always revealing. Seth is on Twitter as well and it’s one of the ways he communicates.

Twitter helps bring things to a head when both Lady and her son Seth separately track down Marco on the platform, ending in a climactic scene the novel builds to steadily over the course of the book.

There are lots of fun details that add to the personalities of the characters and bring the setting, the Hollywood Hills, to life. For example, there’s Lady’s husband’s twin sister, Kit Daniels, a hugely successful photographer who plays the role of villainess in Lady mind.

Kit is a pretentious artist with money who dresses in “edgy” L.A. fashion, and capitalizes the nouns in her emails. You get a sense that Lepucki is poking fun at the L.A. art scene with her. Kit is an important character and gives the book its title as she took the photo of Lady that is titled Woman No. 17. Likewise, S tells the story of a college boyfriend, another pretentious artist who breaks up with her because art is “all I care about.”

Overall, the tone and feel of the book reminded me of kind of a mash-up of some of those super popular dark thrillers (Girl on the Train, etc.) with the malaise and quirkiness of a book like Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I enjoyed the atmosphere.

Have you read it? Tell me what you thought!

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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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