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.

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.

What Ben Read, Fiction


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
Audiobooks, Fiction, What Shannon Read

Sweet Lamb of Heaven

32191727“Narrated by the author” is one of my least favorite phrases to hear at the beginning of an audiobook. Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet was no exception. Millet’s reading was flat and she swallowed her words at the end of many sentences.

…But that didn’t keep me from listening to this book and I feel like that says something.

This is the first of Millet’s novels that I’ve read and I had no idea how prolific she was until I started looking at her body of work. Millet is a writer’s writer, but lucky for us, she also knows how to move narration along toward a satisfying ending.

In this novel, in particular, we get the story of Anna and her precocious six-year-old daughter Lena, who live semi-permanently in a small hotel in Maine, where they’ve fled from Anna’s philandering narcissist husband Ned.

Since her baby was born, Anna has heard strange voices, which she attributes to auditory hallucination, though she’s otherwise a totally functional human being. Turns out, she’s not the only voice-hearer who’s been drawn to this Maine hotel. She and Lena get to know the protective owner, Don, as well as the other guests.

This is what drew me to the book, honestly. I was hoping for a good ghost story. I didn’t get it, but I honestly didn’t care because I felt such a sympathy for Anna. I loved that she isn’t all that concerned about her looks. She’s smart and a good mother. She’s an introvert whose daughter is an extrovert who brings other people into their orbit with her charm. I feel like I was a bit the same way when Jake was little.

Anyway, turns out Ned is running for office back in Alaska, but, to win the red state, he needs a family by his side. So, he begins to actively pursue the girls, becoming a threatening hound at Anna’s heels until, finally, he shows up one day, intent on bringing them back with him.

The threat of Ned is the main driver of the story—will he capture them or won’t he? And how? But this isn’t a straight thriller. It’s esoteric and doesn’t move as quickly as, say, a Chevy Stevens novel. But you’re also getting more literary bang for your buck.

Here’s the Slate book review if you’d like to learn more.

Fiction, Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

2 mini-reviews: The Year of Less and Break in Case of Emergency

Why am I grouping these two books together, you may ask. Well, for no other reason than that I finished them both over the weekend. They don’t particularly go together although they’re both easy reads.

The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store by Cait Flanders

1I was semi-interested in this book because I am a follower of personal finance blogs in the hopes that their frugality will rub off on me. Cait Flanders is a veteran in this arena. So I snagged her book at the library and, honestly, it wasn’t what I was expecting, but in a good way.

Flanders has a relatable voice, the same that comes across on her blog, and I found her really endearing as she describes her foibles and failed plans along the way to financial stability. She also talks about her family life, weight loss, and her decision to give up drinking, admitting her failures along the way, which is what really got me. She was so open and honest about her struggles and didn’t try to make poetry of them like hardcore memoir-writers do. I appreciated that. Sometimes you just want to peek into someone’s life without a literary education.

Break in Case of Emergency by Jessica Winter

2I discovered this book on this list of The 12 Worst Workplaces in Contemporary Literature. The library had a copy, so I grabbed it on Saturday and read it in a couple of hours.

If you work in an office, or if you’ve ever had to forward someone an email you already sent them to prove you did something, you’ll probably enjoy this one. It’s the story of Jen who’s been laid off during the economic crisis of the mid-aughts. She gets hired as a communications person for a nonprofit organization called LIFt, which ostensibly has the mission of empowering girls and women the world over, guided by a “weird jumble of Buddhism and libertarianism.” The first scene is a meeting in which company head Leora Infinatas (self-named) throws out incomprehensible platitudes as ideas in an effort to have a meaningful exchange with her employees. Everything’s very meaningful at LIFt.

Having encountered that particular brand of empty rah-rah, speaking-in-motivational-quotes bullshit through any acquaintance who’s ever participated in an MLM scheme, I was intrigued to see how this kind of language would be laid out in a novel.

Unfortunately, I found Winter’s writing to be cumbersome, packed with lengthy sentences stacked on top of one another. It’s a dense-ness that, I imagine, felt easier to write than it was to read.

This isn’t even the longest, but it’s a good example of the many actions and concepts that can be crammed into a Jessica Winter sentence or two:

“Jen stifled a smile and looked down at her open notebook, where she’d written board meeting notes with her fountain pen and gradually added serifs and flourishes until the letters became a row of gerbera daisies and flamingo lilies. From the first time they’d met, Jen recognized Karina as a master of the filibuster, but she hadn’t yet seen Karina cast the spell on Leora—the gift of shrouding any and every topic in a fluffy word cloud of reiterative agreement until the original query was swallowed up in the woozy vapor of resounding enthusiasm for an unstated but sublime goal.”

The text is blocky like that most of the way through, though it’s broken up at times by delightful dialogue, the most enjoyable being exchanges between main character Jen and her manager, Karina. Karina gives poor Jen no real guidance, even when Jen asks for it directly, and is the kind of boss that criticizes Jen for arriving 12 minutes late to work one morning after a fertility treatment.

Here’s a wee taste of the delightful horseshit Winter is poking fun at:

“Look, Jen,” Karina said to her computer, “if this opportunity just isn’t calling your name—if you just can’t hear it—I understand completely. There’s plenty of other people on the LIFt team who might be able to strike that harmony the moment they hear the tune, so to speak.” Karina clicked her mouse to open an email.

“No, no, I’m excited to go—I can hear the harmony!” said Jen, finally succumbing again to the lure of the cushion-laugh. “I can’t wait. Apologies for giving off a different impression.”

“Like I said, just open yourself up to the journey,” Karina said to her email.

So, those parts of the novel are definitely enjoyable. The rest was a sort of superficial exposition of Jen’s marriage, female friendships, and fertility issues. Lots of meaty topics there, but none of them delved too deep, and I wasn’t interested anyway.

Fiction, What Ben Read

Grown-ass man reads illustrated book of fairy tales and loves it

NorseGodsJust finished Susan Beard’s English translation of Norse Gods by Johan Egerkrans. Egerkrans is a Swedish illustrator and the original text was in Swedish. His retelling of the myths is fairly standard but enjoyable. He acknowledges a wide variety of sources, but as always with this subject Snorri Sturluson’s Eddas provide the essential foundation.

He takes the legends seriously, but enjoys emphasizing some of the humorous aspects as well. For example, Heimdall is supposed to have had nine mothers, all virgins. Egerkrans supposes that his birth must have been a “somewhat confusing” affair.

ProseEddasSimilarly, the artwork is a mix of quirky and intense pieces. My personal favorite is Thor fishing for Jormungand. The horrifying World Serpent boils up from unseen depths, occupying about 3/4 of the panel and utterly dwarfing the thunder god and giant in their boat above. As the serpent prepares to take the bait (a bull’s head) I got a real feeling of the bravado it would take for Thor to view such a monstrosity as his rightful prey.

The picture of Tyr with his hand in Fenris’ mouth was also impressive. Tyr stands resolute, an aging war god stoically prepared to lose his hand so that the monstrous wolf can be bound. The Tyr section was excellent overall. There is some historical and linguistic evidence that Tyr was the chief god in the pantheon until the wily, ambitious Odin usurped him. This book gives him his due in a way that many works on the subject do not.

The book itself was really nicely put together. It’s a fairly quick read at about 150 not-very-dense pages. There is a ton of art: just about every god and myth gets a large full-color illustration. In addition, there are a bunch of smaller sketches sprinkled throughout. Along with his own work, Egerkrans included a number of quotations from primary sources, plus illustrations from other time periods. The overall effect is a smorgasbord of mythic goodness.

I had to have this book shipped over from Sweden because it wasn’t available at the library and I didn’t want to pay the $120 they were asking on Amazon. But no regrets, it’s a beautiful creation and I’m thrilled to have it.

Worthy of Valhalla
4.5/5 Thor’s Hammers

Fiction, What Shannon Read

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem

1I’m hesitant to say anything about I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by  Maryse Condé because I just don’t think I have anything interesting to say about it. It’s a wonderful book with a strong narrator.

Here’s the Goodreads plot summary:
At the age of seven, Tituba watched as her mother was hanged for daring to wound a plantation owner who tried to rape her. She was raised from then on by Mama Yaya, a gifted woman who shared with her the secrets of healing and magic. But it was Tituba’s love of the slave John Indian that led her from safety into slavery, and the bitter, vengeful religion practiced by the good citizens of Salem, Massachusetts. Though protected by the spirits, Tituba could not escape the lies and accusations of that hysterical time. As history and fantasy merge, Maryse Conde, acclaimed author of TREE OF LIFE and SEGU, creates the richly imagined life of a fascinating woman.

And my (somewhat disjointed) thoughts:
The book asks several important questions, which had me ruminating as I read, including, what does it mean to be a witch? Is being a witch necessarily bad?

In this story, Tituba is a witch in the sense that she practices healing rituals and talks to the dead. But she maintains the validity of these time-honored traditions and feels they aren’t harmful, though she’s constantly challenged by white men and their fear of them (and her).

I love that she talks to her dead mother and grandmother, drawing strength and seeking advice from them. There’s a certain comfort to knowing your loved ones are just beyond the veil, watching and supporting you.

I also liked Tituba’s take on sex. At one point she says to her Massachusetts owner’s wife, who asks her not to speak of sex, does it not bring forth new life? (I’m paraphrasing.) And throughout the book, she connects with the men in her life through her body, and seems to need them physically as much as she craves their love.

At the same time, Tituba sees that men and women face different consequences for their carnal attachments, especially when she meets adulterer Hester in prison. Hester’s lover is walking around free while Hester is imprisoned and pregnant with his child, proving Tituba’s point that “Life is too kind to men, whatever their color.”

So there are some feminist issues taken head-on throughout book. And Condé’s prose is dense with meaning, though totally readable—it pushed me along through the story quite quickly.

This book just has so much to dig into, I don’t feel I can write a blog post that does it justice. But I do strongly recommend it. I’m still thinking about it days later and I’m sure I’ll read it again at some point. I liked it that much.