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.

 

Standard
Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter

30231738I know it’s early goings yet, but this book is a definite contender for my favorite book of the year (it wasn’t published this year, but I read it this year).

Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill is a collection of essays and memories written and published by the author/retired editor in her 90s.

If you haven’t read anything by Athill, I highly recommend you do so. She’s a distinct personality and that comes through in her writing, which, I know it’s cliche to say, is both poignant and humorous and most of the time humorously poignant.

Each chapter covers a specific memory or topic. Or memories as the vehicle for addressing big topics that include but are not limited to Athill’s miscarriage, aging, her childhood in Norfolk, fashion, WWII, colonialism in the Caribbean, her various love affairs, and her preference for being the “other woman.”

She writes it all in matter-of-fact prose with acknowledgement of her own “prosaic” tendencies. And yet, she does cover beauty, writing a passage on “looking” that, I’ll admit, gave me permission to enjoy a pastime I couldn’t have put a name to, which is looking, observing, really seeing something that interests you.

“Looking at things is never time wasted. If your children want to stand and stare, let them. When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But there it has remained, tucked away in hidden bits of my mind, and now out it comes, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring. And giving me this book, of memories, thoughts and reflections, which does – roughly – add up to being a report on what living for ninety-seven years has taught one rather lucky old woman.”

SargentPortrait

 A pic I took on my phone to remember the moment

Personally, I think of wandering the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where I went for the first time last summer. I was in a state of bliss, content to stand in front of the Sargent portraits til my eyeballs fell out. Now I know that looking is a thing, I’m going to spend more time doing it.

I also found out that I am not alone in how I have grown to perceive poetry and its place in my reading life over time.

“However, when someone asks me for my favourite poem and I answer Lear’s ‘ The Owl and the Pussy Cat ’, I am not being facetious. I really do prefer poems which tell a story to those that plumb the depths of experience, and those that depend largely on associations hooked up into a poet’s mind by words and images are lost to me. I read to see something, not to decipher codes.”

This was so validating for me. I got the impression that living life in your 90s is very freeing in the sense that you don’t worry about what people think of you (which Athill confirms for herself in the last chapter of the book). Wouldn’t it be great if I could give myself permission to live like that now?

Standard
What Shannon Read, Nonfiction

How to Read a Dress: AKA, I love a book with pictures!

HowToReadADressJust wrapped up How to Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards. It was such a treat. If you have any interest in women’s fashion or historic dress, this is a fun book to add to your collection.

And if you’re a novice in this area like I am, it’s a great primer. I now feel like I know which parts of a historic dress to notice, from bodice to skirt, sleeves, and trim.

The book is organized into chapters spanning specific periods from 1550-1600 to 1960-1970. Each spread introduces the dresses being featured and gives some historical background along with a short overview of the specific trends the dresses exemplify. We also get some commentary on who might’ve worn such a dress and what for—day, evening, wedding, etc.

Dress1

Just looking at the fabrics is treat enough for me. I mean those stripes are 1

And here’s the dress from the intro to the 1710-1790 section. Can you imaging wearing something like that?

Dress2

One thing I really like about this book is the fun graphics. Each section begins with a page of silhouettes featured in the following pages.

My own pic – excuse the bad lighting:

Silhouettes

The whole book is just so put together. I think I’m going to buy a copy just to have it as a resource. Also, if you’re interested in fashion history, Lydia Edwards’ Instagram account is a fun one to follow. She features a lot of dresses that aren’t in the book.

How fun is it to read a book with pictures?

Standard
Audiobooks, Top Ten Tuesday, What Shannon Read

10 of My Favorite Audiobooks

Walking

Walking home, listening to an audiobook, like I do

Top Ten Tuesday is sponsored by That Artsy Reader Girl.

I’m a day late, but I decided to post anyway. This week’s TTT is a “freebie,” meaning “make up your own topic.” So, because I love a good audiobook, I thought I’d highlight 10 of my faves.

In order for me to stick with an audiobook, I must must must like the reader’s voice, accent, inflection, and style. There are notable exceptions—Sweet Lamb of Heaven, for example, where the story/writing is so good that I’ll tolerate a terrible reader. But, for the most part, the reader is paramount.
So, with that bit of preamble, here we go.

10 of My Fave Audiobooks



049561. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, read by Davina Porter

Historical fiction, romance, sword fighting, and a great reader. The romance gets slightly ridiculous, but hey, that’s why you read this kind of book, for the dramatic departure from real life. And Davina Porter’s reading is on point.

This audiobook was on repeat in the car for awhile when Jake was younger. I think Harris’ voice is burned into my brain. But it’s a delightful book and the narration is fantastic.

Actress Juliet Stevenson is my top favorite reader. There’s something about her British accent. And she’s just great at doing voices without overacting those kinds of things. I’m hoping she’ll record herself reading the phone book someday just so I can fall asleep to it. One good thing about following a great reader is that they usually pick awesome books to read and I can always depend on Stevenson for that.

4. The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry, read by Jayne Entwistle

95607Another actress and reader with a fantastic British accent. But Entwistle’s voice is completely different and she really shows what it can do with the various characters in this very British children’s novel. It’s a Victorian boarding school, so you know I’m all about it. Entwistle is another reader I can count on to lead me to great books.

War5. The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, read by Jayne Entwistle

Another Entwistle for your listening pleasure. I adored this story. Usually I don’t pick up stories set in WWII, but this one touched on a topic of interest: children sent away from London during the bombing. The main character, Ada, will tug at your heartstrings from the get-go.

Flight.jpg6. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, read by the author

Kingsolver isn’t my favorite reader, but she does, as the review on audiofile says, nail the main character’s Appalachian twang. And the writing is just so beautiful that I willingly overlooked Kinsolver’s imperfections as a narrator and got sucked into the story.

Kitchen7. The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, read by Bahni Turpin and Orlagh Cassidy

I almost don’t want to write about this book because I loved it so much. I couldn’t do it justice. The story features two narrators as different characters, though the story centers on Cassidy as Lavinia, an indentured servant on a Southern plantation.

Cool story time – I actually emailed author Kathleen Grissom after I finished this book in tears and told her how much it affected me. She wrote back such a warm, kind response. One of my top author interactions ever.

Mare8. The Mare by Mary Gaitskill, read by Kyla Garcia, Christa Lewis, Sean Pratt, and Nicol Zanzarella

This book was more about the story than the readers for me, but, actually, I can still hear Ginger’s voice in my head. And it’s been two years since I listened to this book.

OCT9. The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery, read by the author

Another one where the story did more for me than the reader. Ask Ben. I’m still talking about this book. It’s one of those animal books that makes me want to be a vegan out of respect for the animals in it. But now we know plants have feelings, so if I keep on like this, I’ll have to start photosynthesizing.

BAD10. A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket, read by Tim Curry

Tim Curry is a great reader. I highly recommend listening to the books in the series that he reads. Lemony Snicket himself takes over at some point in the series and Jake and I were upset by this bait and switch.

Note: All links (except for Henry and Ribsy) go to book reviews on Audiofile because I think it’s a fantastic resource for audiobooks.

Here’s a link to the TTT post on That Artsy Reader Girl.

Standard
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…

Standard
Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence

34964841I like talking to people, but I unfortunately possess the unsociable qualities of both shyness and introversion. The two don’t always go together, but if you have them both, they do tend to feed on one another.

That means it takes A LOT of energy for me to engage, no matter how enjoyable I usually find it. After a social interaction, I’m always glad to have connected with other people. It just takes a lot of chutzpah on my part to get out there.

That’s why I was attracted to Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence by Amy Alkon. At first, I ignored this book because I’m getting kind of impatient with the whole using-a-swear-word-in-a-title trend. Not because I’m against swearing, but because I just think this concept is a bit overused and at least some of the time, it seems like a ploy to get millenials to buy books.

All that aside, Unf*ckology is billed as a “science-help” book, which appealed to me. And I ended up enjoying it. Here are a few things I learned:

“Fake it ’til you make it,” a strategy that has pretty much gotten me through life thus far, is a methodology backed by science. (Validation!!) Impersonating a confident person you admire, paired with practicing body language that conveys confidence (walking tall with your head up, for example), is an especially potent combo. These behaviors can actually convince your brain that you are, in fact, confident.

That idea stems from the theory of “embodied cognition,” which posits that the way we think is influenced by other systems in the body than just the brain. From wikipedia: “the features of cognition include high level mental constructs (such as concepts and categories) and performance on various cognitive tasks (such as reasoning or judgment). The aspects of the body include the motor system, the perceptual system, bodily interactions with the environment (situatedness) and the assumptions about the world that are built into the structure of the organism.”

And, as Alkon puts in from a self-esteem perspective: “By consistently changing how you behave (down to how you move, breathe, and carry yourself), you can transform how you feel about yourself, how other people see and treat you, and who you are.”

Alkon explains a few other related concepts, citing the studies that back them, and the last part of the book is a sort of “how-to” manual mostly based on exposure therapy. Essentially, if you are afraid of spiders, you need to be exposed to spiders, feel the intensity of your fear, and then notice when being near a spider doesn’t kill you. That’s a very nutshell example, but I’m giving you the gist. Alkon lays out some ideas for exposure to anxiety-inducing social situations and guides you through the process.

As someone who’s fairly educated about social anxiety, I didn’t read a whole lot that was new here, per se, but I liked that she gave us the science and then told us how to apply it at the end (science→help). I’ll definitely be trying some of the exposure techniques. And you better believe I’m gonna’ keep faking it ’til I make it. It’s science!

Standard
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.

Standard