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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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.
    c
  • 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.
    c
  • 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.
    c
  • 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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Audiobooks, Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Hunger

HungerRoxaneGayAfter listening to Bad Feminist last week, I moved right on to Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay. It was, as I knew it would be, incredibly moving.

As I told a reader friend recently, I don’t have a lot of tolerance for people’s memoirs of their childhoods. But, as I knew it would, Gay’s writing hopped over that personal barrier and pulled me right through her story.

I listened to the audiobook, which Gay narrates herself. While not as adept a reader as Bahni Turpin, who read Bad Feminist, Gay is a good reader and I appreciated hearing her story in her voice.

The memoir is divided into more than 80 sections, which switch back and forth between Gay’s growing up years and her current life as an adult, academic, and writer in her 30s.

The lengths of the sections vary depending on the amount of relevant content. Some tell an entire story. Some seem to be thoughts she wanted to make sure to include, relevant commentary or short scenes that make up part of her story. We get satisfying glimpses into her daily life as she explores the topics of emotional and physical hunger, woven as they are throughout her existence.

As you may know, Gay is an adept cultural critic. In Hunger, she addresses many of the stereotypes around fat people, as well as the way fat people are treated in a society that values thin.

As a person who is, at the time of writing, around 250 pounds overweight, she also uses experiences in her own life to illustrate the effects of extreme obesity, personally— physically, socially, and emotionally.

These personal stories are what really got to me. She relates the experiences of asking for a seatbelt extender on an airplane, fielding her family’s constant grave concern, being heckled on the street, and the impact of her obesity on her health, among other things.

Gay also explores the origin of her obesity, telling, once again, the story of her rape. Gay was gang-raped as a child and she mostly attributes her food addiction and her fatness to her need to protect herself, to make herself larger, and to become undesirable to men.

As anyone who is or has been obese would know, being overweight makes one less visible even as body size increases. Less visible, meaning less attractive and therefore less deserving of attention. If very fat people aren’t being ogled they are often, paradoxically, being ignored. Discounted.

Throughout this intense examination, Gay is exploring how her desire to be thin does or doesn’t fit with her values as a feminist. It’s a struggle when you reject society’s beauty standards but also want to meet them.

She says:

“As a woman, as a fat woman, I am not supposed to take up space. And yet, as a feminist, I am encouraged to believe I can take up space. I live in a contradictory space where I should try to take up space but not too much of it, and not in the wrong way, where the wrong way is any way where my body is concerned.”

Lotta’ ins and outs when you are a critic of the society in which you are also trying to live peaceably.

This is becoming too long a post, but suffice it to say that I, once again, felt “seen” thanks to Roxane Gay’s work. And do let me know your thoughts if you read it.

Thanks for stopping by!

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Audiobooks, Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Bad Feminist

Cover: Bad Feminist by Roxane GayI have such a hard time writing about books I really love.

Books that make me put my hand over my heart when I set them down. Books that affect me so much that, by the time I finish them and lay them aside, I only feel overwhelming gratitude.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay falls into that category for me. I realize I’m late to the party on this one. The book was published to much acclaim in 2014. The reason I waited so long to read it is that I suspected I would be required to feel deeply while reading it. I’m not always ready to dig into my emotions so deeply and I sensed this book would require that of me. It did. But in the best ways. And it was worth it.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Bahni Turpin. She is an extremely talented reader. Her voice is excellent, for one, and she seems to get the material. It’s as if she studied it, knows what’s coming, and is fully behind it. Thus, Gay’s voices seems to channel right through her.

This was a powerful reading/listening experience for me. If I took the time to list how many times I felt “seen” by this book, I would end up citing every passage.

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Walking home, listening to an audiobook

A few bullet points on items that struck me:

♦  Much of the book involves Gay’s essays critiquing books, TV shows, and films. She’s known for this. And several of the essays were previously published on their own in various magazines and on websites.

I have a low tolerance for this kind of writing, especially if I haven’t read or watched the book/show/film that’s being discussed. This time, I didn’t care.

Gay’s talent for dissected the cultural background and then implications of these works, from Fifty Shades of Grey to the movie Django, pulled me in to the very end. What a mind this woman has. I wish I were half so intelligent.

♦  If you are a white person who struggles to understand, or who just wants to understand, elements of “the black experience” regarding popular culture—OK, overall culture—this book may help.

I appreciated Gay’s tuteledge on topics ranging from the “magical Negro” trope to Trayvon Martin’s murder. I need someone to help me understand such issues from a perspective that is not mine, namely that of a middle-class, cis, white woman.

♦  If you are fat, as I am, Gay’s essay “Reaching for Catharsis: Getting Fat Right (or Wrong) and Diana Spechler’s Skinny” may help you feel seen, as it did for me.

♦  In “What We Hunger For,” we learn that Gay was gang-raped as a young girl. This essay is brutal and heart-wrenching and all those other words we use when we don’t know how to describe something that terrible. It ripped my guts out. After listening to it on my walk home from work, I had to turn it off, sit very still on the couch in the silent house, and let my feelings wash over me until they settled.

♦  Don’t worry, there is humor and fun in this book! Gay takes on serious and important subjects, no doubt. But her great talent in addressing some of them, when appropriate (not in the cases of rape, murder, or racism, of course), with humor provides relief and inspires commeraderie.

Throughout the book, too, she discusses the ways in which she feels she lets the side down as a feminist. Shaking it to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” for example. She calls her dad for car advice. She reads Vogue, and not ironically. She loves pink and dresses.

Gay acknowledges that she is not a “perfect” feminist, and then she helps us go even further, dismantling the idea that the perfect feminist even exists:

At some point, I got it into my head that a feminist was a certain kind of woman. I bought into grossly inaccurate myths about who feminists are—militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, humorless. I bought into these myths even though, intellectually, I know better. I’m not proud of this. I don’t want to buy into these myths anymore. I don’t want to cavalierly disavow feminism like far too many other women have done. Bad feminism seems like the only way I can both embrace myself as a feminist and be myself, and so I write. I chatter away on Twitter about everything that makes me angry and all the small things that bring me joy. I write blog posts about the meals I cook as I try to take better care of myself, and with each new entry, I realize that I’m undestroying myself after years of allowing myself to stay damaged. The more I write, the more I put myself out into the world as a bad feminist but, I hope, a good woman—I am being open about who I am and who I was and where I have faltered and who I would like to become.

No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist. I cannot and will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism. Like most people, I’m full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated like shit for being a woman.

I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.

Yes! Same!

This was a long post, after all, which wasn’t my intention. I just can’t say enough how much I love this book. If you’ve read this far, thank you! And if you’ve read this book, I’d love to know what you thought.

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