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.
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  • 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.
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  • 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.
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  • 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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2020 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

2020 Classics Challenge: Ethan Frome made me mad at first

5246Not the book, the man.

As you can see, I am continuing my theme of reading short classics that pack a punch (à la Passing by Nella Larsen).

I sped through Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton this week. It is my first Wharton novel. It just happened to catch my interest on the library shelf and, at an easy 99 pages, I thought it may be a way of easing myself into her oeuvre.

In the beginning, Ethan Frome looks to me like a man who only wants to see himself reflected in the woman he loves, rather than loving the woman for who she is.

He falls hard for his wife’s cousin, who, 20, orphaned, and unmarried, comes to be a sort of caregiver and helper to Frome’s sickly wife Zeena (Zenobia—isn’t that a great name?).

Ethan’s story starts off with a scene where he is creeping around a church hall, spying on the dance happening inside, and specifically on the young woman, Mattie, who he is in love with.

He watches her through the windows and then hides in the shadows where she can’t see him. Watching her brief interactions with the various young men, Denis Eady, son of the town grocer, in particular, Ethan’s jealousy mounts.

Turns out, this creeper was there to walk her home and instead of just walking up to her, he decided to creep on her instead. This pissed me off to no end. And because it made me mad, I kept reading. Way to keep me involved, Wharton.

After my initial irritation with Ethan, further reading led me to understand what drove him to seek himself reflected in the eyes of the woman he loves. First, he led an austere childhood in rural New England in the aptly named fictional town of Starkfield. He cared for sick parents, whose illnesses, coupled with the utter silence in his home, left him bereft of human contact.

WinterSky

Austere winters – hmmm, sounds familiar.

The following passage helped me to develop some compassion for Ethan:

There the silence had deepened about him year by year. Left alone, after his father’s accident, to carry the burden of farm and mill, he had had no time for convivial loiterings in the village; and when his mother fell ill the loneliness of the house grew more oppressive than that of the fields. His mother had been a “talker” in her day, but after her “trouble” the sound of her voice was seldom heard, though she had not lost the power of speech. Sometimes, in the long winter evenings, when in desperation her son asked her why she didn’t “say something,” she would lift a finger and answer: “Because I’m listening”; and on stormy nights, when the loud wind was about the house, she would complain, if he spoke to her: “They’re talking so out there that I can’t hear you.”

Can you imagine? Wharton so thoroughly communicates the loneliness Ethan must have felt through those sentences. The silent, oppressive winters of rural Massachusetts are a perfect backdrop.

Given his history, and the fact that his wife, Zeena, has descended into the same preoccupation with illness, along with the same pervasive silence, it’s no wonder Ethan longs to be seen.

This post is already too long and I feel like I could write a book about this book. So, I will just offer a few more bullet points to sum up my thoughts:

  • I loved the character of Zeena. Could have used more development there, but I didn’t mind that she was a somewhat two-dimensional villain.
  • The broken red dish. What a scene when Zeena discovers it!
  • Unfortunately, the character of Mattie, Zeena’s cousin and Ethan’s object of affection, is just that. She is a two-dimensional ingénue, simple, sweet, endlessly good-natured, and pretty, and serves only to motivate Ethan’s feelings and actions. That makes the story nice and tight, but I would like to have seen more focus on her perspective.
  • There is a surprising and sad, sad ending. The novel ends in great irony, which I will leave you to discover for yourself.

Goodness, if you read all that, I applaud and thank you!

Obviously, I so loved this book. It’s a quick read, yes, but if you love exquisite writing, you may enjoy lingering over the language and perfectly constructed sentences as I did. Likewise, the tragic events of the plot.


Back to the Classics 2020This is my selection for category 7. Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen of Books and Chocolate.

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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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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Confessions of a Bookseller

Cover: ConfessionsofaBooksellerAnother truly delightful weekend spent with the owner of The Book Shop in Wigtown, Scotland, thanks to Shaun Bythell’s second memoir Confessions of a Bookseller.

This one is set up just like the first, diary style, with the number of online orders listed at the top of each entry, along with the number of orders actually found, and the number of customers and daily till total at the bottom.

In between is an account of activities, conversations, and observations by Bythell. As with his first memoir, they feature recurring characters: him, of course, curmudgeonly and anti-Amazon as always; and shop assistants Nicky, Flo, and a new person, Emanuela from Italy. Plus Bythell’s family, friends, and regular customers, who are as interesting and varied in personality as one would hope the denizens of rural Scotland to be.

Those include Sandy the tattooed pagan, who makes walking sticks for Bythell to sell in exchange for credit in the shop. And there’s the mysterious Mole-Man, who never speaks, but disappears into the stacks for hours at a time, emerging to pay for his many treasures and leaving without a word. Bumbag Dave is also a regular customer—he just wears a lot of fanny packs.

Then there are the shop employees, including longtime employee Nicky, who featured heavily in the first book. She continues to be an endless source of humor. College student Flo helps out in the summer. She’s not above swearing at her boss. And a fun new addition is Emanuela, a young Italian woman whose eccentricities endear her to Bythell and pretty much all of Wigtown by the time her stint in The Book Shop is up.

If you’re as invested as I am, you’ll also be happy to learn more about Bythell’s relationship with Anna, his longtime partner. She’s an American woman who wrote a book about Wigtown and started The Open Book, a shop which tourists pay to stay at a run for weeks at a time.

Of interest to me, always, are the entries detailing which books customers buy. And I’m fascinated by which books are popular sellers. Railroad books and detailed local histories for example. There is also endless entertainment to be found in the examination of customer behavior. I can empathize utterly with Bythell’s disdain for chatterers.

I noticed some disgruntled reviews on Goodreads, where a few readers said things like “My life is more interesting than this guy’s!” But that’s precisely why I appreciate Bythell’s books. I want to see what the daily life of a bookseller is like.

Bythell’s insightful observations on life and the bookselling business, as well as descriptions of his personal life are bonus material to me. Welcome bonus material as Bythell is a charming narrator, but I’m here for the day-in-day-out of a quirky Scottish bookshop. Highly recommend this one if you are too!

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