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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Audiobooks, Fiction, What Shannon Read

Paper Wife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2020 When Are You Reading? Challenge, What Shannon Read

When Are You Reading? Challenge: The Secrets We Kept

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 1940-1959.


40700317._SY475_I just finished The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott and, while I enjoyed the subject and characters, I found the writing to be kind of bland.

I’ve noticed that’s an issue for me with a lot of popular historical fiction. Anyone else?

It’s like if a book has a woman in a pretty dress on the cover, I know it will most likely be unremarkable. And yet, I am drawn to it.

That’s how I found The Secrets We Kept, cover out on the New Fiction shelf at the library, tempting me with that gorgeous green dress.

And despite the bland writing, I liked the subject matter. The book centers on CIA typists turned spies during the Cold War. They become involved in a mission to sneak into the USSR and bring back the unpublished novel Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.

If that dress hadn’t compelled me to read the book, the synopsis certainly would have. What a plot. Imagine a book being so important—an unpublished book no less—that the CIA would conduct a full-on mission to sneak the manuscript out of the USSR. Quite a story.

But two things left me feeling kind of meh about this one. The first, of course, is the somewhat pedestrian writing, which I found plain with spurts of the melodramatic. I honestly almost quit reading when I read this:

“Three and a half years had passed since we shared a bed, and we didn’t waste time. His touch shocked me. It had been so long since I had been touched. We came together like crashing boulders that echoed across Moscow.”

Eww.

The second issue was the number of narrators.

The are:
The Typists – the CIA typing pool
Olga Ivinskaya, Boris Pasternak’s mistress
Irina Drozdov, the typist turned spy
Sally Forrester – spy

Sometimes the book switches between the three main narrators, but then a new chapter follows another character in a third-person omniscient voice, and you’ll be pulled out of one story and into another, however briefly.

Prescott did a good job of distinguishing the voices though. I thought she excelled at writing from the perspective of Olga Ivinskaya, Boris Pasternak’s mistress (and the inspiration for Dr. Zhivago), and Russian-American typist Irina. Those perspectives were the most interesting in the book to me and I wish the entire book had switched between just those two. In the beginning, Olga is sent to the Gulag and her experiences there are fascinating and frought with danger, which made for good reading. But, in general, I thought the constant alternating between narrators diluted the story, giving us only a surface look at the characters and historic events.

I kept reading it, so that says something. I wanted to find out how the story ended. And I think Prescott does a good job of keeping the reader immersed in the historical setting. But, while the plot is interesting and Prescott clearly researched her topic, the book came across as “history light” and I thought it was light on character development too.

OK, I just googled for reviews and there is so much fanfare out there about this one! So, take what I say with a grain of salt. I guess people generally love it.

WashPo loved it.

Lynn Neary of NPR seems to like it.

It did convince me that I need to read Dr. Zhivago, so there’s that. If you have read it, I would love to hear what you thought!

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come

45459370._SX318_As an avowed introvert, I’m always interested in reading about other introverts. I like to see if their experiences match my own. So I especially enjoyed listening to the audiobook version of Jessica Pan’s Sorry I’m late, I Didn’t Want to Come: One Introvert’s Year of Saying Yes.

The book, which presents as a memoir, but includes interviews with experts, is a fun journey through Pan’s year of taking risks.

A self-described shy introvert or “shintrovert,” as she calls herself, Pan feels lonely living in London, England. She lives with her husband, but has no social life to speak of. Her friends are spread out across the globe and, like many introverts, she finds it difficult to make new friends.

Thus, she embarks on a yearlong project to develop a social life. She pushes herself to try a number of typically extroverted activities that range from talking to strangers on the train to the Bumble BFF app to improv and stand-up comedy. I really enjoyed the chapter on improv. When she tells other people she’s taking an improv class, they cringe, and that was my immediate reaction too.

But improv, along with most of her activities, ends up opening doors to friendship and confidence and Pan even signs up for another round of improv classes after her year is over.

1I liked the book because, as an introvert, I find making friends difficult too. I’m not naturally inclined toward chattiness and I find networking functions terrifyingly awkward (of course, that’s most people, I hear. Even some extroverts find those functions unbearable).

And I sympathized with Pan as she details the anxieties of pushing herself to be the center of attention or takes the risk of being the first one to talk to someone in a silent room.

I celebrated with her when she hosts her first dinner party at the end of the book and invites many of the new friends she’s made throughout the year. And I was a bit jealous. I will be following some of the tips given by experts in the book and feel encourage to take some risks myself.

In fact, the book led me to recognize something about my own socializing. Ben has always been comfortable going, to say, the local watering hole and having a drink and chatting with strangers. He’s an extrovert. He’d not a joiner and doesn’t like planned activities.

But, even though I’ve pushed myself to show up at a bar alone at times, I end up drinking too much out of sheer anxiety. It’s not pretty…That’s just one example, but you see my point. Inserting myself into a social situation and talking to people out of nowhere is not my bag, baby.

Thanks to Pan’s activities, most of which were structured in classroom or group settings, I realized that I need that kind of set-up to help me feel comfortable. I’ll probably be more successful at a planned activity, like a book club, an art class, or some other kind of actual thing you have to sign up for.

I love when books I read lead to personal insights.

Getting back to the book, Pan is an adept writer. Her actual job is freelance editing, so the writing is solid. Sometimes she comes across a bit young though. For example, using a word like “great” to describe someone, rather than digging deeper to give us a sense of the person. But that’s a nitpick. She’s also compassionate, anxious, honest, and slightly Type A, and because I really appreciate authors who are just wholly themselves in their books, I like this. I feel like I got to know her.

I do recommend the audiobook version, but Pan reads it herself, so I’ll warn you that her style won’t be for everyone. Her reading is stilted and she tends to stop for commas like they’re periods, but I got through it fine.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

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2020 When Are You Reading? Challenge, What Shannon Read

When Are You Reading? Challenge: Stillwater

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 1800-1899.


Stillwater by Nicole HelgetJust cruising right through this challenge! Apparently, it’s my jam right now. For my second book, I chose Stillwater by Nicole Helget.

The novel is set in the Civil War-era U.S., specifically in the wilds of Minnesota, still considered part of the U.S. western expansion at that point. The story centers on grown-up twins, Angel and Clement Piety, who were orphaned at birth.

It begins with a log jam in the St. Croix River, a murder, and an altercation between the twins. Then, we delve into the backstory of the family and it is not as boring as those words I just typed.

In fact, the writing was quite a palate cleanser after The Shadow King! It’s light in tone, quirky, and straightforward. But still beautiful in parts. One of the beginning chapters has one of the sweetest, most reassuring death scenes I’ve ever read.

The story also features the twins’ parents and their stories, Eliza, a woman who escapes from slavery with her child, and a priest and religious sister (not a nun, she clarifies) who care for the pioneers, orphans, and Native Americans who come to them for assistance.

We also get to know the people who take in the orphaned twins. They are Big Waters, the loving American Indian woman who cares for Clement and considers him hers, and the rich but dysfunctional family who takes in Angel. Both stories are heart-rending and we see the twins grow up as products of their environments, but with the undeniable connection they feel to one another playing the most significant role in their lives.

I don’t want to give away any plot points because I found them a joy to follow and if you read it, you may enjoy discovering these characters and following their lives for yourself.

Two things bothered me about the book. One is not really about it per se and is kind of odd. It’s to do with a blurb on the back. Fellow Minnesota author Peter Geye (who I’d never heard of) says, “Make room, Louise Erdrich, Minnesota has a new resident scribe…” It continues with more praise. But I read that and thought, first of all, Louise Erdrich is an incredibly talented and prolific author. She doesn’t have to make room for anyone, in my opinion. Also, she’s a treasured indigenous voice in the literary landscape, which, historically, has been very white in the U.S. I know I’m nitpicking a blurb here, but coming from a white guy, jauntily telling her to “move over” is tone deaf at best.

I’m sure he had the best of intentions and also wanted to acknowledge the great literary tradition of Minnesota, but I’m here to tell you it. didn’t. work.

Moving on, I also took note of the thoughts of Eliza, an enslaved woman who has taken her son Davis and run away from her owners. In a significant scene, Eliza is thinking about the risks she has taken. She remembers waffling about whether she should attempt to escape at all because, living with the Watsons, her owners, she knew she and her son always had a roof over their heads and three meals a day.

Now, is this a woman genuinely considering the consequences of running away with no family or means of her own? Or, is it a sentiment sneaking into the narrative of a well-intentioned white writer leftover from a time when white people promoted the narrative of the benevolent slaveholder? The slaveholder who cared for their slaves, who provided for them, in other words. I know that it’s natural for Eliza to weigh risks in a desperate situation and, to be fair, Helget doesn’t imply that Eliza was happy to be enslaved. In this story slaveholders are the villains and not the heroes. But I still wondered about it.

I’m always eager to see how white authors handle telling the stories of black or indigenous people. I don’t really feel like they have the right to. But when you’re writing historical fiction, I imagine you just have to handle it in the most sensitive way you can because history is history and it is, of course, important to include these stories.

But it’s risky as a white person’s perspective is naturally from the race of the historical oppressor. Helget is white. Can any other white author accurately imagine the thoughts and feelings of an enslaved black woman? Many authors would say it can be done. I’m always dubious and hyper-critical when they try.

Maybe I’m reaching here and my questions aren’t very clear. If so, I apologize. It’s a hard thing to write about.

On the whole, this novel was extraordinary and I loved the characters, the story, and the writing.

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