2019 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

Excellent Women

29927840I had a blast the past two weeks listening to the audiobook version of Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, narrated by one of my favorite voice actors, Jayne Entwistle.

I only learned of Pym’s existence in the past year, having come across her novel Quartet in Autumn via a list of books about friendship on Five Books (such a great rabbit hole of a website, btw!).

As Excellent Women is a “high comedic” novel, I thought it’d make a great choice for the Comic Novel category in the Classics Challenge. It did not disappoint.

Protagonist Mildred Lathbury is a mild-mannered spinster in post-WWII England. A now-orphaned clergyman’s daughter, Miss Lathbury is one of society’s “excellent women,” those helpful, supportive types who live heavily tied to their duties toward their families, neighbors, and parishes.

The novel follows Miss Lathbury as she welcomes new neighbors to the flat above hers, a couple that includes a hopelessly sociable and handsome flag lieutenant husband and a stylish wife who is an anthropologist pursuing a love interest outside her marriage.

Miss Lathbury quickly gets pulled into their affairs, including the wife’s relationship with her love interest, a rather stiff and stoic fellow anthropologist bearing, I am delighted to report, the name “Everard Bone.” Pym excels at naming characters.

Miss Lathbury is also a very active member of her parish and, before widow Allegra Gray moves into the neighborhood, is somewhat expected to marry the local vicar Julian Malory. Malory, who has remained single into his 40s, lives with his sister Winifred, who has taken on the role of vicar’s wife in the parish. His life, it seems, depends on the excellent women around him.

Each of these relationships has its little dramas throughout the novel. Through it, we watch Miss Lathbury come into her own somewhat, as she becomes fed up with people’s expectations that she involve herself in their unnecessarily complicated romances and relationships.

I enjoyed the whole romp. The village itself reminded me a bit of Middlemarch with its quirky characters and tedious dramas. I loved Miss Lathbury too, especially when she becomes irritated with the people around her and starts laying down boundaries. I loved that she gets annoyed with being the kind of woman who’s always making a cup of tea in a crisis. And , moreover, that she lives a quiet life with which she’s quite happy. There are lots of charming comments on domestic life.

“My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.”  

I can truly relate to that.

Would love to know your thoughts if you’ve read this one!

P.S. As stated, this is my entry for the Comic Novel category of the 2019 Classics Challenge.

 

 

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2019 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

The King’s General

6349535Raise your hand if you read Rebecca like six times as a teenager. Just me?

The movie adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s best-known novel, Rebecca, was released in 1940. It starred Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and somewhere in the 90s ended up on AMC where little Shannon watched it probably on a sick day.  I had strep throat a lot as a kid.

All that was my introduction to Daphne du Maurier. As a grown-up I read Rule Britannia and, in honor of the classics challenge this year, I plowed through The King’s General, her novel set in Cornwall during the English Civil War.

It was…interesting.

The story centers on narrator Honor Harris, who tells us about her childhood, betrothal to a gentleman scoundrel (my favorite character – think Rhett Butler), and, sadly, her loss of the use of her legs in a riding accident on the eve of her marriage.

What I Liked:

  • The gentleman scoundrel: Richard Grenvile is your classic spoiled rogue. His life revolves around being a badass soldier, swindling relations out of their fortunes, and scandalizing the county with his carousing. Like any good romantic hero, he also possesses a tenderness reserved only for the heroine. In other words, he’s a Blanche in the streets and a Dorothy in the sheets. 😉
  • Honor’s personality: She’s a bit rebellious herself and, because she’s a “cripple,” her family attributes her with a certain amount of wisdom she doesn’t necessarily possess. But she admits that right away, is amused by it, wields it to her advantage, and thus shows a certain endearing self-awareness.
  • The house: Menabilly is an actual estate in Cornwall and du Maurier lived there and restored it while writing this novel. It is also the house where Rebecca is set, though it’s, of course, called Manderley in that story. You get a real sense of Cornwall and of the estate in this book. There is lots of sneaking around secret passages and the like.
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Menabilly gatehouse via Wikipedia

What I Didn’t Particularly Like:

  • The pace: This story began to drag about halfway through. When the war reaches the doorstep of Menabilly, where Honor and some of her relations are holed up waiting out the fighting, things get interesting. But when the parliamentary army leaves again and Honor and her associates are no longer prisoners in a mansion, the trickle of action slows to a drip. I got bored and had to really focus to plow through.

A tidbit: This novel reminded me very much of, well, every novel I’ve read from, say the 18th-19th centuries, in that its characters and the situations were somewhat typical. By situations, I mean the situations in which characters found themselves and the ways in which they reacted.

So, Honor loses the use of her legs. She then considers herself a burden, doesn’t want to burden the man she loves (Richard Grenvile), and also doesn’t want to be seen as a cripple by the man she loves. So she refuses to see him and cuts off all communication with him. He moves on with his life and ends up marrying a rich widow.

Now if that doesn’t scream heroine of classic European fiction, I don’t know what does.

Seems to me the main issue of unrequited love in the novel could’ve been solved with a good talking to.

Do read it, though, if you like interesting heroines. Du Maurier never fails me there.

p.s. This is my entry for the classics challenge Classic by a Woman Author category.

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2019 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

Emma Bovary: victim of circumstance or classic narcissist?

30374787Finished the last third of Madame Bovary by the great Gustave Flaubert last night and I have the eye strain to prove it.

As I read and iced my temples with the cool glass of the ice water I was drinking, I began unconsciously adding up Emma Bovary’s crimes against reason in my mind and it dawned on me that I was cultivating a very negative opinion of her. In fact, I was tallying her failures as I perceived them and feeling quite smug about it.

As you may or may not know, this is the classic work of French ennui. It is Flaubert’s first novel, published in 1865, and caused a scandal that resulted in litigation because of its salacious content (thanks to Emma’s affairs).

The story centers on Charles Bovary, a country doctor, and Emma Bovary, his pretty, well-educated (in a convent) wife who, to quote Disney’s Belle, wants much more than this provincial life. Charles is in love with his wife and does his best to please her, though, like any man of his time, he requires a hot supper each night and the little woman to provide him the many comforts of home.

Over time, Emma’s interest in Charles dies with her longing for a more interesting life and he quickly becomes odious to her. In fact, I can’t remember if she liked him in the first place. But anyway, her increasing dissatisfaction prompts her to initiate a couple of affairs with other men and, especially in the last half of the novel, she also drives the couple deeply into debt, making one terrible financial decision after another, losing Charles’ inheritance to boot, and resulting, as you also may know, in Emma’s suicide.

I should have pity for Emma. Her boredom, fickleness, selfishness, and general negativity are all understandable given her station and this particular moment in history. She’s a woman, first of all, and her options are limited, despite her good education, to, um, marriage. As a member of the middle class in rural France, there’s literally no other respectable role for her but wife and mother.

I should also be kind because, honestly, I really sympathize with Emma. I wholly identify with her disappointment in the monotony of day-in, day-out life as it comes, and with her longing for excitement and her inability to create any of her own. Her life is lived in a constant paralysis.

“She longed to travel or to go back to her convent. She wished at the same time to die and to live in Paris.” 

I mean, I get it. I’m not paralyzed, but I see how one could be.

And yet I can’t help feeling terrible for poor Charles. He’s a good man and a decent doctor and he cares deeply about his wife, even if his expectations of her reflect the chauvinism of the times. I go back and forth on Charles: he was duped and cuckolded and is just living out the prescribed circumstances for a man of his station. On the other hand, he’s a willing cog in the machine of a Western society that, generally speaking, raises men above women in all aspects of life. But how would he know any different? I realize that’s a stretch and I’m bringing a really contemporary and feminist perspective to this novel and I’m not sure I’m meeting it where it lives.

Back to my original idea and the title of this post. As I was reading, I developed the fun game of of tallying up the qualities in and behaviors of Emma that resembled the classic narcissist.

  1. Emma is emotionally manipulative of (with?) her husband and her lovers. She alternately showers them with love and then withholds love to serve her purposes. She expertly “handles” Charles, at turns cooing and browbeating him to get what she wants (for example, when she obtains his permission and the money to go to Rouen ostensibly for piano lessons, but really to see her lover).
  2. Emma is overly concerned with status and disappointed in Charles for not being a more prominent doctor. Along with Homais, the local chemist, she is the engineer and primary champion of a surgery that Charles attempts on a servant man which goes horribly wrong.
  3. Emma exhibits lack of empathy. Things happen to her and her feelings matter more than anyone else’s (especially when she’s manipulating people to get what she wants).
  4. Evident in her affairs, Emma is preoccupied with fantasies of ideal romance.

So, I’m conflating actual symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder with a lay-person’s understanding of what narcissism is, but you get my point. Some of Emma’s problems are self-created but the personal qualities or emotions that drive her to create them are born of her circumstances. If that makes sense.

How did I feel about the book in general? I loved it. And I was sad at the end when things went horribly wrong. Having been in debt myself, Emma’s financial missteps were especially agonizing. That bothered me more than the suicide, tbh.

Have you read it? Would love to know your thoughts!

p.s. This is my book for the “Classic Tragic Novel” category in the 2019 Classics Challenge.

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2019 Classics Challenge, Uncategorized

2019 classics challenge

BTCC Berlin BooksI started the 2018 Back to the Classics challenge with hopes high and ended up reading six of 12. I’m not upset about it. That’s six more than I otherwise might’ve read.

With equally high hopes but no illusions, I’ve decided to start the 2019 challenge (info. here). 

Here are the categories and my plans for them. 

1. 19th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1800 and 1899.
This will most probably be Dickens. The Pickwick Papers? May as well start at the beginning I suppose.

2. 20th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1900 and 1969. All books in this category must have been published at least 50 years ago. The only exceptions are books that were published posthumously but were written at least 50 years ago.
So many options for this, but I’m thinking Memoirs of a Woman Doctor by Nawal El-Saadawi. This would also qualify for #s 3 and 4.

3. Classic by a Woman Author.
A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Lucy Bird. I brought this back from a family trip to Arizona 20 years ago and haven’t read it. But I kept it all those years with plans to read it. That’s dedication to a TBR list, people.

 4. Classic in Translation. Any classic originally written in a novel other than your native language. You may read the book in your native language, or its original language (or a third language for all you polyglots!) Modern translations are acceptable, as long as the book was originally published at least 50 years ago. Books in translation are acceptable in all other categories as well.
It may be time for Anna Karenina.

5. Classic Comic Novel. Any comedy, satire, or humorous work. Humor is very subjective, so if you think Crime and Punishment is hilarious, go ahead and use it, but if it’s a work that’s traditionally not considered humorous, please tell us why in your post. Some classic comic novels: Cold Comfort Farm; Three Men in a Boat; Lucky Jim; and the works of P. G. Wodehouse.
I’m thinking Cold Comfort Farm.

6. Classic Tragic Novel. Tragedies traditionally have a sad ending, but just like the comedies, this is up for the reader to interpret. Examples include The Grapes of Wrath, House of Mirth, and Madame Bovary.
Will likely slog through Madame Bovary for this.

7. Very Long Classic. Any classic single work 500 pages or longer, not including introductions or end notes. Omnibus editions of multiple works do not count. Since page counts can vary depending on the edition, average the page count of various editions to determine the length.
War and Peace? Les Mis? Doctor Zhivago?

8. Classic Novella. Any work of narrative fiction shorter than 250 pages.
I’m thinking: Passing, Silas Marner, or O Pioneers! Just found this helpful list.

9. Classic From the Americas (includes the Caribbean). Includes classic set in either North or South America or the Caribbean, or by an author originally from one of those countries. Examples include Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (United States); Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Jamaica); or One Hundred Years of Solitude (Columbia/South America).
So many great options: The Stone Diaries (Canada); The Purple Land (Uruguay); Treasure Island (the Caribbean)

10. Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania (includes Australia). Any classic set in one of those continentss or islands, or by an author from these regions. Examples include Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt); The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki (Japan); On the Beach by Nevile Shute (Australia); Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Nigeria).
Possibly The Pillow Book by Sei Shonago (Japan) or The Grass is Singing (Zimbabwe)

11. Classic From a Place You’ve Lived. Read locally! Any classic set in a city, county, state or country in which you’ve lived, or by a local author. Choices for me include Giant by Edna Ferber (Texas); Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (Chicago); and Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (Germany).
Looks like this is the year I read A Girl of the Limberlost.

 12. Classic Play. Any play written or performed at least 50 years ago. Plays are eligible for this category only.
I do not enjoy reading plays, but here we are. I’m thinking A Doll’s House, Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Death of a Salesman, which I have neither read nor seen.

There you have it. Quite a multicultural list this year and I’ve been wanting to work on reading more diversely, so I’m looking forward to so many of these!

Are you doing any reading challenges this year?

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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.

 

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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.

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