A Contemporary Romance and a Classic: 20 Books of Summer # 5 & #6

Another Friday! We made it through another week, although to be honest time is still a slippery concept for me even though I’m working again. Just living in America right now is mentally exhausting, watching the virus case numbers explode again and seeing half of the people out there disregard others and public health by not wearing masks. I am angry every day. Thank God for books to keep me sane and help me escape. Fridays seem to be my only day for blog posting at the moment, so freshly fueled by Oreos, almonds, and a cup of white tea, let me tell you about books 5 & 6 for 20 Books of Summer!

First up, The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai (2019.) I’m still kinda new to the romance genre. I’m still not sure if I actually like the romance genre. (How many books do you need to read in a genre to know if you like it? Do you even need to say that you like a genre or is it enough to just like a book? Is genre an outdated notion anyway? That’s something to ponder, please tell me if you have an answer.) Anyway. This was… okay. There were things about it that I liked, main characters of color, an interesting subplot about CTE (brain damage caused by repeated concussions on the football field,) and the steam factor was pretty steamy! But it felt overly long and kinda boring. And the female lead did that thing that a lot of romance characters do, which is talk to herself about how much she liked the male lead but how she had been burned in the past and didn’t want to trust him, I mean, it happened a LOT. And I was like, “Yes, I get it, you have TRUST ISSUES.” So I don’t know, plenty of people have liked this more than I did, so maybe it was just not for me. I finished it, which means that I didn’t hate it. It was engaging enough for me to finish pretty quickly. ⭐ ⭐ 1/2

Next up, a real winner! Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym (1977.) Some of you mentioned that it was a melancholy read but honestly I found it refreshing and often hilarious. I found myself thinking about the characters for days after I finished, wondering what they were up to, wishing I could be in their company again. We have four 60-something office mates, working at a nondescript job, but we’re later told that when they retire no one will replace them, so it’s obviously something a computer could be doing. And anytime we’re in the office they’re talking about going out to lunch or having a snack so honestly I haven’t a clue what they do! Marcia and Letty are set to retire first, with Norman and Edwin sometime later. They’re all single, and Edwin, a widower, is the only one to have married. Edwin is obsessed with the church and the various holy days of the saints, visiting different churches on different days. Norman is the grouchiest one and doesn’t seem to have much going for a social life, although he does have a brother-in-law, the husband of his late sister, to see on holidays. Letty is supposed to go live in the country with a friend when she retires, but her friend surprises her with a change of plans. And Marcia… well, Marcia was the one character that did make me sad. I guess she is suffering from some sort of dementia or mental illness at the beginning of the book, because she lives in deliberate squalor and hordes things like plastic bags and milk bottles. Her situation deteriorates rapidly throughout the book, but the other three don’t seem to understand how bad off she is until it’s too late. These characters aren’t what I would call friends but seem perpetually on the verge of making a deeper connection with one another and just missing the timing.

When I write it down it does sound depressing and you probably won’t believe me when I say that really it wasn’t. Pym’s sly humor cuts through what could be rather gloomy situations. I laughed out loud many times, for example this unexpected exchange in a conversation between Letty, her friend, Marjorie, and Marjorie’s new beau, Father Lydell.

‘Ah, London…’ Was the sigh too extravagant?

‘Of course David is here for his health,’ said Marjorie, coming back into the room and entering eagerly into the conversation.

‘Do you find the country is doing you good?’ Letty asked.

‘I’ve had diarrhoea all this week,’ came the disconcerting reply.

There was a momentary- perhaps no more than a split second’s – pause, but if the women had been temporarily take aback, they were by no means at a loss.

‘Diarrhoea,’ Letty repeated, in a clear, thoughtful tone. She was never certain hot to spell the word, but felt that such a trivial admission was lacking in proper seriousness so she said no more.

This did feel darker than her earlier novels, and it is one of her last books before her death in 1980. I believe she had had health problems too when she wrote this. So the perspective of older people contemplating the last quarter of their lives makes sense. I also think that 60-something meant something different in 1977 than it does today, perhaps. These characters feel more sedate and stuck in their ways than today’s 60-somethings tend to be. Outdated gender roles also have something to do with it, as women without a partner or children today seem to have more options for income, social connections, and independent pursuits. In any case, I found this book thoroughly delightful and entertaining, with a small ray of hope at the end and a little corner of the world that I didn’t want to leave. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ Also, this is a book from my Classics Club list so I killed two birds with one stone!

What books or TV shows have you been able to escape into these days? How are your various yearly reading goals doing? I’m currently reading books 7 & 8 for the challenge, The Reckoning by Jane Casey and So You Want to Talk About Race? by Ijeoma Oluo. I really should do some sort of halfway through the year look at my reading goals but I’ll save that for another time. I hope you are all well and relatively sane in this maddening time. ❤️ 

Shirley Jackson and Muriel Spark (Mini-Reviews)

I’m trying to read more books from my own shelves (ongoing, a voracious reader’s constant struggle.) I still have some books checked out from the library from pre-quarantine times, but for some reason I don’t want to read them all yet! It’s like I’m saving them or something! 😀 So I tried two from the shelf by my bed and am pleased to report that they were both (mostly) enjoyable. And one is from my Classics Club list. Here are some quick thoughts.

Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson (Classics Club)

I LOVE Shirley Jackson. I’ve read almost all of her novels but still have short stories and nonfiction to go. This is a memoir/essay collection published in 1953, focusing on her growing family renting an old house in rural Vermont and the zany antics that ensue with young children, pets, and a house and car that constantly need repairs. This is decidedly not like the Shirley Jackson you may know from The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It’s an interesting look into daily life in a rural town in the late 1940s and early 1950s. And of course at that time, women were primary caregivers and housekeepers in most families. Even knowing that, I still bristled at the lack of a father/husband figure in the memoir. I haven’t read a biography of Jackson yet, but I’ve heard that things weren’t great at home with her husband. So I guess it fits that he’s such a non-entity. I felt sorry for Shirley dealing with the very active, precocious children (although they are cute and funny) and all the household things breaking down, and she mentions being out of money a lot. I was mad at her husband for not even being a good “breadwinner,” which is the very least you’d expect a traditional 1950’s husband to be! And all the while she is writing amazing, subversive, creepy fiction somehow! Overall I enjoyed it enough, but my annoyance probably colored my impression more than some readers. A quick scan of Goodreads reviews show me that most readers found this very funny. I would call it “amusing.” I’m not sure if I’ll read Raising Demons, which is her other domestic memoir. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark

This is my first novel by Muriel Spark but it definitely won’t be my last. I’ve read about her work for a while now from many other bloggers and picked up a copy of her 1988 novel A Far Cry From Kensington at a local used book store for $.75. What a bargain. What a quirky book! It’s kind of hard to summarize and felt expansive for its slim 187 pages. Set in London in the 1950s, it focuses on the residents of a boarding house and reads almost like a mystery. Our narrator, Mrs. Hawkins, is a 28 year-old war widow who works in publishing and is the kind of woman others find capable and helpful. Looking back on this time, she attributed it to her size:

Milly, like everyone else in the house or in my office, never used my first name. Although I was a young woman of twenty-eight I was generally known as Mrs. Hawkins. There was something about me, Mrs. Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly aware of it, and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it. It was, of course, partly this physical factor that disposed people to confide in me. I looked comfortable.

Here is the only thing about the book I wasn’t comfortable with, this intense focus on size as the defining characteristic of Mrs. Hawkins. She is a funny character, always dispensing free advice, and not afraid to tell it like it is with dreadful people (as in her nemesis, pushy, would-be writer Hector Bartlett.) But there was an awful lot of fat phobia on display here in Spark’s writing, and it didn’t sit right with me. As the story continues Mrs. Hawkins decides to become thin (by eating half portions of everything) and it completely changes her life. A tired old trope to be sure. Thankfully, there is a riveting story line to go along with all this diet talk. One of Mrs. Hawkins’ fellow boarders, a Polish refugee and seamstress named Wanda, is receiving mysterious, threatening, anonymous letters and is terrified. And the publisher for which Mrs. Hawkins works is engaging in illegal activities as well. I did enjoy this tremendously despite the diet stuff, which is a testament to Spark’s storytelling. I have another of her books on my shelf to read, the one for which she may be best known, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Have you read either of these, or anything else by these authors?

Adam Bede (Classics Club Spin #23)

I did it, y’all! I finished reading George Eliot’s 1859 novel Adam Bede. And here’s another cool thing: IT WAS REALLY GOOD.

20563I couldn’t have imagined how much I would enjoy this book when I was at 5% completion. Or even after the first three chapters or so. In fact, I considered abandoning the book and making a substitution on my Classics Club list (something I have yet to do.) So if you decide to give this book a try one day, know that it gets MUCH BETTER. When the book opens we are in a woodworking shop of local men with nearly unintelligible accents, so it’s really hard to read, and then we get a weird chapter introducing many of the characters to a “stranger” coming through town with lots of exposition. It’s not until one of the main characters, Dinah, starts preaching, that things get rolling.

The story is basically a love triangle gone wrong, horribly wrong. I didn’t anticipate how dark it would go at the outset, so that was a neat surprise. (No spoilers from me!) Tall, dark, and handsome Adam Bede lives with his affable younger brother, Seth, and their self-pitying mother, Lisbeth. He’s a woodworker, hard-working, honest, driven, and universally respected in their village. He’s got eyes for pretty Hetty, a seventeen-year-old relation of the well-liked farming family the Poysers. Everyone thinks she’s the prettiest thing they’ve ever seen, and she knows it, and uses it to her advantage when she can. Naive and rather silly, she only has eyes for the local son of the gentry, Arthur Donnithorne.

Hetty was quite used to the thought that people liked to look at her… She knew still better, that Adam Bede- tall, upright, clever, brave Adam Bede – who carried such authority with all the people round about, and whom her uncle was always delighted to see of an evening, saying that “Adam knew a fine sight more o’ the natur o’things than those as thought themselves his betters” – she knew that this Adam, who was often rather stern to other people and not much given to run after the lasses, could be made to turn pale or red any day by a word or look from her.

She wanted the finer things in life, finer than a man of Adam’s means could give her. And she was also increasingly aware that handsome, wealthy Arthur was making eyes at her in church and finding excuses to come visit the farm. Arthur who should know better than to encourage a silly, naive young girl from a different class, who could never be true marriage material to him.

Meanwhile, Adam’s brother Seth is in love with the serious but loving Dinah, niece to the Poysers, who is a Methodist and a woman preaching in public. But she has told him that if she “could think of any man as more than a Christian brother, I think it would be you. But my heart is not free to marry…. God has called me to minister to others, not to have any joys or sorrows of my own, but to rejoice with them that do rejoice, and to weep with those that weep.” Dinah has a real connection to Seth and Adam’s mother Lisbeth, comforting her when her husband dies early on in the story. She spends the night with them at the cottage, and in the morning when Adam comes down, he sees her in a bit of a different light.

For the first moment or two he made no answer, but looked at her with the concentrated, examining glance which a man gives to an object in which he has suddenly begun to be interested. Dinah, for the first time in her life, felt a painful self-consciousness; there was something in the dark penetrating glance of this strong man so different from the mildness and timidity of his brother Seth. A faint blush came, which deepened as she wondered at it.

Interesting! This passage struck me and I filed it away for later.

Things really pick up during and after the big birthday bash for Arthur Donnithorne. Everyone is invited no matter their social standing, and everyone is happy to see the young man come of age and come closer to finally being master of the estate, as his grandfather is a miserly curmudgeon, not well liked and not seen as a good steward of the land or the tenant farmers. The last three books, the last half, of the novel really pick up the pace and the action, and I didn’t want to put it down at times. Hetty and Arthur do become romantically entangled, most unwisely, and the consequences are devastating to many. Will there be a happy ending for anyone? Will good old Adam Bede finally enjoy the love of a decent woman who deserves him?

After a choppy start, I came to really enjoy this novel. It deals with class and education, religion and gender roles, but mostly it’s a story of a rural community of decent people and the danger that comes with upsetting the established social order. I would definitely recommend it if you have already read Middlemarch; but if you haven’t yet, then please save your George Eliot energy for that sublime classic. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Reading Roundup 4/25/20

It’s a gray day here today, but mostly we’ve been really lucky in Tennessee this Spring, with seasonable temperatures and sunny or partly sunny days. I’ve spent more time in my backyard this spring than I’ve ever done. I’ve loved watching nature, the birds and bunnies be born and get bigger before our eyes. I am so grateful for the good weather and the lack of mosquitoes! I know soon enough they will come out to torment me and I will be forced inside more often. 😢

img_5624So the Classics Club picked the number 6 last week; therefore my choice is Adam Bede by George Eliot. I got the ebook and the audiobook both from the library. I started it and left it behind temporarily in favor of Daphne Du Maurier’s Mary Anne, which is my pick for Ali’s Daphne Du Maurier reading week celebration, May 11 through 17. (I have until the end of May to get Adam Bede read. It’s much bigger than I had thought and quite intimidating.) Mary Anne is a historical fiction novel set in the late 1700s, based on Du Maurier’s great-great- grandmother, and so far it’s very good. I’m about 1/3 of the way through.

Recently Finished:

img_5623Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

I loved this! I inhaled it. For the last 1/3 of the book I sat at my kitchen table and ignored anyone who tried to talk to me. I feel like this is a very American novel, perfectly encapsulating our obsession with image, our addiction to social media, our inability to talk about or deal with class and race. We get alternate perspectives of a young black woman, Emira, and a thirtysomething white woman, Alix, in 2016 Philadelphia. Emira is the babysitter to Alix’s two children, something she is really good at and enjoys. But she constantly compares herself to her friends and wonders if she is not “grown-up” enough. Her impending 26th birthday has something to do with that – she’ll be kicked off her parents’s health insurance. Meanwhile, Alix is feeling lost as well, having had two children in quick succession while trying to start a business that has garnered her a large Instagram following and a book deal. (I confess to never really understanding exactly what her business was about… something with writing letters?) Alix is not very sympathetic, despite the reader knowing some hard times she went through in high school. She never really got OVER things that happened in high school and she just seemed desperately insecure and lonely to me throughout the novel, so I supposed I pitied her rather than sympathized. Also I was angry at her poor treatment of one of her children, and the way she refused to accept responsibility for certain things in her past. Emira was imminently more likeable and having been broke and lost in my twenties I could certainly identify with her in that way. I also loved how much she cared about the children in her care. Anyway, crazy things happen, there are a couple of big twists, and I’m not going to spoil it further. If you’re looking for a smart, fun, slightly maddening exploration of class and race and motherhood, look no further. It’s a page-turner. This would make a GREAT book group pick.

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

Talk about an atmospheric mystery! Set in Louisiana, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, this contemporary mystery is a slow burn but very good. Caren Gray manages an antebellum plantation that hosts events, like weddings, and tours from school groups. A single mother, she lives on the grounds with her school-aged daughter, Morgan. Caren grew up around the plantation since her mother worked for the family that owned it. Now the body of a young migrant woman who worked in the sugarcane fields next door has turned up in a shallow grave on the edge of the grounds, and Caren is drawn into the mystery of why she was killed and who killed her. There are lots of red herrings, spooky scenes on the grounds, a snooping but handsome local reporter, shady business deals, and Caren’s complicated relationship with her ex-partner that all come together to make this a satisfying mystery. It deftly touches on issues of immigration, the criminal justice system, and the aftermath of slavery. I also enjoyed Locke’s previous mystery, Black Water Rising. I plan to check out her newer books as well.

Personal Stuff:

I’ve walked every day this past week, woohoo! I’m still enjoying all the blooms in the neighborhood very much. Today’s picture is from my own front yard, some pink dianthus that I planted years ago. My garden is coming along nicely, although I was very mad at some squirrel who dug up the dirt in my cucumber patch area and displaced a seedling that had sprouted up apparently from an old seed of last year’s garden. I think it was a cucumber seedling but I’m not sure. Anyway, that darn squirrel dug it up just for fun, I guess. 😕 Peas, arugula, and kohlrabi are sprouting. I’ve never had kohlrabi but I thought I’d try it since it came free with my seed order! I planted a bunch of flower seeds too, like zinnias, sunflowers, bee balm, and echinacea. I can already see the zinnia seeds sprouting.

I’ll have some extra time to garden this summer because I was among 169 library employees temporarily furloughed this week. That’s virtually the entire library system. So we won’t be opening up the system anytime soon! I have made my peace with it, mostly, because what else can I do? They say that they hope to call people back to work soon, that the furlough is slated for eight weeks starting May 9, but they can call us back at any time before the eight weeks is up. It’s a county budget thing, since tax revenue for March and April will be so down. Employees in other departments were furloughed but the library took the biggest hit. Initially it made me very sad because it made me feel like libraries were not important. And by extension, like I was not important. But now I am thinking that libraries are always among the first things to be cut in budgetary hard times, as unfair and shortsighted as that is. I’m certainly not alone in America or indeed the world. Many people are losing or have already lost employment. It’s just the first time it’s happened to me, and it marred my sense of self. I take great pride in the work I do and I love the work that I do. I love my community. I think about my patrons all the time. I hope they don’t forget about us. In my darker moments I think, well, now everyone will have to turn to ebooks and they won’t come into the libraries anymore once we can open up again. But I know that’s not true. I’ll be fine. The libraries will open again. I keep telling myself, This Too Shall Pass. Anyway, now I get to do the interesting psychological and philosophical questioning of personal worth outside of work – who am I without my job and what am I worth when I’m not working? It’s almost exciting to face these big questions. Being an optimistic person, I try to find silver linings anywhere I can. There are quite a few here.

If you are also facing a job loss, temporary or permanent, my heart goes out to you. We are all dealing with stressful things now, and I hope that we are all being extra compassionate with ourselves and not beating ourselves up too much for not being “productive,” or eating too many snacks, or watching too much TV or whatever. I am taking a note from my blogger friend Fiction Fan and treating myself to extra medicinal chocolate these days! Perhaps reading books is the way you are treating yourself kindly. I hope your stacks, be they virtual or paper, are providing you with comfort and joy.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (Classics Club)

Another month, another book read for my Classics Club list. And this one was terrific! Quirky, funny, engaging – a book to sink into and escape the world a little bit. Stella Gibbons’s 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm is a real treat! I have not seen the film but I hear it is also good and I will try to find it somewhere.

60832888518__2b174e12-0149-4461-b2ab-5083d7eae854Flora Poste’s parents died of the “annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish plague which occurred in her twentieth year” (yikes!) and they have only left her a hundred pounds a year. She decamps to a friend’s house, a Mrs. Smiling, a wealthy young widow, to figure out what to do next. Mrs. Smiling suggest that she get a job and eventually get a flat of her own. Flora is having none of that. Her plan is to write to one of her long lost relatives and get them to host her indefinitely.

“I think it’s degrading of you, Flora,” cried Mrs. Smiling at breakfast. “Do you truly mean that you won’t ever want to work at anything?” Her friend replied after some thought.

“Well, when I am fifty-three or so I would like to write a novel as good as Persuasion, but with a modern setting, of course. For the next thirty years or so I shall be collecting material for it. If anyone asks me what I work at, I shall say, “Collecting material.” No one can object to that. Besides, so I shall be.”

The most appealing reply comes from her cousin, Judith Starkadder. Appealing is a relative term, of course. She offers her a place at Cold Comfort Farm, in Sussex, along with the strange and intriguing lines, “So you are after your rights at last… my man once did your father a great wrong.” Mrs. Smiling says, “it sounds an appalling place, but in a different way from all the others. I mean it does sound interesting and appalling, while the others just sound appalling.”

So Flora decides to go to Cold Comfort Farm and finds a very quirky, rather dirty and unkempt place full of bizarre and somewhat pathological characters. In addition to Judith, who seems strangely and overly attached to her son, Seth, who is menacingly overly sexual and obsessed with the “talkies,” there is fire-and-brimstone preacher Amos, Judith’s husband. Their other son Reuben is convinced that Flora wants to steal the farm from him. She also encounters Adam, the old hired farmhand who is obsessed with the livestock and calls Flora “Robert Poste’s Child.” The place is absolutely bonkers and yet Flora is not intimidated by anything, really, showing a great sense of humor as she goes about her business of righting all the wrongs at CCF. She also has to avoid the zealous attentions of a Mr. Mybug, a writer whom she had met once at a party in London and who is staying in the nearest town of Howling. The pompous Mybug absurdly thinks that Branwell Bronte actually wrote the books that his sisters did.

“There’s a quality in you…” said Mr. Mybug staring at her and waving his fingers. “Remote somehow, and nymph-like… oddly unawakened. I should like to write a novel about you and call it ‘Virginal.'”

“Do, if it passes the time for you,” said Flora.

Flora has plans for setting things in order at Cold Comfort Farm, but her most formidable adversary is Aunt Ada, who only comes down from her attic room once or twice a year and holds the purse strings and controls the family with her imposing will. We find out that Ada had seen “something nasty in the woodshed” when she was little and that it had scarred her for life.

You told them you were mad. You had been mad since you saw something nasty in the woodshed, years and years and years ago. If any of them went away, to any other part of the country, you would go much madder. Any attempt by any of them to get away from the farm made one of your attacks of madness come on. It was unfortunate in some ways but useful in others… The woodshed incident had twisted something in your child-brain, seventy years ago.

Will Flora’s plans for improving the farm and it’s residents’s lives work? Will she find out why she is owed a debt because of her father? Will we ever find out what Ada saw in the woodshed? This was a hilarious, wickedly smart, very entertaining read. I have no knowledge of the rural melodramas of the 1930s that this novel is supposed to be a “merciless parody” of, as the book jacket says. But that didn’t detract from my enjoyment at all. Flora’s plucky determination, as improbable as it might have been, was charming, and I loved seeing her figure out the best ways to work her magic on the sad, lost, hapless residents of the farm. I can see myself reading this again sometime in the future and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t yet read it.

Classics Club Spin #23 List

The good folks at the Classics Club have decided to host a Spin, whereby they will choose a number between 1 and 20. Participants are to make a smaller list from their master list of classics yet to read, numbered 1-20. The number will be announced tomorrow, April 19. As I am doing well with my challenge, sticking to reading one book a month from my list, I thought, Why not participate? I recently finished Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm (review to come) and so the Spin pick will be my May classic. Participants have until June 1 to read their book. Here’s my list:

  1. Fahrenheit 451 – Bradbury
  2. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Bronte
  3. The Master and Margarita – Bulgakov
  4. A Study in Scarlet -Conan Doyle
  5. Great Expectations – Dickens
  6. Adam Bede- Eliot
  7. Invisible Man – Ellison
  8. Love Medicine – Erdrich
  9. Howard’s End – Forster
  10. Nightingale Wood – Gibbons
  11. The Thin Man – Hammett
  12. Jonah’s Gourd Vine – Hurston
  13. Life Among the Savages – Jackson
  14. The Blue Castle – Montgomery
  15. Beloved – Morrison
  16. Less Than Angels- Pym
  17. Quartet in Autumn – Pym
  18. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Wilde
  19. Stoner – Williams
  20. To the Lighthouse – Woolf

I am hopeful that the spin will result in one that I own a copy of, just to make it easier and cheaper. 🤞 Which ones have you read and enjoyed? Which have you not enjoyed? Do you know if any of these have particularly god audiobook versions?

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (Classics Club & Buddy Read)

In that fine place, in the ripened Indian summer weather, those two once again choose us. In circumstances where smaller spirits might let envy corrode liking, they declare their generous pleasure in our company and our good luck. What we felt last night when we fell into a laughing bearhug and fused our frosty breaths outside their door, we feel again on this placid hill. We have been invited into their lives, from which we will never be evicted, or evict ourselves.

91Vq1lzeOaLHaving read and loved Stegner’s Angle of Repose years ago, I had high hopes for his 1987 novel Crossing to Safety. I also owned a copy so choosing it for my March Classics Club pick was a no-brainer. I’m happy to say my expectations were matched and I thoroughly enjoyed this reading experience. Augmenting my pleasure was doing a a Buddy Read with Pauline of Smithereens blog, and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. I don’t know that I provided any great contribution to our email and Twitter conversations, but I was grateful for the company and the added push to read it.

Stegner is a beautiful writer – thoughtful, measured, insightful about human nature. His detail for the natural world is also a delight, anchoring his characters in a very rich and real place. This novel centers on two young academic couples, Larry and Sally Morgan, and Sid and Charity Lang. The action takes place in both the Midwest of the Great Depression, in Madison, Wisconsin, and also forty-some years later in rural Vermont. We follow the two couples as they bond very quickly and go back and forth in time ultimately to their later years, as they gather at the end of one of the foursome’s life. The men are college English teachers trying to get published and promoted, with varying degrees of success. The women are housewives as was typical of the time period, and they do have children, although the kids are mostly an afterthought in the narrative until the end.

What drives the story is the beguiling and maddening character of Charity Lang. She is what you’d call a “force of nature,” a whirlwind of energy, spirit, and generosity. I admired her but didn’t entirely warm to her, although I suppose if she’d taken me under her wing as she did the Morgans, I would probably always be in her debt and her thrall. You see, the Morgans are poor, and the Langs are wealthy. But somehow that doesn’t really come between the two couples as much as you might think it would. There are equalizers, such as Larry Morgan’s more successful writing career. There is more conflict between Charity and Sid over his stalled career than there is any conflict between the couples.

This is a quiet novel, but rich in character and detail. Deep friendship and the complicated bonds of marriage are the themes, as well as a meditation on what makes a life well lived. Reading this in such a precarious, anxiety-inducing time as this was a balm to the soul. As Pauline astutely noted, the characters feel very far away from the cares of the world in the book, although serious events occur. If you’ve never tried Stegner before I would highly recommend this one, especially if you like character-driven, thoughtful, but not overly padded, novels.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Format: owned paperback

See my Classics Club list here.

Classics Club: The Warden by Anthony Trollope

I’m trying to tackle my Classics Club list seriously this year, so my goal is to read and review one per month. I decided this month to go for one that I owned – yes for reading my own books! I had never read Anthony Trollope before and thought he was an author I should sample. I found an older paperback edition of the first two novels in his famous Chronicles of Barsetshire – The Warden and Barchester Towers – at a used book store for $2.50. I also took the plunge and subscribed to Libro.fm for the audio book version, just in case the book was too dense to get through on paper alone.

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Not the prettiest cover ever!

 

I’m happy to say that I enjoyed both versions – Trollope’s tone is light-hearted and conspiratorial and I didn’t find the writing to be difficult or dense in any way. The characters and story were engaging enough to keep my interest, mostly. (There were a few sections I thought could have used an editor, but that’s true of many classics, I think.) The narrator of the audio book, Simon Vance, has a melodious, soothing voice. After all the dreadful news at home and around the world the past couple of weeks, it was relaxing and comforting to sink into a world where the biggest problem was whether or not someone deserved the salary they were getting.

Ah yes, the plot: The titular Warden, Mr. Harding, has his quiet, pleasant life turned upside down by, of all people, his likely future son-in-law. John Bold takes it upon himself to question whether or not Mr. Harding’s 800-pounds-a-year salary as Warden of the old-age home that the Church is running is just under the provisions of the benefactor’s will as it was written. (I must admit, I didn’t really get why he decided to do this. I may have missed something and if you’ve read this, please enlighten me.) Lawyers are hired on both sides, and the press gets wind of the “scandal” and starts smearing Mr. Harding’s good name. And he really is a decent chap – the old men in the home love him, he takes good care of them and grounds and gardens, and plays his violincello for the men regularly. His younger daughter Eleanor lives with him, and everyone seems confident that Mr. Bold will propose to her soon. His oldest daughter is married to the Archdeacon, Dr. Grantley. Grantley has a very forceful personality and is incensed by what he sees as a frivolous attack on the Church. When Harding suggests that he resign the position, because he can’t bear the personal attacks, Grantley maintains that he must not because he’d be putting future Wardens in a bad position. Grantley is not a very likeable character, but he’s not cartoonishly villainous – just very fixed in the certainty of his opinions and very pushy.

Anyway, there’s not a lot of plot here, really. Will Harding resign? If he resigns how shall he not starve? Will Bold and Eleanor still get married now that he’s stirred up all this trouble for her father? Will the old men at the home get their extra hundred pounds a year? I enjoyed this novel, and I wanted to see how things would resolve, but I don’t think it convinced me that I need to read anything else by Trollope. What do you think – have you read any of the other Chronicles of Barsetshire? Or any of his other works? Please let me know if you think I should add something else by him to my next Classics Club list (if I make one – ha!)

 

Classics Club Spin #22: A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

Oh my goodness, how do I write about this short story collection? I feel enormous trepidation as I begin this post. This book is just really freakin’ weird. 😃 And dark. And twisted. And brilliant. But I was relieved to finish it, so what does that say?

Ten stories filled with mean people, ignorant people, unwanted visitors, negligent parents, gossips, hypocrites, killers, racists, xenophobes… sounds like a swell way to spend your reading time, right? Yet when I entered into each story (one a day, that’s all I could take) I couldn’t pry my eyeballs from it. The characters, despicable though they might be, were so fully realized and the stories so well constructed that I was hooked.

The collection starts with the title story, and it’s a shocker. A family of four and the grandmother are traveling to a Florida on a road trip, with the grandkids sassing off to their racist, annoying grandmother constantly, until she tricks the whole family into driving down this dirt road so they can see an old abandoned plantation that she “remembered.” (She gets the kids excited about it by craftily telling them that there is a legendary secret panel in a wall in which the family silver was kept.) When a chance accident happens on the deserted road and a band of sketchy dudes comes along on the scene, all hell breaks loose. It’s an eye-opening way to start off, to say the least.

Some of the stories are a bit more sedate but no less compelling. My favorite story was “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,”which features a precocious, mischievous young girl putting up with a weekend visit from her boy-crazy, older second cousins, Susan and Joanne. There’s a traveling fair in town, and two local boys are enlisted to take the girls and get them out of the house for an evening. The title of the story comes from an anecdote that the girls laughingly tell at dinner about part of their Catholic school education.

— if he should “behave in an ungentlemanly manner with them in the back of an automobile.” Sister Perpetua said they were to say, “Stop, sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!” and that would put an end to it.

When the girls come back from the fair they obliquely tell the child (we don’t learn her name) about something they saw in the “freak tent” that unnerved them.

The tent where it was had been divided into two parts by a black curtain, one side for men and one for women. The freak went from one side to the other, talking first to the men and then to the women, but everyone could hear. The stage ran all the way across the front. The girls heard the freak say to the men, “I’m going to show you this and if you laugh, God may strike you the same way.” The freak had a country voice, slow and nasal, and neither high nor low, just flat. “God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it. I don’t dispute hit.” Then there was a long silence on the other side of the tent and finally the freak left the men and came over to the women’s side and said the same thing.

The girls explain that the “freak” was both man and woman but the child doesn’t understand what that means. She later has a vision as she goes to sleep that the “freak” was leading a church service and says they are a “Temple of the Holy Ghost.” Still later in church she again thinks of the “freak” and how they said that this was how God wanted them to be. It’s a quiet, oddly beautiful story, and I loved how the child could embody a kindness and acceptance towards the “freak” that the rest of the characters couldn’t seem to muster.

I’m glad I read this and glad that the Classics Club Spin landed on this selection. I know it’s a hard sell, but I do think this is worth the read. I have all sorts of questions about what O’Connor was like, why she wrote such dark, religious, tense stories. This is the kind of book I would love to have discussed in a classroom setting because I know that I’m missing some nuances and symbolism along the way. I rated it five stars on Goodreads but it’s not one I can call a favorite, simply because I am confident that I will never be inclined to read it again. If anyone has any biographical knowledge of O’Connor or thoughts about any of these stories, I’d love to hear them!

Format: Library paperback, 252 pages.

See my original Classics Club list here.

Classics Club Spin #22 List

It’s time again for another Classics Club Spin, so here’s a rare non-Friday post from me. If I can read and review whatever classic book the Spin Gods choose for me by January 31 then I’ll be doing great (I’ve got some chunksters here so who knows?!) Here’s my list:

  1. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  2. The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
  3. A Study in Scarlet – Arthur Conan Doyle
  4. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
  5. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
  6. Howard’s End – E.M. Forster
  7. Wives and Daughters – Elizabeth Gaskell
  8.  The Thin Man – Dashiell Hammett
  9. Life Among the Savages – Shirley Jackson
  10. The Blue Castle – L.M. Montgomery
  11. The Gowk Storm – Nancy Morrison
  12. Beloved – Toni Morrison
  13. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories – Flannery O’Connor
  14. The Last Gentleman – Walker Percy
  15. Crossing to Safety – Wallace Stegner
  16. The Warden – Anthony Trollope
  17. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
  18. Stoner – John Williams
  19. To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
  20. Native Son – Richard Wright

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Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

On Sunday the 22nd, they’ll pick a number and then I’ll know which book I have to look forward to in January. Which one would you pick for me?