Mid-Year Reading Stats (and Book #9 of 20 Books of Summer)

We are well into July so it’s time for a mid-year look at my reading stats and progress on reading goals for the year. Reading is generally is going pretty well for me right now, although the deep concentration I enjoyed during my furlough period, when I was a reading machine, is much lessened by time constraints. I have to dip in and out of books in small doses, which is what I mostly did pre-pandemic, but somehow the quality of my attention is more fragmented. I guess considering everything that’s going on, I’m doing fairly well. 

Books read: 66

Fiction: 52

Nonfiction: 14

Adult/YA: 45

Middle Grade (mostly read with my son:) 21

Male Authors: 23

Female Authors: 43

Authors of Color: 16 (24%)

Genres: Classics (10) Literary Fiction (9) Mystery (8) Memoir/Biography (7) General Nonfiction/Essay/Self-Help (7) Romance (3) Short Stories (1)

Favorites So Far:

Favorites Read With My Son:

READING GOALS:

1. Read 20 Nonfiction Titles. On track!

2. Reread Four Books I Own. On track! Just one more to go.

3. Read 12 Titles From Classics Club List. On track! I’ve read 7 so far. I have 27 more to go in total before the deadline of February 2023.

4. Read More Authors of Color. On track! Last year’s paltry 18% gave me a low bar to clear. I’m hoping to hit at least 30% for this year.

In other news, my ninth book of the 20 Books of Summer challenge is Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926.) I had high expectations for this one, but something prevented me from connecting to the story fully. I can’t quite pin down what was amiss. It could just be reader’s frame of mind here, because so many people count this one as a favorite. Hercules Poirot is our detective, and he’s as charming and astute as ever. Maybe I missed his frequent sidekick, Captain Hastings. I didn’t warm to the narrator of the tale, Dr. Sheppard. He was devoid of personality so perhaps that’s what kept me at a remove.

51DcQZO7VMLOne of the wealthiest and most well-liked people in the small village of King’s Abbot, Roger Ackroyd, is found murdered in his study. Of course there are many suspects who’ve been in or near the estate at the time of the murder. Ackroyd’s niece, Flora, engages Hercule Poirot to assist the police and clear the name of her fiancé, Ralph Paton. Poirot is in town attempting to relax in retirement (which struck me as funny since this is only the 4th book in a series that would stretch to more than 40 titles.) He even says at one point, “In all probability this is the last case I shall ever investigate.”

I did enjoy the number of suspects, and there are lots of subplots and intrigues to follow and try to work out. As usual I didn’t guess the murderer until very late in the game. I can see why this was a seminal work of mystery, in that the innovative twist is clever and controversial. While I did enjoy it overall, I can’t say it’s one of my favorites. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

So how are you doing with your own 2020 reading goals? Let me know below.

 

 

 

Five-Sentence Reviews for 20 Books of Summer

Hi friends. How’s your week been? I’ve had a good day off today… I got doughnuts from my favorite local doughnut place this morning and I spent a solid hour and a half finishing up my eighth book for 20 Books of Summer, so it’s been a solidly good day! Since I plan on watching the film of the Broadway musical Hamilton tonight on Disney+ (which I got JUST so I could watch Hamilton!) I’m going to “review” these two four-star reads with some quick five-sentence reviews. Gotta get dinner done, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom, Jr. are calling!

Book 7 of the Challenge: The Reckoning by Jane Casey (Maeve Kerrigan series #2). Having read the first in the series FOUR years ago apparently didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the second installment at all. Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan is a wonderful character, smart and strong, but also trying to navigate being a young and attractive woman in a heavily male-dominated field. She’s newly partnered with the maddening and chauvinistic DI Josh Derwent, who’s a bit of a loose cannon and who got on my nerves at times. They’re tracking a killer (or killers) going after pedophiles, and Maeve is determined to see that the killers are brought to justice. This was an enthralling, intricate police procedural and the romance between Maeve and her fellow detective Rob is believable and smartly written. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Book 8 of the Challenge: Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller. Just a gut-punch of a novel, but one I absolutely couldn’t put down. Told partly in letters written 25 years ago, partly a contemporary story, this broke my heart. Two adult sisters, Nan and Flora, deal with the impending death of their father, the famous writer Gil Coleman. Alternating with that time period are letters to Gil written by their mother, Ingrid, who disappeared in 1992; she stuck the letters in various books all over the house. Page-turning literary fiction about grief, motherhood, family secrets, and infidelity, with the mystery of what happened to Ingrid at its core. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

I’m still reading Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race and I’m not sure what will be next from my 20 Books of Summer stack. I’m thrilled to be on track so far with my reading and reviewing for the challenge! Six books for the rest of this month and next is definitely doable. If you’re participating, how are you faring? What books are you diving into this weekend? Are you watching Hamilton on Disney+? This will be my first time, never having gotten to travel to see the show in person. I’m such a huge fan of the music and of the original cast members ( I was slated to see Leslie Odom, Jr. perform in concert in Atlanta back in April… then the pandemic hit 😫.)

Anyway, have a good weekend, book dragons!

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. ❤️ 

How We Fight For Our Lives and The Secret Adversary: 20 Books of Summer, Books #3 & #4

61386777268__a9b5ee01-86d3-421b-9d93-e6cd106df7e6How We Fight For Our Lives is a 190-page memoir by poet Saeed Jones that is electric and unflinching. I read it in one day because I found it so compelling. It’s a coming of age story about being a Black gay boy and later young man from Texas, as well as an incredibly moving account of his mother’s untimely death from heart failure. (Get those tissues ready, readers.) I had enjoyed Jones’s poetry before, which is what attracted me to this memoir. Also, I follow him on Twitter and find him insightful and entertaining. He’s a lyrical and vivid writer. He doesn’t shy away from the uglier parts of his journey, such as when a man he has a sexual encounter with attempts to beat him to death because he can’t deal with his own internalized homophobia. His account of his maternal grandmother’s fundamentalist religion, where at one point her preacher asks God to “put every ailment, every disease on (Saeed’s Buddhist mother) until she breaks under the weight of the Holy Spirit,” is harrowing and tragic, especially in light of his mother’s heart condition.

I made myself a promise: even if it meant becoming a stranger to my loved ones, even if it meant keeping secrets, I would have a life of my own.

Maybe she had been right about me after all. Worldly: “concerned with material values or ordinary life rather than a spiritual existence.” Worldly: “experienced and sophisticated.”

Of course I wanted to see the world, to experience its fullness. I wanted to be a real part of it, rather than the passing shadow I so often felt like. I wanted to devour the world.

I sat there ablaze, struggling to apprehend a new, darkly radiant sense of self. I felt dangerous, evil even.

If this feeling was what my grandmother meant, I wasn’t sure I would survive it after all.

But I couldn’t turn to her now – not anymore – to name whatever was having it’s way with me. So we drove on, an old woman and her grandson, alone together, making their way through one last gorgeous summer evening in Memphis.

A haunting, at times hard to read but so compelling that I couldn’t stop reading, memoir. (This was my first of five “off the list” picks for the 20 Books of Summer challenge.) ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A 180-degree turn now to my fourth challenge pick, Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary (1922.) Fiction Fan put this one on my radar and I’m grateful! It was very good fun, what I’d call a real romp. It features the terrific twosome of Tommy Beresford and Prudence “Tuppence” Crowley, childhood friends who reconnected during the First World War, when Tuppence was a hospital volunteer and Tommy was recovering from an injury. A few years later, both young and broke, they run into one another on the street and hatch a plan to run an advertisement and become adventurers for hire.

“Now I’ll read it straight through. ‘Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to do anything, go anywhere. Pay must be good. No unreasonable offer refused.’ How would that strike you if you read it?”

“It would strike me as either being a hoax, or else written by a lunatic.”

They soon become embroiled in a caper involving some very sensitive and important documents that were passed to a young lady named Jane Finn on the ship Lusitania as it sank. The papers and the young woman are both missing, and it’s vital that the “good guys” find both before the “bad guys,” who are a shadowy international crime syndicate with Bolshevik leanings led by the mysterious and sinister Mr. Brown. They want to destabilize the government which is already under pressure from Labour unrest. Tommy and Tuppence get themselves into one tight spot after another and it’s very entertaining watching them use their wits to dig themselves out. This novel had a zippy pace and energy that I haven’t encountered in the Poirot and Marple mysteries I’ve read so far. I was completely dumbfounded by the twist ending, suspecting the entirely wrong person of malfeasance. Christie is once again the queen of misdirection. I will definitely read more of the Tommy and Tuppence mysteries! ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Have you read either of these? Do they appeal? How is your 20 Books of Summer Challenge going, if you’re participating? I’m on my fifth book, which I hope to finish tonight.

How To Be An Antiracist and New Waves: 20 Books of Summer #1 & #2

There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.” The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism. This may seem harsh, but it’s important at the outset that we apply one of the core principles of antiracism, which is to return the word “racist” itself back to its proper usage. “Racist” is not – as Richard Spencer argues – a pejorative. It is not the worst word in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur. It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it – and then dismantle it. The attempt to turn this usefully descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is, of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction.

I honestly feel like I don’t know how to best review How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. It’s the kind of book that can change minds and lives. I feel like I need to read it again and make sure I’ve really absorbed what I’ve read. I will probably do so. I could have quoted two-thirds of the book here in this space, because there are so many salient and persuasive points. Here’s another:

Incorrect conceptions of race as a social construct (as opposed to a power construct), of racial history as a single march of racial progress (as opposed to a duel of antiracist and racist progress), of the race problem as rooted in ignorance and hate (as opposed to powerful self-interest) – all come together to produce solutions bound to fail. Terms and sayings like “I’m not racist” and “race neutral” and “post-racial” and “color-blind” and “only one race, the human race” and “only racists speak about race” and “Black people can’t be racist” and “White peoples are evil” are bound to fail in identifying and eliminating racist power and policy.

There is a lot to digest in Kendi’s ideas but this book is very readable and approachable. He brilliantly starts and ends each chapter with a story from his own life, starting in childhood and all the way to the present, where he confronts his own racist, sexist, and homophobic ideas, thereby showing a personal example of how people can learn and grow in becoming antiracist. It’s a very disarming approach and made me consider the ways in which I have been marinating in our toxic racist, classist, sexist, homophobic culture and absorbing ideas, consciously or unconsciously. I now consider antiracism work to be about power and policy, not just about hearts and minds. I feel like this book can be a game-changer. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I have not yet read his National Book Award-winning book Stamped From the Beginning, but I definitely will. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

img_5740New Waves by Kevin Nguyen is an interesting novel. It’s contemporary literary fiction that feels all at once breezy and melancholy. The two main characters, Lucas, an Asian customer service rep at a tech startup, and Margo, a Black programmer tired of being taken for granted, are best friends who “met” virtually years ago on a music pirating server. Margo’s specialty was obscure Japanese pop and Lucas’s was obscure Bossa Nova. They conspire to steal the startup’s user database and get away with it. But soon after, Margo is hit by a car and dies. (The reader knows this from the first chapter and the book jacket so it’s not a spoiler.) Lucas ends up with her laptop and discovers that he didn’t know his best friend as well as he thought he did. This book skillfully examines technology and ethics, friendship, grief, and love. Lucas doesn’t always make the best choices but he was a sympathetic character anyway, and I felt invested in his story. Another interesting thing about this book is that Margo wrote science fiction short stories, and every now and then one is interspersed into the narrative. Despite the melancholy tone this book made me feel hopeful at the end, and I think it’s one I won’t soon forget. I will definitely look out for Nguyen’s next novel. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

How is your 20 Books of Summer journey going? My reading pace is slow because I’m too tired after work to read much so I have to save it all for the weekends. Next up: The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie.

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. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Mary Anne by Daphne Du Maurier

The last day I was at my library branch, March 19, I happened to check out Daphne Du picture_20200409_133224590Maurier’s 1954 novel Mary Anne, on a whim, because I was in the mood to read another of her books after loving Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel so much. Little did I know that would be my last day at the library until at least July (although who knows anything at this point, really?) I’m awfully glad I picked it up because it enabled me to easily participate in Ali’s Daphne Du Maurier Reading Week blog event. 

She set men’s hearts on fire and scandalized a country.

An ambitious, stunning, and seductive young woman, Mary Anne finds the single most rewarding way to rise above her station: she will become the mistress to a royal duke. In doing so, she provokes a scandal that rocks Regency England.

A fictionalized account of Du Maurier’s great-great-grandmother, this is a sweeping historical saga that I was easily absorbed in. Growing up poor in London, aware that her mother had once enjoyed a better standard of living in her previous marriage, Mary Anne was determined not to repeat her mother’s mistakes. She is aware from an early age that women are dependent upon the protection and productivity of men for their lives. But she is intelligent, and can read, and uses those two strengths as her first way of bettering her circumstances.

Injustice – there was always injustice between men and women. Men made the laws to suit themselves. Men did as they pleased, and women suffered for it. There was only one way to beat them, and that was to match your wits against theirs and come out the winner. But when, and how, and where?

img_5624After a disappointing first marriage to an alcoholic, when she was very young and naive, Mary Anne saw herself repeating patterns of her mother’s disastrous marriage, and she wanted to do anything she could not to follow her path. A relative of an old school friend with connections to the Royal Family offers her a way out: a great beauty, she can be a high class prostitute.

This new life was easy. No cares and no worries, and, the first shock to pride overcome, the next step was simple. Men were simple, straightforward, direct, and grateful for little. Amusing to talk to at supper, but generally tipsy. After nine years with Joseph the last was rally no hardship – a few clumsy embraces, followed by snores on a pillow. The snores of a peer grated less than the snores of a mason, and a peer was lavish with presents, which tipped the scales higher. The point was, she made her own choice and took whom she wanted. It wasn’t a question of waiting, and hoping for callers. Two dozen cards in the mirror, and all invitations, so what was the best proposition? It was as simple as that.

Du Maurier writes sympathetically of Mary Anne, perhaps unsurprisingly. The character is not easy to love, in that she is obstinate, brassy, very pragmatic, not very “nice,” but those same qualities are the ones that help her rise above her station in life and keep fighting for what she wanted for herself and her family. She is a real fire-cracker, a force of nature, using whatever means she had (her intellect, her body, and her sexuality) to gain a better standard of living for her children.She really does love her children and try to do well by them.

I liked this novel, but didn’t love it the same way I loved Rebecca or My Cousin Rachel. Maybe it’s because no character in Mary Anne felt as fully realized or as interesting and ambiguous as the characters in the other novels. I don’t know if Du Maurier felt constrained in some way by writing about people who actually existed, it’s possible. The last one hundred pages or so were so filled with legal proceedings that I skimmed pages because I just didn’t find that part as interesting. And the very end of the book felt rushed to me. But those quibbles aside, I am glad that I read this and still would recommend it to fans of historical fiction or Du Maurier. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

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.