The Lottery & Other Stories by Shirley Jackson and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (Classics Club books #8 and #9)

I read two books in the September and October that qualified for both the R.I.P Challenge and my Classics Club listkilling two birds with one stone. I had read Jane Eyre before but it had been since I was about 14 or 15 years old – long enough that it was almost like new to me. The Shirley Jackson had been on my TBR list for quite a while. I’d read her classic story “The Lottery” in high school as well, and was thoroughly chilled. I didn’t know what to expect from the rest of her stories. I’m happy to say that I enjoyed them and was surprised by both books.

51Uz5FayRhL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_First, impressions of Jane Eyre. It’s a classic, and deservedly so. I chose it for the R.I.P. Challenge because I remembered the Gothic feel and the mysterious person (or supernatural being?) who kept making scary things happen at Thornfield House. Turns out what I most remembered about the novel, the part where Jane is employed by Mr. Rochester at Thornfield, is only about a third of the book! I had somehow totally blocked out her horrible childhood, unwanted and unloved by her horrid aunt, Mrs. Reed, and her terrible experiences at the boarding school she was sent to. I also totally forgot about what happens when she is later forced to leave Thornfield. (I’m trying to be vague because I’m sure there are some who haven’t yet read this.) Therefore, the first and last thirds of the novel felt juuuust a smidge overly long. (St. John! Oh my goodness! What a pill!)

I was terribly impressed, however, with how spunky Jane herself was, right from the get-go. She was no shrinking violet but instead a girl and later a young woman who stood up for herself even when it got her into trouble. I admired that. One early exchange between Jane and her aunt particularly impressed me:

“Don’t talk to me about her, John: I told you not to go near her; she is not worthy of notice; I do not choose that either you or your sisters should associate with her.”

Here, leaning over the banister, I cried out suddenly, and without at all deliberating on my words, –

“They are not fit to associate with me!”

And since I reread this for the R.I.P. Challenge, I thought I would offer a creepy passage from the book:

Good God! What a cry!

The night – its silence – its rest, was rent in twain by a savage, a sharp, a shrilly sound that ran from end to end of Thornfield Hall.

My pulse stopped: my heart stood still; my stretched arm was paralysed. The cry died, and was not renewed. Indeed, whatever being uttered that fearful shriek could not soon repeat it: not the widest-winged condor on the Andes could, twice in succession, send out such a yell from the cloud shrouding his eyrie. The thing delivering such utterance must rest ere it could repeat the effort.

All in all, a very enjoyable, romantic, insightful classic novel that I would recommend to everyone, and a perfect choice for autumn reading.                       ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Shirley Jackson has become one of my favorite authors over the last few years. I’ve read The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman, and The Sundial. I just have the rest of her short stories, one more novel, and her nonfiction still to read. The Lottery and Other Stories was the only story collection published in Jackson’s lifetime (1949.) Many of these stories are not scary or Gothic in feel like some of her longer fiction. But they are unsettling, often depicting people new in town, people in unfamiliar surroundings, people who don’t quite have a firm hold on reality.89723

There were a few stories that also dealt with racism and “otherness” quite overtly. One of these that impressed me was “After You, My Dear Alphonse.” The title refers to a silly phrase that two young boys, Johnny and his friend Boyd, keep saying to one another as a game. Johnny brings Boyd home for lunch after they’ve been playing outside. Right away, as soon as she sees that Boyd is black, Johnny’s mother Mrs. Wilson starts making assumptions. She scolds Johnny for making Boyd carry in a load of wood, but Johnny responds, “Why shouldn’t he carry the wood, Mother? It’s his wood. We got it at his place.” Then when she serves the boys stewed tomatoes, Johnny tells her he doesn’t want any and that Boyd doesn’t eat them either. Instantly Mrs. Wilson says, “Just because you don’t like them, don’t say that about Boyd. Boyd will eat anything.” She goes on to explain that Boyd wants to grow up to be big and strong so he can work hard, presuming that he will have to work in some sort of manual labor. The assumptions keep piling up, and it becomes almost comical how Boyd thwarts Mrs. Wilson’s expectations at every turn.

 “Sure,” Johnny said. “Boyd’s father works in a factory.”

“There, you see?” Mrs. Wilson said. “And he certainly has to be strong to do that – all that lifting and carrying at a factory.”

“Boyd’s father doesn’t have to,” Johnny said.  “He’s a foreman.”

Mrs.Wilson felt defeated. “What does your mother do, Boyd?”

“My mother?” Boyd was surprised. “She takes care of us kids.”

“Oh. She doesn’t work then?”

“Why should she?” Johnny said through a mouthful of eggs. “You don’t work.”

In the end Mrs. Wilson tries to reinstate her percieved cultural dominance by trying to make Boyd take something he doesn’t want and very politely refuses. Johnny and Boyd leave and go back to playing, shaking their heads at the “screwyness” of mothers. I thought this story was a brilliant depiction of the ways in which racism can show up very subtly – Mrs. Wilson is enlightened enough to have Boyd share a lunch table with her son, but she persists in making assumptions about what Boyd’s life and future will be like. Her growing annoyance at being shown her mistakes portrays that she’s not as enlightened as she might like to think. It’s interesting how relevant this story feels – the insidiousness of subtle racism shows up often in modern life.

As with any collection some stories are better than others. But overall this was a very good read with hardly any clunkers. Jackson skewers conventional mid 20th-century American society with insight and wit, making her reader question the nature of both identity and personal agency. Many of her characters are taken out of familiar places and situations and have to deal with the frightening and confusing consequences. I think I expected a certain kind of story when I approached this collection – stories more in the vein of Hill House or Castle. Instead I was pleasantly surprised to find that Jackson’s range extended even wider than I had imagined.                  ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Have you read either one of these? If not, do they intrigue you?  

 

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders (20 Books of Summer #17)

51QARZbRoHL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_My final book completed for 20 Books of Summer was a good one. I’ve been a fan of George Saunders for years, since I read his 2013 short story collection Tenth of December.  His first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, completely blew me away. His first short story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, had lingered on my Goodreads TBR list since 2014. I’m glad I finally read it – it’s so interesting to see how a favorite writer hones his skills over time.

This 1996 collection is made up of six short stories and one novella. They are a motley, twisted assortment of near-future/slightly dystopian settings in which affable but morally skewed men and women toil away at low-wage menial jobs and screw up over and over again. America is basically a disintegrating theme park, beset by racial strife, class warfare, and environmental degradation, but somehow Saunders injects just enough notes of dark humor and decency to keep the reader from flinging the book away in despair.

My favorite story and one I think ranks with the best stories I’ve read is “Offloading For Mrs. Schwartz.” A man grieving the death of his wife Elizabeth, beset by guilt over the fight they had right before she was killed, tries to atone for his sins, both actual and perceived. He owns a franchise of something called “personal interactive holography” – basically a space in which people can pay to experience an intense virtual reality of their choosing. He’s got just a few regular customers who either can’t afford to pay him or pick rather disturbing virtual realities. But his “regular job, penance, albatross” is visiting an old, bed-ridden widow on the bad side of town with one of his headset modules and letting her temporarily experience happiness, both remembered and made-up.

In the early days of my grief Father Luther told me to lose myself in service by contacting Elder Aid, Inc. I got Mrs. Ken Schwartz. Mrs. Ken Schwartz lives in Rockettown remembering Mr. Ken Schwartz and cursing him for staying so late at Menlo’s Ten Pin on nights when she forgets he’s been dead eighteen years. Mrs. Ken Schwartz likes me and my happy modules. Especially she likes Viennese Waltz. Boy does she. She’s bedridden and lonely and sometimes in her excitement bruises her arms on her headboard when the orchestra starts to play. 

One night when he stops back by the store to pick up a module for a school group visit the next day (“Hop Hop the Bunny Masters Fractions”) he walks in on a robbery. After he subdues his attacker he scans his brain with his console and finds out that he’s named Hank, a WWII veteran who saw horrible things at Iwo Jima and never was quite right after. But something goes wrong with the scan, and our narrator realizes that he’s lifting memories from Hank, taking them out of his brain and depositing them in the module. Hank leaves the store carefree now that the horrors of war (and the first twenty years of his life) are gone from his memory. Our narrator has a brainstorm – why not edit Hank’s memories to give the schoolkids an immersive history lesson on what it was like to live in the 1930’s and ’40’s?

I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but I’ll just say that this one moved me like no other in the collection. Here I recognized the Saunders I’d already read, who is one of the most compassionate and humane writers living today. He has a knack for making the reader care about some questionable, flawed characters and celebrating what is most central to the human experience – loving and being loved.

If you’ve never read Saunders before I wouldn’t start with this. While each story certainly has his trademark black humor and originality, they weren’t as moving or polished as the stories in Tenth of December. And he has mellowed with age, treating his characters just a bit more gently in the later collection. Some of the violence and language in a few of these stories were a bit hard to stomach. I feel like his later writing is more hopeful somehow, while these stories feel harder and more cynical. Still, it was a very good collection and worth borrowing from the library for “Offloading For Mrs. Schwartz” alone. However, I would recommend reading one story at a time and then setting the book down for a day in between so they don’t run together.

So that’s it for another 20 Books of Summer challenge. I’m proud of myself for managing to read and write about 17 books from my list. It’s a new personal record. I may not participate again next year, though – sticking to a set list, even one that I create, starts to rub the wrong way about half-way through. All the others books out there start looking ever so much more appealing. (Mood reader!) But I have loved being in such good company with my fellow 20 Books people, and am grateful to Cathy at 746 Books for organizing the event again.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

As many of you have written before, it can feel daunting to write about a Five-Star Read. The sense of wanting to do a book justice is palpable. Sherman Alexie is one of my favorite writers, despite having previously read only one of this books (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It’s one of my favorite books ever. I’ve listened to it and read it with my eyes, and I highly recommend both experiences.) I came to love him through listening to his podcast with fellow author Jess Walter – A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment. It’s on (maybe?) permanent hiatus but you can still listen to the episodes wherever you find podcasts. The two authors are good friends and just have a marvelous time together discussing books, basketball, the writing process, and interviewing authors. But I digress.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven is a collection of short stories, published in 1993. I managed to space my reading out over nearly a month, just reading one story a day. Previously my short story collection habit was to blow through the collection like a novel, often becoming bored and restless near the end. But reading one story a day was a nice little break from my other reading, and it gave me time to sit with the story and think about it. I’m indebted to Buried in Print for inspiring me to approach short stories differently.

81bZLWAAi0LThese stories have a typically Alexie-like tone, a mixture of sadness and humor, a wry, understated humor. They often contain magical elements, dreams, visions. They are about broken families, life on and off the Spokane Indian Reservation (Alexie uses the term Indian throughout, not Native American.) They are about drunkenness, losing and finding love, powwows, friendships, basketball, quests, stories.

Uncle Moses gave no thought to his passing on most days. Instead, he usually finished his sandwich, held the last bite of bread and meat in his mouth like the last word of a good story.

“Ya-hey,” he called out to the movement of air, the unseen. A summer before, Uncle Moses listened to his nephew, John-John, talking a story. John-John was back from college and told Moses that 99 percent of the matter in the universe is invisible to the human eye. Ever since, Moses made sure to greet what he could not see.     

91AYFwSXGoL._SY679_This was a strong collection, with hardly any clunkers. One of my favorite stories was “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” the bones of which formed the movie Smoke Signals. Alexie wrote the screenplay for it, which I didn’t know back when I saw it in 1998. (I watched it again last week, and it was still good. It’s a bit more comedic than the stories here, but still worth a watch.) Anyway, the gist of the story is that Victor’s father, who had left the family long ago and moved to Phoenix, has died. Victor wants to go get his ashes and a little money his dad left him but doesn’t have the money for the trip. Thomas Builds-the-Fire is another Indian on the reservation who grew up with Victor. They were friends for a time, but as they grew older, Thomas started having visions and his stories started weirding people out. He was a “storyteller that nobody wanted to listen to.”  He offers Victor the money to collect his father’s ashes, but in return wants to accompany him on the trip.

“Victor, I’m sorry about your father,” Thomas said.

“How did you know about it?” Victor asked.

“I heard it on the wind. I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight. Also, your mother was just in here crying.”

It’s a quietly beautiful story about Victor learning to see the father who left him in a little bit of a different light, through a story that Thomas tells him. It’s a story about two former friends making peace with one another but not quite becoming friends again.

“Wait,” Thomas yelled suddenly from his porch. “I just got to ask one favor.”

Victor stopped the pickup, leaned out the window, and shouted back. “What do you want?”

“Just one time when I’m telling a story somewhere, why don’t you stop and listen?” Thomas asked.

“Just once?”

“Just once.” 

Victor waved him arms to let him know that the deal was good. It was a fair trade, and that was all Victor has ever wanted from his whole life. So Victor drove his father’s pickup toward home while Thomas went into his house, closed the door behind him, and heard a new story come to him in the silence afterwards.

Alexie’s writing is simple in style but complicated and hefty in substance. I love reading a story where things aren’t tied up neatly in a bow, but instead feel like a mixed bag of emotions. Those kinds of stories ring true, feel like life. I am so glad I finally read this (one of my own books – yay!) I want to read everything Alexie has written and will write in the future. He’s a storyteller worth savoring.

Have you read this, or any other of Alexie’s works? Have you seen the movie Smoke Signals? Talk to me in the comments!

End of the Year Outbox

It’s that time of year when we’re all clearing the decks, so to speak, trying to sort out what’s done, what’s in progress, and what’s to come in the last ten days of the year.  I imagine I’m not the only one who’d like to do blog tidying as we get ready to ponder reading goals for 2016.

I have read three really great books in the past month, all very different from one another but all equally compelling.  The first is Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women: Stories.   I am a short story fan.  The best can be just as emotionally complicated and absorbing as any novel.  These stories captivated me.  They each are inspired by a different real life woman (or women, as is the case with the first story, about conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton.)  These women are complicated, intriguing, or problematic, according to your point of view.  You may have heard of a few of them – perhaps Butterfly McQueen, most famous for her role in Gone With the Wind?  Or maybe you’ve read the new novel about writer and adventurer Beryl Markham, Circling the Sun.  I’d never heard of most of these women, but after each story I went straight to Google and did some digging to find out more.  I added quite a few biographies to my TBR!  These are fierce, lovely, and (sometimes) sad stories, and I am eager now to read Bergman’s previous collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise.

The next page-turning read is Michael Connelly’s The Crossing.  It’s the 20th (!) in his best-selling Harry Bosch series.  I’ve read every one of these, and will continue to read them as long as he puts them out.  I love a good mystery, and find former Detective Bosch a compelling character.  This one was especially good, since he reluctantly teams up with his half-brother Mickey Haller, a.k.a. The Lincoln Lawyer (of the Connelly book series and movie with Matthew McConoughey.)  Bosch doesn’t want to cross over to the “dark side” of defense law, as a former cop, but he is such a bulldog for justice that his half-brother convinces him that his client is innocent.  Good stuff!  (Definitely start with the first one in this series, The Black Echo.  You really need a chance to get to know Harry.)

Finally, I recently finished The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.  I really enjoyed it.  reviews-the-turner-houseI’m a sucker for a well-written family saga anyway, and this one was so engrossing that I read it quickly once I got the chance to dig in.  It focuses mainly on the oldest son, Cha Cha, and the youngest daughter, Lelah, from a family of thirteen children in present-day (well, 2008) Detroit.  Their father has passed away, their mother is ailing, and they need to figure out what to do with her house, which is sitting empty in a declining neighborhood.  Lelah’s got a gambling addiction, Cha Cha’s seeing a “haint,” and we also get to glimpse the beginnings of their parents’ marriage back in the 1940’s.  There’s a lot going on but I was never confused, just thoroughly entertained.  I can’t wait to see what else Ms. Flournoy writes in the future.

 

 

 

 

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link (a review, in which I learn to leave my husband alone.)

Kelly Link’s stories are not easy to describe.  Her latest collection, Get in Trouble, is going into my “weird-but-i-liked-it” category on Goodreads.  Probably also the “fantasy” and “sci-fi-ish” categories.  I find myself drawn more and more lately to tales that are a little odd and defy easy categorization.  These ten stories were strange, dark, and enthralling.  There’s a truly chilling tale about a spaceship crew waking up from a long sleep, a story about Ancient Egypt-obsessed teenagers stuck deep within a pyramid, and a touching story of a young woman in love with her old friend, who happens to be an actual superhero.  Even though the circumstances of the stories are weird, the emotions of the characters ring true – the jealousies, love, family and sibling relations are all accessible.

I was telling my husband about the last story in the collection, “Light,” and how it blew my mind so much that I felt like I had vertigo after I finished reading it.  Me: “So there’s this woman, Lindsey, in Key West, and she was born with two shadows, and one of them grew into her twin brother, Alan, and he runs tourist expeditions into these newly-sprung pocket universes, and Lindsey works in a warehouse where they store these people who are asleep and won’t wake up, and there’s this hurricane coming…”

Husband: “You lost me after you said she was born with two shadows.”

He and I have been having this ongoing discussion lately about fiction.  He says he can’t read fiction anymore.  He used to read fiction.  I remember him telling me that his favorite novel was The Call of the Wild, and how much he liked Steinbeck and Hemingway and Eudora Welty.  But somewhere along the way he decided he couldn’t handle modern (as in the last thirty or forty years) fiction.

At first I fought him on it.  I thought that he simply wasn’t choosing the “right” books.  Perhaps I could pick him something he’d like?  And then I remembered a few years ago I got him to read Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End, which I love and have read twice.  He said he couldn’t do it because it made him too sad. Recently he checked out two modern literary fiction novels from the library. He started each but quickly abandoned them, telling me that because they were both about “losers” that he was starting to absorb the emotions and feeling too much like a loser himself.

I thought I was the more sensitive, porous person in our relationship, but it turns out that in this regard, he’s the one who takes on more of the sadness in modern fiction.  And there’s a lot of sadness in modern fiction, right?  I love that my husband reads.  Period.  I realized that he’s happy reading his baseball books and biographies of historical figures and rock stars.  He’s one of the smartest people I know and knows more about baseball than anyone I’ve ever met.  He loves amassing facts and knowledge, and he retains an incredible amount of what he reads.  He’s the one you want on your Trivial Pursuit team.

I want him to be happy, not depressed by some novel that I think he should read. So I’m going to leave him alone.  He and I work so well together because we compliment one another and balance each other out.  I’m going to quit thinking I know everything about his reading tastes and let him enjoy his nonfiction.  I’ll be out there tripping through the pocket-universes for the both of us.