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. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

It is possible to leave so much out of any given story.

I devoured Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel, The Glass Hotel. I barely took any notes at all, because I just wanted to keep on reading. There is a unique pleasure in reading Mandel’s words. It feels like some sort of magic. Having read and loved one of her earlier novels, The Singer’s Gun, earlier this year, and with Station Eleven being one of my favorite books of all time, I can say she has risen to a firm spot in my Favorite Authors list.

60704756965__02801b81-4b7c-458c-bf6d-82f40e7a7732What I love about Mandel is that she excels at making me care about multiple characters through multiple timelines. Even relatively minor characters are drawn with care and filled in so they show off many shades. Events sometimes double back on themselves so that in the end there is a completely wrapped package, all the ribbons and paper of the story slowly coming together.

This novel is about a fictional Ponzi scheme and the various ways characters are connected to and affected by it. Which sounds kind of boring when I write it that way. So let me try again: it’s about a dysfunctional brother and sister relationship; a young woman who loses her mother at a young age and shapeshifts her way through life ever after; a beautiful but remote hotel off the coast of British Columbia; a charismatic business man who engineers a lucrative Ponzi scheme, all the while knowing it’s only a matter of time before it unravels. It’s also about people on the margins, people who are not tethered to a city or a house or a family. It’s an exploration of imagined worlds that seems real and real worlds that seem imaginary. It’s about loss, love, ghosts, and, of all things, shipping.

I loved it, and cried at the end. I cried at the end of The Singer’s Gun too. I think I cried during Station Eleven but it’s been a while and I don’t remember. 🙂 Mandel makes me care about characters who aren’t great people, who do things that irritate or make me feel frustrated. Humanizes, that’s the word I’m looking for. Oh, and there was a fun Easter Egg mentioning events in Station Eleven that made me gasp with delight.

Not quite as good as Station Eleven, but nearly there and incredibly absorbing.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

Format: new hardback (owned)

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.

img_5310
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!)

 

The Finished Stack Mocks Me

When I finish a book that I think I want to write about on my blog, I put it on top of my desktop computer tower (yes, Fogey McOldster has a desktop computer and it works fine, thank you very much!) I don’t write my posts at the computer anymore, I write them on my iPad, but I’ll finish them up on the desktop which is easier than the iPad (putting in the pictures, setting up links, things like that.) Anyway, when the finished stack gets to be four books tall it starts to make me anxious. At that point, I either say, FORGET IT I DON’T WANT TO WRITE ABOUT THESE DUMB BOOKS ANYWAY or I say, okay, it’s time for some mini-reviews.

It’s time for some mini-reviews!

img_5291Anti-Diet:Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison

I have avoided writing about this book for weeks now because I don’t feel like I’ll do it justice. Christy Harrison is an Anti-Diet registered dietitian nutritionist and certified intuitive eating counselor with a background in food and nutrition journalism. She knows her stuff, and she has done her research. She shreds Diet Culture here, showing how its roots lie in historical ideas steeped in sexism, racism, and classism. She details how Diet Culture (which she calls The Life Thief) steals our time, money, well-being, and happiness, and ultimately it doesn’t even give us the lasting weight loss we so desperately crave. She then gives us strategies to resist diet culture and deprogram ourselves from years of steeping in its toxic messages. This is an excellent book if you aren’t familiar with the Anti-Diet movement or the concept of Health At Every Size. If you are familiar and just want more information, it’s still an excellent book! It’s well-researched and a fast- paced read. I loved it and highly recommend it if you’re someone who has let the Life Thief steal your joy over the years, or if you’re interested in social justice. Make no mistake, how we treat people in larger bodies IS a social justice issue.            ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ (Another good book to check out, more of a memoir on the topic, is Caroline Dooner’s The F*ck It Diet: Eating Should Be Easy.)

Piecing Me Together by a Renée Watson

This contemporary YA novel took me by surprise. It drew me in from the start and kept me engaged with its fully-realized and heartfelt portrayal of an African American high school junior in Portland, Oregon. Jade is a talented artist and uses the medium of collage to express her feelings and process things. She is also looking forward to hopefully getting nominated to go on a spring break service learning trip that deserving juniors get to participate in. Instead, her Principal gives her an “opportunity” for African American students, to participate in a Mentor program for the year. Jade is angry and disappointed because she wants to be the one who gives for a change, instead of being the poor girl at the private school who receives all the time. Plus, her mentor isn’t doing that great a job, flaking out on her from the get-go. I loved how Watson explores class and race but also gives us a set of wonderful characters in Jade, her mother, cousin, and her two best friends. If you’re the kind of reader who has had bad luck with YA novels in the past, I highly recommend this one. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

I loved this novel set in Los Angeles, which references the racial tensions and violence of the Rodney King era but mostly takes place today. Two families, one Korean and one African American, are brought together by an act of violence that seemingly comes out of nowhere but has roots in L.A.’s explosive recent past. I thought the characters grappled with some very complex contradictions and questions, and there were no easy answers anywhere. It’s a fast-paced novel of forgiveness, justice, secrets, and family bonds. The characters felt real to me and I appreciated the care with which they were written. Apparently Cha has written a crime trilogy and I think I’ll have to check it out. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

Atmosphere for days! Brooding, gothic, intense, psychological. I love it when a novel feels as immersive as this one did. Frances has recently buried her mother, a rather mean woman whom Frances had to nurse for years. She has gotten a summer position at Lynton’s, an abandoned English estate recently purchased by an American (who hired her to report on the condition of the grounds and gardens.) She is joined by a couple who is also working for the American, cataloguing the rooms of the house, Peter and Cara. Cara is volatile and moody, Peter handsome and flirtatious. Frances is dazzled by the couple, and they draw her into their web with warmth and a freedom that she has never before experienced. She is very socially awkward, and as the book progresses we come to realize that she is not as trustworthy a narrator as we might initially think. There are spooky touches in the abandoned house, strange noises, unexplained faces in windows, wild animals turning up unexpectedly, adding to the tension. This captivated me and I will have to read another book by Fuller – perhaps Swimming Lessons next. Thanks to Anne of I’ve Read This and Rebecca of Bookish Beck for putting this on my radar.    ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Have you read any of these? Anything appeal to you?

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.