Classics Club Spin Pick: So Big by Edna Ferber

#19 was the chosen number for this Classics Club spin, which means I am set to read Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, So Big, which was published in 1924. And in a fun twist, Australian blogger Brona of Brona’s Books had also lined up So Big at #19 – she constructs her spin list so that most of the books will yield a reading buddy if chosen. And this time, it just happened to be me. Yay!

I had to look up the plot summary for So Big, because apparently the book has been on my to-read list long enough for me to forget.

From the Goodreads summary:

“So Big” is a classic novel of turn-of-the-century Chicago. It is the unforgettable story of Selina Peake DeJong, a gambler’s daughter, and her struggles to stay afloat and maintain her dignity and her sanity in the face of marriage, widowhood, and single parenthood. A brilliant literary masterwork from one of the twentieth century’s most accomplished and admired writers, the remarkable “So Big” still resonates with its unflinching view of poverty, sexism, and the drive for success.

A look at my notes shows that I added So Big to my to-read list after reading a positive review by Jackie at Farm Lane Books. From Jackie’s review, Selina sounds like a fantastic character.

I would have been happy with almost any book on my Spin List, but after refreshing myself on why I wanted to read Ferber’s novel in the first place, I’m especially looking forward to reading So Big.

 

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Classics Club: Spin #11

Classics Club

I haven’t done one of these in a while. Basically I list twenty books from the fifty I challenged myself with when I joined the Classics Club in 2012. Then next Monday, the organizers will pick the random number and that will be the book to read in December/January.

We’ll go with these categories:

Five oldest books left on my list:

1.The Oresteia by Aeschylus [458 B.C.]

2. The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling by Henry Fielding [1749]

3. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott [1819]

4. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens [1860]

5. Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope [1861]

Five most recent books left on the list:

6. The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen [1978]

7. Dispatches by Michael Herr [1977]

8. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor [1977]

9. The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux [1975]

10. This House of Brede by Rumer Godden [1969]

Five classic travel narratives in addition to the three already listed above:

11. The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard [1922]

12. Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck [1962]

13. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby [1958]

14. Original Letters from India by Eliza Fay [1925]

15. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome [1889]

Four books from the 1920’s

16. The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery [1926]

17. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis [1920]

18. Penny Plain by Anna Buchan [1920]

19. So Big by Edna Ferber [1924]

And a final book for no particular reason:

20. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion [1968]

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Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope

Doctor Thorne1858. Kindle ebook. 661 pages.

Review:

I heard about the #6Barsets reading project from JoAnn at Lakeside Musing. I believe she did succeed in reading all of the Chronicles of Barsetshire this year. Inspired by the project, I managed to get one book further in the series with the completion of the third book, Doctor Thorne, having read The Warden and Barchester Towers some years ago. I absolutely adore these books, but their length and the lures of other books lead to my procrastination.

Trollope’s combination of warmth, humor, and insight into the human mind has few peers in literature, or at least in my affection! In Doctor Thorne, these skills are applied to the story of Doctor Thorne, his ward and niece, Mary, and their array of friends, family and acquaintances. Doctor Thorne is a man of deep integrity and stubborn pride. Mary is an intelligent young woman who is loved by her childhood friend, Frank Gresham. Unfortunately, Frank’s family is besieged by debt and so he “must marry money.” The characters go through many trials, but most come to a happy ending in the end. Trollope knows he has sewn it all up rather neatly, I think, based on his various asides. I must add that part of the joy of reading Trollope’s novels is encountering his flippancy about plot and novel structure, his little lectures and tangents, his pointed favoritism toward certain characters:

As Dr Thorne is our hero – or I should say my hero, a privilege of selecting for themselves in this respect being left to all my readers – and as Miss Mary Thorne is to be our heroine, a point on which no choice whatsoever is left to any one, it is necessary that they shall be introduced and explained and described in a proper, formal manner.

Mary Thorne is definitely a character one can root for. She reminded me a lot of Mary Garth, of Middlemarch, both young women capable of great love but also possessing firm knowledge of their own self-worth. They are not cowed by those deemed superior in rank.

It’s the kind of book where I don’t want to review it as much as I want to chat with someone else who has read it, and compare notes on what parts we liked best, and what we thought of such-and-such character. For instance, there’s this one almost throwaway part that I love where one of Dr. Thorne’s domestic staff smacks a guest’s servant with a rolling pin when he is inappropriately amorous of her. It’s a nice small moment of satisfaction as the guest himself is causing Dr. Thorne no end of great trouble. Then too, I would want to discuss how well Trollope captures the way that wounded pride motivates people to say or not say certain things, to let their friendships lapse and connections fray.

I heard that Julian Fellowes has been tapped to adapt Doctor Thorne as a three-part series airing in 2016. Apparently, he’s a big fan of Trollope and counts him as an influence. As much as Downton Abbey can be a mixed bag, I am hopeful that Trollope’s excellent source material will bring out the best in Fellowes. I couldn’t find who has been cast as Mary Thorne, but I saw that Alison Brie will play the great character of Martha Dunstable (who apparently will be American in Fellowes’ adaptation.) Tom Hollander (Mr. Collins in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice) will play Doctor Thorne. Ian McShane has been cast as the ambitious, alcoholic Sir Roger Scatcherd.

So, looking forward to that and also to reading the rest of the Barsetshire Chronicles in the near-ish future!

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A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki A_Tale_for_the_Time_Being

2013. Viking. ebook. 433 pages.

Read in August.

Recommendation from: Jackie at Farm Lane Books

In a nutshell:

On a rural island off the coast of British Columbia, writer Ruth finds possible debris from the 2011 tsunami: a washed-up Hello Kitty lunchbox which contains several intriguing objects including a Japanese teenager’s diary in a ziploc bag. The narrative is divided between the Japanese teenager’s diary entries and Ruth’s life and response to reading the diary.

Nao, the teenage girl, grew up in California, but when her father lost his job, the family had to move back to Japan. Quickly branded as an outsider, Nao is viciously bullied by her new schoolmates. When she is sent to live with her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun, for the summer, she becomes interested in family history, particularly the story of her great-uncle, a peaceful scholarly man conscripted to be a kamikaze pilot.

Review:

Like other readers, I found that Nao’s narrative is where the book shines most. Her voice is distinct and compelling. The section of the book where she goes to live with her great-grandmother was my favorite part. I’m perhaps showing my limited exposure to Japanese culture, but something about the scenes at the monastery made me think of the evocative spirit-haunted landscapes of Miyazaki’s films. The passage where Nao keeps vigil for ghosts during Obon especially delivered this powerful sense of atmosphere.

Ruth’s narrative added value to Nao’s narrative by embodying the reader’s response. Several times, I found myself having the same or similar reaction as Ruth to Nao’s story. When Nao describes a particular Zen posture, I felt an impulse to try it myself, though I didn’t. But Ruth does try it out. Also, in her distress over Nao’s predicament, Ruth forgets that the time period of Nao’s diary is many years before Ruth’s discovery of it. Until that reminder, I too was taken up with the immediacy of Nao’s story and had wondered whether Ruth would somehow meet Nao in person. It’s like Ozeki provided a built-in companion to the reader, someone else feeling Nao’s story with you – albeit a more powerful reader than you, since Ruth actually inhabits the same fictional universe as Nao.

The one drawback to the novel for me was Ruth’s husband who isn’t given much to do except explain things, like how garbage moves in the ocean. He is given slightly more depth when their cat goes missing, but is overall a flat character. There’s also some explanation of a surprise plot turn near the end that I thought was unnecessary.

On a random note, A Tale For the Time Being contains some of the best searching on the internet scenes I’ve ever read. Ruth’s online research encounters realistic results and obstacles. As Leslie pointed out in our book club’s discussion back in August, these internet scenes were actually rather suspenseful.

 Excerpts from other reviews:

Bookeywookey – “It is a narrative with a mission, a mission of compassion.”

Feminist Texican Reads – “For all the painful experiences she’s endured, Nao is actually quite funny. Suicidal, but funny. Her diary is written in the tone of a typical sixteen-year-old girl, and Ozeki voices that sarcastic, somewhat melodramatic humor perfectly.”

The Indextrious Reader – “The book recognizes the ability of narrative and storytelling to bend and compress time, to record and bring to life events that may be distant from us in time and space, events that we reanimate and live through as if in our present, by reading.”

Views from the Page and the Oven – “. . . towards the end of the novel, there is a particular sequence of events during Ruth’s chapter that really threw me for a loop. I really could have done without that entire sequence and the impact it had on the rest of the novel.”

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Nonfiction November: Book Pairings

Nonfiction-November-2015

Nonfiction November is a book event hosted by Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness, Leslie of Regular Rumination, Becca of I’m Lost in Books, and Katie of Doing Dewey. For week two of this event, bloggers are invited to match two (or more) books that they think go well together. It can be a nonfiction book and a fiction book, or the pairing can be for two nonfiction books. It can be books you have read or that you want to read. Participants can link their posts here.

My choice for a fiction book is Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. This was one of those books I managed to read in the same year it was published – 2006 – and I loved it. In case you haven’t heard of the book or the movie adaptation (which famously served as Jennifer Lawrence’s film debut), Winter’s Bone tells the story of Ree, a poor teenage girl in the Ozarks with a mentally ill mother and a meth-cooking father. At the start of the book, Ree learns that her father has skipped bail, and that Ree and her younger siblings’ home may be lost as a consequence. She sets out to track down her father, but her quest throws her into great danger.

Meth is the business of the criminal element in Ree’s community, and its destructive impact is an important, though understated, part of the story’s background.

Uncle Teardrop was Jessup’s elder and had been a crank chef longer but he’d had a lab go wrong and it had eaten the left ear off his head and burned a savage melted scar down his neck to the middle of his back. There wasn’t enough ear nub remaining to hang sunglasses on. The hair around his ear was gone, too, and the scar on his neck showed above his collar. Three blue teardrops done in jailhouse ink fell in a row from the corner of the eye on his scarred side. Folks said the teardrops meant he’d three times done grisly prison deeds that needed doing but didn’t need to be gabbed about. They said the teardrops told you everything you had to know about the man and the lost ear just repeated it. He generally tried to sit with his melted side to the wall.

I am pairing Winter’s Bone with Nick Reding’s 2009 book, Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town. Reding’s book has been on my TBR list for a long time. Here is the description from Goodreads:

Crystal methamphetamine is widely considered to be the most dangerous drug in the world, and nowhere is that more true than in the small towns of the American heartland.

Methland tells the story of Oelwein, Iowa (pop. 6,159), which, like thousands of other small towns across the country, has been left in the dust by the consolidation of the agricultural industry, a depressed local economy, and an out-migration of people. As if this weren’t enough to deal with, an incredibly cheap, longlasting, and highly addictive drug has rolled into town.

Over a period of four years, journalist Nick Reding brings us into the heart of Oelwein through a cast of intimately drawn characters, including: Clay Hallburg, the town doctor, who fights meth even as he struggles with his own alcoholism; Nathan Lein, the town prosecutor, whose caseload is filled almost exclusively with meth-related crime; and Jeff Rohrick, a meth addict, still trying to kick the habit after twenty years.

Tracing the connections between the lives touched by the drug and the global forces that set the stage for the epidemic, Methland offers a vital and unique perspective on a pressing contemporary tragedy.

Winter's Bonemethland

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The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

Sundial Shirley Jackson1958. Penguin. ebook. 240 pages.

Recommendation from: Jenny (Reading the End)

Review:

Way back in July, Jenny of Reading the End, Ana of Things Mean a Lot and Simon of Stuck in a Book hosted a Shirley Jackson Reading Week. I started reading The Sundial during that week but finished the book several days after the event had ended, and then never got around to reviewing it on my blog. My negligence aside, it seems appropriate to review The Sundial on Halloween. It is after all about visions, messages from beyond the grave, and the end of the world. Or is it? The Sundial is one of those books where it’s unclear how much is characters’ delusion and how much is real.

The book opens as the Halloran family returns to the extravagant familial mansion after the funeral of the heir. The heir’s widow believes that her husband was pushed down the stairs by his own mother, the elder Mrs. Halloran. As we get to know all of the characters, that does not seem out of the question.The elder Mrs. Halloran is a practical, cold woman. In the wake of the funeral, assured that the estate is now hers, Mrs. Halloran announces her plans to evict or otherwise sideline various relatives and hangers-on who currently reside in the house. Her sister-in-law, Aunt Fanny, soon begins to experience visions and proclaims that her late father has delivered a warning: those who stay in the house will be saved from an imminent apocalypse. Mrs. Halloran decides to believe this warning and assumes control over the preparations. And so begins a strange but entertaining tale of how this dysfunctional group of people spend their time waiting for the end of the world.

The Sundial is often a very funny book. At one point, another doomsday group – the Society of True Believers – is received into the house, and the two groups compare notes. Mrs. Halloran is not impressed by them, and her condescension toward this other doomsday group is hilarious and absurd. She also can deliver a good set-down.

The Sundial would also be great fodder for literary analysis and I mean that in the best way. There’s so much thematic material to dig into, as the characters prepare for the end of the world under the sway of the domineering Mrs. Halloran. Perhaps the most striking passages are the conversations between one of the young women in the house, Gloria, and the only child in the house, Fancy.

“Well,” Fancy said slowly, “you all want the whole world to be changed so you will be different. But I don’t suppose people get changed any by just a new world”

Later, Gloria tries to explain the appeal of the new world for the adults in the house:

I think they want the same things you do, only you would . . . inherit them, so to speak, just by growing up. Things like excitement, and new experiences, and all kinds of strange and wonderful things happening; you get them anyway, just by the process of growing older, but for them . . . they’ve already outgrown all they know and they want to try it all over again. Even at my age, you keep thinking you’ve missed so much, and you get older all the time.

I never knew quite what would happen next in The Sundial or how it would end. I did not find it as creepy as The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, though there is a creepy, atmospheric scene in the middle when one of the household inhabitants tries to leave the house. But it is still thoroughly Shirley Jackson in its characterization and tone and of the same caliber as those other two novels. (And it is interesting that all three books center around a house and its particular history. Others have commented this recurring theme of house as fortress / prison.)

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Desperate Reader – ” . . . what ‘The Sundial’ has done is make me completely reassess Jackson. I knew she was funny, and knew she was a master of gothic creepiness, but this is more subtle (downright slippery) than anything I’d previously read. It requires more effort from the reader (at least from this reader), and makes me realise I’d seriously under estimated her.”

The Emerald City Book Review – “Classic country-house scenes of deliciously venomous dialogue are interspersed with visions and mysterious occurrences that give the whole book the quality of a nightmare from which it is singularly difficult to wake.”

Reading the End – “Though the characters are, true to Jacksonian form, not quite human, their inhumanity is portrayed with a light, witty touch.”

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A Path Appears by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

A Path AppearsA Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity

2014. Vintage. ebook. 401 pages.

Review:

A number of my co-workers read Kristof and WuDunn’s book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. I didn’t get around to reading it, but I saw Kristof and WuDunn’s talk at the National Book Festival and decided to read their newest book, A Path Appears.

To broadly summarize, A Path Appears is about people trying to make the world a better place. Kristof and WuDunn decided to focus on “expanding opportunity worldwide, because talent is universal, but opportunity is not.” The book is intended to encourage the reader to take action in improving the world. A Path Appears is divided into three parts: “Giving Opportunity Wings”; “Reforming the Art of Helping”; “Give, Get, Live”. To be honest, I didn’t find the organization or flow of the book to be all that coherent, but there were a lot of good ideas and interesting social programs and charities highlighted.

I was most engaged in the first part of the book which discusses evidence of what really works to change lives, and the social programs that are bringing about that change. The authors strongly emphasize how important it is to intervene in the first few years of a child’s life, as that is a crucial time for their development. Programs which stood out to me were: the Nurse-Family Partnership which connects nurses to at-risk expectant and new mothers and Reach out and Read, a program where families with young children receive books through their physician’s office. I was also impressed with the description of Youth Villages‘ impact.

I also appreciated that Kristof and WuDunn addressed “Americans [who] worry that donations accomplish nothing because people are poor as a result of self-destructive behaviors, from substance abuse to laziness.” The authors acknowledge that poverty can engender self-destructive patterns: “In part they arise because life in an impoverished village or slum is dreary, tedious, and depressing.” In addition, “when people spend their days fretting about eviction, electricity cut-offs, bills, and jobs, they’re biologically less able to exert self-control.” Kristof and WuDunn argue that the way to help break this cycle is to offer a ray of hope, and they provide multiple examples and research studies that show positive change from providing opportunities.

In the second section of the book, the authors turn their attention to the assessment of charitable programs. They criticize excessive focus on overhead costs and salaries of non-profit leaders, which can lead to charities cutting corners and to an inability to attract skilled professionals.

… what truly matters is not overhead but impact. There’s no point in funding an AIDS vaccine effort that saves on overhead by using unreliable third-rate laboratory equipment.

At the same time, they advise using Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, and GuideStar to make sure a charity is not a scam. The authors also talk about marketing, and comment that some programs “fail to make their case effectively, in part because they feel that “marketing” is beneath them.”

WuDunn and Kristof also advocate for greater partnerships between religious and secular charities, nonprofits and corporations so that they can combine their strength in addressing common causes.

The authors point out that “everyone wants to start something new, not join an existing program . . . The last thing the world needs, we believe, is one more aid group on top of the 1.4 million already operating in America.” However, throughout the book, the authors include stories of people who recently founded new programs. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with those particular programs, but I wish that Kristof and WuDunn had included more stories of people who did join existing programs and changed the world that way.

The other problem I had was that it seemed that so many of the narratives centered on individuals who left highly successful careers or attended top-rated universities, but gave up more lucrative pursuits to found non-profits. That’s all very noble and good, but the repetition of this narrative type started to grate, as it can come across as an implication that we should more greatly admire the charitable work of these people because they gave up a privileged career trajectory. These stories probably won’t strike other readers the same way, and I may not have had this reaction if I hadn’t seen this narrative arc employed elsewhere.

I appreciated the authors’ reminders that “helping people is a fraught, uncertain process that is never as easy as fund-raising appeals suggest” and also: “We yearn for the alchemy of an overnight success, but that’s not the usual paradigm; even the most important transformations are often plodding.” The book concludes with practical starting points for getting involved whether it’s through financial giving, volunteering or advocacy.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Lori on Goodreads: “This book has a lot of stories of people doing good things in this world but it is a very dry read. I found the book was too long and dense and ended up skimming over the last half.”

Mark on Goodreads – “A very interesting examination of philanthropy, the continuing need for it, and many of the programs and organizations available today along with some of their results and successes.”

Mlg on Goodreads – “What makes their work especially meaningful is their ability not only to highlight problems in the world, but to also suggest real, workable solutions where the reader can contribute.”

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