What Shannon Read

What Shannon Read in June

A not-so-happy June just ended with the horrific news of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. Devastating news for women’s rights. I find I’m unable to care about much else right now, so there is not much of a cheery update for June.

I am still collaging though. Creative work is a balm to the angry soul.

And the garden is giving us more blooms as we head toward mid-July, when it’s at its best. Here, interestingly, is some lettuce I allowed to bolt (didn’t harvest it, then it bloomed). I’d never seen lettuce flower before and the blooms are so pretty.

On to the books!


What Shannon Read in June

Photo galleries continue to be somewhat wonky in WordPress. Sorry about that. :/

Some Notes:

I read five great books this month, including one reread, which I’m counting for the Read Harder Challenge. Here are my thoughts, none of them all that coherent…

That Kind of Mother:

This was…interesting. I enjoy reading about experiences of motherhood that give you the gritty side of things. As other moms know, motherhood isn’t all kittens and roses and this book was written from the perspective of a woman who devoted her life to her children when they were born…and had some qualms. I appreciate that kind of honesty.

I admit that I trusted the main character’s point of view less when I opened the back cover and saw that it was written by a man. May be my own bias, but I couldn’t trust a man’s view of motherhood as much as that of a woman who’d actually been a mother.

At any rate, I really enjoyed the style of Alam’s writing. It gave a weird sort of distancing effect. I felt involved in this family’s life, but also like I couldn’t quite get close enough to the details. He reminded me of Laurie Colwin’s writing, if that means anything to you.

I haven’t said anything about what the book is about, but read the Goodreads synopsis. It’s a pretty interesting storyline.

Greenwich Park:

I love a British mystery. This one features a not-totally-reliable narrator. It’s set in contemporary London and revolves around a circle of friends and siblings, a few of which have dark secrets…my favorite kind of secrets. The writing was solid and the mystery was good enough to keep me reading.

The House of Mirth:

This is my fourth or fifth reread of this classic by Edith Wharton. I’m counting it for the Read Harder Challenge category: Pick a challenge from any of the previous years’ challenges to repeat!. The category is “Re-read a favorite.”

I like to read Wharton in the summer, but I think that’s just because I started reading Wharton one summer and it was, like, the best summer of reading I’d had in a while. It’s now become a tradition.

This, of course, is Wharton’s classic novel about protagonist Lily Bart set around the 1880s. Bart is a New York society woman who is ousted by her friends. She’s “past her prime” as far as marriagability and therefore in some danger. Having been raised in a society that sets only the goal of marriage for women, Bart’s fight to support herself becomes her main struggle. It has a tragic ending. Essentially, I think this is a book about what happens when women are raised to be men’s ornaments rather than given the independence they need and deserve.

Silver Sparrow:

This is the fascinating story of a woman whose father is a bigamist. Dana is the daughter of James. James is married to Dana’s mother, but he is also married to Laverne. He has daughters with both women and married them in different states. So, this is Dana’s story, but also the story of her disjointed family. It’s complicated because James’ first wife and daughter know nothing about Dana and her mother.

Highly recommend this one. It’s great writing and an in-depth, character-driven story about family.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan:

I am late to the party on this one, but finally read it. It was excellent. Check out the Goodreads synopsis here. It was an interesting look into 19th-century China, but I’m sorry to tell you that the most memorable part for me was arguably the most disturbing. Since foot-binding was still a thing, there is a somewhat excruciating description of that process as the girls in the book suffer through it. *shudder*


And that’s what I read this June. How about you? Got any recommendations? I’m especially interested in reading more for the Read Harder Challenge, including these categories:

Read a political thriller by a marginalized author (BIPOC, or LGBTQIA+).

Read a book with an asexual and/or aromantic main character.

Read a memoir written by someone who is trans or nonbinary.

Read a “Best _ Writing of the year” book for a topic and year of your choice.

Read a horror novel by a BIPOC author.

Let me know if you think of anything!

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What Shannon Read, What We Read: Monthly Recap

What Shannon Read: May 2022

May started off with a bang when Baby Ames was born on the first. We are all totally in love, of course. (Side note: he is over a month old now and he is officially a smiler. Ahh!)

For us grandparents, the month soon settled back into the usual day-to-day routine, then finished with lots of fun when my brother and sister and their spouses visited over Memorial Day weekend. We had lots of fun eating on restaurant patios and visiting one of the local botanical gardens.

That hour or so in nature really soothed my soul. And so did being with the people I love. Here are some scenes in the gardens.

That’s about it for May. On to the books!


What Shannon read in May

Excuse this weird-looking gallery…the quirks of WordPress prevail.

Some Notes:

Call Your Daughter Home

This is the story of three women living in South Carolina in 1924. Goodreads has a good synopsis.

Gertrude, a mother of four, is striving to save her daughters from starvation after freeing herself of an abusive husband. Retta, a first-generation free slave, has built a life with her beloved husband and makes her living working for the prominent Coles family, which includes keeping their appalling secrets. Over the course of the book, Annie, a.k.a. Mrs. Coles, is estranged from her daughters thanks to her appalling husband, and eventually learns he is keeping a pretty disgusting secret.

I found the book both riveting and sensationalist (shrug) and would give it about 3/5 stars. Spera excelled at writing in the three women’s voices, with the best, in my opinion, being Gertrude’s.

But the content was a bit rushed at times, the writing just OK. Other times, the story flowed and the writing was quotable even.

So, a mixed review of this one from me.

To Marry an English Lord

This was a reread. I just rewatched Downton Abbey and saw both movies, including Downton Abbey: A New Era.

Definitely recommend A New Era if you’re interested! It’s good fun.

Being immersed in that world again made me want to reread this book, which centers on the era when cash-poor English gentry went looking for rich American women to marry.

This was the situation for Cora, Countess of Grantham, an American who married the Earl on the show–and brought gobs of money with her.

The synopsis on Goodreads says this book is filled with gossipy stories and I’d agree. It’s got fun tales about people like Consuelo Vanderbilt and the famous Astors, along with a lot of English gentry I hadn’t heard of.

I found the most interesting bits to be the view into daily life in the Edwardian Era as the book discusses the family’s home lives after the couples are married. Would recommend!

Falling Angels

I find that Tracy Chevalier’s novels fall along the lines of “historical fiction lite.” They’re something to fill in the gaps between other books. Reliable storytelling in well-researched historical settings, her novels always pull me right into the story, and I’ll usually finish the book in about a day or so.

That was the case for this one, the story of two girls growing up in the middle- to upper-middle class in early-20th-century England. I don’t have much to say about it except that I enjoyed the setting more than the story, but I never had much interest in any of the characters and how their lives turned out. I’m not totally sure why.

Unf*ck Your Brain

I found this mildly helpful book to be spoiled by the author’s use of swearing as a crutch. I don’t mind a lot of swearing in general. I do mind it when it’s employed in the guise of being “conversational,” which typically means it’s used in place of actual good writing. Wouldn’t recommend this one. There are plenty of other good brain books out there.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

This book counts as my selection for the category “Read a romance where at least one of the protagonists is over 40” in the Read Harder challenge.

It’s the charming story of the Major (68), who falls in love with the Pakistani woman who runs one of the local shops in his English village. Romance and foibles ensue. There is also a story line about his son with whom the Major has a rocky relationship, which I found interesting. The characters, story, and tone come across with depth and wryness—a tough combo that author Helen Simonson masters. Would recommend.

Belgravia

Another Julian Fellowes special! He is, if you do not know, the creator of Downtown Abbey. He also wrote this novel and created a TV series to go along with it. I saw the series first and enjoyed it, then decided to listen to the audiobook version of the novel. Here’s the Belgravia Goodreads synopsis if you’re interested.

I really enjoyed the story and characters. A novel in which “the aristocracy rub shoulders with the emerging nouveau riche,” it’s chock full of class and family drama. It’s a little slow and subdued, so if slow historical fiction doesn’t work for you, you may want to skip it. I loved it and will probably rewatch the show soon.


That’s it for May! What are you reading this summer? Do tell! I need some ideas.

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

The Hearth and Eagle

I discovered Anya Seton last year via her novel The Winthrop Woman, which was displayed in the shop at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, and I am so glad I did.

Her historical novels were impeccably researched and she is an ace storyteller with a knack for writing female protagonists in historic settings.

Plus, Mariner Books has released them in recent years with these incredibly lovely patterned covers and I’m hoping to collect them all.

I chose The Hearth and Eagle as my next Seton novel because it centers on the very same colonial American town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, in which The Winthrop Woman is set.

Seton discovered the town when researching her own family history. Apparently she found an ancestor that had lived there and became captivated by the “sea-girdled town of rocks and winding lanes and clustered old houses.”

Sounds idyllic, no?

The protagonist of this story is Hesper Honeywell. She is the descendant of Phebe Honeywell who came over from England in 1630. After introducing a very young Hesper, the story flashes back to Phebe’s time, describing her arrival in the colonies and her early life there.

From the first, I found Phebe’s story much more interesting than Hesper’s. There was adventure from the beginning as Phebe struggles through a long ocean journey and then nearly starves to death in the New World. But, alas, we stayed just long enough with her to give a sense of place to Hesper, who lives in Civil War era Marblehead.

Not to worry. Hesper’s family life is rather interesting as Hesper lives with her mother, a tired and resentful woman who has spent her life running the inn, The Hearth and Eagle, with little help from Hesper’s father, an absent-minded professor type obsessed with researching his family’s history.

Hesper helps her mother run the inn but, of course, longs for something more. Love, fulfillment, adventure, something beyond Marblehead. And into her longings wanders artist and avowed Bohemian Evan Redlake.

Thus begins an arduous saga of love and loss and Hesper’s search for meaning in a society that gives women few choices in deciding their own fates.

I’ll leave you with that grand statement. I ended up loving the novel, as I’d hoped I would. And, if you enjoy well-written historical fiction, you will too.

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

The Bookshop

319388I saw the movie adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop before I read the book.

I found them to be equally lovely, but one, to me, was more depressing than the other.

Here’s the Goodreads blurb:

“In 1959 Florence Green, a kindhearted widow with a small inheritance, risks everything to open a bookshop – the only bookshop – in the seaside town of Hardborough. By making a success of a business so impractical, she invites the hostility of the town’s less prosperous shopkeepers. By daring to enlarge her neighbors’ lives, she crosses Mrs. Gamart, the local arts doyenne. Florence’s warehouse leaks, her cellar seeps, and the shop is apparently haunted. Only too late does she begin to suspect the truth: a town that lacks a bookshop isn’t always a town that wants one.”

The post-war English seaside is the setting for this short, tightly-focused novel. Even though it’s 1959, references to WWII are made throughout and you get the sense that Hardborough hasn’t really recovered from the war.

The book has many of the quirks often found in stories set in insular British communities—like children (scouts of some sort) turning up to do Florence’s handyman work; a domineering and well-connected older lady menacing the townspeople in order to assert her importance; old, damp buildings prized for their history but lacking in function; a wealthy recluse who abhors village politics; and a shop assistant, Christine, who is12 years old and, quite acerbic and, of course, wise for her years.

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Florence, played by Emily Mortimer, reading at the seaside in The Bookshop (2017)

Sadly, Florence’s dream of running a bookshop is supported only by a few and the end of the story has her beset by financial troubles thanks to the subterfuge of Mrs. Gamart.

It is a very depressing ending. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that at least in that there is a small, dramatic triumph at the end. But that must’ve been the screenwriter’s urge to leave the audience with some hope. I’m afraid the book leaves you without it.

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2020 When Are You Reading? Challenge, What Shannon Read

When Are You Reading? Challenge: Stillwater

This year, I’m participating in the When Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sam of Taking on a World of Words.

This book is my selection for the years 1800-1899.


Stillwater by Nicole HelgetJust cruising right through this challenge! Apparently, it’s my jam right now. For my second book, I chose Stillwater by Nicole Helget.

The novel is set in the Civil War-era U.S., specifically in the wilds of Minnesota, still considered part of the U.S. western expansion at that point. The story centers on grown-up twins, Angel and Clement Piety, who were orphaned at birth.

It begins with a log jam in the St. Croix River, a murder, and an altercation between the twins. Then, we delve into the backstory of the family and it is not as boring as those words I just typed.

In fact, the writing was quite a palate cleanser after The Shadow King! It’s light in tone, quirky, and straightforward. But still beautiful in parts. One of the beginning chapters has one of the sweetest, most reassuring death scenes I’ve ever read.

The story also features the twins’ parents and their stories, Eliza, a woman who escapes from slavery with her child, and a priest and religious sister (not a nun, she clarifies) who care for the pioneers, orphans, and Native Americans who come to them for assistance.

We also get to know the people who take in the orphaned twins. They are Big Waters, the loving American Indian woman who cares for Clement and considers him hers, and the rich but dysfunctional family who takes in Angel. Both stories are heart-rending and we see the twins grow up as products of their environments, but with the undeniable connection they feel to one another playing the most significant role in their lives.

I don’t want to give away any plot points because I found them a joy to follow and if you read it, you may enjoy discovering these characters and following their lives for yourself.

Two things bothered me about the book. One is not really about it per se and is kind of odd. It’s to do with a blurb on the back. Fellow Minnesota author Peter Geye (who I’d never heard of) says, “Make room, Louise Erdrich, Minnesota has a new resident scribe…” It continues with more praise. But I read that and thought, first of all, Louise Erdrich is an incredibly talented and prolific author. She doesn’t have to make room for anyone, in my opinion. Also, she’s a treasured indigenous voice in the literary landscape, which, historically, has been very white in the U.S. I know I’m nitpicking a blurb here, but coming from a white guy, jauntily telling her to “move over” is tone deaf at best.

I’m sure he had the best of intentions and also wanted to acknowledge the great literary tradition of Minnesota, but I’m here to tell you it. didn’t. work.

Moving on, I also took note of the thoughts of Eliza, an enslaved woman who has taken her son Davis and run away from her owners. In a significant scene, Eliza is thinking about the risks she has taken. She remembers waffling about whether she should attempt to escape at all because, living with the Watsons, her owners, she knew she and her son always had a roof over their heads and three meals a day.

Now, is this a woman genuinely considering the consequences of running away with no family or means of her own? Or, is it a sentiment sneaking into the narrative of a well-intentioned white writer leftover from a time when white people promoted the narrative of the benevolent slaveholder? The slaveholder who cared for their slaves, who provided for them, in other words. I know that it’s natural for Eliza to weigh risks in a desperate situation and, to be fair, Helget doesn’t imply that Eliza was happy to be enslaved. In this story slaveholders are the villains and not the heroes. But I still wondered about it.

I’m always eager to see how white authors handle telling the stories of black or indigenous people. I don’t really feel like they have the right to. But when you’re writing historical fiction, I imagine you just have to handle it in the most sensitive way you can because history is history and it is, of course, important to include these stories.

But it’s risky as a white person’s perspective is naturally from the race of the historical oppressor. Helget is white. Can any other white author accurately imagine the thoughts and feelings of an enslaved black woman? Many authors would say it can be done. I’m always dubious and hyper-critical when they try.

Maybe I’m reaching here and my questions aren’t very clear. If so, I apologize. It’s a hard thing to write about.

On the whole, this novel was extraordinary and I loved the characters, the story, and the writing.

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2020 When Are You Reading? Challenge, What Shannon Read

When Are You Reading? Challenge: The Shadow King

This year, I’m participating in the When Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sam of Taking on a World of Words.

This book is my selection for the years 1920-1939.

FYI: There are more spoilers in this review than I might usually include. I found the details so fascinating that it was hard to stay general.


TheShadowKing

Did you know about Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia?

I think I was vaguely aware of it before coming upon Maaza Mengiste’s novel The Shadow King on the new fiction shelf at the library.

Normally, I refuse to read books about or related to World War II. I spent a good deal of my school years learning about WWII and, because I feel it was pounded into us in public school, I’ve grown weary of reading about it over the years.

I realize I’m missing out on some literature in this category but, trust me, I’ve already read quite a few of the classic books on WWII and I feel I have to qualify that I do not take any part of the war lightly. I just exhausted my ability to read about it before I even got to college.

However. Whe I came upon The Shadow King, I was immediately interested in the lesser known story of Mussolini’s campaign to colonize Ethiopia. I was further interested when I learned the story is told from the perspective of Hirut, a young maid in the household of Kidane, an officer in Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s army.

Finally a WWII story I hadn’t heard before. And, one that wasn’t just a, American wartime nostalgia piece (the library shelves are rife with those, as you may know). And one that was told from the perspective of black people in a colonized country. Plus, one told from the perspective of a “lowly” maid! That’s just my game.

The format of the novel is interesting. When I say “perspective,” what I really mean is that the narration is third-person omniscient and the focus switches from character to character. We get the thoughts and emotions of all the main characters, including Hirut, Kidane, and Kidane’s wife Aster, as well as other, more minor characters.

Interspersed with the regular chapters are interludes titled “Chorus.” They seem to serve exactly the purpose a “chorus” would serve in a pre-modern play or even a contemporary musical. The Chorus speaks about characters, about events, about situations, and speaks directly to the charachters at times. I quite liked that as a device.

There are also interludes to describe photos taken by Ettore Navarra, a Jewish photographer with an Italian military unit (also a character in the novel). And there are actual sections titled “Interlude” that focus on Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who escapes into exile.

As Kidane leads his army toward war, “their” women follow. At their helm is Kidane’s wife Aster, who, hoping to take on the role of warrior herself, drills her women with the intent of fighting alongside the men. Kidane won’t allow this and relegates them to caring for the wounded and cooking the food.

Meanwhile, Kidane begins raping Hirut regularly, in addition to using her as his emotional confidant. These scenes are utterly heartbreaking. The hopelessness is palpable, even as the Chorus encourages Hirut to stand up to Kidane.

Kidane promises Hirut that, as payment, she’ll be released from his services after the war and will be given the hut where she lived with her parents before they died. Wife Aster, angry and domineering, blames Hirut for her husband’s infidelity (he’s a longtime adulterer in addition to being a rapist).

There is a rape scene midway through the novel in which Hirut has a small victory and begins to turn the tide against Kidane. It is hopeful and touching.

Meanwhile, Kidane’s army has suffered several losses and Kidane concocts a plan to turn the tide of the war. It involves promoting a peasant to pose as a “shadow king,” meaning he impersonates the exiled king and acts to motivate and inspire the people and control the narrative being presented to the Ethiopian people. Italy would have them believe their exiled emperor has run away and left them in the hands of the invaders.

Hirut becomes this shadow king’s attendant and she and Aster are posed as female guards in military uniform. This leads to a lot of action for both characters.

I’ll leave it there to avoid plot-related spoilers; though, of course, you can read about the history of the war online. I highly recommend this book. Mengiste is a lyrical writer with a knack for description. At times, I found some of the zoomed-in description a little tedious, but there’s no doubt that she’s talented in that regard. Here’s a good interview with her via BookPage.

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