Thursday, October 31, 2019


Well today is the last day of RIP XIV and also appropriately Halloween. Here’s my wrap up. I did pretty well, if I do say so myself. 😎  I read all four books that I planned to read which makes up for being a total loser last year when I read none! 😩

  • Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson: The verdict is in: I thought it was really good! I really want to read her three other early novels now. I am not a big short story fan. I know that is what Jackson is known for but lazy reader me doesn’t want to read them…but novels, yes please! Hangsaman is a coming of age novel as only Shirley Jackson could write one. It is funny at times but generally unsettling.  The main character is 17 year old Natalie Waite who goes from her dysfunctional home to her first year at an all woman’s college to possibly a mental in The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson leaves room for the reader to imagine what really happened in the interstices.  If you are a reader who is comfortable with a certain amount of ambiguity, this might be one to pick up and try. 

  • Slade House by David Mitchell: This is the one book that really suits the season since it is sort of a ghost-cum-horror story. If anyone has read The Bone Clocks by Mitchell, Slade House makes a nice complement to that novel but can also stands alone as a short, creepy read.  In the book, Slade House is a place that does and does not exist. It can only be accessed by certain people through a small iron door in a wall in a grubby, dark ally. Every nine years someone is invited to enter that door and find out what lies beyond, but leaving is another story...(sounds like the lyrics to Hotel California...LOL). 

  • Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie: I enjoyed this one a lot. I think the plotting of the mystery was really interesting  and the resolution was unexpected. The red herrings are particularly good ones.  The story features sadistic Mrs. Boynton who has terrorized her stepchildren all their lives. Now as adults, they are pathetic shells, still flinching at her baits and switches. When Mrs. Boynton ends up dead (was it natural or was it murder?), the list of suspects is pretty clear.  I also have a particular fondness for Christie novels set in North Africa or the Middle East as  Appointment with Death is. I think Christie does a good job of giving the reader a good sense of place when her books are set in these regions.

  • Snake Ropes by Jess Richards: This was the one non-starter for me. I think this book would appeal to fans of Helen Oyeyemi…readers who enjoy the fantastical and books with dark fairy tale overtones. That’s just not my jam but it might be yours.  The story is about two young women whose narration alternates chapters throughout the book. The first narrator is Mary. She on an island under a matriarchy where the handwork of the women is the main source of trade with the “Tall Men” who come from the mainland. Since the death of her mother, Mary has been the main caregiver of her baby brother, whom she hides for his own safety when the Tall Men arrive.  The nother narrator is Morgan. She is imprisoned in her family home, not allowed to wear shoes and forced to keep house for her narcissistic mother and her enabler father. Her only solace are the books she reads and her dreams of escape. Eventually the two stories converge and both women discover how to battle the forces trying limit their power and potential.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

As I Lay Dying – #1930Club

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been trying to read all 100 books listed on the 100 Best Novels which is a list of English-language novels published in the 20th century.  I do understand that this 100 Best Novels list was a marketing ploy on the part of the Modern Library, an imprint of Random House, which – SURPRISE- publishes all 100 titles.  I also understand that any list of "best" books is incomplete and subjective.  But for me it has been an interesting challenge to try and tick off every title and while there have been a few stinkers, there have been wonderful discoveries too.  

When the 1930 Club (hosted by Simon, who blogs at  Stuck in a Book and Karen, who blogs at Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings) was announced for November, I saw that As I Lay Dying, which is on the 100 Best Novels list, was published that year. My choice was made! I worried at first that I wouldn’t finish it in time for the 1930 Club, but it is pretty short (my edition had 244 pages) and aside from some of the stream of consciousness bits, not too difficult to digest.   

As with some high falutin’ modern classics, the story is simple: Aggie Bundren is dying. Her feckless husband has promised her that she will be buried in Jackson where her “people” are from, which is 40 miles away from their farm. She dies and the journey with her corpse is bedeviled by bad luck and ignorance on the part of the Bundren family.   A journey that should take a couple of days ends up taking over a week and meanwhile, the body starts to decompose in the summer heat.

This is the second novel I’ve read from Faulkner and I am confident he will never become a favorite of mine. Despite the book's brevity, it still behooves the reader to read it fairly slowly. I did think the sections that were straight dialogue were great. I looked up a few samples of Mississippi accent on YouTube so I could get the right voice in my head. U.S. Southern dialects and accents are all really different from another and I needed some verisimilitude. 

In Faulkner's depiction of the various character’s innermost thoughts, he often uses references and vocabulary that wouldn’t be known to persons of the Bundren’s socio-economic class.  It is here where the book didn't work for me. I get that there is a line between what one states and what one thinks and we don’t think in words but it was jarring nonetheless.  Especially when the speaker/thinker is supposed to be a child. The characters also drove me insane! I realize it was purposeful, but they all make the worst choices, whether out of ignorance or spite or selfishness. I think what makes the book and the characters so frustrating is that, while the book doesn't come right out and say it, in death they are honoring their mother in a way they neglected to when she was alive. But this is foolish. She is dead and there is no point to this ritual. It only damages and impoverishes them further. The devotion should have been shown when she was alive and could have had some benefit from it. But this is often the way of human motivation I think. 

In some ways As I Lay Dying reminded me of Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road which also features poor, rural whites in the American South in the first half of the 20th century. But Caldwell went more for comedy - dark comedy, but still comedy. I guess some readers might find humor in the various setbacks that plague the Bundren family as they journey (or maybe in the youngest child Vardemann's confused thoughts, "My mother is a fish") but I found As I Lay Dying pretty bleak. 

I am glad to have read it however. I am glad that Faulkner’s works exist. He had an significant influence on other writers;  Cormac McCarthy for one, whom I’ve never read and Toni Morrison for another, whom I revere. I can see the through line to Morrison, although I find her books and her style to be much more compelling. 

Monday, October 7, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: The Wings of the Dove

Milly was indeed a dove; this was the figure, though it most applied to her spirit. Yet he knew in a moment that Kate was just now, for reasons hidden from him, exceptionally under the impression of that element of wealth in her which was a power, which was a great power, and which was dove-like only so far as one remembered that doves have wings and wondrous flights, have them as well as tender tints and soft sound. It even came to him dimly that such wings would in a given case – had, truly, in the case with which he was concerned –spread themselves for protection. Hadn’t they, for that matter, lately taken an inordinate reach, and weren’t Kate and Mrs. Lowder, weren’t Susan Shepheard and he, wasn’t he in particular, nestling under them to a great increase of immediate need?”

No lie: it took me over two months to read The Wings of the Dove. The edition I read had over 500 pages, but it wasn’t the length of the book that slowed me down, it was Henry James and his MANY, MANY, carefully chosen words.  I read pretty much every line twice if not three or four times and even then, I often wasn’t sure if I understood the sentence.  It’s a good thing that one of the main characters is also a little dense. When things had to be spelled out to him, it was to my advantage as a reader too. Also, I had seen the film waaay back in 1998 or so and was familiar with the plot.  But this is a psychological novel; the plot is barely there.  James takes paragraphs and sometimes pages to explain one thought or perception.  I realize that it might have been better for me had I a solid base in James and worked my way up to his later, more complex works.  I read his first novel, Daisy Miller, earlier this year and found it both delightful and not difficult in the least. My reason for reading the Wings of the Dove now instead of later were fueled by the fact that (a) I owned a copy of this book already and (b) it is on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list of the best English-language novels published in the 20th century from which I intend to someday read every title.  So I persevered. 

As I stated above, there is not much of a plot. The story is simple:  young Morton Densher and Kate Croy are Londoners who want to marry but feel they cannot due to certain social constraints that would be smoothed away if only either of them had any money. Along comes dove-like Milly Theale, a very rich but naïve (or is she?) American who has a crush on Morton and not too much longer to live. Will Morton marry Milly for her money as Kate hopes? Is Kate really doing Milly a favor as she would like to believe? Can Kate and Morton’s relationship survive this, whatever the outcome? 

While this book was a lot of work for me, it didn’t put me off Henry James. I am not much of an athlete and the analogy may be poor, but runners don't avoid running a marathon because it is too challenging, right?  I have at least two more "difficult" James’ titles that I HAVE to read due to my personal goal of reading all the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels and I would certainly be interested in reading some of his more accessible novels like Portrait of a Lady or Washington Square.  

I read this for the category Classic Tragic Novel for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate.