The January Online Book Choice Is:

Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea

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With Gavin McCrea’s first book, he has written the hell out of his main character. Lizzie Burns was the Irish-born common-law wife of Friedrich Engels, brought out of Engels’ industrial factory and into society life with zero training for it. It was survival of the fittest and the shrewdest for any woman, and Lizzie was ready for it. This is Lizzie:

Take warning. This is a changing world, we don’t know today what’ll happen tomorrow, and the man you go with will decide where you’re put, whether it’s on the top or on the bottom or where. The fine feelings love will bring won’t match the volume of problems a pauper will create …  Love is a bygone idea; centuries worn. There’s things we can go without, and love is among them, bread and a warm hearth are not … Establish yourself in a decent situation and put away what you can, that, please God, one day you may need no man’s help. Take it and be content, then you’ll journey well.

McCrea does not paint a pleasant portrait of Marx or Engels in their treatment of women. This is Engels’ treatment of Lizzie’s sister:

No doubt he goes with other women — he’s been seen wandering alone down the District — and the thought of it makes her suffer, deep and miserable. He stays away for weeks on end. She sees him in the mill and pours all her hurt into her eyes, but he resists her willing and stays upstairs where he is. Then when it suits him, he appears again, raps his ashplant on the door, and goes to the end of the passage to wait. So strong is her wanting, she throws a shawl around her pain, and runs out.

But Lizzie gets it. After a rough and life-changing ordeal with an STD, she still sees the endgame of surviving in her world:

It’s men are at the bottom of every plague in this world. We come to the lock with this frontmost in our minds, and as we lie here stewing in our cures, and wondering if we’ll be next to go cripple, or walk off into fits, or turn so childish we’ve to be washed in bath chairs and given to drink with a spoon in a teacup, our knowledge turns to action: sometimes screams or fists but most often somber vows of chastity breathed out into the late-night miasmas …  And we make the same vow the next night and every night after, till we’re told by some twist-whiskered pup that we’re saved and can likely leave in the morning … More than that, when we see them biding by the door to take us home, it’s Lucky me! we think. Lucky me to have such a morsel worrying after me!

The December Online Book Choice Is:

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

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This is a regional read, centered around island life off the coast of Maine. The narrator, a female writer taking retreat, remains unnamed throughout the story; she learns from the locals what a life lived sparsely can be. Jewett writes with a very basic realism of her characters lives. Here is the narrator at Joanna’s grave:

I drank at the spring, and thought that now and then some one would follow me from the busy, hard-worked, and simple-thoughted countryside of the mainland, which lay dim and dreamlike in the August haze, as Joanna must have watched it many a day. There was the world, and here was she with eternity well begun. In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the unaccompanied hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong.

And a portrait of the local fishermen:

These ancient seafarers had houses and lands not outwardly different from other Dunnet Landing dwellings, and two of them were fathers of families, but their true dwelling places were the sea, and the stony beach that edged its familiar shore, and the fishhouses, where much salt brine from the mackerel kits had soaked the very timbers into a state of brown permanence and petrifaction. It had also affected the old fishermen’s hard complexions, until one fancied that when death claimed them it could only be with the aid, not of any slender modern dart, but the good serviceable harpoon of a seventeenth century woodcut.

Sarah Orne Jewett died in 1909.

The November Online Book Choice Is:

J by Howard Jacobson

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J is set in a dystopic, futuristic world, where WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED has happened. Ailinn and Kevern are misfits in a miserable world, and the community they live in is inhabited by brutality and melancholy. Social thought is tightly controlled, books are edited by those in power, and no one speaks of what did happen. Jacobson offers clues throughout. This from Ailinn:

At first Kevern thought it was his fault. He’d been tossing and turning, perhaps, or snoring, or crying out in the night, stopping her sleeping. But she told him she had always been like this — not morning grumpiness but a sort of species desolation, as though opening her eyes on a world in which no one of her sort existed.

And from her confidant, Esme:

Of the thoughts that flew at her, as the weeks passed, this last was the most persistent, skimming her cheek with its quilled wing, as though it wanted to scratch her into waking — we are poorer by what we took away.

It’s clear that a mass genocide has taken place. Were all complicit? Jacobson never tells the reader what ‘J’ stands for but it’s simple enough to deduce. There are passages throughout the book that recall pogroms. This quote from a character describing the mob mentality and subsequent murders from the time of WHAT HAPPENED.

I am who I am because I am not them — well, I was not alone in feeling that. We were all who we were because we were not them. So why did that translate into hate? I don’t know, but when everyone’s feeling the same thing it can appear to be reasonableness. Can you understand that? What everyone’s doing becomes a common duty. Besides, it wasn’t for me to play God. These people had their own God, I thought — let Him look after her.

Eventually, Ailinn and Kevern struggle with the truth and identity, and how to change the world they live in. But the changes come with a price.

I don’t hate myself either. But criticism rubs off. How could it be otherwise? Sometimes the glass through which others look at you tilts and you catch a little of what they see.

The October Online Book Choice Is:

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen

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It’s easy enough to read through Ibsen’s play and think of Hedda Gabler, ‘What a dreadful woman’; harder still to empathize with her. For certain, Hedda is without conscience. She is jealous, conniving, and maneuvering. But Hedda lived in a time when women lived predetermined lives, boxed away into houses and made into mothers. Perhaps her only way to react to her situation (and her marriage to that dolt Tesman) is to be an aggressor and to be truthful to herself, everyone else be damned. Ibsen was a great feminist and gives this theory credence. And it’s important to note that the play is called Hedda Gabler, rather than Hedda Tesman.

Henrik Ibsen died in 1906.

The September Online Book Choice Is:

The Haircut by Ring Lardner

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One of Ring Lardner’s best known short stories, The Haircut is somewhat satirical, fairly dark, with plenty of vernacular thrown in. That’s Lardner’s style. You will be forced to become involved in the story. Was the character John Kendall murdered or did he die accidentally? And how many people were involved in a conspiracy if he was murdered? Is the barber a sympathetic character? He defends Kendall’s antisocial behavior, but is it all an act?

Here’s a taste:

It was a Saturday and the shop was full and Jim got up out of that chair and says, “Gentlemen, I got an important announcement to make. I been fired from my job.”

Well, they asked him if he was in earnest and he said he was and nobody could think of nothin’ to say till Jim finally broke the ice himself. He says, “I been sellin’ canned goods and now I’m canned goods myself.”

You see, the concern he’d been workin’ for was a factory that made canned goods. Over in Carterville. And now Jim said he was canned himself. He was certainly a card!

Ring Lardner died in 1933.

The August Online Book Choice Is:

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

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A book about water and the sea, drowning and not drowning, this book had enough entertainment and mystery to keep me going. And it’s leading character is a librarian, so how could I resist? Good summer read; enjoy.

This in reference to Amos, the character abandoned by his family and adopted by a traveling show:

People may live for a century without discovering the secret of vanishing. The boy found it because he was free to listen to the ground humming, the subtle moving of soil, and the breathing of water – a whisper barely discernible over the sound of a heartbeat. Water was the key. If he listened to its depth and measure and matched his breath to it, slowing his heart until it barely thumped, his slight brown frame would fade into the surrounding world. Had any watched, they would have seen a grubby boy turn sideways and vanish into the trees, becoming like a grain of sand – impossible to differentiate from the larger shore. Hunger, his enduring companion, was all that kept him certain that he lived.

And this, on the naming of the character Enola:

Once I learned about the atomic bomb I was never able to think of parents or my sister in quite the same light. I asked Dad about it once. His response was that Mom had ideas about reclaiming painful things; that if something terrible was made out of a beautiful thing there was an obligation to restore beauty; to reinstate meaning. The attempt with my sister failed; she exists like an explosion.

The July Online Book Choice Is:

This House of Sky by Ivan Doig

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This is Doig’s memoir about growing up in Montana with his widowed father. They kept their living by ranching cattle and sheep and there are many vivid scenes of the Montana landscape. It was hard living. Doig’s dad spent a lot of time in bars, and so, Doig did as well. Luckily, Doig’s grandmother came to live with them and kept them both sorted out.

The book reminded me a lot of Faulkner’s sketches of Yoknapatawpha County and there is actually a definition (fairly new) that describes this type of writing. James Shortridge called it ‘place-defining.’ These are ‘regional novels (that) provide concise statements of perceived regional values. As a group they suggest that the West has been dominated by the single, enduring image of youthful self-reliance; the Northeast by a set of small-scale characterizations; and the Midwest and South by more complex depictions of egalitarian pastoralism and cavalier society, respectively.’ Doig proves this. He and his family are strong and self-reliant, raised in and by Montana.

Ivan Doig died April 9th of this year.

Shortridge, J. (1991). The Concept of the Place-Defining Novel in American Popular Culture. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.0033-0124.1991.00280.x?journalCode=rtpg20

The June Online Book Choice Is:

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

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Don’t let the primer title fool you. This is really well-written, and it will stay with you for a long time.  It is one of those books that are worthy of being in your home library. Here are some passages:

I sat down, tired and content. The goshawks were gone, the sky blank. Time passed. The wavelength of light around me shortened. The day built itself. A sparrowhawk, light as a toy of balsa-wood and doped tissue-paper, zipped past at knee-level, kiting up over a bank of brambles and away into the trees. I watched it go, lost in recollection. This memory was candescent, irresistible.

She disappeared over a hedge slant-wise into nothing. It was as if she’d found a rent in the damp Gloucestershire air and slipped through it. That was the moment I kept replaying, over and over. That was the recurring dream. From then on, the hawk was inevitable.

What is she looking at? What is she thinking? I hear the click of the nictitating membrane that crosses her eyes as she blinks, and now I see them closely her eyes begin to disturb me. They look like discs of pale paper stuck to the side of her head, each with a hole-punched black pupil housed under a transparent dome like a bubble of water. The hawk is stranger than I’d thought.

And wisdom from a fellow falconer:

‘It’s simple. If you want a well-behaved goshawk, you just have to do one thing. Give ’em the opportunity to kill things. Kill as much as possible. Murder sorts them out.’

There is a hawk that has been breakfasting upon the birds that throng in our backyard. I’ve come to terms with it. It is a beautiful bird.

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The May Online Book Choice Is:

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

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Though Hero and Claudio’s story is the main plot of the play, Beatrice and Benedick steal the show with their lively bantering, engaging in a war of words with each other. It’s elevated language, used by the master of all writers.

Beatrice: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick. Nobody marks you.

Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?

Beatrice: Is it possible Disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to Disdain if you come in her presence.

Benedick: Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted; and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart, for truly I love none.

Beatrice: A dear happiness to women! They would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of a humor for that. I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.

One of the better editions to read is the Pelican Shakespeare. It’s annotated well, with nicely written essays. And the library’s Overdrive digital catalog offers an audio copy of BBC Radio Shakespeare’s production of the play. Playwrights prefer their plays to be seen rather than read, but, in our time, it’s nice to read the play first to get the gist of the story, then watch (or listen) to the play being performed.

BBC radio Much Ado

The April Online Book Choice Is:

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977 and divides her time nowadays between Nigeria and the U.S.

Americanah centers on Ifemelu, a young Nigerian immigrant to the U.S. After living in America for some years, she learns what it is to be American and how to be American without losing her Nigerian identity. Race and racism (both subtle and obvious) are dominant themes in the book. The book is filled with great insights but what were particularly nice were Ifemelu’s blog postings, filled with sharp truths:

Understanding America for the Non-American Black: American Tribalism
In America, tribalism is alive and well, There are four kinds—class, ideology, region, and race.  First, class. Pretty easy. Rich folk and poor folk.
Second, ideology, Liberals and conservatives. They don’t merely disagree on political issue, each side believes the other is evil. Intermarriage is discouraged and on the rare occasion that it happens, is considered remarkable.
Third, region. The North and the South. The two sides fought a civil war and tough stains from that war remain. The North looks down on the South while the South resents the North.
Finally, race. There’s a ladder of racial hierarchy in America. White is always on top, specifically White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, otherwise known as WASP, and the American Black is always on the bottom, and what’s in the middle depends on time and place…Americans assume that everyone will get their tribalism. But it takes a while to figure it all out. So in undergrad, we a had a visiting speaker and a classmate whispers to another, ‘Oh my God, he looks so Jewish,’ with a shudder…like Jewish was a bad thing. I didn’t get it. As far as I could see, the man was white, not much different from the classmate herself. Jewish to me was something vague, something biblical. You see, in America’s ladder of races, Jewish is white but also some rungs below white. A bit confusing…How can Americans tell who is Jewish?
The longer you are here, the more you start to get it.

For all the stern subject matter, it’s a funny book and easy to read. Enjoy it. And: Adichie’s book Half of a Yellow Sun is a Judy’s Shelf choice.