Category Archives: Thoughts About Books

Books I’m Reading: Wives and Daughters; The Vanishing Half

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Part 1: Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

For several years I’ve been part of an on-again-off-again virtual book club. Recently we read Wives and Daughters, and instead of waiting until we were finished with the book to start discussing it, we had weekly reading goals followed by weekly WhatsApp chats. It was rather a nice way to read a classic, I thought.

Wives and Daughters is about a girl named Molly Gibson who lives with her father, a widowed doctor. They get along swimmingly until Molly turns 17 and Mr. Gibson suddenly realizes that men are starting to pursue her. Panicked and unable to properly chaperone her, he sends her to live with his friends, Mr. and Mrs. Hamley, until he can find a better solution.

His “better solution,” then, is to get re-married, and in doing so, Molly not only gains a stepmother but a step-sister as well. Meanwhile, she remains friends with Mr. and Mrs. Hamley as well as their two eligible sons, Osborne and Roger.

The story is mostly about these eight people and their relationships with each other, focusing on Molly as she comes of age and falls in love.

Reading this lovely book, I realized that I really like the trope of two sisters befriending/falling in love with two brothers. I like it because there are four potential romantic relationships that can result, so you as a reader are always on your toes, not sure where the plot is going to go. Also, since they’re all close as a group, some of them will have platonic cross-gender relationships, which is always fun.

Meanwhile, the author is adding depth with the sibling relationships as well. So with only four characters, you’re looking at six different types of relationships playing out.

I’m not sure how common this trope is. Besides Wives and Daughters, it’s also present in I Capture the Castle. Most of Jane Austen’s books play with this trope too. In Pride and Prejudice it’s best friends instead of brothers, and there is no ambiguity about who will choose who. Emma and Sense and Sensibility both feature a pair of siblings marrying a pair of siblings, but one couple is already married and somewhat faded into the background of the plot. Mansfield Park does the most with this trope, keeping you on your toes about who is going to fall in love with who, although the final pairing makes me a bit uncomfortable if I’m gonna be honest.

Wives and Daughters is similar to Austen’s books, but focuses less on the romance and more on other relationships. It also explores class distinction in a deeper way than Austen does, and features characters who are slightly lower on the social ladder. Sort-of the Harriet Smiths and Robert Martins of the town.

I will warn you though…the ending is a bit unique, because Elizabeth Gaskell died before she finished the last chapter. When the book ends, you know that everything is going to end up all right, but then it abruptly stops before we get to see all the happy stuff play out.

In lieu of a last chapter, her editor wrote a note explaining how things were going to end, since Gaskell had told him as well as some of her family about how she planned to end it. So it ends nicely. However, my copy of the book was one of those sketchy cheap self-published Amazon versions, and it didn’t have that editor’s note at the end. It just ended abruptly and that was it.

No one else in my group had that problem, except one of them was mostly listening to an audiobook but sometimes reading a free Kindle version, and the free Kindle version didn’t have the ending note either.

Both the sketchy self-published classics and the free Kindle classics happen when the copyright expires on an old book, so my assumption is that the copyright expired on Wives and Daughters but it somehow didn’t include the little bit at the end written by Frederick Greenwood. Anyway, I’d say just buy your copy at a thrift store or on Thriftbooks, or borrow from the library, and you won’t have an issue.

Part 2: The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett

Amy came to me and said, “I had a book on hold at the library, and it just came in, but I don’t have time to read it before I go. Do you want to read it?”

“Sure,” I said. “You know, I think if you like a book that usually means that I’ll like it too.”

Amy laughed. “Well, I don’t know if I’d like this book or not. I just got it because I saw a lot of people talking about it.”

The book in question was The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett.

This book has a really unique, interesting premise with all these cool parallels. It begins in this little town called Mallard, Louisiana that was founded by a half-black man who inherited land from his slave-owning father. Not knowing where he fit into the world, he wanted Mallard to be a place for mixed-race and light-skinned black people.

Generations later, in the ’50s and ’60s, everyone in the town is obsessed with skin color. They are all considered “colored people,” but they try their hardest to marry people lighter than them so that their children will be even lighter. This is not because they want to be white. They all consider themselves black, even though sometimes a person on the street would never know. They just think that they’re superior to dark-skinned black people.

The book follows a set of twins, one restless and adventurous, the other quiet and studious. They are the great-great-great-great grandchildren of the founder, and as teenagers they leave the town and run off to the big city. The restless adventurous twin marries the darkest man she can find and has a very dark-skinned daughter who is quiet and studious. The quiet and studious twin, on the other hand, decides to be white. She leaves her sister and family behind and marries a white man who has no idea of her past. Then she has a pale, blonde, blue-eyed daughter who is restless and adventurous.

Fascinating, right?

Now that I’ve finished the book I have mixed feelings about it, but I’m going to start with the great: The premise was gripping. The idea of the town of light-skinned people who all considered themselves “black” but hated dark-skinned people was not only super interesting, but according to the author, that type of thing actually happened in the south.

Also: I feel like there’s a lot of pressure nowadays as a white person to “educate yourself” and know all these details about the history of race in America. At the same time, the stack of books you’re supposed to read is, frankly, daunting. I really would like to read them at some point, but I already dislike nonfiction so who knows.

But I have a secret opinion that fiction books written by black authors are the best–that is, the most interesting and nuanced–way to understand racial dynamics in the USA. People are complicated, and sometimes it’s easier to show it with fiction than to try to tell it with nonfiction. (Although showing it in memoir is great too.)

Here’s two things that I understood so much better after reading this book:

  1. Colorism. It’s easy to view our racial history as “black people vs white people,” but there were/are a lot of complicated dynamics based on how dark someone is. This book explored them in an informative, nuanced, thought-provoking way.
  2. The shift away from overt racism in the USA. This book opens in the ’60s, flashes back to the ’50s, and then ends in the late ’80s with a few notes on the early ’90s. As the book went on, I noticed a subtle, gradual shift, where there were fewer and fewer cases of people experiencing awful overt discrimination based on their race. But there was never a “yay, things are better now!” moment. It was more of a generational thing–the twins, who had witnessed a lynching in their youth, never really changed their views on race and identity. But their daughters were much more likely to form friendships and romantic relationships with people of a different race.

So with all that great stuff, I was prepared to love the book. But I didn’t. I enjoyed it, I learned from it, but I didn’t love it.

I guess it’s just a bit too basic and too literary for my taste. With Wives and Daughters I talked about one of my favorite tropes, so now I’ll talk about one of my least-favorite ones: the “so-and-so returns to her hometown and has deep feelings about family and stuff” trope bores me to tears. And it’s used so often in books. I don’t understand.

And then there’s these lines like, “She could tell the truth, she thought, but there was no single truth anymore. She’d lived a life split between two women–each real, each a lie” (260). I just opened the book randomly and found that line, but some version of it is at the end of basically every chapter. Some deep thought about lies and identity and feeling “split.” That goes with the twin theme, you know. I got so tired of it. Let’s just skip ahead to the interesting part, please. When does everyone re-unite? When are the lies exposed?

And that’s where the book, ultimately, lost me. Because that big moment of cathartic reunion never happened. Well it kind-of did, but in the most stretched-out, anti-climactic, confusing, unfinished way possible. Then the book just…ended. Ended without properly reaching the end of anyone’s story. I found it odd and confusing.

I think it just had a good premise but not a fleshed-out plot. I can empathize with this because plots are incredibly difficult to construct, from my personal experience. But. Books without plots are boring. There’s a reason books need plots.

Anyway. Those are my mixed feelings. If you happen to enjoy the “so-and-so returns to her hometown and has feelings” trope, and if you don’t mind a bit of plotlessness, I think this is a book you would love.

What I’ve Been Reading: The Lunar Chronicles, by Marissa Meyer

It’s been a long time since I’ve read something that was this fun.

In my late teens and early 20s, the big fad in YA books was dystopian fiction. Some of it was done really well and some of it was done poorly, but the main reason I remember that era fondly was the imagination of it all. The books weren’t just set in a dystopian future, they also incorporated really interesting futuristic sci-fi elements.

However, while I enjoyed these books (at least the well-done ones, like The Hunger Games and The Giver) my true love was still fantasy. Particularly light-hearted, middle grade fantasy. In fact, I adored re-told fairy tales, and collected six retellings of Cinderella alone.

A year and a half ago, I was perusing the YA books at my local St. Vincent de Paul when I saw a copy of Cinder, by Marissa Meyer. Why have I never read this book? I thought to myself. It was obviously a retelling of Cinderella set in a futuristic world, and it seemed like something I ought to read, if for no other purpose than to remain the foremost expert on Cinderella retellings.

(Actually I just googled “Cinderella retellings” and realized there are still many that I haven’t read, so scratch that, haha.)

Anyway, I bought it, read it, and loved it. It was so fun and clever that I gave it to Steven for his birthday, thinking it was exactly the sort of book he likes, and then bought the second book in the series, Scarlet, for myself.

After Scarlet I dearly wanted to buy myself the third book, Cress, but I couldn’t quite justify the price. For some reason it was a lot more expensive on Thriftbooks than Scarlet was. So I didn’t end up finishing the series until this spring, when Amy borrowed Cinder and Scarlet from Steven and I, and then requested Cress and Winter at the library.

Why didn’t I think to do that? Well anyway, I read them when she was done.

Let’s start by talking about the unique plot structure, and then move on to the world building.

Cinder is a retelling of Cinderella, and while the plot is mostly from Cinder’s point of view, sometimes it switches to the point of view of Emperor Kai (aka Prince Charming). But at the end of the book, the story is nowhere near finished. Time to read the second book!

But wait. The second book, Scarlet, is a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. However, some chapters are continuing Cinder’s story. And some chapters are still from Kai’s point of view.

Cress is a retelling of Rapunzel, and Winter is a retelling of Snow White, so by the time the series is finished the story is being told from the perspective of four different fairy tale characters and their four love interests, as well as Cinder’s android friend Iko. That’s nine perspectives!

I mean, usually a lot of them are with each other, so there are maybe 2-4 storylines going on at once instead of nine. But it’s still quite unique. In fact, the only thing I could think to compare it to is The Lord of the Rings. It’s similar in the way it is told in multiple books but is actually one long continuing story arc, and also in the way it collects characters as it goes along and then must tell their stories as well.

This ends up being really fun, because it gives characters a chance to interact with characters who aren’t from their own fairy tale. What sort of relationship would Cinderella have with Rapunzel’s prince? If they had to work together, would they get along? We certainly find out!

In fact, the odd thing is that while the overarching protagonist is the Cinderella character, the overarching villain is the queen from Snow White.

***

The world building is so interesting to me. It’s obvious that the books were intended to sort-of fit in with the dystopian craze of the time. But it’s not quite a true dystopia—actually, I’d say it’s a really interesting cross between the dystopian and science fiction genres.

It’s set in a future where space travel is common, mortally injured humans can remain living by becoming half-robot cyborgs, and androids are everywhere doing much of the world’s mundane labor. But instead of exploring the galaxy, humans in Meyer’s world have colonized the moon, and that’s all. It’s just the moon and earth. And if you don’t want to go to the moon, you can use your spacecraft to get to another part of earth quickly.

This was a really interesting take, in my opinion, because it’s so much more realistic about how far apart planets actually are from each other.

The earth, in Meyer’s world, isn’t really dystopian. It’s certainly different than our current world, more futuristic, and with futuristic problems such as cyborg discrimination. But it also has normal problems too, like contagious incurable diseases.

“Luna,” the kingdom that resides on the moon, is a pretty dystopian place, however. Winter takes place mostly on Luna, and it definitely has Hunger Games capitol city vibes.

***

One of the characters who we meet near the beginning of Scarlet is a thief named Carswell Thorne who owns (that is, stole) a spaceship. The spaceship then serves as a sort of home-base for the rest of the characters during the course of the story.

What is it about a cast of diverse interesting characters aboard a spaceship that’s so enchanting? It ended up being one of my favorite things about the series. They all had these different talents that helped the crew as a whole, and it gave me the same feeling I get from the show Firefly.

But here I ended up disappointed, because there was never a single moment when more than six of the nine main characters (including Iko the android) were in the ship at the same time. They all knew each other, but they were never all at the same place at the same time until the very very end. And it wasn’t like they could all just jet into the sky at the end because some of them were, you know, monarchs with countries to run.

It’s weird, because usually when they turn books into movies or TV shows I want them to stick exactly to the book, and I’m afraid they’ll ruin it. But with this one, I think changing it could make a really fun wonderful TV show. If you made the overarching plot less urgent, and gave all the monarchs some excuse to be on a spaceship instead of running their countries (a coup or something?) it could be a sort-of Firefly for teens with some fairy tale magic sprinkled in and I would adore it.

One can dream. (But honestly, with the multiple characters and their multiple storylines it already reads somewhat like a TV show.)

Overall, I don’t think everyone will be as enchanted by this series as I was. However, I think anyone who even semi-enjoyed the wave of dystopian YA that hit the market in the early 2010s, anyone who likes re-told fairy tales, and anyone who enjoys fun lighthearted sci-fi will at least enjoy the books, even if they don’t become your Favorite Things Ever. I feel like the series has a fairly wide mass appeal, unless you’re an I Only Like Realistic Books type.

Before I get too gushy, I should say that Scarlet’s romance in Scarlet was somewhat reminiscent of the weird obsessive paranormal romances of the same era (Twilight etc.). That was something I did not enjoy, which is probably why I was able to take such a long pause after reading Scarlet even though it’s one of the most intentionally-designed-to-be-impossible-to-put-down series I’ve ever read. Both characters grew on me in subsequent books, however.

Also. Why did I say “before I get too gushy” at the literal end of the review? I don’t know.

***

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What I’ve Been Reading Lately

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A Tale of Time City, by Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones is my favorite author, but this was not my favorite book of hers. It was missing some of the coziness and cleverness I’ve come to expect. Also, it dealt with time travel. There are always plot holes in time travel stories. Always. It drives me batty. I don’t deal well with plot holes.

But I still liked it. I couldn’t help it. Jones has that sort of power over me. 

Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger

Salinger also has a curious power over me. Reading his work always leaves me profoundly moved. 

Well, “always” might be an exaggeration. When I read The Catcher in the Rye I was intrigued by the writing style, but I wasn’t “moved” per se. However, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction blew my mind. Franny and Zooey didn’t blow my mind, but I was still moved. I don’t know why everyone is so hung up on The Catcher in the Rye when the Glass Family stories are so much more…I don’t even know the correct adjective to use. 

I’ve had Nine Stories on my shelf for a while, but I just now got around to reading it. I think I was partly avoiding it because I knew that “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” would deal with Seymour Glass’ suicide, and that can be a very triggering subject for me. However, I must give Salinger credit. I feel like few people who write about suicide actually understand it, and Salinger does. Reading it, I’m convinced that Salinger had PTSD. But it actually makes the story seem very odd and arbitrary. 

I enjoyed most of the stories, particularly “Just before the War with the Eskimos” and “For Esme⁠—With Love and Squalor.” I was indifferent to a few of them. 

I started reading “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” and immediately thought, “wait…I’ve read this before!” Ah yes. My handsome hipster writing professor who was too cool to watch Star Wars. He made us read this story. It was just the sort of story that writing professors make you read…lots of selfish people being selfish in a literary way with no point at all. Needless to say, it was not my favorite of the bunch.

But the only one I actively disliked was the last one, “Teddy.” I’m sure a writing professor would tell me it was actually the best story in the book, and while I can recognize the technical skill that went into creating such an unsettling but inevitable ending, there was no heart or redemption or human nature or anything good in it. I’m sorry. I hated it.

Still, I cannot properly express the way that most of Salinger’s writing, particularly his Glass family stories, make me feel. I think the Glass family reminds me of my family. 

Pumpkinheads, by Rainbow Rowell

I don’t have much to say about this one. It’s a graphic novel about two teenagers who are working at a pumpkin patch for the last time before they go off to college. It’s cute and fun. The end. 

Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull

This is a book I ended up with after the new librarian wouldn’t let me browse in peace. LOL. I’m happy to get book recommendations, but does anyone else feel a bit weird when the librarian seems a bit too invested in your reading choices?

Anyway. This was a fairly typical middle grade fantasy. A couple kids visit their grandparents and find out that, surprise! They’re actually running a haven for fairy tale creatures. It was an okay read, but Mull is no Diana Wynne Jones. His stories for kids are actually stories for kids, not stories for adults with big imaginations. 

Two Years in the Forbidden City, by Princess Der Ling

I don’t know a lot about Chinese history, and every time I think I’d like to know a little more I immediately get a headache when I realize how impossibly vast it is. But I’ve had this memoir on my shelf for a while, and I finally decided to read it. 

Still, I had to get a bit of historical background before I could even make sense of it. And this is what I learned:

China used to be run by emperors and/or empresses. In 1912 China became a republic, but of course that ended with Mao’s communist revolution. There’s a lot of complicated history surrounding all that, but this book is about the woman who was essentially the last empress of China, Empress Dowager Cixi.

Princess Der Ling, the author of the book, was a Chinese woman who received a western education in France. When her family returned to China, the Empress Dowager Cixi asked her to be a lady-in-waiting, so in 1905 she moved to the palace and lived there for two years. But in 1907 she left that lady-in-waiting life to marry an American. 

I had a hard time understanding the whole Chinese emperor system, but here’s what I gathered: it seems like, I guess since men were expected to respect their mothers so much, that the emperor’s mother had a lot of power in the system. Cixi married the emperor of China, and then when he died, her son became emperor, but she still had a lot of power.

Then, when her son died, she decided that her nephew should be emperor. So she basically adopted him and made him the emperor, but later staged a coup, took all the power for herself, and made her nephew the emperor in name only.

Both Cixi and her nephew died in 1908. It’s a bit sus, because he was poisoned the day before she died. A random two-year-old from somewhere in the family was chosen to be the new emperor, but that only lasted for four years before the monarchy was abolished.

Anyway. When Cixi died, she was widely regarded as a pretty evil person. And Princess Der Ling was like, “I knew Cixi personally, and she was awesome!” so she wrote a memoir about her time as lady-in-waiting, hoping to set the record straight. 

Not gonna lie, she did a pretty bad job at making Cixi seem like a good person. But whatever.

The memoir was interesting, but in the way that a Wikipedia article is interesting. I have never in my life read about such opulence. Der Ling was obsessed with detailing Cixi’s gowns, jewels, everything, and it’s mind blowing. Like, once they were going to go on a 4-day trip, and the servants were like, “let’s bring 50 dresses for Cixi, just so that she has plenty of options.” And of course these dresses are all hand-embroidered silk masterpieces.

Or once, Cixi was wearing a cape made from perfect pearls the size of canary eggs.

And the palace. I mean, just google “forbidden city” to get an idea of the size of Chinese palaces. They essentially were cities. And there were several of them that they’d go back and forth between. 

But the hardest thing to read about was the eunuch system. The whole palace was staffed with eunuchs, and they were essentially slaves. It was an extra cruel type of slavery, not only because these men were castrated, but also because there was no life for them outside the palace. And Princess Der Ling was so casually cruel when she talked about them. They were ungrateful and lazy, she said, and deserved their frequent and severe beatings. 

Goodness though, Der Ling is one of the most unlikeable memorists I’ve ever read, constantly bragging about how she was Cixi’s favorite. Also, there’s no plot to the book whatsoever. And Der Ling was weirdly obsessed with the most minute details of Cixi’s insane wealth. 

At the beginning, it was so plotless that I couldn’t figure out how Der Ling would find a book’s worth of material to write about. Then I found her Wikipedia page and realized that she went on to write seven! more! books! about this stupidly short period of her life. I…how?

Yeah, I’m not gonna read any more of her work. But I’m glad I read this one. It had interesting information even if it was delivered in a boring, self-righteous, cruel way. 

Other Books

I also recently read through the Lord of the Rings books, as well as Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien. But I have so many thoughts about that, it will have to come in a future blog post. 

***

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Thoughts about Books: The Watsons, by Jane Austen and John Coates

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Jane Austen is known for her six main novels, but she wrote a few other novellas and fragments that aren’t particularly well-known, except to her die-hard fans. Personally, up until now I’d only read the main six. But a friend lent me a copy of The Watsons, an unfinished novel by Austen that was then finished by a man named John Coates.

The Watsons begins with Emily Watson (called “Emma” in the original manuscript, and changed to “Emily” by Coates, presumably so as not to confuse her with Emma Woodhouse) being driven into town by her older sister Elizabeth, so that she can attend a ball. We find out that there are six siblings in the Watson family, two boys and four girls. Their father is a relatively poor clergyman. It turns out that Emily, who is the youngest Watson sibling, doesn’t actually know any of her brothers and sisters. She was raised by a wealthy aunt, and is only now returning to her father’s house after her aunt was widowed and re-married someone who doesn’t want to be responsible for Emily.

As they ride to the ball, Elizabeth tells Emily all about her siblings and the other people in town whom she will encounter at the ball. Thus, we learn about these people alongside Emily.

Interjecting Thought: It is so strange to me how normal it was in Jane Austen’s day for rich relatives to adopt their poorer relatives as an act of charity. Imagine your loving parents sending you away to a rich aunt’s house so that you could get a better education, and then never really seeing you again. Bizarre! But it happens all the time in Austen novels.

Emily meets three important/eligible men at the ball: A Mr. Musgrave, who seems to be the Mr. Wickham/Frank Churchill/Mr. Willoughby/Henry Crawford of the story; A Mr. Howard, who seems to hold promise as a proper love interest; and Lord Osborne.

Lord Osborne is by far the most interesting of the three. Honestly it’s hard to tell, from the fragment that Austen wrote, if she intended him to be more of a Mr. Collins or a Mr. Darcy. His defining characteristic is that, though he is rich and thus considered a “good catch,” he is painfully awkward. He doesn’t dance, but he immediately takes a liking to Emily, so he asks his friend to dance with her. Then, he spends the whole dance standing basically at his friend’s elbow, chatting with him, so that he’s sort-of in the same sphere as Emily.

Besides these three men, Austen also introduces us to about half of the Watson family. Of the six Watson siblings, only one, her older brother Robert, is married. He shows up with his wife fairly early on. That leaves three Watson siblings, Margaret, Penelope, and Sam, who are mentioned but never seen when Austen’s fragment ends.

Austen allegedly told her sister Cassandra a few things about how she planned to end the novel. She was going to kill off Mr Watson, Emma’s (Emily’s) father, and make her have to go live with Robert and his wife. Lord Osborne was going to ask her to marry him, and she was going to refuse. Lady Osborne, Lord Osborne’s widowed mother, was going to be in love with Mr. Howard, while Mr. Howard loved Emma. Eventually, Emma would marry Mr. Howard.

In the years since Austen’s death, several people have attempted to finish her novel. The typical approach was to leave Austen’s work untouched, and write an ending using the exact plot points that Austen intended to use. This often resulted in pretty short books, about half of it being Austen’s work, and half being new work.

John Coates took a different approach to ending Austen’s book. In fact, his Author’s Note at the end, explaining how he went about the process, is one of the most interesting parts of the whole book, in my opinion.

First, Coates prioritized making an interesting novel over being unflinchingly faithful to Austen’s legacy. Although he used some of the plot points that Austen had told her sister about, he didn’t use all of them. He also, *gasp,* changed a few small things in the original manuscript. First, as I’ve already mentioned, he changed “Emma” to “Emily.” There were a few other word choices he tweaked. But the most interesting thing, to me, was what he did with the character of Penelope. Penelope is only mentioned in Austen’s fragment, but Coates decided he wanted to make her one of the most interesting characters in the novel. So he invented a personality for her, and then tweaked Austen’s manuscript slightly to add hints about her character so that she made more sense when she finally showed up.

Coates also made his novel much longer than other manuscript-finishers had. He thought that Austen’s fragment seemed like the opening to a long, leisurely novel, so he wrote a long, leisurely novel. Then, when it became clear that it was a bit too long and leisurely and needed some trimming down, he trimmed the whole book, including the Austen section.

Interesting, huh? It’s so weird, because it just seems wrong somehow to even dream of editing Austen’s work. And yet, it was an unfinished fragment. Logically, if Austen had finished it, she also would have edited it somewhat.

But I’m sure you’re wondering, “Did it work? Was it a good novel? Did it feel like reading a new Jane Austen novel?”

Well, yes and no.

I very much enjoyed reading the book. In fact, if Austen had finished it, I could see it being one of my favorites. Mostly because it featured a family very similar to my family: six clergyman’s children, all of marriageable age, with only the oldest son actually married.

Still, even though the story was fun, with Lord Osborne and Penelope being perhaps the most interesting characters, it was very clear that this wasn’t a “real” Austen novel. I’m not 100% sure what it was that made it feel inauthentic. Coates was really good at making the language “match up” with the way she wrote. I think, overall, it was a little too interesting to be authentic Austen. The things that happened seemed a bit more dramatic than the things that usually happen in Austen novels. At the same time, it lacked Austen’s famous insights into the oddities of human nature.

You know how it feels to watch a movie that’s based on a book by your favorite author? Like, you sort-of get the same feeling you got from reading her books, but it’s not quite the same? But you still enjoy it? That was roughly the same feeling I got from reading this book.

This is the third time, in my recollection, that I’ve read a book which was started by one person and finished by someone else. The first was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, and the second was The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones. In all three cases, the finisher was vastly inferior to the starter. However, The Watsons didn’t upset me nearly as much as the previous two did. I think that, since Austen had written such a small piece of the whole book, It felt less like an Austen book that Coates had finished, and more like a Coates book that Austen had started. The ending didn’t make me feel cheated.

Those are my thoughts. What are yours? Have you read The Watsons, either Austen’s original fragment or someone’s attempt to finish it? What are your thoughts, in general, of people finishing other people’s unfinished books?

Thoughts About Books: Station 11, by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven: A novel | IndieBound.org

I would like to start briefly (or not-so-briefly) posting my thoughts about every book I read. This is not quite like a review. Just thoughts. To me, there is no pleasure quite like thinking about books.

The most recent book I read was Station 11, by Emily St. John Mandel. I read it because Amy handed it to me and said “hey, you should read this book. I want to know your thoughts.” So I did.

I didn’t realize that it was a pandemic book, because I just dove straight in and didn’t even read the back cover. But it is, and that’s not a spoiler. (These, by the way, are going to be spoiler-free thoughts, which might be difficult, but I’ll try.)

Station 11 starts out as a book about a pandemic, but just as the panic is starting, suddenly the book jumps ahead 20 years to the post-apocalyptic universe that exists when 99.9% of humanity has been wiped out. And then it jumps back in time, to before the pandemic. I think the point is to make you think about the infrastructure that exists, and how normal it seems…the electricity, the airplanes, the fast food, the gadgets, the internet…but how dependent it is on millions of humans in thousands of random jobs, doing their little part to keep the system running. And how everything would crumble, and what humanity might look like after 20 years of not having those things. How the worst in us would come out, but also the best in us.

Thought 1: The Gap Effect (A term I made up, because I needed a term)

I kept perceiving flaws with how Mandel depicted the pandemic and aftermath. Little things, like, “why is no one moving to farms?” and “why aren’t they riding bicycles?” as well as some giant plot holes with the pandemic itself that I suppose I only think about because I’ve just experienced a pandemic. For instance, we now know that in the event of a catastrophic pandemic, rich people would immediately quarantine, while poor people would keep working their “essential business” jobs. This would leave rich people in a much better position to survive than poor people. This, however, was never touched on in the book.

I kept telling myself that these little things didn’t matter. And in a way, they didn’t. Mandel did something very smart, in that she kept the world of her book very small and focused on her characters. Maybe more rich people in the world survived than poor people. Maybe the death toll wasn’t as bad in say, Asia. Maybe people in Holland rode bicycles, and people in Colorado moved to farms. We don’t know, because the three or four characters she followed knew next to nothing about the world beyond their immediate surroundings. In the universe of Station 11, the pandemic killed the majority of people in existence. This disrupted the global communication network. This plot trick allowed Mandel to keep us in the dark about what the world looked like outside of the realm her characters inhabited.

While this was smart, I found it unsatisfying.

With many forms of media, a lot of my enjoyment depends on whether or not there is a gap between the premise I think is going to happen and the premise that actually happens. For instance, when I was a young teenager, one of our VHS tapes had a preview of a movie called Never Been Kissed. The movie was about a 25-year-old woman who was totally uncool back in high school, who then went undercover and pretended to be a high school student again. The preview made it seem like this time, with the natural confidence that comes with age, she would be “cool,” and it would be an interesting redemptive experience.

But when I finally saw Never Been Kissed, there was a huge gap between the movie I thought I’d see and the movie I actually saw. Turns out she was just as awkward at 25 as she’d been at 18, and while she became cool eventually, it was more through dumb luck than anything else. So I was left with this hollow feeling, that the movie could have been so much more than it was.

This frequently happens to me with movies and songs, but it’s much more rare with books, which is why books are my favorite form of media.

But unfortunately, Station 11 had the gap effect for me. The premise of “99.99% of people are killed in a pandemic” is fascinating, and my mind spins in a billion different directions, imagining what might happen. And yet, so much of this was left unexplored in the book, leaving me longing for what the book could have been.

Thought 2: Literary Fiction

In the classes I took for my writing minor, literary fiction was considered the end all be all of books. I found a lot of it frustrating and pretentious, and a lot of it made me experience the gap effect, because writing beautiful sentences always seemed to be prioritized over delivering on a premise.

Nevertheless, there’s something about the literary style of writing that brands things more deeply onto my brain. I frequently think about those books and stories I read in class. At their best, they provided deep insight into the human condition and how people think.

Station 11 is a literary book with a post-apocalyptic premise. And while the gap effect happened for me in a way it maybe wouldn’t have happened if Mandel had stuck to a more conventional literary “plot,” I still deeply appreciated this combination of genres. I adore books that have an interesting premise. What if you found out, after you were orphaned, that your parents had been part of a secret organization they never told you about? What if you lived in a castle, but were so poor you were barely surviving? What if you’d spent your whole life trying to please your relatives that you didn’t like, so that they would provide for you in your upcoming spinsterhood old age, and then discovered that you only had a year left to live? What if a witch’s curse turned you into an old lady?

Usually, my main gripe with literary fiction is that the premise is often so boring. Someone just kind-of wanders through an ordinary life and has deep beautiful thoughts about it all. So if you know of any other books like Station 11, a literary fiction book with an actually interesting/wild premise, please recommend!

Thought 3: Cleverness

I love cleverness in books, and I discovered something very clever in this book that I’d like to talk about. I don’t really feel like this is a spoiler, but maybe it kind-of is. I’m going to talk briefly about some things that happen in the middle of the book, but none of these things are supposed to be “surprises” of any kind.

One of the most interesting characters is this woman named Miranda. Miranda is the most insightful out of all the characters. She sees right through people, understanding when they’re putting on an act, or trying to be someone they’re not. She doesn’t really do anything with this information, just kind-of quietly observes, but through her, we as the reader get a lot of insight into the human condition.

Miranda is a deeply creative and introverted character, and she spends a lot of her time creating sci-fi comics. She tends to incorporate things from her real life into her comics. For instance, before Miranda’s marriage, she worked as an administrative assistant and drew comics in her down time. She loved the work environment, with its clean, quiet order, and vast windows. When she drew her comics, she incorporated this room into it, only with a view of a weird planet landscape instead of a view of Toronto. In fact, it’s hinted that the main character of her comics is, in some ways, a version of Miranda herself.

Miranda is from a little island between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland. When I looked up this island to see if it was a real place, I discovered that not only is it real, but the author, Emily St. John Mandel, is from there.

Still, it wasn’t until I discovered that Mandel worked as an administrative assistant as her day job that I realized that Mandel wrote herself into the book as Miranda. Mandel has deep insights into human behavior, but she wrote them as Miranda’s insights. Mandel incorporated things from her real life into her book, just as Miranda incorporated things from her real life into her comics. Mandel wrote herself into her book as Miranda, just as Miranda wrote herself into her comics.

I find this deeply clever and fascinating.

Those are my primary thoughts upon reading this book. I think it’s the sort of book that almost everyone will appreciate in these pandemic times. Of course it covers some very heavy topics, particularly an enormous amount of death, including murder and suicide. But there was nothing especially graphic. The book never tries to shock you, just make you think. It will never be my favorite book, but it is a book that I think most people will enjoy.

Giveaway!

Edit: Giveaway is now closed.

Hi everyone,

Today I’m giving away a copy of my book, The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea. Entering is simple: Just leave a comment below telling me your favorite Christmas/holiday tradition.

Or, just leave a comment. Any comment. Unless your comment specifically says “don’t enter my name into this giveaway,” I will enter your name into the giveaway.

The giveaway will close on Monday, December 14 at 3 pm PST.

If you want to increase your odds of winning, I’m also doing a giveaway on Facebook and on Instagram, so head over there and enter as well!

Good luck, and I hope you win! Heehee

You can order my book here.

You can find me on

Instagram: @emilytheduchess

Twitter: @emilysmucker

Facebook: facebook.com/emilysmuckerblog

YouTube: youtube.com/emilysmucker

Patreon: patreon.com/emilysmucker (This is where I post bonus blog posts, about more personal/controversial subjects, for a subscription fee of $1 a month [or more if you’re feeling generous]. I try to post twice a month. My latest two posts were titled My Thoughts on the Election and With Honor)

Sending My Book Into the Wide Wide World

On Tuesday, November 17, I woke up feeling grumpy. All these little things were going wrong in my life. My books still had not arrived, even though I’d told everyone that November 16 was my official release date. I’d been heavily exposed to Covid, and still didn’t have my test results back, so I was wearing a mask whenever I wasn’t in my bedroom. That got old really fast. And finally, Oregon was going into another lockdown. It made sense, with Thanksgiving coming up, but it also made life complicated.

I guess today is technically our Thanksgiving, I thought to myself. We were celebrating early, both because of the impending lockdown and because Steven had to work Thanksgiving day.

Then the verse “give thanks in all circumstances” popped into my head, and I felt a wave of guilt. I’d been grumpy and grouchy for days, not feeling very thankful at all.

Today I’ll choose to be thankful in all circumstances, I thought. And then, it turned out just like a Sunday School story. Once I decided to be thankful, everything started going right for once.

First, I got the news that I was Covid-free. Yay!

Then, I got the news that my books had arrived! I pulled on some clothes, and mom and I drove down to the warehouse in our terrible minivan. They had just been unloaded, all those boxes and boxes of books, sitting on a pallet and shrink-wrapped together.

Seeing my books for the first time was such an amazing feeling. I’d worked so hard for this. And here it was. A book. Tangible evidence that I’d created something, in all those hours I spent at my computer.

Then I went home and started packing up orders. I’d allowed people to pre-order the book, because I thought that would be more efficient. And it would have been if my books had arrived, say, even four or five days before my release date, as I thought they would. But since they arrived after the release date, I had a bit of a scramble, getting them all out.

I finally had to take a break so that I could help make Thanksgiving dinner.

Wednesday was pretty magical. I went to the post office and mailed about 1/3 of the pre-orders, as well as several full boxes to bookstores and distributers. “You have so many packages. You must own a small business,” said a woman in line behind me.

I explained that I’d published a book, and she, as well as the other gentleman in line behind me, were so excited for me. They told me all about the Mennonites they knew. And she ended up, several weeks later, buying two of my books and writing me a really sweet letter.

Now, 2020 has been a really hard year for me. I know this isn’t remotely unique in these times, but between Covid stuff, Dad’s accident, and other tragic events in the community, I just feel so fragile and worn down this fall. I clung to my book as the one good thing that was going to come out of 2020. And it has been really good and really happy. Still, it has also been a bit more than I could handle sometimes. And by Thursday, I’d overworked myself so thoroughly that I got sick.

This added a whole new layer of complication, because it was only 11 days since my Covid exposure. I didn’t think it was Covid, and yet I felt like I should quarantine just in case, so I had to try to trade favors with my family members to get them to take my books to the post office for me. And then Mom went to the warehouse again to fetch more books, and the terrible van died. It really was a dramatic day.

Still, with the help of my family, I managed to get caught up on orders by Saturday. I never got re-tested for Covid. I guess the testing system was overloaded that Friday, because I couldn’t get through to urgent care. But it really didn’t seem like Covid, and getting Covid 11 days after exposure is pretty rare. Besides, I’d just gotten a negative test. I concluded that I’d gotten sick by overworking myself, because that’s fairly typical for how my body works, unfortunately.

In the days since then, I’ve mostly felt grateful and overwhelmed. Somehow with website stuff, sending out orders, trying to figure out international shipping, giving up on international shipping and deciding that I need to figure out how to make a Kindle book instead, etc etc etc, I’ve felt like I just can’t keep up with the marketing things I intended to do. I’ve hardly done blog posts and Instagram posts. I haven’t done any giveaways yet. I haven’t done promotional livestreams or blog tours or anything like that.

However–and I’m so deeply grateful for this–so many people have stepped up and done all these little promotional things for me. Posting about my book on their Instagram stories and Facebook, so all I have to do is click “share” and I’ve done a little promotion right there. Chris Miller made me a book trailer. But mostly, people have been buying the book, and that means a lot. I mean, I know it’s pandemic times and a lot of people can’t afford to buy books right now and that’s totally understandable and fine.

But a lot of people have bought my book, and the idea that people care about my words enough to purchase them…well, wow. It’s just incredible, really.

So, thank you.

P.S. I called my book the One Good Thing of 2020, but that was kind-of a brain fart because, hello. Matt and Phoebe’s wedding. That was also a Good Thing of 2020. So I guess there were two good things, haha.

You can order my book here.

You can find me on

Instagram: @emilytheduchess

Twitter: @emilysmucker

Facebook: facebook.com/emilysmuckerblog

YouTube: youtube.com/emilysmucker

Patreon: patreon.com/emilysmucker (This is where I post bonus blog posts, about more personal/controversial subjects, for a subscription fee of $1 a month [or more if you’re feeling generous]. I try to post twice a month. My latest two posts were titled My Thoughts on the Election and With Honor)

The Story Behind The Story

Photo by Janane Nguyen Photography

Yesterday I got the news that my books have been printed. Soon they’ll be shipped to me, and then I’ll start packaging up and sending out the pre-orders. Yay!!!

Today, I thought I’d share the story behind the story. How did I come to write this book?

According to my Google Docs archives, I started it on March 8, 2019. At 1:01 pm EST, I opened a new document and typed:

“I’ll drive if you’ll give me this coffee,” I said.

There were about two inches left in my sister Amy’s paper cup of gas station coffee. It was cold. But I wasn’t drinking it for the coffee, I was drinking it for the caffeine. 

“Okay,” said Amy.

From The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea

But in my memory, I started the book six days before that, on a cold dark evening, as I was driving north on that long road that stretches between Lancaster City and Myerstown. I was thinking about death, and life, and love. I’d spent the last four days with some of my dearest friends as they grieved the loss of their cousin Ian, and I’d seen grief so up close, so raw.

And then, a song came on the radio. “Love Alone is Worth the Fight,” by Switchfoot.

I listened, and in my mind a movie played, of all the pain and heartache I’d witnessed in the past four days. They were hurt so deeply only because they’d loved Ian so much, and yet, it was all worth it to them. They never regretted loving him so much.

Because love alone is worth the fight.

I’d been traveling for six months at this point, and the whole time I’d had a vague idea that I would probably write a book about this experience. But up until now, the trip seemed like a random assortment of haphazard events, the most interesting of which I could never write about. (Yes, I did have some romantic drama. No, I didn’t write about any of it.)

But now, I had something. A vague ghost of a theme. Something that went a little deeper than “I did this crazy thing, and then I did that thing, and then I locked my keys in my car again.”

I’m going to start this book, I decided. And six days later, I did just that. Those exact words are in my book now, only on page 5 instead of page 1. (Also, with a couple of light edits. “My sister” was deleted, and the last “said” was changed to “agreed.”)

Despite the fact that my first words made it into the final draft relatively unscathed, most of that first draft wasn’t so lucky. I began it with only a vague idea that I had something deeper to say about my trip, but I didn’t have a firm grasp on the themes.

Partly just because I wasn’t even finished with the trip yet.

It’s kind-of funny, actually. When I returned to Oregon on June 8, 2019, I thought the trip was over. It hadn’t been a calendar year, but it had been a school year. By August I was starting on my second draft.

But then at the end of August, Grandpa had a stroke, and I flew to Minnesota to help care for him in his last days.

By this point I’d found the real opening line of my book: “When Justin shoveled dirt onto his son’s grave, it rattled like thunder.” (It was actually a line from my diary, originally.)

Because that’s how my story really began: not with asking my sister for her coffee, but with me, at a funeral, on the day I’d planned to leave Oregon. My cousin Justin’s son, little Asher Kai, was stillborn a week before his due date. He passed away on September 11, 2018, and his funeral was on September 15. I left for my trip on September 16.

A year later, on September 11, 2019, my 102-year-old grandpa passed away. His funeral was on September 15, and I left Minnesota and came back to Oregon on September 16.

This, I decided, was the real end of my trip, and I added two chapters accordingly.

Still, figuring out the themes didn’t come naturally to me. For that, I have to deeply thank my friend/editor Janessa Miller. I know that there can be all sorts of issues with hiring your friends, but I so needed my editor to also be my friend. Someone I could honestly and openly talk about my feelings with.

It was she who forced me to really look deeper into my story, not just as a series of disconnected events, but as events that I had feelings about. Events that shaped me, and changed me. (I’m an enneagram 5 and feelings are hard. Not because I don’t have them, but because it feels weird to talk about them. And also, I don’t always know I’m having feelings while I’m having them. I have to think about it for a while first.)

(Example: during my whole trip, I never realized that I was lonely. I didn’t discover it until I started writing about it, and sending drafts to Janessa, and hearing her say, “but how did that make you feel?”)

By the third draft, with the help of Janessa, I’d finally ironed out the themes.

The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea is a story of adventure, exploration, identity, heritage, community, faith, and loss. Follow Emily’s story as she embarks on the road trip of a lifetime, haphazardly finding her way through community after community in an attempt to figure out where she truly belongs.

From The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea

In total, I wrote five drafts of the book, although I’m not sure if the last two “count” as drafts.

The first draft was just a brain dump of events. It was also incomplete, since I “finished” it before my trip had technically “ended.” It took me five months to write, but I took it pretty slow.

The second draft was the hardest. It took me six months, and then I sent it to Janessa for her first round of edits.

The third draft took 2 1/2 months, and then I sent it to Janessa for a second round of edits.

The fourth draft took 22 days. It was just polishing up a lot of little things. Then I sent it to the proofreader, and I also sent bits of the book to all the people I’d written about, just in case they were uncomfortable with anything I’d said about them.

The fifth draft, which was just correcting all the little things the proofreader had found and adjusting a few things people had asked me to change, took 15 days.

And then, on August 8, 2020, it was done!

That is the story behind the story of my book, The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea. Sometime soon I’d like to tell the story behind the cover. And also, I’d like to tell my self-publishing story. So there are two future blog posts you can look forward to.

***

Pre-order My Book Here

Find Me On

Instagram: @emilytheduchess

Twitter: @emilysmucker

Facebook: facebook.com/emilysmuckerblog

YouTube: youtube.com/emilysmucker

Patreon: patreon.com/emilysmucker (This is where I post bonus blog posts, about more personal/controversial subjects, for a subscription fee of $1 a month [or more if you’re feeling generous]. I try to post twice a month. My latest two posts were titled Thank You, and Chapter 1 of The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea. I think I’ll write about the election next, if I’m brave enough!)

The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea

Yes. It’s true.

After months of delays, I finally have a release date for my book: November 16, 2020. You can pre-order it now on our brand new website.

It’s been a journey, but honestly, this book is one of the greatest achievements of my life. I’ve never, ever done a project like this. (It was completely different from writing my first book, which I might elaborate on in a future blog post).

Anyway, here is the back cover summary:

When Emily Smucker decided to spend a year traveling around the United States, living in a different Mennonite community every month, the world seemed exciting and limitless. She was ready to find her place in the world and begin her career as a freelance writer and editor.

Emily’s trip took many surprising twists and turns: visiting an Amish church in Ohio, swapping travel stories with homeless people in Delaware, and attending far more funerals than she expected. But through the adventure and excitement as well as loss and loneliness, Emily clung to her faith, experiencing a deep connection with her Heavenly Father.

The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea is a story of adventure, exploration, identity, heritage, community, faith, and loss. Follow Emily’s story as she embarks on the road trip of a lifetime, haphazardly finding her way through community after community in an attempt to figure out where she truly belongs.

***

Thank you guys for following along with me on my journey. I appreciate you endlessly.

The Bookish Tag (A Video)

MVI_4701_Moment

My blog has been sorely neglected during the month of May. Honestly I’ve just wanted to hide in a hole this month. And it just gets worse and worse. When I sit down to write, I can’t even express my feelings. I am just sickened at George Floyd’s death, and everything that caused it: the racial injustice in our country, and the violent police systems.

I don’t even have blog posts inside me right now. I’m sorry.

What I do have is this video that I filmed over a month ago and never uploaded because our internet couldn’t handle it. (Seriously, after 48 hours it wasn’t even halfway uploaded, and I gave up.) But today I managed to fix the problem by using the hotspot in Mom’s writing cabin.

Here’s the story behind the video: After my week of book-related posts last fall, Rachel Troyer of The Striped Pineapple messaged me saying she enjoyed it, and perhaps she’d do a bookweek herself. I told her that if she did so, I’d write up a “tag” of book-related questions for her to answer on her blog.

Rachel did the tag, and then Esther at Shasta’s Fog did the tag, and it looked like so much fun that I decided to do the tag too. Yes, I answered my own questions. Ha. But I did it via video, so that you could actually see the books I was referring to. (Subsequently Eden at The Happy Hedgehog did it too, but I didn’t mention her in the video because when I filmed it she hadn’t done so yet!)

Anyway, enjoy the video! And if you want to answer the questions in your own blog, video, or even in the comments, I’d love it! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the blogs of everyone who has done the tag.