Introducing the Vanity Fair Readalong

vanityfairreadalongVanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery has been on my to-read list for seven or so years. The novel was assigned as required reading in high school for the honors English class (it’s on the list of 101 Great Books for College-Bound Readers, after all), but I was too busy watching classic films in gifted and talented English to bother reading it before I went off to college. Thackery’s novel is now on my Classics Club list — all 731 pages of it!

When I floated around the idea of hosting a readalong at the end of last year, Thackery’s novel was the one most people said they would be up for reading with company. So, here I am offering up a readalong to help us all cross this chunkster of a book off our to-read lists.

Honestly, I don’t know much about the book. The novel was originally published in a series of installments in 1847–48 and satirized society in early nineteenth century Britain. According to GoodReads, the novel features Becky Sharp, who is “scorned for her lack of money and breeding. Becky must use all her wit, charm and considerable sex appeal to escape her drab destiny as a governess. From London’s ballrooms to the battlefields of Waterloo, the bewitching Becky works her wiles on a gallery of memorable characters, including her lecherous employer, Sir Pitt, his rich sister, Miss Crawley, and Pitt’s dashing son, Rawdon, the first of Becky’s misguided sexual entanglements”.

The novel is, according to the subtitle, without a hero but sounds reminiscent of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. Two novels I dreaded only to end up loving. We’ll see if the same holds true for Thackery’s book and whether or not my comparison is fair.

Since the novel is so long, I’ve divided the novel into three sections roughly twenty-two chapters long and spread the check-ins over two months. Obviously, you don’t have to read at the same pace — maybe you’ll fall in love with the novel and race to the end. This is just when I’ll be posting my thoughts (and maybe some questions) with places for you to link up to your own thoughts.

  • Chapter 1 – end of Chapter 22 (Wednesday, March 25)
  • Chapter 23 – end of Chapter 44 (Wednesday, April 15)
  • Chapter 45 – end of Chapter 67 (Wednesday, April 29)

Feel free to use the button at right. (You can grab a direct link to the icon here.) I’ll also so be using #vfalong on twitter when I remember that I have one.

So, you’re in, right? Link up below: (If you don’t have a url, use this blog’s to sign up.)

Sunday Salon: Currently in March

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Wintering | New England was slammed by four terrible winter storms in three weeks so I’ve been “wintering” a lot – staying inside, drinking hot tea, working from home, and reading or watching television. Getting anywhere has been next to impossible thanks to an often closed public transit network, but I did manage to go cross-country skiing twice and snowshoeing once so all this snow hasn’t been a total loss.

Visiting | The newly renovated second floor of my public library opened last weekend. I missed the grand opening and tours due to an earlier commitment, but I did stop by after work one day and, oh my word, is it beautiful. The new children’s library is so bright and colorful, and the teen room actually makes me wish I was in high school again so I could hang out there. The picture above is of the teen room, but you can see more detailed photographs here and get a better sense of how drastic the changes were. So long drab 1970s, protest architecture!

Reading | I’m slowly but surely making my way through Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge, which follows a Hungarian Jew named Andras Lévi to architecture school in Paris in the years before Hitler’s invasion of France. Andras becomes involved in an affair with an older woman, and…that’s as far as I’ve gotten. I also started Berlin Noir by the British author Philip Kerr. This collection of detective novels set in 1930s Germany includes March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem.

Listening | Unfortunately, none of the audiobooks I have loaded on my iPod are holding my attention. I’ve jumped from The Iliad by Homer (read by Stanley Lombardo and Susan Sarandon) to The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (read by Jenna Lamia and Adepero Oduye) to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (read by Jim Dale). Yet nothing has kept me enthralled for more than an hour or two (yes, even Harry Potter!). The podcast “Serial” earned a lot of buzz towards the end of 2014, and listening to it instead of audiobooks has opened up a bit of a rabbit hole in my listening — “Freakonomics”, “ShondaLand Revealed”, “Stuff You Missed in History Class”, and “The History of Rome”. Some informative; some not so much.

Participating | March is the final month of the TBR Double Dog Dare. I haven’t made as much progress on clearing off my shelves as I would have liked. Only seven of the twenty books I’ve read have come from my (physical) shelves and the rest have either been audiobooks or for my book club(s). Knowing full well that I’ve scaled back my reading in the past two months, I’d like to hit a total of ten physical books read by the end of the March before I allow myself to take home library books again.

Anticipating | Spring. Or, the end of the TBR Double Dog Dare so I can explore the second floor of the library. I’ll also be unveiling readalong plans for Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery later in the week so keep a lookout for it!

The Sunday Salon:

The Sunday Salon.com The Sunday Salon encourages bloggers to get together –at their separate desks, in their own particular time zones– every Sunday and read. And blog about their reading. And comment on one another’s blogs. Salon participants are encouraged to blog about their time spent reading, pages read, information about current reading, discuss a reaction to a book, state what they plan to read the following week, or make suggestions for a group read.

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

Subtitled “In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan”, Nordberg’s book introduces readers to families who have made the decision to raise their daughters as bacha posh (“dressed up like a boy” in Dari). These young girls are raised as boys and, therefore, allowed to travel freely outside the home, attend school, work, and play with other children unlike females of all ages.

As Nordberg explains, because Afghanistan is a patriarchal society and biology is poorly understood, women who fail to produce male children are, at best, criticized and pitied or, at worst, abused and divorced. Some women such as Azita, a female member of Afghanistan’s parliament, raise their youngest daughter as bacha posh in order to save face in their community or to provide their elder daughters with protection to and from school. Others do so because of a belief in a particular strain of magic, which Afghanistan’s obstetricians and mullahs equally support, remaining from the country’s history with Zoroastrianism that says a daughter raised bacha posh will cause the next child to be a boy.

While there are no statistics to explain how wide spread this unique phenomenon is in Afghanistan, Nordberg managed to meet with multiple girls, women, and mothers of varying ages who were either raised bacha posh or are raising their own daughters as boys through the life cycle of a typical Afghani female. Mehran, Azita’s daughter, seems to revel in her freedom as a bacha posh; she plays games with unrelated, male children in the neighborhood and is much louder and freer with her opinions than her three older sisters are allowed to be.

However, she is adamant that she is a boy rather than a girl leaving both Nordberg and the reader to wonder if Mehran will struggle with the transition back to womanhood as much as Zahra, a teenager who rejects her mother’s attempts to force her to wear a hijab, continues to wear clothing designated as male, and categorically loathes the parts of her body that are decidedly not male.

If Zahra is transgender, her childhood as bacha posh does not transition onto to adulthood. She is expected to conform to the constrictive standards for young women now that she has reached puberty, and her community, which like others did not comment on her bacha posh childhood, has begun to exclude her and tarnish her reputation possibly ruining her changes of making an advantageous marriage.

However, even if Zahra decides she is cisgender or her father refuses to continue to support her as a bacha posh, she might follow in the footsteps of Shukria and struggle to adjust marriage and motherhood after living twenty years as a man. Time as bacha posh provided Shukria with access to an education allowing her to support her family after her marriage, but I found it incredibly telling that Shukria is adamant that she would not allow her two daughters to be raised as bacha posh because of how confusing the transition back to girlhood can be. After all, once you get a taste of freedom, it is impossible to willingly give it up.

This is one of the most humanizing books on Afghanistan I have had the pleasure of reading. Nordberg makes connections here and there between the experiences of Afghani women to those in Western history (e.g. Joan of Arc and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge), but she largely removes her own commentary from the book and allows her interviewees to present their own stories and experiences. The women and bacha posh in her book are not the nameless, shapeless blobs in burqas found in so many other books on the region. Rather, they are individuals with contradictory ideals and beliefs.

Nordberg’s book is also one of the few on the region that addresses gender issues without heavy-handed preaching. It would have been easy to glorify bacha posh as resistance as the subtitle suggests, but Nordberg moved her examination of this phenomenon beyond childhood to show how this “solution” to the forces of patriarchy can be both a saving grace and have lasting consequences. Zahra and Shukria are obviously extremes, but Nordberg also explains how there are still “tells” amongst the most well-adjusted, former bacha posh. Namely, these women forget to avert their eyes around men and carry themselves differently, which can cause them to be labeled as jezebels and, therefore, tarnish their and their family’s reputation.

Furthermore, can this truly be perceived as resistance if bacha posh are expected to immediately conform to expectations placed upon their mothers and sisters as soon as they reach puberty? If teachers and community members are willing to accept a child’s gender based solely on appearance with commentary or opposition until that child reaches puberty? If fathers such as those profiled in the book are only willing to interact with or provide opportunities to their bacha posh child rather than their female children?

Certainly, the book suggests that American society has a long way to go on its acceptance of gender fluidity, but wouldn’t resistance be allowing children like Zahra to continue to present themselves as males or engage in male-only activities with the blessing of their mother, father, and extended families? More than enough food for thought, no? Exactly how I like my nonfiction books to be.

Book Mentioned:

  • Nordberg, Jenny. The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan. New York: Crown, 2014. Print. 350 pgs. ISBN: 9780307952493. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Crown. Retrieved: February 26, 2015.

The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

thefarmOut of the blue, Daniel receives a phone call from his father in Sweden informing him that his mother has been committed to a mental hospital. According to Daniel’s father, his mother, Tilde, has begun to imagine everything from a seemingly innocuous encounter with an elk to accusing the local community leader of harming his adopted, teenage daughter.

Daniel immediately books a flight to Sweden borrowing money from his same-sex partner — whom he has kept secret from his parents for years despite them living together in London — and planning to spend an extended period of time helping his mother patch her suddenly fragile mental health back together.

However, before he can board his flight to Sweden from Heathrow, Daniel receives a phone call from his mother informing him that his father is a liar and is working in cahoots with the community to cover up the crimes inflicted upon this poor girl. Torn between his parents but refusing to believe the woman who raised him is now crazy, Daniel agrees to listen to his mother’s story and decide whom to believe and whom to trust.

This psychological thriller alternates between Tilde and Daniel’s point of views as Tilde tries to sway her son’s understanding of events and Daniel tries to determine what is truth, lie, or imagination. The reader faces the same dilemma — believe Tilde or dismiss her story just as her husband has done. And Smith never allows one side of the story to hold sway for long introducing past events — namely, the story of Tilde and her closest friend during her childhood — to unsettle the so-called truth the reader has latched onto.

I’m rather surprised by all the criticism for this novel, which seems to largely stem from comparisons to Smith’s Child 44. After nearly six years, I’ve come to associate Smith’s name with suspenseful, quality writing rather than particulars about his previous novel and I found this novel supported rather disputed this association.

A deeply engrossing book, I found myself listening to the audiobook even after I arrived home from work in the evening. I’m so pleased two narrators were used to narrate the audiobook — James Langton as Daniel and Suzanne Toren as Tilde — because, otherwise, I’m afraid I might have struggled to keep the narration straight. Two narrators also highlighted the hesitation and lack of truth on either side of the conversations between Daniel and Tilde.

Book Mentioned:

  • Smith, Tom Rob. The Farm. Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audio, 2014. Audiobook. 9 hours, 24 minutes. ISBN: 9781478901358. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Blackstone Audio. Retrieved: January 28, 2015.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

wehavealwayslivedA trip to the grocery store and the library in the village near her home causes eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood, also known as Merricat, such anxiety that she has to follow a strict routine visiting the grocer, the library, and Stella’s for a cup of coffee before she starts home only on Fridays and Tuesdays.

Pride prevents Mary Katherine from skipping her stop at Stella’s, although the stop is unnecessary, and pride prevents her from running home when one of the residents begins to quiz her on her sister, Constance, suggesting the siblings and their frail Uncle Julian should pack up and leave the Blackwood family home.

The reason? Constance Blackwood was suspected and, later, acquitted of poisoning her parents, younger brother, aunt, and Uncle Julian by putting arsenic in the sugar bowl. Mary Katherine survived because she was sent to her room without supper; Constance survived because she eats neither berries nor sugar. Yet suspicion casts a long shadow over the family, and few in town are willing to visit the home and associate with the young women. The arrival of their cousin, Charles, unsettles both the sisters and the village, and Merricat is determined to protect her sister at all costs.

I would not have expected a crime novel to have such a dreamy feeling to it. Creepy, yes, but the tone taken in this novel places in a rather odd position between crime novel and psychological thriller. On the very first page, Mary Katherine introduces herself, informs the reader that she is a fan of Amanita phalloides (the death-cap mushroom), and states in a matter of fact manner that everyone else in her family beside her sister is dead. She appears to be cold, distant coping with this loss and the marginalization of her family by created a new, more structured order.

Yet there is something innocent about her presentation of the villagers and her attachment to her cat, Jonas; something introspective and whimsical about the way she views her life and hammers expensive family heirlooms to trees. It is easy to fall right in line with Mary Katherine’s psychosis, and I found myself loathing the villagers who attempted to visit her home and reviling the simple beauties and joys of her reclusive life.

And then, of course, the ending — I will refrain from spoilers but I will state that I felt so unsettled by this novel that it took me some time to dive into another one. Jackson touches on humanity — the way people cope with loss, the ability of a mob to form despite evidence to the country — that I was loathe to pick up another novel and, inevitably and unfairly, compare the two authors.

Note: The cover at right is of the Penguin Modern Classics edition. My copy, which I borrowed from the public library, had a rather drab solid red cover without lettering.

Book Mentioned:

  • Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Cutchogue, New York: Buccaneer Books, 1990. Originally published 1962. Print. 214 pgs. ISBN: 9780899685328. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Penguin Modern Classics. Retrieved: January 4, 2015.