Archive for January, 2010

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Teaser Tues-Wednes-day

January 27, 2010

E.M. Forster’s Howards End has been a tremendous read. Obviously, since you haven’t heard much about it here, I have been reading it rather slowly. It’s strange, actually. I remember flying through A Room with a View. There’s just something about the prose and the characters in this book that makes me want to read every paragraph twice. In fact, a few days ago, as I was getting off the bus, the driver asked me how I was enjoying my book. He said that he noticed my reading because I “seemed really into it.” That’s how I feel whenever I open this book–entirely absorbed.

Before I read my first Forster book, I wasn’t really sure what his writing was like. So here’s a little bit of a taste in case you may be wondering as well.

It did not seem so difficult. She need trouble him with no gift of her own. She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man. Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

You can see why it might take a while to read this book. How many times does that paragraph need to be read before it makes sense? But when it does, it is so beautiful!

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Ghosts by Edwidge Danticat

January 25, 2010

Until she won the “Genius” grant last year, I had never heard of Edwidge Danticat. (I know.) I thought she sounded like a great author, and a friend of mine who works in Haiti highly recommended her writing. The tragedy last week made me want to read her even more because I wanted to learn about the country’s culture and people. I was already pretty familiar with the everyday tragedies that occurred in Haiti long before the earthquake struck, but I had never read anything written by people who were actually Haitian. Luckily, Eva’s new blog template pointed me to one of Danticat’s short stories, Ghosts. It’s available online, but I fished out my old copy of The New Yorker issue. I’m so glad I did–this story is remarkably well written. It’s too bad that I didn’t give this story a try when I first read the rest of the issue in November 2008. What made me skip over it, I wonder?

The story focuses on Pascal, a young Haitian growing up in one of the most violent neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince. He isn’t interesting in joining the neighborhood gang, but that seems to only make his life more difficult. Danticat tells Pascal’s story in such a matter of fact, straightforward way, that I found myself accidentally slipping into thinking that I was reading another one of The New Yorker’s typical narrative nonfiction pieces, and that this was an actual story of an actual boy that a journalist met in Haiti. That’s how realistic these characters are! If you’re looking for a good introduction to Danticat (that’s also online for free), this would definitely be the place to start. I noticed that Danticat wrote the introduction to my copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Now I’m even more excited to read that.

This week, Danticat has written a rather emotional story for The New Yorker about the earthquake. I haven’t it yet, as I’m waiting for my issue to arrive in the mail. If you are intrigued, you can read it online or buy a copy of this week’s issue. If you poke around that site, you’ll also find the transcript of an online talk she did with the magazine today. All really interesting stuff.

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North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

January 13, 2010

Elizabeth Gaskell is everywhere these days. The sequel to Cranford is on Masterpiece Theatre, she swept through the blogs a few months ago on her Classics Circuit tour, and now here she is, making her first appearance on my reading list. She deserves the hype. North and South surprised me because it was my ideal Victorian novel: an interesting cast of characters, a focus on the social issues of the era, an intriguing romance, and–this is what is most unique–a strong, intelligent, female character.

North and South follows the life of Margaret, whose family is suddenly required to leave their rural home in the South of England and relocate to an industrial city in the North of England. The change of scenery requires a great deal of adjustment, which isn’t made any easier by an impending worker’s strike, which threatens to bring the town to a standstill. Whose side will Margaret take in the battle between mill owners and workers? How will her views and opinions change as she becomes accustomed to life in the North? And how will her views and opinions change the people she meets? These are the questions that Gaskell tackles.

There are so many things that I loved about this novel, but I most appreciated the character of Margaret. Who knew that hidden in the backlist of great British authors, there existed a Victorian writer whose prose was as great at Dickens but who wrote female characters who broke the archetype? Margaret is strong and independent. Even if she does spend a huge amount of time doing what people expect of a young, unmarried woman in the 1800s, her inner thoughts and outer words see that she has a much deeper character than I ever imagined. I love how she speaks her mind when arguing with Mr Thornton, one of the mill owners in town. She surprises him by her logic, her persistence, and her flare for rhetoric. Margaret’s private thoughts reveal that she is not simply ready to be the perfect Victorian woman. For example, in this passage, Margaret expresses how she feels after her father has left on a trip:

“It was astonishing, almost stunning, to feel herself so much at liberty; no one depending on her for her cheering care, if not for positive happiness; no invalid to plan and think for; she might be idle, and silent, and forgetful, — and what seemed worth more than all the other privileges–she might be unhappy if she liked. For months past, all her own personal cares and troubles had had to be stuffed away into a dark cupboard; but now she had leisure to take them out, and mourn over them, and study their nature, and seek the true method of subduing them into the elements of peace.”

Gaskell’s Margaret isn’t the Victorian woman that we read of so often. She is not a pillar of grace and perfection, content to carry the world on her shoulders. Instead, she recognizes the stress and difficulty of being expected to behave with perfection constantly. Later in the book, it comes as no surprise when Margaret announces that she “took her life into her own hands.” Indeed, it is only when she does so that she finds true happiness. This is really the ultimate consequence of the opinion she thinks over while her father is away.

One small note: I’ve read multiple times that people feel as if North and South is just a relocated version of Pride and Prejudice, because the main love story is somewhat similar: girl meets boy, girl hates boy, boy’s proposal is rejected by girl, girl eventually realizes her wrong and marries boy. My main problem with this comparison is two-fold: 1) Austen certainly did not invent this sort of love story and 2) I found the love story to be a much smaller part of this novel than it is in Pride and Prejudice. North and South has so many other plot lines and themes: the tension between workers and mill owners, the plight of the poor during the industrial revolution, the differences and similarities between rural and urban life, and the moral conundrum of choosing between telling lies and saving family members, among others. Of course, Pride and Prejudice also has many layers of social concern in the novel, but they were quite different than those found in North and South.

I’m thrilled to discover that I now have several of Gaskell’s novels to read. I’m glad that I have a copy of Cranford waiting for me on my bookshelf.

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A few random bookish thoughts

January 10, 2010

1. Well I must admit that I finished North and South ages ago, so that sidebar is definitely not current. I put off writing a review of it at first, because I wanted to read the introduction. Then, I wanted to copy out some notes in my journal about quotes that I flagged. Then, well I ran out of excuses. My main problem is that this book really floored me–I loved it way more than I expected to. I just can’t find the words to express everything that made it such a fantastic book, so I’ve been intimidated by the review.

2. So I what am I reading right now? For a while, it was the Wharton stories, then I read a quick thriller by “Richard Castle,” based on the TV series, Castle. I know that sounds corny, but it truth it was a fun book to read while I had a stuffy nose and it was ten degrees outside. (Also, I love the show, and the premise of a fake author writing a real book that made it to the NYTimes bestseller list intrigued me.) I keep looking at The Name of the Rose, and thinking about picking that up. But at this point, I think that I will need to start from the beginning again, even though I’m about 60% of the way through! This time I will keep notes on characters’ names. I’m currently rushing through the latest Rhys Bowen mystery–Royal Flush. I picked that up today because I was in the mood for British royalty.

3. Why was I in that mood? All because of a fantastic film that I saw last night called The Young Victoria. Everyone should rush out and see this movie before it leaves theaters! Even though I consider myself to be quite up-to-speed on all things Victorian, I must admit that my image of Queen Victoria was entirely based on her constant state of mourning and her love of all things proper. I had never stopped to consider what she might have been like in her twenties when she fell in love with the husband she missed so much. Very well acted, with great scenery.

4. I have a couple of books on their way to me–both for February group reads. One is Howard’s End, for my real life book club, and the other is Their Eyes Were Watching God for the next Classics Circuit. I’m looking forward to both of them, but I’m a bit stressed about figuring out how to balance my reading time so that I finish them in time. So that’s what’s coming up here.

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The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

January 8, 2010

This post is part of the Edith Wharton Classics Circuit. You should check out the list of all the stops that Edith will be making on her blog tour.

Since it’s still fairly early in the classics circuit for Edith Wharton, a few biographical details might be informative. She lead quite the interesting life; a fact that I had forgotten. She was born in 1862 in New York City to an aristocratic family. She married at the age of twenty-three, but got a divorce in 1913. After her divorce, she moved to France. During the First World War, she became very active in the war relief effort and founded a charity for refugees, among other things. Her service actually earned her a spot as a Cheavlier of the Legion of Honor, one of France’s highest merits! She lived the rest of her life in France until her death in 1937. So she certainly did live during interesting and tumultuous times. I’m sure that we will learn more about her life in future tour stops, but it’s helpful for a context to her stories.

This collection of short stories, which span from 1891-1934, are selected and introduced by Roxana Robinson. They were not part of a collection published during Wharton’s lifetime. Instead, these stories were collected together because they show the development of Wharton as a writer and because they focus on New York City and its society. I felt that they really worked well as a collection. I could see Wharton’s style develop as I read them, and each story properly fit in its place.

These stories were the first time that I have encountered Wharton writing about the less privileged classes. In the other Wharton novels that I have read (all of which I have loved–I once considered her my favorite author), she typically concerns herself with the flaws in the upper classes. There were several stories, such as Mrs Manstey’s View and That Good May Come , that seriously focus on the thoughts and difficulties of the working class. Wharton does a remarkable job portraying these characters, and I hope that I can find one of her novels that explores similar themes.

I was immensely impressed with Robinson’s introduction to this book. While I wouldn’t recommend you read it before the stories, the insights that Robinson provides into the stories and their relation to Wharton’s life are invaluable reading after finishing the stories. In fact, I read the introduction in chunks, usually reading different sections as I finished certain stories. After finishing the introduction, I felt like I had just taken a crash course in literary criticism about Edith Wharton!

Anyone who is interested in getting a taste of Wharton’s writing but who is hesitant to commit to one of her longer novels should find this book a helpful introduction. These stories are filled with Wharton’s trademark social insights and skillful prose, but they are perhaps more accessible to the modern reader.To provide a sense of Wharton’s writing style, this post ends with a few sentences from one of my favorite stories in the collection, The Journey. This is such a haunting story. A woman is on a long train ride with her ailing husband. As they travel, she reminisces about their relationship.

A year ago their pulses had beat to one robust measure; both had the same prodigal confidence in an exhaustless future. Now their energies no longer kept step: hers still bounded ahead in life, preempting unclaimed regions of hope and activity, while his lagged behind, vainly struggling to overtake her.