NYTBR: 2 September 2012 (Pile of Unread Magazines Growing Again, Aaargh!)

Here’s the short list of most interesting reviews (or, reviews that made self most excited to read the books being reviewed):

  1. Dominique Browning’s review of Tan Twan Eng’s novel, The Garden of Evening Mists.  Very smart of Ms. Browning to begin her review with a description of “the mesmerizing allure of a classic Japanese garden” —  such is self’s addiction to all things Japanese, and to all things having to do with gardening, that the mere mention of “classic Japanese garden” has self all agog with excitement.
  2. Alexander Rose’s review of Ben MacIntyre’s latest book, Double Cross:  The True Story of the D-Day Spies (Self has a confession to make:  all a reviewer has to do is mention Ben MacIntyre, and self is sooo there.  She’s read three of his books, and even taught one in Foothill English 1B, for heaven’s sake!)
  3. Randy Boyagoda’s review of Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox and the Creation of a Myth, by Katherine Frank.  He writes self’s favorite kind of review:  the one that begins with quotes from the author whose book is being reviewed.  Self appreciates the generosity of the reviewer to a fellow writer.  So, in the first paragraph of his review, Boyagoda uses not one, not two, but three quotes from the esteemed Ms. Frank.  And each one is pretty good, though this is self’s favorite:  “That’s his secret:  Crusoe is Anyone and Everyone.  He is you and he is me.”
  4. Judith Martin’s review of The Age of Desire, by Jennie Fields.  First of all, it has self feeling so much empathy for the book’s subject, the author Edith Wharton.  In a classic paragraph, Ms. Martin writes:  “There could hardly be a more apt theme for a novel of manners than the struggle of a prominent and respectable lady to disguise her inflamed feelings in order to meet the conventions of society.  It is not only her frantic yearning for her lover that is portrayed here, but the fallout expressed in her irritation with her husband and her editorial assistant for unknowingly getting in the way.”  Very well-written review.
  5. Marilyn Stasio’s column:  Stasio always makes self want to read the mysteries she reviews, and in this case self is particularly excited to read these two:  Ruth Rendell’s latest, The St. Zita Society (Self never knew, until she read Stasio’s column this afternoon, that Ms. Rendell was a “responsible member of Parliament”!), and Anne Perry’s latest, A Sunless Sea (Great title, Ms. Perry!)
  6. And finally, bravo to Martin Amis, for making self remember that her first encounter with Anthony Burgess was a film review in Newsweek of A Clockwork Orange.  There was a picture accompanying the review, which showed Malcolm McDowell in his fiendish operatic make-up, and wearing a top hat.  And she couldn’t wait to see the movie, though she was much too young to gain admittance.  Years later, when she saw it, she was scarred.  And also elated.  Both those feelings at once.  Well, perhaps she was more elated.  For years afterward, she couldn’t get the voice of Malcolm McDowell, turning rhapsodic over “good old Ludwig van,” out of her head.  She nearly named Sole Fruit of Her Loins Ludwig van.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Monday Morning: Edith Wharton, By Way of Jonathan Franzen

It is early on Monday morning, the next to the last Monday of May 2012.

Self has decided that she will stay home most of the day —  until, that is, her appointment with her dentist.

A tooth fell out on Friday —  can you imagine?  She wasn’t even chewing.

She’s making great inroads in her pile of stuff, though!  At least, the New Yorkers she’s reading now are only three months old!

In the New Yorker double issue of February 13 & 20, she finds an essay by Jonathan Franzen on the subject of Edith Wharton.  This is a matter of no small interest.  Last July, when self was cooling her heels in Bacolod, she had the House of Mirth with her.  Self doesn’t ever remember reading Wharton before (There are huge gaps in her knowledge:  For instance, it wasn’t until she was 25 and enrolled at Stanford University that she read Moby Dick)

Anyhoo, reading Wharton in Bacolod was an experience like no other (the way reading Saramago’s The Cave in December in Bacolod was like no other.  The way reading Tom McCarthy’s Remainder in March in Bacolod was like no other.  The way —  Eeeeek!  Self, get a grip!!)

Self had insomnia, Lily Bart in the House of Mirth had insomnia, it was the insomnia pity party all around! (In the meantime, there was the pretty laundry lady at L’Fisher Chalet who kept visiting self in her room every three days, to tell self she was so fat)

So, FINALLY, here we are at Jonathan Franzen’s essay.  The title of the essay is “A Rooting Interest:  Edith Wharton and the Problems of Sympathy.”

The purport of the article seems to be that Edith Wharton was a snob.  Not only that, she was a rich snob.  Here’s Franzen:

To be rich like Wharton may be what all of us secretly or not so secretly want, but privilege like hers isn’t easy to like; it puts her at a moral disadvantage.

Wharton lived in a “rich-person” precinct, indulged “her passion for gardens and interior decoration,” toured “Europe endlessly in hired yachts or chauffered cars,” and hobnobbed “with the powerful and the famous.” Her one irredeemable disadvantage was the fact that “she wasn’t pretty.”

So she settled down to 28 years of a sex-less marriage to Teddy Wharton.

Her only sexual relationship was with a “bisexual journalist and serial two-timer,” when she was “in her late forties.”

Enough, Mr. Franzen, enough!  Self thinks that none of these salient facts have anything to do with the way reading House of Mirth would reduce self to a pile of quivering jello, all the while she was imbibing Bacolod rum at the Negros Museum Café!  At the end of every day, self would imagine that she was Gillian Anderson, who played Lily Bart in the movie, wandering the back streets of Bacolod (standing in for New York:  self knows that is quite a stretch), heading for her demeaning job at a hat factory.

Self will proceed:

“In her forties,” Wharton “finally battled free of the deadness of her marriage and became a bestselling author; Teddy responded by spirallling into mental illness and embezzling a good part of her inheritance.”

Ugh.  Ugh.  Ugh.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Things Read, Wee Hours of July 10, 2011

Finished The House of Mirth.  The writing became refreshingly clean.  Self found herself crying unexpectedly.  Not as hard as she did when she read Janet Lewis’ remarkable The Wife of Martin Guerre (standing in her kitchen in Fremont, CA:  a sob-fest to end all sob-fests, while her not-even-three-year-old son played unconcernedly at her feet), but nevertheless it was the first time in years that self had ever cried while reading a book.

Began Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader.  She does not know how Schlink pulled it off, writing about this extremely difficult subject.  But oh, how powerfully he inhabits the point of view of the narrator, who at the beginning of the novel is 15.

She’s been re-reading the pieces of a student in a recently concluded UCLA Extension writing class, who has decided to apply to a Creative Writing Program, and for whom self has agreed to write a letter of recommendation.

She continued reading the signed copy of Rosebud and Other Stories by Wakako Yamauchi, edited by Lillian Howan and published by the University of Hawaii.

She has so many stories saved up for dear blog readers!  But now is not yet the time.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Lily Bart, Insomniac

Almost to the end of The House of Mirth.  What a novel it has turned out to be!  If only Wharton’s writing hadn’t been so florid.  In certain passages, the sentences are as full of cornucopia as a baroque cathedral.

Still, self loves the characters.  And Lily Bart’s gradual degradation is very moving.

Towards the end, Lily’s love for Selden has such clarity.  It is the only clear thing in a life filled with confusing messages and rationalizations.

That a beautiful woman should be forced to earn her own keep is a travesty (or, it was in Wharton’s time.  No, perhaps in an earlier generation’s time as well.  Self remembers Dearest Mum saying, more than once, that self’s grandmother didn’t think Dearest Mum’s younger sister needed to go to college because she was so beautiful, she was sure to marry well.  That it turned out all tragically wrong for self’s aunt is further proof that Wharton’s steely unsentimentality about a woman’s place in society is still resonant today).

Here is poor Lily Bart, forced to make a living by working at a hat-making factory:

She began to rip the spangles from the frame, listening absently to the buzz of talk which rose and fell with the coming and going of Miss Haines’ active figure.  The air was closer than usual, because Miss Haines, who had a cold, had not allowed a window to be opened even during the noon recess; and Lily’s head was so heavy with the weight of a sleepless night that the chatter of her companions had the incoherence of a dream.

Self, searching around for a suitable image to illustrate Ms. Bart’s deepening insomnia, found this photograph of window shades:

Window Shades, Bacolod, One Afternoon in July

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

“Fatally Poor and Dingy”

Self is reading Edith Wharton, for the first time in many years.  The book is The House of Mirth, and self vaguely recalls a movie starring Gillian Anderson.

So here she is, on p. 93 of the Everyman’s Classic edition, and the passages read almost like a “what-not-to-do-when-entering-upper-class-social-circles” primer of sorts.

  • To Miss Bart, as to her mother, acquiescence in dinginess was evidence of stupidity; and there where moments when, in the consciousness of her own power to look and to be so exactly what the occasion required, she almost felt that other girls were plain and inferior from choice.
  • . . .  it is almost as stupid to let your clothes betray that you know you are ugly as to have them proclaim that you think you are beautiful.
  • She . . .  was aware of Miss Farish’s habit of ascribing her own delicacies of feeling to the persons least likely to be encumbered by them.
  • The cleverest girl may miscalculate where her own interests are concerned, may yield too much at one moment and withdraw too far at the next:  it takes a mother’s unerring vigilance and foresight to land her daughters safely in the arms of wealth and suitability.

(Upon performing a search of the movie adaptation, self learns that Dan Akroyd plays a sleazy lecher named Guy Treanor.  Eric Stoltz plays The Point of View, Lawrence Selden.  She still doesn’t know what to make of Gillian Anderson as the Lily Bart character, as Gillian seems way too intelligent and independent)

P. S.  In this novel, the words “dingy” or “dinginess” seem to occur a lot.  One must always strive to avoid aforementioned condition.  It is a horror.  At least, it is to any self-respecting young woman.  According to Ms. Wharton.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

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