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2016 TBR Pile Challenge: The Custom of the Country

I did not read enough classics in 2015. I read Persuasion again, fell in love with East of Eden, The Woman in White, The Count of Monte Cristo was a 5-month endeavour, and a handful of Agatha Christies if those count.

I hope to make more of an effort classics-wise in 2016 and kicked it all off with Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, which also happened to be on my unofficial 2016 TBR Pile Challenge list.

When I finally read The Age of Innocence, I was blown away by it. I’m not sure what it was – maybe that a woman wrote so effectively from the perspective of a man? Maybe how scandalous it actually was? I don’t know but I made it my mission to read the Novels of New York.

When I finished The House of Mirth, I cried.

I was very much looking forward to The Custom of the Country.

This one was tough, guys.

Undine Spragg is a small-town transplant in New York City, intent on making her mark. She doesn’t care much for the rules that govern the right New York society – she wants what she wants and she intends on getting it. She immediately catches the eye of Ralph Marvel, the son of one of the ‘right’ families, and he decides to marry her before she is ruined by the society he detests. She thinks he’s loaded but actually she’s married the appearance of money and that won’t do at all.

Dogging her steps are a former flame, a super shady guy called Elmer Moffat. He knew her back home, and has arrived on scene in New York making lots of money for lots of people but never really being a part of the right crowd. Undine, bored with life in New York, aims for Paris where she hangs out with some questionable people and meets a Marquise.

Her flirtation with the Marquise becomes more than than, bringing shame on her husband back home. Eventually she gets divorced and marries the Marquise but even that life isn’t what she thought it would be. She hadn’t bet on spending all year in the French countryside in a rundown, ancient chateau. Just as she chafed against the rules of New York society, so she fails to understand or embrace the rules of French society. Until she does, she will be thoroughly miserable.

I never really liked Undine. I especially disliked her father’s habit of calling her ‘Undie.’ In the end though, I did enjoy it. Undine strikes me as thoroughly modern, even if its not in a good way. She’s the kind of woman that is never quite satisfied with what she gets, even if it’s exactly what she asked for. She’s all about instant gratification but she’s very much hampered by the rules that govern her sex at the time (the book was published in 1912, I assumed the story takes place sometime around then).

Wharton continues to throw obstacles in her heroine’s way right up until the very last page and for that I will love her forever.

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9

An Anti-Valentine’s Day Read: The House of Mirth

There are a lot of good bookish romance links out there today. You can find a list of the most romantic novels of all time on Goodreads, find out what your literary crush says about you (for the record, my crush is obviously Mr. Darcy but in terms of this article, I’m a Gilbert Blythe kind of girl. Which reminds me, I need to re-read Anne of Green Gables), or what your love story is.

My post today will not be among the most romantic links on the interwebs. I’m here to talk about The House of Mirth, which might be more of an anti-Valentine’s Day read (not that I’m anti-Valentine’s Day).

I read The House of Mirth this week and was honestly caught off guard by the ending. I should have caught on – Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart was compared to Anna Karenina after all but I didn’t.

I loved this book and I suspect that there is an entire generation of young women that would love it as well.

the house of mirth

Lily Bart has been raised to be a perfect New York wife. She is used to a life of luxury and being surrounded by all the best people. Her parents are both dead and she doesn’t have anyone to look out for her best interests and find her the best possible match. She has an old widowed aunt who doesn’t care to socialize in the same way that Lily must so she is very much left to her own devices. At 29, Lily knows that she must marry soon; her income is dwindling and she can’t count on her friends to sustain her lifestyle for much longer. At 18 or 19 she was entertaining and fresh, but a decade on she knows that her charms must be waning.

Even though she knows that she has to get married, she continues to spurn suitable matches and gets caught up in an unsuitable relationship that sees her given money she thought had been invested wisely on her behalf. In all of this is Mr. Lawrence Selden, a lawyer of no great fortune who has always been a great friend and at various moments each of them has wanted it to be more, but never at the same time.

When Lily finds herself cut loose from the people she has always considered her good friends, she winds up at a loose end, unable to sustain herself on her own income and has to find ways of earning her own way. Which in the 1890s, for a woman of her social standing, was nearly impossible. Definitely not respectable.

It’s devastating. Even in these conditions, when she knows that the only way back to the societal place that she used to occupy is to marry the right man, still she balks at giving up her independence this way.

She is a very modern heroine in a time when women could barely speak to a man in public if they were unaccompanied. Reading this book made me so thankful for the rights and freedoms that I enjoy as a human being, not based on my gender. I related to her desire for independence and sympathised with her inability to be taken seriously as a person on her own merit. Unless she becomes a Mrs and soon, she just ceases to count in her circle of ‘friends’.

In the end, when she does the right thing despite all the temptation not to, and things finally seem to be working out for her and everything truly falls apart…it’s a spectacularly tragic ending. It was too bad that I wasn’t at home where I would have been mostly free to totally fall apart. At work, you tend to look a little crazy if you lose it in the lunch room crying over a book.

The House of Mirth has found itself on to my list of favourite books. I will be reading this again and in the meantime I will be recommending it to everyone I know. I’m also on the lookout for Wharton’s The Custom of the Country which will complete my reading of her “Novels of New York.”

Do you have a favourite tragic romantic novel?

10

First Person Narrative Fatigue

I’m finally tackling Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth after having it in my possession for a couple of years at least. Maybe tackling is the wrong word – that makes it sound like it’s a beast of a book and it’s not. I think it’s more that it’s a classic, written a certain way about a certain time and sometimes that makes these kinds of books seem intimidating.

So far I love it. But this isn’t meant to be a post about The House of Mirth. This is meant to be about the first person narrative and my struggles with it recently.

Before starting on The House of Mirth I read The Bookstore by Deborah Meyler and before that I read Here I Go Again by Jen Lancaster. Both books were first person narratives and The Goldfinch was as well. I’m not sure if I’m suffering from first person narrative fatigue because I’ve been reading it a lot recently, or if I’ve just decided I don’t like first person narrative anymore?

I used to love it. It used to bring me right into the story, like I was the one living it. I liked knowing everything that was going on in the narrator’s head, enjoyed trying to puzzle out what was happening with other people.

But my recent narrators have not made it easy on me. The Goldfinch’s Theo Decker makes some seriously poor choices and while that’s obviously good for the story, it can be frustrating to find yourself silently screaming at a narrator to not make bad choices, knowing the whole time that that’s the only way this is going to go.

jen lancasterHere I Go Again’s Lissy Ryder is a cow. She’s judgemental, mean spirited and a bully. This is totally the point of the story and I knew that I was going along for a ride of self discovery, that eventually she would see the error of her ways and become a less awful person. I just wasn’t prepared for it to take so long and for it to be so shallow. I felt like the first person narrative, while a trademark of Jen Lancaster books, meant that the journey was really heavy handed, like everything had to be explained instead of shown.

bookstoreThe Bookstore’s Esme Garland, however (bonus points for a great character name), doesn’t have a mean bone in her body and despite the fact that she’s academically brilliant (she’s an art history PhD candidate), when it comes to relationships she’s really stupid. Esme gets involved with a New York City playboy, an eligible bachelor with the American pedigree that means he’s always been able to do what he wants. When she gets pregnant after a few weeks of what he thought of as a casual fling, she ends up letting him walk away from her before taking him back, letting him make a fool of her, wanting to take him back, ending up alone in New York City with a baby. I found it almost painful to be a witness to her play by play waffling, never quite owning any decision she makes. Even the fact that most of the book takes place in a charming little independent bookstore held little charm for me. I found the bookstore characters to be straight from a bookish central casting and Esme’s inability to look beyond herself meant we never got to know any of them properly.

By the time I jumped into The House of Mirth and was introduced to Miss Lily Bart who, despite the fact that she’s an unmarried woman with no means of independence, wants more out of life on her own terms, well I was more than ready for a heroine who doesn’t think she has all the answers but who is willing to forge ahead anyway. I’m also appreciating getting into the heads of all the characters, not just the main one.

What do you think? First person narrative fatigue or have I matured beyond a first person narrative completely? Do you like a first person narrative?

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On The Shelf

For Christmas I got a whack of gift certificates to my book store of choice and despite having several books already awaiting my attention on my bookshelves, I decided not to wait to use them.

It was such a satisfying trip. I could buy pretty much whatever I wanted. The freedom!

OK but actually it was really hard. Anyone that’s ever had a glimpse at my To Read list (I carry a version around with me. It’s ok, you can mock me) will know that this was a lot more difficult than it should have been.

After the initial wave of sheer joy washed over me, I realized that I would never be able to buy all the books that I wanted. But I did my best. I decided to put together a list of some of the books that I bought (a couple I’ve already read: At Home and The Virgin Suicides) as well as some of the other books that are already sitting on my shelf waiting for me to love them. Some of them have waited a long time.

Far From The Tree by Adam Solomon. I am so excited to read this book. I’ve read a few articles about it (like this one) but in a nutshell it’s about parenting the children that aren’t exactly like us. That’s a really terrible nutshell. Let’s just say that I ran across it, read the first line and knew that I needed to read it. I don’t even have kids!

The Hidden Child by Camilla Lackberg. I don’t think I need to explain myself here. This is book 5 in the Fjallbacka trilogy I keep going on about. I think we’re finally going to get more Erika Falck after she was sidelined having a fictional baby! Not that I don’t love Patrik Hedstrom, I totally do. I just missed Erika’s take on things.

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. Seems a crime to leave a Dickens sitting on the shelf doesn’t it? But this one has been waiting a while. Very possibly since 2011. I always mean to grab it. And then I don’t. But since reading this I’ve decided that I really do need more classics in my life and if Dickens doesn’t fit that bill, what does?

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. I read The Age of Innocence last year (first Pullitzer won by a woman what!) and I loved it so much (seriously, such a great story) that I thought I should read some more. The House of Mirth is my next choice. It also fits in very nicely with my ‘classics’ reading.

Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire. Are you obsessed by Wicked: The Musical? You are right? Who isn’t! Have you read the book? Such a great twist on a classic. And then there was Son of a Witch (great title), and A Lion Among Men. Now finally: the conclusion. I waited and waited for this to come out in paperback and then it did and I bought it and now it’s been waiting while I got distracted by other shiny reads.

Onwards: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul by Howard Schultz. I am a Starbucks addict. I’ve been trying to cut back. It’s not easy. You know why? Because when I go to ‘my’ Starbucks they are really happy to see me, they know my name and my drink. It’s hard to walk away from that. How did they do that? There’s a book that has the answers!

There you have it. A list of some of the books waiting for me to love them. What do you have waiting on your bookshelf?

3

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence was the first book written by a woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It is a masterpiece.

It tells the story of Newland Archer, who is part of one of New York’s oldest and best families, beginning on the evening when he announces his engagement to the perfect May Welland, another progeny of an old, proper New York family. In a time when propriety and what other people might say were all that mattered, May’s disgraced cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska will have a hard time coming home and finding any kind of compassion or support from her home town. She has left her husband in Europe and has no friends, save her grandmother, who has always been a bit unconventional. When May urges Archer to show kindness to her cousin, she has no idea what Pandora’s box she is opening.

All of a sudden, cold, proper Newland Archer is sending flowers to the Countess and finding excuses to see her and before long he is fighting his own better instincts: the Countess or May.

It had been a while since I had read such a classic, and honestly, it took me a little while to get used to the vocabulary and syntax of such a novel. But I was quickly engrossed and by the end, I’m sure that I emitted a sigh of satisfaction usually reserved for the likes of Jane Austen. However, unlike Jane Austen, The Age of Innocence is not a tongue-in-cheek commentary of the social niceties of the day, but a rather tortured account of the way in which social normalcies dictated the lives of people without giving any thought to their future or present happiness.

Whenever decisions are to be taken regarding the Countess, it is up to her family and their lawyers to decide what she should do, what would be the proper course of action. But no heed is paid to what the Countess may want t do, the stain of her inappropriate behaviour being too big a risk to take, as it would taint the whole family’s reputation.

Even though I know that there are still vestiges of old New York alive and kicking today, it is still hard for me to think of New York City as this stuffy, uppity place. Today, for me, NYC is much more about fashion and food and movies and everything else pop culture. I’m sure that the scions of New York’s oldest families would be rolling in their graves to see the depravity that has been foisted on their grand old city by the likes of Lady Gaga and Saturday Night Live.

The Age of Innocence has earned its place on my list of favourites and I look forward to discovering what other brilliant works Edith Wharton has to offer.

Stars: 5

Grade: A+

5

My Top Reads of 2011

It is the end of the year, and as per tradition dictated by the masses, here are the top 10 books that I read this year. You should know that these weren’t necessarily published this year and they are in no particular order but they were all awesome and should you be looking for something to read, maybe check out my list.

  1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943, Betty Smith). Pretty sure that I am the last person on the planet that has read this book. I feel like this book was always hovering on the periphery of my world, but I never paid enough attention to realize how incredible this book is. It’s one of those classic books where nothing really happens except for mundane every day things. At least, the everyday for Francie and her family in Brooklyn in the beginning of the 20th Century. Nothing I can say will do justice to the quiet brilliance of this book so if you haven’t already read it, read it.
  2. Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl (2010, David Sturrock). I feel like Matilda changed my life. I was a young disciple of Roald Dahl’s so how could I turn up an opportunity to get to know the man behind of some of the best stories of my childhood? The man behind The Twits, George’s Marvellous Medicine, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and of course, Matilda, was kind of a curmudgeon. As he got older, he embraced his mantle as a teller of children’s tales, but for most of his life, he resented his adult stories being overlooked. It was a surprising and intimate, if not always favourable, portrait.
  3. The Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley. I’ve posted about my love for these books before. I read the first three this year, I look forward to reading the 4th one in 2012. They are a refreshing take on the classic murder mystery, told with an incredible sense of humour and style. The series starts off with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, carries on with The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag and A Red Herring Without Mustard and so far, concludes with I’m Half Sick of Shadows. So now you know and you can read accordingly.
  4. The Game of Thrones series by George R. R. Martin. I know that I was a little late on the uptake on this one, but I can’t remember the last time I was so invested in a story and it’s characters. Martin actually makes me afraid to turn the page. Yes, the story will advance, but it may not always turn out well for my favourites. I’ve read the first three books so far and they are a commitment. They will take a long time to get through but the pay off is huge. And if you can’t see yourself reading the books, watch the first episode of the HBO series and see if you still feel the same way.
  5. The Imperfectionists (2010, Tom Rachmann) was an incredible read. I loved every story, every chapter, every character. I loved the way that the story was constructed so that each chapter took you home with a different character, carried you along in time so that you could still check in with characters from other chapters and see how they’ve fared. It’s a bit of a sad read when you realize that it is also a commentary on the state of the newspaper industry today but the melancholy is worth it.
  6. The Reluctant King: The Life and Reign of George VI 1895-1952 (1990, Sarah Bradford). Despite the popularity of The King’s Speech last year, I still find that George VI is one of those monarchs that is overlooked, despite the extraordinary sacrifice that he made for his country. This biography tells the story of the man who wasn’t supposed to be king, but who wore the crown with dignity and aplomb after his brother abdicated in favour of a divorcee. Ultimately, the shy, quiet younger brother of Edward VIII would pay for this heavy burden with his life, the stress of the job proving to be too much for him.
  7. Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings (2008, Mary Henley Rubio). I always assumed that the creator of Anne of Green Gables would be very similar to her heroine: sunny, imaginative and wonderful. After reading this biographical masterpiece, I know that that is not the case. The woman who would make Prince Edward Island the internationally known home of this most famous of her characters, spent most of her adult life living in Ontario in circumstances that she didn’t much care for. She was depressed, took all sorts of medications that poisoned her from the inside out, and had horribly dysfunctional relationships with her husband and sons. This book was illuminating and brilliantly put together, making it a compulsive, as well as informative, read.
  8. The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2008, Muriel Barbery). I wrote a post about this book so I know that you know how much I love this book. This is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever had the pleasure to read. What Barbery can do with language is incredible. The story is tragic and sweet and ordinary and the ending…it left me in tears and it stayed with me long after I had finished it.
  9. The Age of Innocence (1920, Edith Wharton). This is one of the books that I read this year that I know I will read again. Obviously it is an excellent book – a Pulitzer Prize winning book in fact, the first one for a woman. But sometimes those grand award winners are stiff and difficult to read, relevant to their time, but somehow lost in the translation of time. This is not one of those books. While it is the story of 1870s New York (what an uppity place!), it is ultimately the story of love and loss and duty and all the things that make for a respectable life. Told from the perspective of a man, and so masterfully done that I forgot almost the whole way through that this was in fact, written by a woman.
  10. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003, Mark Haddon). This won a bunch of awards back in 2003 and had been on my list for a long time but I’m not sure why it took me so long to read it. A wonderfully quirky murder mystery that ends up having nothing to do with murder at all and everything to do with the human condition and all the flaws that make up our relationships with each other. Loved it.

So there you have it, my top 10 books that I read this year. I’m sure that I overlooked some but its not easy to choose your top 10 books in a year! Hopefully you found a title that sparks your interest!

Happy New Year!