Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

House of Mirth (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)     The House of Mirth centers around Lily Bart, a woman born into the privileged world of New York's upper east side.  Her life of ease and comfort firsts begin to crumble when her father (with some help from his wife) loses the family fortune.  Lily's parents die soon thereafter, but not before her mother tells Lily that she must get it all back, namely by marrying well, and by well I mean rich.  One might expect this to be a fairly simply task for someone like Miss Bart.  Even her financial circumstances are not much of a turnoff to potential suitors, as she is expected to inherit the estate of Julia Peniston, an aunt who takes in the then orphaned Lily.  However, though beautiful and skilled in the arts of high society, Lily fails to marry. 

Lily is not a romantic. She is not holding out for true love.  She does care for one man, Lawrence Selden, who in turn cares for her. (The world love doesn't seem quite right for either of them.) Unfortunately Selden simply does not have enough money to enable Lily to live the life she wants.  And so because Lily will not marry for love at the expense of money, their relationship does not venture beyond a close friendship.

Seldon is not Lily's only suitor.  There is another viable candidate in the form of Simon Rosedale, an unabashed social climber.  He worships Lily, both for her beauty and her social skill.  He seems to genuinely like her and see her for who she truly is, warts and all, but Lily turns her nose up at him believing she can do better.  Later, when she is running out of options and she condescends to accept the marriage proposal she had previously turned down, Rosedale, in a burst of honesty that even Lily finds refreshing, notes that the tables have turned and now he, with the wealth he has built up over the passing years, can do better than her.

Lily's inheritance turns out not to be quite what she expected.  Without a large inheritance or a rich husband, Lily must depend on the hospitality and generosity of friends.  This works for awhile, a long while in fact, but eventually it all falls apart.  Some of it Lily's fault.  She gambles on cards, spends recklessly, gets herself into debt, and becomes involved with dubious people.  Some of it is due the cruel actions of others, most notable Bertha Dorset, a woman Lily once considered a  friend.

Lily was an interesting character, but not an entirely sympathetic one.  Although she is cruelly used by Bertha Dorset and unfairly treated by former friends who wish to stay in the good graces of Bertha, Lily is not exactly innocent.  Some of her problems are due to her own bad choices and stubbornness.  At times it seems Wharton was trying to paint Lily as a woman trying to stay true to her ideals, but I didn't buy it.  Lily is just too full contradictions and standards that are little more than excuses for snobbery.  For instance, she does not seem to see the contradiction in aspiring to marry wealth, but despising a man who would marry her for her social capital.  I also could not help but think that if the shoe were on someone else's foot, while she might not be as deliberately cruel as Bertha is, Lily would not be that generous or nice to the unfortunate soul either.  There are rules to the New York high society Lily was born into and struggles to stay in, and she plays by those rules willingly.  Even Lily's saintly friend Gerty Farish notes that after losing so much, Lily never seems to realize that what she aspired to was not so important after all.   
This book can also be seen as a comment on the economics of marriage for women in the late 1800s/early 1900s.  Lily is told repeatedly that the solution to her financial (and later social) problems is a husband.  This made me wonder about where, if at all, Lily Barth fits in on the feminist spectrum.  I understand that she has limited options, both due to her gender and the time she lives in.  One of my favorite passages touching on the inequality between men and women was where Lily remarks how as a woman she is expected to look and dress well if she wants to be accepted into the social tapestry, but a man can show up in an old coat.  While she is right about the inequality in expectations of men and women, Lily Bart is not exactly a banner for the feminist cause.  She simply wants to be rich and enjoy life without the attendant responsibilities.  I kept wanting her to make a choice and either: (1) marry Seldon and accept a more moderate lifestyle, (2) marry for money and stop complaining about the shortcomings of a husband who is willing to fund her extravagant lifestyle, or (3) walk away from high society and strive for independence even if it meant giving up the fancy dresses and opera boxes.  At various points Lily does talk about independence and to be fair, she does finds a job making hats.  This does not go well for as Wharton demonstrates through Lily's failure to master sewing, women like Lily were brought up to be beautiful and social and not much else.  Thus, it should come as no surprise that they are ill equipped for much else.  More to the point, Lily's desire for independence goes no further than a desire to be independently wealthy.  While I understand this desire, it does not make Lily an idealist or a particularly sympathetic character.

I very enjoyed much reading The House of Mirth.  It is the kind of book that compelled me to underline passages.  It is the kind of book that makes me wish I was sitting in a college literature class as this is a book that needs to be discussed and dissected.  I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, especially book groups, and look forward to reading more of Edith Wharton.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore

Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d'Art   I picked up Sacré Bleu hoping for a historical fiction treatment of Vincent Van Gogh's life and death.  Disappointingly, this isn't his story.  This isn't to say I was disappointed with Christopher Moore's story, I was just hoping for more Van Gogh than I got.  At least, the story begins with the painter of sunflowers and starry nights. 

As it says on the back cover, "In July 1890, Vincent Van Gogh went into a cornfield and shot himself. Or die he?"  The painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Lucien Lessard, a baker who paints, set out to find out what really happened to their friend Vincent.  Their investigation leads them through the brothels, bars, and bakeries of 19th century Paris.  Along the way they come across a muse and the aptly named Colorman who supplies paints to artists.

This is the first time I have read Christopher Moore, so I didn't have any particular expectations going into it beyond that Van Gogh would appear in the story.  It turned out to be a sort of murder mystery, with elements of the supernatural, set in a fictional version of the 19th century Paris art world.  For the first two-thirds of the book, I wasn't quite sure what to think and wondered where the story was trying to get to.  It wasn't until the last third that the story came together for me.  The last third was also the funniest part of the novel.  Notwithstanding what I wrote earlier about no expectations, I did have the impression that the book would be funny.  After all, the subtitle of "Sacré Bleu " is "A Comedy d'Art."  The comedy didn't  really arrive till the end, but when it did it was great.  The last third was definitely my favorite part of the book. 

Interspersed throughout story  are interludes on the color blue and black-and-white reprints of famous paintings.  Instead of the information that typically accompanies a reprint (title, author, date, etc.) there are captions from the story, as if the paintings were made especially for this book.  It was a perfect addition to the story.

Overall, I liked Sacré Bleu.  Although it took awhile to get there, it paid off in the end.  A person I know who counts herself as a fan of Christopher Moore indicated that his writing was inconsistent, with some really great books and some not so great ones  According to her, two of the great ones are Lamb and A Dirty JobSacré Bleu intrigued me enough to read more of Moore's work, so I'll probably these a try sometime soon.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What Maisie Knew by Henry James

What Maisie Knew (Movie Tie-In) Henry James's novel is about the plight of Maisie, a child caught up in the bitterness and ongoing battles between and among her parents, stepparents and governess.  Her parents are Ida and Beale Farange.  At the beginning of the novel they are in the midst of a bitter divorce.  They fight over custody of Maisie, not because either of them loves or really wants her, but to deprive the other of something, to prove that they are the better half of the now separated couple.  Both parents take up with new partners. Beale marries his daughter's governess, Miss Overmore and Ida marries Sir Claude.  The fifth adult in Maisie's life is Mrs. Wix, another governess.  Maisie is shuffled between her two parents' households but rarely finds herself in their company, most of her time being spent with Mrs. Wix or her stepparents. 

Published in 1897 and given that divorce was far less common then than it is now, I wonder how Maisie was received.  The story seems more suited for today than for the late 1800s.  In fact, it reminded me of the movie Irreconcilable Differences, another story about divorcing parents who in their total and complete self involvement and desire to inflict as much pain on the other as possible, fail to notice, or perhaps just don't care, about the effect of their actions on their young daughter.  At least in Irreconcilable Differences when confronted with their wrongdoing, the parents eventually come to acknowledge and regret their actions, and take steps to repair the damage. Maisie's parents never really learn from their mistakes.

I picked this up after seeing a trailer for an upcoming movie adaption of the book.  The movie version will be set in modern times.  It is sad to think this story is as relevant today as it was in 1897.  In any case, I'm looking forward to the movie.  I wonder if it will end differently or will stay true to the book.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard

  In Paper Cover Rock 16-year-old Alex struggles to come to terms with the death of his friend Thomas, and more to the point, with his role in Thomas's death.  I dare anyone to read this and not think of Dead Poets Society or A Separate Peace (especially if you saw the movie when when you were in high school, college or close to either).  There is a boys boarding school where a boy dies and another group of boys who know more about his death than they are letting on.  This isn't to imply that this is a mystery.  We know more or less how Thomas died from the beginning.  He went to the lake with friends Alex, Glenn, and Clay.  They had a few drinks and took turns jumping off a rock into a lake.  Thomas dived off the rock head first.  Alex and Glenn performed CPR.  They ran for help, but it wasn't enough.

There is a Dead Poets Society like teacher in the form of Miss Dovecott.  She's young, pretty and one of the few women at the all male institution.  Of course like any good teacher Dead Poets Society teacher, Miss Dovecott teaches English.  She encourages the budding poet in Alex while also encouraging him to come clean about what happened when Thomas died.  She was there when Thomas died too, at least at the end.  She was the adult who came running when the boys went looking for help.

The word that first came to mind upon completing this short novel was simmer.  There is a lot emotion in this book but it is all just under the surface.  I kept waiting for there to be a big blow up of some sort - a big reveal about what really happened when Thomas died, the surviving boys confronting each other in some way, one or more of them falling apart.  There's a suggestion that one or more of the boys is gay which may or may not have contributed to the circumstances that led to Thomas's death.  It feels like things could boil over at any moment, but that never really happens. Perhaps this is why I found the story slow at times, especially in the middle.  Things did get interesting at the end.

The story is narrated by Alex, a budding poet who borrows from Melville's Moby Dick (even though he has yet to actually read Moby Dick) as he tells his story through journal entries.  I couldn't  quite decide whether having Alex as the narrator was good or bad.  His poems were a nice touch to the story, but there was a little too much "if this were a novel then..." and direct talking to the reader.  Luckily this was short, less than 200 pages, so this was a minor irritation.  The bigger irritation was that there was no big emotional pay off at the end.  Then again, perhaps the lack of a big resolution makes the story seem more believable. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale, edited by James B. South

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale   Probably everyone has had the experience of coming across some show/movie, song or book and thinking this was made for me.  This particular piece of art isn't just another disposal entertainment product (not that there is anything wrong with enjoying disposable entertainment), this will last.  This means something, something that I'll remember ten and even twenty years from now, something that I will come back to, probably more than once.  That's how I feel about Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show, not so much the movie).  It was an amazing show where your worst fears were real.  In fact, they were worst than you imagined.  Somehow the show took teenage/young adult problems seriously, while being funny (most of the time), and perhaps more importantly, it made those problems seem survivable, which I think is especially important when you're in your teen years.  In any case, when I saw this book I had to read it.

What is so great about the pop culture and philosophy books is that they allow fans to further explore the deeper meaning of the art in a way that non-fans might find annoying.  Plus there's the bonus of learning something new, which I almost always do when reading these books.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy was no exception.  Not surprisingly, several chapters discuss matters of justice and when violence is acceptable or unacceptable in a society.  Other chapters focus on morality and religion.  Of course, there couldn't be a philosophy book about a show where the heroine dies to save the world literally and more than once without discussing the concepts of sacrifice and redemption.  This is just a sample of the topics covered in this volume. 

Some of my favorite chapters were
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Feminist Noir by Thomas Hibbs
  • Feminism and the Ethics of Violence: Why Buffy Kicks Ass by Mimi Marinucci
  • Between Heavens and Hells: The Multidimensional Universe in Kant and Buffy the Vampire Slayer by James Lawler
  • Prophecy Girl and The Powers That Be: The Philosophy of Religion in the Buffyverse by Wendy Love Anderson
  • High School is Hell: Metaphor Made Literal in Buffy the Vampire Slayer by Tracy Little

My only (mild) complaint is that many of the authors refer to the same scenes in their chapters, making the book annoyingly repetitive at times.  But this is small complaint.  If you're fan of Buffy you'll get pass this, as I did and well likely enjoy this almost as much as watching the show.  Now, time to go re-watch Buffy!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Recent Reads from the Library

This year I've been buying books less and using the library more, which isn't helping me with my large unread pile, but let's save that for another post.  One of the things I'm loving about the library is that I can order things online, sort of.  I search through the OPAC (online public access catalog for the non-librarians out there) and submit a hold request or an interlibrary loan request and the library sends an email when the requested item is ready for pick up.  One thing about hold and interlibrary loan requests is that you don't know exactly when a book will arrive - it could be two days from now or it could be two months.  Between February and April I submitted several requests and a bunch came through at the same time.  Consequently, my current reading list has been quite interesting .  Here's a look at recent reads I picked up at the library:

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright 
Before reading this I knew little about Scientology other than that it was created by a science fiction writer and celebrities seem to flock to it.  Going Clear takes a hard look at Scientology, chronicling its beginnings and evolution over the past few decades.  Author Lawrence Wright goes out of his way to present a fair look at Scientology, including literally hundreds of notes to both back up his writing and acknowledge where others might disagree with his reporting.  After reading this I am still not quite clear as to what the tenets of the belief system are, or by extension, what attracts people to this religion, and I'm not sure I want to know.  Going Clear paints a pretty chilling picture of the religion.

Hot Ticket by Olivia Cunning
Hot Ticket is a steamy romance full of rock stars, pain and pleasure, and childhood trauma that manifest itself in the form of self-hurting.  After Wright's book I needed something fun and light.  Maybe light isn't the best way to describe Hot Ticket, but it was definitely fun.

Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural by Victoria Nelson
Based on the book flap, Gothicka will explore how the "Gothic, Romanticism's gritty older sibling" has grown since the 18th century and in the 21st century evolved to the point where the monsters are now heroes.   Kind of sounds like a dissertation, but I'm willing to give it a try, after all I do like my vampires, werewolves and other supernatural creatures.

The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and Harpers Ferry Raid edited by John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd
I'll probably just skim this tomb's 500 plus pages of small print.  I don't really know much about John Brown.  In fact, I had never heard of him until coming across Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen.  Ever since then I've been interested in learning more about John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid but for whatever reason haven't gotten around to it. 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale edited by James B. South
I've read a few other pop culture & philosophy type books and have really enjoyed them.  Plus, I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer so this should be a win.