Dust off those classics ~ they deserve another chance
In this fast pace world of cell phone, Ipods and virus videos it is easy to forget about classics. You know the classics; those books collecting dust on your bookshelf, behind the best-sellers you bought because Oprah liked it or because you liked the attractively decorated cover.
I want to share two of my favorite books, they both happen to be classics. These books and other so-called classics contain the writing that is used as the stick with which to measure great writing, and in this world increasingly full of one-liners and text messaging it is easy to forget what good writing looks like.
Both books are packed with innuendoes, intrigue and sexual tension, and both authors have first-person experience with the attitudes and time periods of which they write. There are other classics that some people would rate higher on a literary scale of greatness, but no one will argue there position among the great literary books of all-time.
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
This is my all-time favorite book. The story incorporates social commentary with brilliantly written social and sexual tension. It follows the life of a 19th Century New York gentleman, Newland Archer, and his intense feelings for Countess Olenska, who has fallen from societal graces by leaving her husband. The story grips the reader and pulls her into the world of New York high society and the strict conventions that come with it.
Wharton writes in great detail, never leaving a teacup unmentioned. This intense attention to scene setting draws an exceedingly accurate and vivid picture of the society’s obsession with opulence and the outward appearance of perfection. The following paragraph describes the Beaufort house:
Then the house had been boldly planned with a ball-room, so that, instead of squeezing through a narrow passage to get to it (as at the Chiverses’) one marched solemnly down a vista of enfiladed drawing-rooms (the sea-green, the crimson and the bouton d’or), seeing from afar the many-candled lustres reflected in the polished parquetry, and beyond that the depths of a conservatory where camellias and tree-ferns arched their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo. ~The Age of Innocence, Chapter III.
Archer’s problem is not only is he in love with a woman who has left her husband, but he is engaged to May Welland, a proper young woman who he admires, but is not in love with. In the following paragraph Archer contemplates a photograph of he fiancÃ©:
As he dropped into his armchair near the fire his eyes rested on a large photograph of May Welland, which the young girl had given him in the first days of their romance, and which had now displaced all the other portraits on the table. With a new sense of awe he looked at the frank forehead, serious eyes and gay innocent mouth of the young creature whose soul’s custodian he was to be. That terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him like a stranger through May Welland’s familiar features; and once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas. ~ The Age of Innocence, Chapter VI.
Countess Olenska is everything May is not; worldly, daring and seemingly indifferent. But is she really so uncaring? Is her air of confidence a ruse? Archer aches to find the true Countess Olsenska, but how can he when he is soon to be wed to Miss May Wellen?
The Age of Innocence explores the relationship between people and the societal constrains under which they must live. It is a character study, as well as a study of 19th Century society in upper class New York.
Countess Olenska is character Wharton very well may have fashioned after herself. Edith Wharton was born in 1862 to a wealthy New York family (whose last name of Jones has been associated with the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses”). She was a divorcÃ© who spent much of her time abroad in France and was said to have had a three-year affair with journalist Morton Fullerton. She was also very close with author Henry James.
Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature (1921) for The Age of Innocence.
A Room with a View, E. M. Forster
A Room with a View is another story written by an author who enjoys writing fiction that comments on societal conventions, and the absurdity of many of these conventions. This book is the story of a young English woman named Lucy Honeychurch who takes a holiday in Florence, Italy. The trip changes her life. The first part of the book is based in Italy, where the reader meets some odd and highly comical characters that reappear throughout the book.
Based in the 19th Century, the book is full of societal mores of the day. Including the necessity of a chaperone to accompanying a young woman traveling abroad; an unaccompanied young woman would be scandalous. Miss Honeychurch’s chaperone is her spinster cousin, Miss Charlotte Bartlett. The two cousins stay at a pension with many amusing guests, including a young man named George Emerson, who is traveling with his father. George is not only from a different social class than Miss Honeychurch, but he is also a philosophical fellow who is profoundly affected by the world around him, in other words, despite his handsome face, he is quite odd.
While loitering in a Florentine plaza, Miss Honeychurch witnesses a brutal murder and faints into George’s arms and thus begins the rocky relationship between the two. However, back in England, Cecil Vyse, a rather dull, yet highly suitable young man with all the right bloodlines is waiting for Miss Honeychurch.
The second half of the book is set in Surrey, England where Miss Honeychurch reintegrates herself into her proper upper class English family. Just as things are getting back to normal, George and his father move into a house down the road and Miss Honeychurch is torn between society’s wishes for her to marry the rich, boring Cecil or her own wishes to marry the man she loves.
The highlight of this book is the entertaining character development. Forster has crafted a humorous story chockablock with colorful characters too rich to work and so very bored with their own pampered lives that they spend a great quantity of time meddling in other peoples.
E.M. Forster knew first hand the cost of not conforming to social conventions. Born into a middle-class London family in 1870, he became good friends with controversial writers D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. He was also a homosexual. He wrote one book with a homosexual theme (Maurice) which he circulated privately; it was only published after his death in 1970.
This review originally appeared July 2007, at Anthology Book Company’s Blog, www.anthologybookco.blogspot.com.
We had a great time in Houston.
Thank you to Dean & Lindsay for their hospitality. They were expert tour guides of the city. We visited museums, NASA and Galveston – managed to pack a lot into a quick trip. I was impressed with Houston – several people had given me some negative views on the city (before I went), but overall I found it to be quite nice! The museum district is beautiful with giant oak trees towering over the streets. The city is huge with an enormous freeway system; it would be very intimidating if I’d had to drive. There are hundreds of restaurants and no lack of things to do. I ate fish tacos, drank wine, ate steak stuffed poblano peppers, drank more wine, had a outrageously good bbq salmon with dill sauce, drank a little more wine, a shrimp po’or boy with wine; it went on like this for several days! A very memorable time was had by all!
I’m going to have to walk quite a few miles to burn off these vacation calories!
I finished “A Thousand Splendid Suns” and started “Three Cups of Tea” (by Greg Mortenson) while in Houston so I will have a new book review and a new movie review up very soon (hopefully, before Wednesday).
Keep checking in!
I took this photo yesterday on my daily walk. I was going to use it as my new header photo, but can’t bring myself to get rid of the gorgeous mountain photo.
I am going to be MIA for a few days. We are headed to Houston to visit Ryan’s uncle and aunt. It’s suppose to be 90 in Houston tomorrow! It should be a fun and interesting trip fun – I’ve never been to Texas (outside the airport, that is). We are planning on visiting NASA, something Ryan has always wanted to do. I’m looking forward to eating some great seafood.
I will be finishing up “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” by Khaled Hosseini in the next day or so. I will try to have a review up by early next week. I’m about three- quarters through the book and so far I like it just as much as Hosseini’s first book, “Kite Runner.”
As always, please feel free to leave me comments. If any of you see “The Kingdom” – I’d love to hear your opinion. Also, if any of you have read a great book lately, I am ALWAYS looking for a recommendation.
GO ROCKIES!! What a great day to be a Colorado Rockies fan!
I have posted two new reviews under Restaurant Reviews and Movie Reviews.
Please feel free to leave me comments!!
Ryan and I spent a great weekend in Leadville, Colorado. The highest town in the USA (10,000 feet above sea level). We woke on Sunday morning to six inches of snow.
Leadville, Colorado, photo of one of the historic blocks on main street
Book Mine, a cute and well stocked independent book store
Main Street, colorful buildings on main street
Silver Dollar Saloon, Doc Holiday killed a man at this saloon that was built in 1879
The Leadville Inn, we stayed at this historic bed & breakfast
Read my review of the Leadville Inn at Trip Advisor: http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g33520-d256803-r10082959-Leadville_Inn-Leadville_Colorado.html
We also ate at Quincy’s Steaks and Spirits – read my review here: Quincy’s
This book was recommended to me over a year ago by Stephanie Stauder, friend and owner of Anthology Book Co. (www.anthologybookcompany.com). I finally got around to reading it this past weekend. Yes, I did manage to read it in its entirety on Sunday afternoon.
The main character, Jacob Jankowski, is male. I point this out because I always find it interesting when a main character is the opposite gender of the author. Personally, I feel it would be difficult to write a male main character and have never attempted to do it in any of my short stories.
The book is written in a first-person narrative by Jacob who is 91, 92 or 93, he can’t remember. He is confined to a nursing home with brittle bones and children who seem to have forgotten about his existence. His wife has long since passed away. One of the best lines of the book occurs in the first chapter on page 13.
“I used to think I preferred getting old to the alternative, but now I’m not sure. Sometimes the monotony of bingo and sing-alongs and ancient dusty people parked in the hallway in wheelchairs makes me long for death. Particularly when I remember that I’m one of the ancient dusty people, filed away away like some worthless tchotchke.”
Jacob spends his days reminiscing about his life as a young man working as a vet for a traveling train circus in 1931. The chapters flip back and forth between 1931 and his current state. The chapters involving the nursing home are funny as well as heart-wrenching. I think Gruen’s best and most insightful writing occurs in these chapters.
The idea of writing a novel around a traveling train circus is unique and appealing. However, this doesn’t mean Gruen’s book is lacking in cliches; Jacob’s parents die in a tragic accident (this is typical of many main characters throughout fiction) – there is a love triangle – the bad guys are really bad. The story has all the ingredients of main stream fiction and/or a great screen play. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is made into a movie.
Because the setting is based mostly on a 1931 traveling train circus, Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, to be exact, the book is full of odd characters. The main character, however, is actually a bit of a bore. I never figured out why Marlena (his love interests) falls in love with him, other than the fact that he represents a “way out” of her current predicament. Note: I’m not giving anything away here, you know they’re going to fall in love – it’s a novel after all! Jacob is neither funny nor clever. As an old man he was much more endearing, but in the chapters where he is 23, I find him dull.
Many of the supporting characters keep the book entertaining; Kinko, the dwarf clown, Camel the drunk, and Barbara the back tent stripper/prostitute. While reading the book I continually wished to be introduced to some of the other performers mentioned, including the tattooed man, the bearded lady or the fat lady, but we were only introduced to a select few, which was a disappointment.
My favorite characters were the animals, including Bobo the chimp and Rosie the Polish-speaking elephant. Where the human characters seem to lack depth, the animals personalities come alive.
Overall the book is a very easy read and not very long. Despite the pitfalls, it is a fun story that will appeal to many readers, including both men and women, young and old. Gruen conducted diligent research on the history of circuses and the reader gets an insider look at circus life in the 1930’s. The reader will also come away with insight on growing old. Perhaps after reading Water for Elephants, you may look at the old man on the street a little differently. Everyone has a story, and the best stories are usually old and dusty.
I have added a new page. Check it out!
The first review is of The Med, in Boulder.
Yes, it’s my birthday.
I’m turning 28.
Okay, it’s actually 29, but who’s counting?
My first blog entry.
Some of you may be amazed that it has taken me this long to start a blog. I am a woman with many opinions and what a great place to share them with the world. I cannot disclose the location of the photo above, but I did take the photo. It’s our “secret” camping spot (somewhere in the Rocky Mountain region).
I am going to use this blog to stay in touch with the world (friends and family), and eventually, I want to mold it into a review blog. I have been writing book reviews for a local paper for almost a year and through this process have discovered that I enjoy reviewing books and want to include other reviews, such as restaurants, movies and more.
I haven’t quite figured out how this blog site works, so bear with me, I do intend to get it all worked out.
Hope you are all having a lovely Monday. It’s a glorious fall day here in Colorado and my birds are busy raiding the bird feeder – I put it up one week ago and I’ve already had to fill it four times. Finches are pigs.