The Age of Innocence

Age of Innocence book cover

The Age of Innocence
Edith Wharton

Or, Newland Archer is a Douche.

Okay, I made that up, but it does pretty accurately reflect my thoughts for much of the time I was reading Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winner. Not that it’s not a good book. It is! Just probably not if you need to “like” the protagonist. It’s worth reading even just for the descriptions of New York in the 1870s. It’s a completely different world than Manhattan today.

I had heard that book referred to as “The House of Mirth-lite,” but I have to disagree. True, there’s much less focus on the dirty, gritty aspects of the dangers involved with falling to the underclass, but that really isn’t the point in The Age of Innocence. There is still plenty of biting commentary on the hypocrisy of the aristocracy. Continue reading

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Classics Giveaway Winners Announced!

Gold medal US Olympic Soccer Team. Hey, you’re a winner, too!

Last week I posted a classics giveaway, and today I’m announcing the winners. Thanks for everyone who participated. Go classics readers! Winners, be on the lookout for an email so you can send me your mailing address.

Melisa won Bleak House
Jenna won Things Fall Apart
Beth won A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Jillian won The Painted Veil
Reading Pleasure won Anna Karenina
Bex won The Bell Jar
Allie won Rabbit, Run (it probably helped that she was the only won who wanted it!)

A Classics Giveaway

I’m currently participating in a couple classics reading challenges. One is just this year, and one is a longer term project.

Books!

I noticed that many of the participants have chosen the same books, and some of those books are ones that I’ve read, and are currently sitting on my shelves, taking up space for new things I could be reading. That means one thing – a giveaway!

Get your choice of the following books:

  • The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham
  • Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
  • Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  • Bleak House, Charles Dickens
  • Rabbit, Run, John Updike
  • The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

Here’s what you have to do:
Comment on this post, telling me which book you’d like AND telling me how to contact you should you win.

Here’s what you can do: earn extra entries by following me on twitter and/or tweeting about the giveaway.

Simple.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The Mill on the Floss: A Victorian Celebration

Hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey

The Mill on the Floss
George Eliot

Wow. For awhile there I was afraid I wasn’t going to finish a single Victorian novel before the end of A Victorian Celebration. Saturday I buckled down and knocked out the last 100 pages of The Mill on the Floss.

The Tulliver family owns the titular mill on the Floss, a river running along the fictional town of St. Ogg’s, England. Mr. Tulliver is prone to either bad luck or poor decision making, depending on who one would ask. Of course, this leads to the downfall of his family and the loss of the mill. It is up to his son Tom to restore the family honor and position.

Did this live up to the perfection of Middlemarch? Not quite. I found the beginning difficult to trudge through. As children, Maggie and Tom Tulliver were quite unbearable. It was only after they grew into adolescents that I could read about them for more than twenty pages at a time. Even then, Tom was such a bore. I did feel badly for him, as he was under tremendous pressure, but still – what a jerk!

My heart broke for Maggie. Not the child Maggie, but the young woman. While her brother could work hard and bring honor to the family, the most she could hope for was to not be a burden. This exchange, during an argument between the siblings, laid out the central conflict so directly:

“Because you are a man, Tom, and have power, and can do something in the world.”
“Then, if you can do nothing, submit to those who can.”*

Maggie’s choices, and those of any young woman of that time, were severely limited. She tries to do what is right, but she cannot help choosing what she feels is right in her heart instead of what Society would insist upon. There is a brilliant chapter quite late in the book where Eliot has Society weigh in on Maggie’s options.

As I read, I wondered how much of this book was autobiographical. I have read that it was based in part on George Eliot’s childhood, but how much was adult Maggie like George (or Mary Anne)? Eliot had a rather unusual relationship status of a woman of her time and status. I always thought of her as a trailblazer, but reading Maggie’s struggles and heartbreak made me wonder how Eliot really felt about her love life. I usually hesitate to find too many parallels between an author’s life and their work, but it’s difficult to refrain from doing so in this case. Sorry if this is a bit obscure – I just don’t want to give away too much for those who haven’t read this yet!

I’m glad that I still have more of Eliot’s work to read (and probably reread). The next one I tackle will probably be Daniel Deronda.

Do you have a favorite Eliot novel? Which one?

*Of course, we see that even Tom’s power has its limits in the end.

The Rover: A Classic Play

Oroonoko, The Rover
and Other Works

The Rover
Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn was quite the interesting individual. She was a spy for the Charles II, but when he wouldn’t pay her, she turned to writing to make a living. One of her best known works is the play The Rover. The play is set in Carnival time in  Naples, Italy, in the mid 1600’s.

The plot is pretty simple. Guys and gals were masks, there’s flirtation and confusion, and perhaps some falling in love. Simple, see?

I chose to read The Rover for the 2012 Back to the Classics Challenge for the “Classic Play” category. I’m really glad for the push to read this, as I’m not someone who reads a lot of dramatic works. I think the key to my enjoyment here was that I just read slowly and tried to “see” the play being acted out in my mind’s eye.

I say “enjoyment” because I did enjoy this, but I’m not raving over it. Here are some pros and cons (minor spoilers ahead):

The Stuff I Didn’t Like So Much:

Rape-y dudes:

“I begin to suspect something; and ‘twould anger us vilely to be trussed up for a rape upon a maid of quality, when we only believe we ruffle a harlot.” 

Eww. Especially when they’re “rewarded” in the end. Yes, I know the attitudes are largely a reflection of the times. I don’t care.

I wish there was a bit more going on than just a bunch of people running around in masks, getting confused about who everyone else was and trying to sleep with one another. This is probably an unfair criticism, because for what it was it was a fun read. The silly plot does make it approachable, even when it is difficult to keep all the characters straight.

The Stuff I Liked:

It opens with women alone on stage! And one of them, supposedly destined to spend the rest of her life in a nunnery, is wanting to find someone to get it on with (did I mention I like rebellious women?)

It’s funny! Even though this is an old play, it’s easy to pick up on the witty dialogue.

Want more like this? Try:

  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare. It’s got that “magical” quality, the idea that women’s choices are limited to a suitable marriage or life as a nun.
  • People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks. One of the sections deals with Venice in the 1600s, during Carnival time. Very cool picture of that time and place.
  • The Importance of Being Ernest, Oscar Wilde. Another fun, funny, approachable play that everyone should read. 

Second Selection from a Year of Feminist Classics

The Book of the City of Ladies

The Book of the City of Ladies
Christine de Pizan

I know I’m posting my thoughts on this book well after the other Year of Feminist Classics readers. I really struggled to finish this, and have further struggled with writing up a review of it.

No doubt, this is an important text. It’s certainly “pro-woman” in the sense that de Pizan is defending women from pretty vile attacks by other writers. However, I’m thankful that feminism has come a long way since the 1400s.

For example, there’s a heavy emphasis on virginity and equating “virtue” with virginity. At the same time, there is an implicit recognition that young people, regardless of gender, are typically sexual beings. See the following passage:

This lady (Minerva) was not only extraordinarily intelligent but also supremely chaste, remaining a virgin all her life. It was because of her exemplary chastity that the poets claimed in their fables that she struggled long and hard with Vulcan, the god of fire, but finally overcame and defeated him. This story can be interpreted to mean that she conquered the passions and desires of the flesh which so vigorously assail the body when one is young.

There were times when her arguments sounded depressingly familiar:

“Yet there are still those men who go around claiming that women know nothing of any worth. It’s also a common way to mock someone for saying something foolish by telling them they’re thinking like a woman.”

Poster from 2012 movie Think Like a Man

How much has society really progressed when in 2012 we have a movie based on Steve Harvey’s book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man?

Why is “woman” still a slur? Why are women still considered less-than? It’s disheartening at times to really think about these issues.

While The Book of the City of Ladies may be interested in dismantling gender based privilege (although that’s certainly debatable), it is very interested in propping up other systems of oppression, such as heterosexism, classism, racism, Christian privilege, gender essentialism – you get the idea. Only certain women should get the benefit of the doubt, should be considered as fully human as their male counterparts.

The last portion of the book was particularly difficult to complete. It’s basically a list of a bunch of early female Christian martyrs who died horrifically. Far from serving as example of how to live my life as a proper woman, it made me thankful that my family left Catholicism shortly after I was born, so these stories didn’t give me nightmares when I was a young child!

At the end of the day, I’m glad I read this. It’s probably the oldest book I’ve ever read in it’s entirety, so that’s something 🙂 Just not exactly a “fun” read.

First Up in the Back to the Classics Challenge: The Good Earth

The Good Earth

The Good Earth
Pearl S. Buck

I chose to read The Good Earth as part of the 2012 Back to the Classics Challenge because it is one of those books that I always thought I should read but never actually got around to. Or so I thought.

After reading the first few pages, I kept thinking it seemed awfully familiar. Oh, well – I probably picked it up and skimmed it at some point. I kept reading, thinking I’d come to a point that I hadn’t read before. Finally, I was forced to realize that I have read this book. I think it must have been a few years ago, when I was teaching high school. I once had my students read a historical fiction book and then research what that time period was really like and compare it with the book they read. While I was preparing this assignment I checked out several books from the school library and read them. This must have been one of them.

Anyway! On to the book.

The Good Earth is set in pre-WWII China, although the exact dates are fuzzy. From what I’ve read, it’s intended to be rather contemporaneous with its writing (it was published in 1932) but at the same time, it spans about 50 years. The protaganist, Wang Lung, begins the novel as a young man of about 20, and is in his seventies by its conclusion.

Wang Lung starts life as a poor man, forced to marry a slave girl in a rich house as there is no one else for him. Still, Wang Lung is excited about his wedding day. The first scenes in the novel were my favorite of the whole book:

This cauldron he filled partly full of water, dipping it with a half gourd from an earthen jar that stood near, but he dipped cautiously, for water was precious. Then, after a hesitation, he suddenly lifted the jar and emptied all the water into the cauldron. This day he would bathe his whole body. Not since he was a child on his mother’s knee had anyone looked upon his body. Today one would, and he would have it clean.

His wife, O-lan, ends up being the best purchase he ever made.  At first, it seems that Wang Lung recgnizes this, although he would never admit it aloud to anyone, nor does he truly admit it even to himself. As the years go by and struggles pass, he takes her for granted more and more. It’s heartbreaking.

None of the relationships in the book seem to make much sense, at least through an American lens (and of course, it was an American who wrote this). The traditional Chinese concept of filial loyalty seems hopelessly flawed. Family members take advantage of one another, and use threats to ensure compliance with “proper” behavior. At the same time, this system seems to be falling apart in the younger generation.

Wang Lung is caught in this time of upheaval. He’s and old fashioned farmer with traditional values trying to do the best he can in an era of uncertainty. He worries what will happen after he’s gone. Will his sons continue to work the land, which was been the family’s source of social and financial ascension? Or will they abandon it for other, more cosmopolitan pursuits? And if they leave the land that has given them so much, what will happen to them?

The answers, at least for Wang Lung, are unknowable.

Back to the Classics Challenge

Sarah over at Sarah Reads Too Much is hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge 2012. She’s selected nine categories, and there will be prizes for successful completion. Prizes! Woohoo! Of course, I am adding a little twist. All the works I’ll read will be by female authors.

  • Any 19th Century Classic: The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot. I really loved Middlemarch and enjoyed The Lifted Veil. I want more Eliot! (done)
  • Any 20th Century Classic: Silent Spring, Rachel Carson. This is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time, and it’s certainly a classic that’s left its mark on the world.
  • Reread a classic of your choiceBeloved, by Toni Morrison. I read this in high school, but just didn’t like it. I recently read another Toni Morrison book, A Mercy, and loved, loved, loved it. Now I want to go back and give Beloved another chance. *Update: replacing this with Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. (done) 
  • A Classic Play: The Rover, by Aphra Behn. Okay, this may be a stretch for a classic, since it’s not famous like Shakespeare’s work, but there aren’t many widely read female playwrights. I recently learned about Behn. She was the first English woman to make a living from her writing, after King Charles II stopped paying her for her work as a spy. (done)
  • Classic Mystery/Horror/Crime Fiction: Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier. I’ve been inspired by  the Discovering Daphne readalongs hosted by Polly of Novel Insights and Simon at Savidge Reads, and I’m going to give  Dame du Maurier a try. 
  • Classic Romance: Wuthering HeightsEmily Brontë. I’m sure I read this in high school, but it has not stuck with me at all. I’m hoping a reread will give me more appreciation. 
  • Read a Classic that has been translated from its original language to your languageDeclaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen, Olympe de Gouges. De Gouges was an outspoken feminist and abolitionist during the French Revolution. She died by guillotine during the Reign of Terror. Her Declaration was a response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which had been adopted by the French General Assembly. It was meant to point out the ways that the French Revolution had failed women. ***Update: I’ve swapped this one out for The Book of the City of Ladies, by Christine de Pizan. Written in Middle French. (done)
  • Classic Award Winner: The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton. This book was awarded the Pulitzer in 1921, which was the first time a book by a female author won the prize. Of course, it was only the third year it was given out, so that’s not too shabby! (done)
  • Read a Classic set in a Country that you (realistically speaking) will not visit during your lifetime: The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck. I would go to China, but it’s not anywhere near the top of my list. And I’ve been wanting to read this, so on the list it goes. (done)
So that’s the plan. I can’t promise I’ll stick to the list exactly, but at least it gives me a starting point.

What’s your favorite classic work by a female author?