Nothing like some early 20th century scandal

From Goodreads

The House of Mirth is one of those books I was embarrassed to admit I hadn’t read yet. And to be honest, I’ve been sitting here puzzling as to how I got my English degree without it – it screams like a book that should have been given in one of my classes along the way. However, I seemed to have missed it and that’s a bummer because The House of Mirth is one of those books I would have adored discussing in a classroom setting, looking at the character dynamics, symbolism, language etc. As it is, I spent most of the book liking Lily Bart against my better judgment and hoping against hope that the poor girl would make it out of the novel alive. [SPOILERS from here on out] Alas, it was not to be. Though props to Wharton for taking the accidental suicide plot to its conclusion, I kept expecting Lily to simply freeze to death on the streets of New York like other hapless orphans shunned by society.

So, rewinding a little, The House of Mirth is essentially a novel of manners following the beautiful but poor Lily Bart through the upper crust of New York society circa 1905. Lily is proud and vain so she tends to be picky about her marriage proposals which is why she’s still single despite being in society all her life with the one purpose of marrying a wealthy man. Because, that is all Lily is good for; her mother and society have seen to that. Through a series of misfortunes and some major backstabbing, Lily finds herself kicked out of the hallowed circles and trying to work for a living. Needless to say, it does not go well. In the end, Lily’s pride basically does her in and a series of misunderstandings means the one man who does love her (but has the spine of a jellyfish…wait…that may be an insult to jellyfish) thinks the worst of her for most of the book and only has his flashes of insight when standing next to her cold, dead body.

OK, so in college I took this fabulous class called Working Girls which looked at the portrayal of women as workers in fiction from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. During this class (which allowed me to write a paper on how men were superfluous to the heroine’s ultimate goals so you know I loved it), we read Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and as I was reading, I kept comparing that book to The House of Mirth for obvious reasons. Both feature young, down on their luck beautiful girls trying to make their way into New York’s high society. However, Carrie triumphs in the end with her swanky apartment and wonderful career while Lily sadly overdoses in a run down tenement house. So, where does Lily go wrong? I think the difference in the two characters is Carrie was not raised in high society, something Dreiser stresses. Carrie simply carries an inborn sense of beauty and refinement with just the right amount of common sense and heartlessness; Lily is born to money and has it ruthlessly taken from her after she’s been made into nothing more than a beautiful clothes hanger that men fawn over. In fact, there is a scene in The House of Mirth where Lily is part of a tableaux and the men are literally just staring at her; Seldon, the man who loves her, sees her in her truest form while Gus Trenor, the man who’s given her money under false pretenses, sees something he’s paid for but isn’t allowed to touch. It’s a fascinating scene and one where the differences between Carrie and Lily are stark. Carrie is the focus of a male gaze she controls throughout her story, discarding lovers as she outgrows them to end up independently wealthy and single. Lily has absolutely no control over the gaze on her. In fact, she’s a slave to it in her belief that if she’d just submit, it will give her what she wants, i.e. a wealthy husband and social power.

So, that’s as English major geek as I’ll go on you. Honestly, I liked Lily Bart but I’m still trying to figure out why. I admired her moral code – in fact, she impressed me by sticking with it to the bitter end. I kept expecting her to crack, to compromise, to sink to the level of everyone around her but she never did. I also spent most of the book wanting to reach into the book, give her a good shake and yell, “snap out of it!” The same thing that I admired her for, sticking to her moral code, meant it was also the thing that drove me batty about her. She never bends at all or adjusts to her situation – in short, she never grows as a character. The Lily Bart we meet on the first page is the exact same Lily Bart we see depart on the last. Which may be the point for all I know but man was it irritating to read at times. Seldon, her love interest, also fails to change over time. He has potential in the beginning; both characters do but both lack the courage to follow through on anything really. Seldon I may have more contempt for than Lily – he is just flat out wishy-washy. Scared to act, to ask, to do anything but he’s often the first person to become angry and turn away from Lily. As a great romance, it left quite a bit to be desired.

However, as this was Wharton, I wasn’t expecting a great love story. After all, one of the reasons I avoided The House of Mirth for so long was my unfortunate encounter with Ethan Frome as an English major. Fabulous writing…deathly depressing story. I suppose I should be happy Wharton showed some kindness to Lily and killed her off in the end. What The House of Mirth does have is absolutely wonderful prose, prose you want to linger with – it has been some time since I read a book that I took my time enjoying the language of it, the tone of it, the very atmosphere of the book. It put me in the mood for some fabulous BBC drama with lots of velvet, taffeta and tea. As a movie, I almost worry The House of Mirth would be dull because while there is scandal aplenty, it’s only hinted at or explained in reactions from the characters. I wouldn’t want a movie to spell it out for me; the idea of everything happening behind a curtain and yet in front of a crowd is almost as delicious as the way Lily and Seldon react to them through the narrative. A novel of manners indeed.

Curiouser and Curiouser

From Children’s Book Wiki

I grew up on the 1951 Disney version of Alice in Wonderland. I never much cared for it to be honest. It was confusing, lost its own train of thought often and seemed to have no real point. Sadly, it took my wise old self to realize that was sort of the point. I am afraid as a child, I didn’t much care for nonsense. I only learned to appreciate it with age. I also think I never quite forgave it for not being the same Alice in Wonderland I watched on the Disney Channel each morning which was just…friendlier. My sister and I even used to pretend that one was the Queen and one the Duchess from that version (I liked being the Duchess -Teri Garr rules).

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass though have been on my to-read list for a long time and I thought perhaps I was in the mood for some nonsense. Which is exactly what Lewis Carroll wrote. Lots and lots of confusing, non-linear nonsense about the adventures of a small child in a world called Wonderland where nothing was as it was supposed to be. All the characters one loves is there: Alice herself, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, the Red Queen, the White Rabbit and the hookah-smoking caterpillar. There are even more ridiculous poems (hmmm, might be why I’ve never rushed to read it) and changes in scene that one can shake a stick at and yet I liked reading it once I embraced the fact that it would never make sense, no matter how many times I read a sentence.


After finishing the book, I took another look at Tim Burton’s re-imaging of the story with Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway and Helena Bonham Carter (along with a killer supporting cast) and found it to be even more clever than I had originally thought. Where Carroll gives a reader loose vignettes in chapter form, in order to create a sequel, Linda Woolverton (let’s face it, I was going to love it if she wrote it), had to use Carroll’s snippets to create a past for the now 19 year old Alice who has returned to Underland to save her old friends, even if she can’t quite remember them anymore. Alice, who in the original story is sort of annoying at times, becomes a kick-ass heroine who slays the Jobberwocky and then sails off into the sunset on her own, off to see the world after turning down a rather unfortunate marriage prospect (you go girl!). The movie is full of references to the original story but also builds on what happened between the time Alice was first in Wonderland to the moment she returns. The Red and White Queens have fallen out and Underland is torn apart by their argument so now Alice must save the day. I definitely appreciate the story more now than before.

However, I fear the Walrus and the Carpenter scene in the 1951 version will still creep me out.


From Goodreads
Now that the summer reading challenge is over and my vacation is only a fond memory, I thought I should perhaps get back to my yearlong reading goal of getting around to all those books I should have read by now. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller has been on my list a long time. It was one of those books in that genre that I successfully avoided for most of my English undergraduate career. I touched on this when I spoke about Slaughterhouse-Five earlier this year. And yet again, I enjoyed this book for some inexplicable reason.
Well, OK, not inexplicable. Catch-22 is funny. Strike that, it is laugh out loud hilarious at times.  Sure, every character in it is despicable and insane. Sure, it takes making its point to almost annoyingly extreme levels. But it made me laugh. For that, I can forgive it a lot of things.
For those of you who haven’t read it, Catch-22 follows the plight of Yossarian, a bomber stationed in Italy during World War II along with a motley crew of insane colonels, doctors and pilots. I say insane and mean it – there is not a one of them I would trust to see me home safely let alone send up with a plane full of bombs.  Yossarian is convinced there are people out to kill him which, considering he’s in active duty during a war, is perhaps not so insane as it seems. His colonel keeps raising the number of missions he has to fly to go home, there is a major who is a recluse, a chaplain who is being investigated for crimes he may or may not have committed, tent mates slowly building stoves or dead, and a growing list of men who are disappearing, either dead or managed to convince everyone they are. It’s pretty much chaos.
I did find the characterizations fascinating because Yossarian, who starts out seemingly despicable, actually turns out to be a pretty decent guy. Which, perhaps in this book, isn’t saying much but you do end up cheering him along. People I started out liking like Milo, the mess officer who is running an illegal international shipping cartel with the sanction of the US government, turned out to really not be very good in the end. I adored Major Major Major who somehow managed to become a recluse in his own squadron by insisting no one ever see him…until the day Yossarian tackled him to the ground and then after that, no one ever saw him again.  You have Nately who is in love with an Italian prostitute, Arfy, who may be the most clinically insane of them all and Dunbar who is disappeared after he makes one too many common sense remarks.  
The characters helped when the story didn’t. The narrative is often disjointed; making reference to events that the reader hasn’t been told about yet. This seemed clever at first but then just sort of got old. Heller would often belabor a point too long. Yes, everyone is ridiculous and not making sense – the point is made quickly. At times, it was just tedious to read. The chaplain’s interrogation is a major moment where I skimmed because I was just annoyed and bored. The point that there was no point was made within the first paragraph, I didn’t need a chapter going on and on about it. Of course, that is the point; that there is no point. Bother, now I remember why novels of this era and genre are not my favorites.
However, like I said, the book made me laugh and I can forgive it for being a little too in love with its purpose at times. What is its purpose? Obviously, it is a satire addressing the ineptitude and complete disregard for human life that war seems to bring out in people and especially their governments. Heller himself was in the air corps during World War II so he knew what he was talking about enough to poke fun at it and criticize it.
All in all, I am glad I added this novel to my reading list for the year. I think I would have loathed studying it in a classroom but just reading it and being able to enjoy it (or skim it as needed) was entertaining. I wish Yossarian a lot of luck getting to Sweden.

Reading and Watching a Time Machine

So, by now, you may have gathered I am a bit of a Doctor Who fan. He clearly has the coolest time machine, hands down. Nothing can top the TARDIS. Still, the original is kind of cool. For my summer reading challenge, I chose to kill two birds with one stone and read The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, a book that was also on my year-long reading list of books I should have read by now. I also, just to cover all my bases, watched the 2002 movie version of Wells’ novel last night starring Guy Pearce. Let’s just say, the Doc still reigns supreme as the premier Time Traveller in my book.

From Goodreads

Not to say I didn’t enjoy this other time traveler. We’ll start with the book. It was the first book I had read by Wells and I liked his style. Although he included considerably more science jargon in his work than his counterpart, Jules Verne, I was still able to easily follow the logic of his story. I liked the set up of the book, or novella as it is more rightly classified. It’s divided into three main parts. The first section is a dinner party with the Time Traveler (no other name given) and several of his friends where they debate time travel and then the Time Traveler successfully tests a small scale model of his time machine. This section is heavy on the science, with not a lot of plot but it sets the stage for the second, longest section which is when the Time Traveler goes to the year 800,000 AD and successfully comes back and tells his tale to his dinner companions. This sort of retrospective story technique seems to be popular with both Wells and Verne. In a sense, it makes me more comfortable as a reader; if he’s telling the story, he obviously survives the peril of the story. That said, it clearly kills the suspense aspect of the plot. The third, quite short, section is simply the narrator saying that the Time Traveler has been missing, along with his great machine, for the past three years and speculates on whether he will ever return.

The main gist of the story is brilliant; remember, Wells was long before Doc Brown strapped a flux capacitor to a DeLorean and even long before the Doctor started traveling the universe in a Police Box. I love reading the root stories of our great mythologies. The Time Traveler is likable enough if a little bland and he certainly travels to a fantastical place far, far, far into our future. At this point apparently, humans have split into two races. The Eloi, simple childlike creatures, live above ground and the menacing Morlocks inhabit caves miles beneath the surface and only come out at night. The Eloi are likened to sheep for good reason; the Morlocks are meat eaters and the only creatures around to eat apparently are the Eloi. So, the element of cannibalism is a major plot point even if Wells never comes right out and states it as such. Pretty gruesome (and the movie takes it a bit further than I needed to see). Also, the Eloi, childlike to the extreme, makes the Time Traveler’s relationship with Weena somewhat problematic. I don’t think Wells means for the story to have the undertones I was picking up on that relationship but then again, maybe he did. Either way, it was a bit much at times in my opinion. That said, the adventure of the story holds up. The Time Traveler’s war with the Morlocks to get his time machine back is fun to follow and well paced. The novella is definitely plot driven; the characters are rather under developed but again, I’ve noticed this about the early science fiction novels. They are so focused on getting the story out and explaining all the ways it was plausible that the characters sort of fell by the wayside of the bigger agenda of the author.

From Moviegoods

Now, we move on to the 2002 film. Setting aside the rather cheesy special effects (I was shocked to see the film was made in 2002 when I looked – the budget must have been rather low key), I liked this movie. It in no way resembles the novella it is based on other then there is a time traveler who goes to the year 800,000 where humans have divided into hunters and hunted. However, this didn’t bug me and I’ll tell you why. If they’d filmed a straight version of Wells’ story, most of the time you’d be bored. There are pages of explanation; pages when the Time Traveler is just wandering around aimlessly trying to decide how to act next. The sort of style doesn’t make for the most riveting film. However, and feel free to cry foul on me, how they characterized the Time Traveler, or Alex Hartdegen as he’s now called, seemed a bit much to me.

In the novella, the Time Traveler builds his machine because he can; he is a scientist and he wants to explore new frontiers and break boundaries. This fits the time, the spirit, of the age Wells was writing in and trying to embody through his story. The pursuit of scientific discovery itself was a big enough motivator for his character. In 2002, we had to give Alex Hartdegen some melodramatic loss to make him so obsessed in going back in time to fix a mistake that he builds the time machine. People, in one word, lame. I was not a fan of this new plot point. Other ones they added were necessary I think to make the other characters flesh out enough so you cared about them. The Eloi become a fully developed people with their own culture and society (in the book, they just sort of lazed around all day). The Morlocks have a supreme leader who, kind of Borg-like, controls the rest of the pack via mind control. Rule number 1 in action film, we must have a single bad guy controlling all the minions. I also liked the inclusion of the hologram librarian who follows Alex through time; it was a clever way to get information to the audience without going overboard with monologues from the other characters. Also, we need to give props to the Props department – the Time Machine was awesome and, according to IMDB, the biggest and most expensive prop built for a film at that time. I see where the budget went now.

It was interesting to be able to compare the two works, novella from 1895 and film from 2002. I think in many ways, they are reflections of their time; of the expectations of an ever-changing audience and both are worth checking out if you’re in between seasons of Doctor Who.

The Glamour of Train Travel

From Goodreads

I love traveling by train. We took it down to New York City for my 18th birthday and I fell in love. On my first trip to France, a few months later, we did the overnight train from Paris to Toulouse and even had a berth on that train, sleeping three high in the tiniest room imaginable. It was like an adventure and we had so much fun trying to shove our 6 almost to bursting suitcases into the compartment. When I studied abroad, the train was our way of getting around England and we even took the train to Paris from Waterloo (though the Chunnel was less than cool – I mean, it is just one long tunnel after all). I often did the overnight train from Chicago home during my years in Ann Arbor. This was mostly brought on by cheap train fares and my need to avoid air travel for a bit after several really bad flights in and our of Baltimore during my undergrad years. Plus, there is something so wonderful about the train. Settling into your larger seat with leg room, plugging in your lap top and watching episodes of West Wing as you cross Indiana and Ohio. You can see the landscape too, traveling at Christmas was wonderful; seeing the decorations on the houses, catching glimpses of the trees lit and parties happening as the train goes through people’s backyards. There is something wonderfully voyeuristic about train travel in that way.

So, imagine my excitement when I was looking for my Travel/Geography book for the summer challenge when an internet search led me to Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar. Theroux gets on a train in London and goes all the way to Japan and back traveling as much by train as possible. He does this in the early 1970s so the book is quite dated but the magic of train travel never gets old. Theroux is quite likeable as a traveler and willing to speak to his fellow passengers and conductors, to learn as much about where he is as he can. Something the reader must appreciate because the entire book then feels like you’re traveling alongside Theroux.

He crushes a few dreams of mine. Apparently, at least in the 1970s, The Orient Express has lost a lot of the glamour you think it should have and that decades of fiction have saturated it with. You learn that the idea of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the longest in the world at over 6,000 miles is a better idea on paper than in reality. Or I wonder if doing the Trans-Siberian in the dead of December on your last leg of your journey when all you want to do is get home was perhaps Theroux’s problem at that point. Because for the most part, he’s an enthusiastic traveler who braves the unstable railways of a Vietnam not quite out of the war yet, who willing goes off the beaten path to see what he can find. He’s a lot braver than I would be so as a reader, I get to experience things I wouldn’t if I’d tried this trip myself.

I did find myself wondering what this trip would be like now, almost forty years since Theroux made it. Are the cars on the Indian Railways still as posh? Are the dining cars still just noodle booths throughout much of Southeast Asia? What are your companions like on the Trans-Siberian now that communism has failed in Russia? It would be a fun experiment – a lot more expensive these days I imagine than in the 1970s when it seems to have been fairly cheap to travel by rail (and still is in Europe so maybe this holds true everywhere?). Perhaps some day I’ll have four months to spare to try to navigate two continents by train. One can only hope.

In Defense of Food

From Goodreads

I love to eat. Seriously. I’ve always enjoyed food. Which, if you’ve seen me, would be quite obvious. As I became older and got more adventurous, I realized how truly incredible the different food cultures of our world are. However, Americans in general have our diet and we stick to it. We have been far too successful in culling our food into non-perishable, enriched-by-vitamins food staples. Which I’ll be honest, I never really thought about until my two years in Ann Arbor.

A2 is very big into the local food movement, into organic produce and food preparation, as well as into knowing where your food comes from and what is in it. It was a major eye opener for me and one I really enjoyed being a part of and learning more about. It also made me appreciate more where I came from. Syracuse has a massive year-round farmer’s market as well as many local growers who have business deals with grocery stores. Our sweet corn during the summer came from Reeves Farms, a farm I could literally drive to across town and frolic amongst the corn if I wanted to. We picked blackberries from the bushes next to our house or along the railroad tracks at our babysitter’s. We went apple and pumpkin picking in the fall. I grew up around farms and agriculture but it never dawned on me about local versus the major growers.

Fast forward to moving into a town on a ranching side of a state and far off the beaten path for food deliveries. I may have pumped my fist in the grocery store over the weekend when I found a North Dakota grown tomato. After becoming so aware, it was hard to move to a place that continually thwarts me. So, last summer, I turned to Michael Pollan for comfort and dove into The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It was truly an eye opening read and I was fascinated by how our food is produced in this country and why. I also, luckily, was not so completely turned off by food that I didn’t like to eat anymore. Pollan’s tone makes you think, OK, so we do it like this but not everyone in the country does and if you just get creative and pay attention, you can eat more responsibly and also, bonus! eat more healthily too!

So, I was excited this summer to get to Pollan’s second book, In Defense of Food and see what he had to say. As always, his tone is very approachable and logical. He has his own questions that leads him on his research and it’s clear he thinks other people share those questions (we do). The first two sections of the book deal with nutritionism and our movement away from thinking about whole foods into thinking about nutrients such as proteins, vitamins, and carbohydrates. The components of food rather than the food itself. He discusses the politics and changing scientific ideals that allow nutritionism to take hold in our society to the point where it rules what we eat. He then goes into how that shift has not made us healthier; in fact, we’re worse off than before if you look at the statistics. But also, don’t even look at the statistics. Look at the chronic food disease we hear about: obesity, both adult and childhood, diabetes, heart disease. It’s possible certain forms of cancer are affected by our Western diet. A diet we have imported throughout the world, much to the world’s chagrin.

After Pollan has discussed all this, he realizes you’re probably feeling discouraged and frustrated. What on earth CAN we eat then? Pollan gives you one simple rule: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Now, he obviously breaks that into more specific rules to address each maxim. Most of his advice was common sense based but one thing he said really resonated with me: Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t have recognized as food. So simple and yet it never occurred to me!

So, I headed off to the grocery store. Sadly, this particular rule is not easy to apply around here (see lament above) but I took the time to actually read the ingredients in the food I normally buy and then look at the alternatives that I could replace it with. It was slightly disturbing. On some items, I knew maybe one or two of the listed ingredients. Half of the time I couldn’t pronounce the ingredients listed. Not cool. Even the so called “better” alternatives had the same problem for the most part. I think that is where the “mostly plants” advice comes from. At least when I buy a tomato, I know I am getting a tomato (However, I have to assume it wasn’t covered in pesticides or grown in a poor environment of course…).

So, I am taking Pollan’s challenge this summer (I’m hoping summer might be easier. We supposedly have a farmer’s market around here. Maybe I’ve just been looking in the wrong places) and try to stick with things I recognize as food within reason. I don’t think I can be perfect but I can improve and pay attention. I will be what every grocery store fears…an informed consumer!

American Vertigo

From Tower Books

I originally picked up this book to cover my travel category for the library summer challenge but it’s actually ended up being my political one as the book is a combination of travel journal, philosophical discourse, and examination of the state of American political culture. It was a bit more than I was expecting when I picked it off the library shelf. It was also one of the most challenging books I have read in a long time. I spent a lot of time with the dictionary for this one.

Levy is interesting; at the same time he is a post-modern French philosopher who is not writing for the average person. He is writing for a very specific audience. American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville was commissioned by The Atlantic. Yet, Levy does a good job in the travel journal part of the book of making his observations interesting and approachable. He makes an effort to touch every aspect of our culture in each stop he makes. He clearly finds Americans fascinating and not at all living up to our reputation in Europe. He points out oddities that we as a culture don’t notice: the prevalence of the flag in all things, our very conservative culture that also supports seemingly supports sex industries, our fanatical politically correct practices that also mask some of the things still wrong in our country like poverty, backdoor racism and a broken social welfare system that may or may not exist depending on who you talk to.  It was so interesting to look at America through the eyes of a foreigner, someone who knows our history but doesn’t know us as we see ourselves.

That said, you have to work for this book when you read it. Levy is a philosopher. He writes like one so you go in circles sometimes and often by the time he gets to the point, you’ve forgotten where he started. He’s more likable in the travel journal parts like I said; in the Reflections section of the book, I had to really slow down and take my time to understand the points Levy is trying to make about American political culture and perhaps what might come next for our society, for the original Great Experiment, that Levy sees as in crisis with itself and its role in the new century. It is a book to make you think, to make you ask how much has changed since he published it five years ago (hint: I found it still extremely relevant) and how much further we as a country have gone in either of the directions Levy lays out. Have we started to correct the stagnant nature of a society that is dealing with its greatest challenge, success? Or have we continued to flounder, still reeling from an attack that happened ten years ago and the aftermath we’re still cleaning up?

Levy gets into a lot of political theory trying to justify why he thinks America is still working but is heading towards a crisis if it doesn’t watch its step. I will be honest, I didn’t follow all of it but I think for the most part, I would have to agree with him. We are a nation that seems to be ripping at the seams in terms of what we value and how we value it. We don’t so much have political discussion as political scandals and arguments. It seems to me finding the middle ground is becoming the major challenge with more and more people being absolute. Compromise seems to be the exception, rather than the rule. Religion seems to be dragged into things more and more, or at least it seems to me. Or perhaps, I am just paying attention more than I used to. Perhaps I have finally wised up to the great American myth of the separation of Church and State. It worries me. Levy points out all the places the things I take pride in the most are in danger. Freedom of religion, speech…freedom of choice. The idea of individualism, of following the rules and being rewarded. The idea of the frontier, hard work – the so called “good words” that need no definition when you use them.

So, like I said, one of the hardest and most challenging books I have read in a while and I enjoyed its content if not its style. One must always enjoy a book that makes you think and question the world around you.