Reading Challenge #27: A Book with a Title that’s a Character’s Name

Title: Ethan Frome

Author: Edith Wharton

How it fulfills the challenge: This is sort of self-explanatory, but it seems like this kind of title was far more common in days of olde. There are a ton of classics that are named after their protagonists, but there are far fewer that are published now, or at least that’s what a stroll down my library’s bookshelves told me.

Genre: Classic

Quick Description: The story of one New Englander’s tragic life as told from the perspective of an outsider.

Opening line: I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.

In another moment she would step forth into the night, and his eyes, accustomed to the obscurity, would discern her as clearly as though she stood in daylight.

Highlights: Edith Wharton is a master of tragedy and manners. if Jane Austen was a pessimist, she and Wharton would get along very well. Wharton’s writing is immersive and intelligent, as well as remarkably quick-paced for a classic. I also love her introductory statement where she talks about why she chose to write this book and why she wanted it to take this form, which she says is the only thing of value an author* can say in an introduction–a statement about primary aims.

*She refers to “an author” as male rather than female, and I found this very interesting. Either she sees most authors as male, or she aimed this little introduction to be a contrast to men’s (or a certain man’s) statements, which possibly didn’t achieve the things she thought they ought to be doing.

Low Points: Well the whole story is kind of a bummer, really.

Goodreads rating: 4 stars. Probably deserves 5 on the strength of the writing, but it was just too depressing for me to love it enough to give it that rating.

Jane Austen Week: Northanger Abbey

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Hamlette is hosting a Jane Austen week, where lots of bloggers are posting on one of our favorite authors. There are discussions of her books and the various adaptations they’ve spawned in film and further. You can find all of the other posts here!

I chose to write about Northanger Abbey, one of the more overlooked Jane Austen books. It’s quite different in tone from Pride & PrejudiceEmma, or Sense & Sensibility. The heroine is a bit more naive, easily excited and frightened, and in the end learns that life isn’t like the Gothic novels she loves to read. It’s still social commentary, but in a very different way. Instead of being a novel of manners and conversation, it tends towards the meta-fictional; it’s a discussion about the nature of writing itself and how the novel and its author fit into the shape of the culture.

Northanger Abbey was the first book Jane Austen completed for publication, but it was not actually published until after she died. She sold the manuscript under a different title to the London bookseller Crosby & Co. They never published it, and eventually sold it back to Jane Austen’s brother. She ended up changing the main character’s name from Susan to Catherine and did some more revision, but ultimately it wasn’t published until six months after her death in 1817.

The story is a fairly simple one. Catherine is invited to stay in Bath with some friends of the family. While she is there she makes some friends, and is ultimately invited to Northanger in the days when “visits” lasted for weeks on end. She has a few anti-climatic adventures, and then is asked to leave, but this is Jane Austen so in the end everyone ends up happily.

At its core, Northanger Abbey is a satire of and confrontation with the popular Gothic novel. These novels, which had very little in them except for the macabre and the sensational, were designed to thrill and titillate. Jane Austen, through this work and her others, sees literature fulfilling a different purpose–that of entertainment and instruction. This goes against the more “serious” writing at the time, which suggested that anything written for entertainment at all was not worth the  paper it was written on and was meant for less serious people. In other words, it was meant for women. Austen pushes back against this idea to straddle the line between the two extremes, and by doing so makes her own monumental contribution to literature.

It’s also a novel about a women who learns how to read, not just the books that she so fancies, but the world around her as well. She has to see through what people say and learn to read their motivations.  It’s about a young woman learning that life isn’t as lurid as books would suggest, and that the truth or core of something is usually more mundane than it looks as well as much less good-natured. Austen suggests that this is a good thing–imagination has its place but being realistic means that you won’t be taken advantage of. This is pure speculation on my part, but I suspect that this is a lesson Austen herself had to learn as a writer and a young woman. The fact that this novel was ready for publication first suggests that it might be something of a manifesto for what Austen would attempt to do as a writer in the future.

Catherine Morland is not exactly the picture of a Gothic heroine, which Jane Austen makes clear from the opening sentence, “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her to be born an heroine.” She is missing some of the more essential attributes, namely a dark and dismal past (her family being squarely middle class and still living and her childhood pleasant), a beautiful face (hers is only so-so), and intuition or a sense of fate. In short, she’s exactly the kind of girl who might be fascinated by Gothic novels because they represent the exotic and adventure. As Mr. Tilney tells her, she’s more likely to judge people based on her own good intentions and positive motivations, leaving her unable to understand or sniff out malice or even a lack of candor.

Mr. Tilney is an interesting character who is quite clever and observant. He’s not my favorite Austen leading man because his relationship with Catherine never feels quite as equal as Emma’s and Knightley’s for example or Lizzie’s and Darcy’s. However, he does his best to try and teach Catherine about herself and the world.

Northanger Abbey itself is a particularly intriguing setting for Austen. She often uses great houses as her settings (all of her heroines, no matter their sometimes precarious financial circumstances, live in what I would term a large house and have plenty of servants), but very few of them have the kind of historical weight or Gothic atmosphere that the Abbey does. But Austen does not allow the reader to bask in the romance of the setting, instead she focuses on the prosaic details. Even if Catherine doesn’t realize it at first, Northanger is nothing more than a big house, and is nothing to be in awe of or swoon over.

Catherine Morland wants to find adventures, and surely there is no better way to do so than uncovering secret letters and ancient mysteries. She’s caught spying around the house, of course, invading Mr. Tilney’s deceased mother’s rooms, but the most iconic episode of the book is her discovery of the lists. Catherine gets herself in a tizzy one stormy night and her eyes fall on a cabinet. She simply has to explore it, and she does while the wind howls. Conveniently, the key is in the cabinet, though it takes her several attempts to open the door. She searches every cranny (leaving the locked middle drawer for last)–remembering to check for false bottoms. Then she opens the last drawer and there at the back is a rolled up piece of paper. Before she can read a single word, her candle is promptly extinguished by the wind and she hops into bed, dropping the papers to the floor in her fright. She reads it in the morning, sure that it will contain all kinds of hidden secrets, and find that it contains…a few bills for the laundry and farrier. No episode could more clearly illustrate Austen’s feelings about Gothic novels. After being so scared, after building the episode in her mind up so much, there was nothing there but the trappings of economic privilege.

While Northanger Abbey is not my favorite Jane Austen novel, I think it’s a great one–especially to learn about Austen’s place in the literature of the era and to understand her opinions on novels. Although she’s often lumped together with the Bronte sisters, her goals in writing were very different. She presents herself in this first offering as a witty and independent mind whose goal is to reflect society back to itself, showing how the world has shaped the lives of the women living in it. Catherine may be one of her sillier protagonists, but she still shows the pressures of growing up into womanhood. If you haven’t read this one before, or you haven’t read it in a while, it may be time to pick this book up.

Reading Challenge #26: A Book By an Author From a Country You’ve Never Visited

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Title: One Hundred Years of Solitude

Author: Gabriel García Márquez

How it fulfills the challenge: Márquez is from Colombia, and I’ve never been outside of North America

Genre: Literary Fiction/Classic

Quick Description: A sweeping family saga in a small Caribbean town filled with super long lived residents and plenty of mystery and intrigue. It follows the lives of the members of the Buendía family through multiple generations. Each generation has their own triumphs and tragedies and in the end the ultimate struggle is against forgetting–oblivion.

“He dug so deeply into her sentiments that in search of interest he found love, because by trying to make her love him he ended up falling in love with her.”

Highlights: I don’t even know where to start with this book. There are parts that are a bit difficult because some of the names and generations start to bleed together, but the prose is so intriguing, so evocative that it doesn’t even matter. The tone of the book is always in keeping with the nature of the town itself, and the magical realism is so deftly done that it the magical seems prosaic, though never boring. It was difficult to choose just one quote because there is so much the book says about love, obsession, survival, and death. Márquez is a true master, and I can’t even begin to imagine how amazing it would be to read this book in Spanish.

My Goodreads Rating: 5 stars

My Holiday Book Haul

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I’m so lucky to have such a wonderful family. Even though the holidays were really hard this year because of my Papa’s health, it was still wonderful to take the week with my fiance to see all my family and so many friends back in Portland. I miss them already.

For Christmas, my family does a holiday gift exchange–a “stocking” filled to the brim with goodies of various sizes. My Papa had my stocking this year, but since he wasn’t able to go shopping my Nana took it over. She and my mom and my aunt apparently all had way too much fun at Macy’s on Black Friday and I received a ton of Fiestaware (which is the china/dishware that I was going to ask people to get us for our wedding) in all different colors. And along with my many colored dishes, I was given a ton of used books. Basically the best Christmas ever.

Some of these I actually picked up for myself and then they were added into my stocking (that would be the top three). This is because when I volunteer at the Mini Monday book sale for my Friends of the Library I’m constantly around used books. I really enjoyed E. Annie Proulx when I read her last year, and I liked Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, and the other book just caught my eye.

My mom picked up the rest of the books for me–like me she has a thing for used books. She knows I love to collect older editions of Shakespeare, and a little birdy (aka me) let her know that I wanted a copy of Anne Frank’s Diary and hadn’t read anything by D.H. Lawrence (though I own a copy of Women in Love).

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She also got me some movie star biographies/autobiographies, since I love to read about Hollywood–including Cary Elwes’ book, which I was very, very excited about. I also received Wicked and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which I didn’t have copies of before, and a new (to me) Margaret Atwood book. So much fun!

I’m so excited to get reading! Did you receive a book you really wanted for the holidays? Let me know in the comments!

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten of My All Time Favorites: 100 Years Old or More Classics Edition

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature from The Broke and the Bookish.

I usually don’t like being asked about my favorite book (or my favorite film). There are so many books I love, and it’s difficult to give any answer. Do you say the book you’ve loved the longest (The Wizard of Oz)? The book that influenced you so much when you were growing up (The Diary of Anne Frank)? The series that you reread at least once a year because it’s still amazing (Harry Potter)? The series that blew your mind as a teenager (The Incarnations of Immortality)? Your favorite book by your favorite author (The Importance of Being Earnest and/or Emma)? The best contemporary novel you’ve read in a long time (White Teeth and/or Possession)? Your favorite modern classic (The Master and Margarita)? I have no idea how to judge this. Does poetry count? Do plays? Do you pick one per genre?

And then there’s the classic problem–that when asked this question I forget all the books that I’ve read. Or that I’ve ever read books. I just sit there.

I really need to prepare an answer to this question…

So when presented with this week’s topic–10 all time favorites–I knew I’d have to break it down by genre. So I chose classics. And to make it easier on myself I only picked classics that have been around for over a hundred years. And I didn’t include poetry, though a few plays snuck in. They couldn’t help themselves. They really wanted to be on this list.

Here we go. These are in chronological order.

  • Don Quixote–Miguel de Cervantes (1605)

This book is great–it wasn’t an easy read in high school–but I love that it inspired it’s own adjective (quixotic) and that it talks about a man who believes his own fairy tales.

  • Much Ado About Nothing–William Shakespeare (first performed 1612)

This is my favorite Shakespeare play. Benedick and Beatrice are so witty–I think this is Shakespeare’s most humorous work.

  • Pride & Prejudice–Jane Austen (1813)

Can you even create a favorites list without this book?

  • Emma–Jane Austen (1815)

My favorite Austen work. I have no idea why it speaks to me more than P&P (I honestly identify more with Lizzie). I think it might be because I love Mr. Knightley more than Mr. Darcy. Also the matchmaking is priceless.

  • Jane Eyre–Charlotte Bronte (1847)

I only recently read this book, but it was everything I hoped it would be and now I have to read it again.

  • The Portrait of a Lady–Henry James (1881)

This book was recommended to me by a professor and she was spot on. This book is amazing with a heroine that is as naive and hopeful as she is intelligent.

  • One Thousand and One Nights–translated by Sir Richard Burton (1885)

These stories will always have a special place in my heart. I tend to collect different editions when I find them.

  • The Picture of Dorian Gray–Oscar Wilde (1890)

O Wilde! I will love you forever. Your wit, your charm, your imagination…

  • The Importance of Being Earnest–Oscar Wilde (1895)

Hands down one of the wittiest/silliest plays ever. It’s definitely more a product of its time than anything by Shakespeare, but it does its job so well. And it has the most quotable lines like “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”

  • Pygmalion–George Bernard Shaw (1913)

Maybe it’s because I’ve seen My Fair Lady far too many times. But really I don’t see how anyone could not like this play. It reads really well, and I love the way it discloses its source material right in the title.

 

Did one of your favorites pop up here? Did I miss your favorite classic? Let me know in the comments!