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Category Archives: really good reads

>The Custom of the Country -Edith Wharton

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You say you’re done with The Age of Innocence. Not so fast. Just hitch up your bustle, loosen up your stays and flop right back down on that horsehair sofa. Settle back for another delectable wedge of Wharton.

The Custom of the Country (1913) was written seven years before The Age of Innocence, but takes place in the New York represented in the latter book’s last chapter. The Old Guard of New York society is still hanging in, but its inexorable grip is being peeled away, slowly and tenaciously, one gloved finger at a time.

The novel opens with a beautiful girl (with a decidedly unbeautiful name) named Undine Spragg who, with her mother and father, newly rich and newly arrived from the midwestern Apex City, are perched at the fashionable Hotel Stentorian. Because her daddy is rich and she’s so damn good-looking, it’s only a matter of time before she marries into the big deals. Mrs. Heeney, a “society” manicurist and masseuse, counsels Undine and her mother daily to be patient about getting in: “The wrong set’s like fly-paper: once you’re in it, you can pull and pull, but you’ll never get out of it again…Undine’s all right. A girl like her can afford to wait…she’ll have the run of the place in no time.”

Undine has her sights set on Ralph Marvell, who resembles Newland Archer in that he’s been abroad and fancies himself broad-minded but it is mostly a veneer; he’s very much entrenched in his upbringing. His one bold step out proves to be disastrous — he falls for Undine. Since she isn’t from his world, she’s practically foreign and he’s charmed by it. When he meets her bumpkin-ish mother, one would think Undine would be undone, but he’s charmed through and through. She meets his family as well and damns herself everytime she opens her mouth. Ralph treats her pronouncements like witty repartee, but his family is aghast.

As the set-up for the romance and the romance itself is grinding through the New York City society mill a bit too slow for Undine’s liking, she tries to help it speed along by asking her father for money for new dresses and one time, she asks him to rent a box at the opera for her for the whole season. Since moving to New York (obstensibly for the single purpose of getting Undine launched into society) Mr. Spragg’s been “a mite strapped” but Undine stubbornly persists and gets everything she wants. Why these common-sense plain folk meekly put up with this late Victorian-era Veruca is a mystery, but Wharton cleverly withholds that for a time, then lets it drop rather late in the novel in an offhand way.

Also arrived in New York City is a red-faced fellow from Apex City named Elmer Moffatt, whose proximity as well as his “spruced up” appearance is enough cause to make Mr. Spragg scowl nervously and Mrs. Spragg reach for her vial of digitalis. Undine encounters Moffatt at the opera when she’s engaged to Ralph and can fairly smell the wedding cake baking, and she’s horrified to see him. She asks Elmer (nicely) to get lost and he obliges, for the moment.

Undine snags Ralph and things go to hell in a handbasket. Even though she’s now among society folk, she’s still working hard to be a big splash, so she’s still spending money like water. The Marvell family isn’t rich, but working for a living is frowned upon, so Ralph is forced to ask his father-in-law for an allowance before the wedding. Undine and Ralph have a son and she’s not terribly interested in staying home and taking care of little Paul.

Meanwhile, Undine has had her Homer Simpson “D’Oh!” moment about society not necessarily equaling tons of money, so she’s already got an eye out for her next conquest, but it’s a mistake she’s destined to repeat. Nothing deters Undine for long, though — she’s a great one for believing in “starting over”. She’s got pioneer spirit, but it runs so amok that it makes amok look normal.

Undine is a fascinating and repelling creation of the Becky Sharp/Scarlett O’Hara variety. Wharton is superb with this character and even more so with poor hapless Ralph Marvell who will break your heart. The Custom of the Country is brilliant and my favorite Edith Wharton novel so far. Really good read — I promise. Go find it.

>February 2011: Book Buying

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>After acquiring a huge load of (I lost count after 30) books last month for free, you’re probably thinking: No. She could not have possibly gone out and bought books. Well, of course I could and did. You must be thinking of someone else. I almost made it through the month without opening my wallet, but books happen. Two of them this time:

1. The Sum and Total of Now – Don Robertson. I bought Robertson’s wonderful The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread back in April, 2008 and gobbled it down almost as fast as the object in the title. I never meant for three years to pass before buying the rest of the trilogy. One night about a week ago, I woke up with the sweaty dreadful conviction that the new edition of The Sum and Total of Now was going to become as difficult to find and as expensive as its hardback ancestor from the late 1960s. To hell with that. I made my move.

2. The Greatest Thing That Almost Happened – Don Robertson. Bird is the word. A body in motion tends to remain in motion. Plus, my Inner Completeist Bookworm was clamoring for me to complete the trilogy. I had to. Buying the second book and not the third would have been like playing only the first three notes of Beethoven’s 5th.

I suppose I should feel ashamed of my book gluttony, but when I think of those two books winging their way across the ocean to be with me, I can’t help but feel pleased. In fact, I would like nothing more than to set up a lawn chair in the lobby of my apartment building and spend the days with my eyes trained on the wall of mailboxes until they arrive.

>February: Short Month, Short Reviews

>I know that I said back in the 1990s sometime that I wanted an engrossing career, but teaching is a jealous bastard. It wants every little scrap of me. When I go deep to read, ponder and write, it catches me and yanks me back up by my hair and exposes me to the mental equivalent of harsh florescent light and the cacophony of a construction site. It’s the first day of the semester, and teaching has already covered the nap of my mind like a nest of prickly burrs. I’m not going gently into that good classroom, am I? Vacation, I will miss you like hell, mourning those shapeless hours in which day and night were when I damn well said they were.

Since I’m feeling too frenzied and distracted to write proper reviews, flirty little capsule looks at the ten I read for February will have to do for now.

1. Mother Love, Deadly Love – Anne McDonald Maier. This true-crime book is about the infamous case in 1991 of a Texas mother who was ready to kill in the name of cheerleading. The mom, Wanda Holloway, was obsessed with her daughter becoming a high school cheerleader, so she unsuccessfully attempted to put a hit out on the mother of one of her daughter’s rivals. Crazy stuff. As with most true-crime books, the author tends to put too much of her own scornful opinion into the pages. A quick, fun read if you’re in that special mood for equal parts of ludicrous and horrifying.

2. Book Lust To Go – Nancy Pearl. My bookish heroine and girl-crush kicks smartly into armchair traveling mode, recommending both fiction and nonfiction from all over the world.

3. The Custom of the Country – Edith Wharton. I’ll do a proper review of this 1913 novel later. For now, just know that this is my new favorite Wharton novel. It’s like The Age of Innocence with the corset strings tied not quite so tightly. Highly recommended. Now go read it.

4. To Paris Never Again – Al Purdy. I’m going to write a proper review of the last collection of poems Al Purdy published during his lifetime. After being away from poetry for so long, I’m really developing an affection for it again, thanks to Al.

5. Freedom – Jonathan Franzen. I never get these things right, but here goes: I predict that Jonathan Franzen will win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year.

6. Your Right to be Beautiful – Tonya Zavasta. I can knock down the ageing process and kick it in the groin if I start eating a raw food diet comprised mostly of fruit and vegetables and generous daily helpings of seaweed. Apparently my love for caffeine, chocolate and the more-than-occasional French fry is what’s making me look like I use a contour map for a pillow.

7. Adventures With The Buddha – Jeffrey Paine (ed.) Since at least the last part of the 19th century, Westerners have been travelling to Asia to seek peace and spiritual fulfillment and writing about it. This book is a sampling of those writings. I found the excerpts quite choppy, but still entertaining.

8. The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton. This novel about New York Society in the 1870s shows the strong influence that Henry James had on Edith Wharton, but Wharton is supple where James is often not, and she never gets buried under a ponderous mass of prose. Her writing is powerful and there is so much going on under the surface that The Age of Innocence is now one of the novels that I will revisit over the years. I also watched the 1993 movie, or, I should say in this case, motion picture.

9. Carrie – Stephen King. This story of a misfit-turned-prom-queen-turned-avenger seems so literary. Weighing in at a trim 253 pages, here’s none of the Dickensian bloat that plagues some of King’s later books. I haven’t read this one since it was first published, and gobsmacks me to realize that this was a first novel. Even readers who don’t like horror or Stephen King should read Carrie and check out the 1976 Brian DePalma movie of the same name as well.

10. Me Write Book: It Bigfoot Memoir – Graham Roumieu. Wow, I really went off the rails after the Wharton book. This delightfully, grubbily illustrated no-holds-barred memoir written in Biglish (Bigfoot English) is so much fun. Nasty, silly, profane, a gross-out fest, an encyclopedia of yuck — I can’t praise it highly enough.

Sigh. That was really fun, but work beckons, inflaming my sighness. I feel kind of like Merle Haggard: Is the best of the free life behind me now? Are the good times really over for good?

>Shall I Tell You What I Liked, What I Really Really Liked?

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I must be on the road to Curmudgeonville. When I did my stats for 2010, I talked about the books I didn’t finish and the books that annoyed me to no end until their ends, but never once did I give a hearty shout out to the reads that made me smile, made me think, made me miss my subway stop, made me growl at people to piss off, I’m busy reading and just all around made me happy I’m a bookworm. Let me fix that now.
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1. Wild Swans – Jung Chang. This memoir of one family’s life under Mao Zedung’s rule both educated and horrified me.
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2. Frozen In Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition – Owen Beattie & John Geiger. At least once a year, a book engrosses me so much that I miss my subway stop. This was the book and I had to backtrack 3 stops.
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3. Virginia Woolf: A Biography – Hermione Lee. Woolf finally got a biographer who was perfectly attuned to her sensibilities. The chapter about her reading life is the showstopper.
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4. Flashman and Royal Flash– George MacDonald Fraser. The cowardly, unrepentant bastard has stolen my heart and left me laughing while all the while giving me a good dose of history.
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5. The Killer Inside Me and The Getaway – Jim Thompson. This is the noir I’ve been waiting for. This is bleakness worth embracing.
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6. You Gotta Have Wa – Robert Whiting. Change Japan to Korea and professional baseball to teaching English and you’ve pretty well got the story of my life –and my coworkers’ — right now.
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7. The Giver – Lois Lowry. I love how the dystopian society is revealed slowly, layer by layer.
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8. The Lost City of Z – David Grann. The life and disappearance of explorer Percy Fawcett is skillfully written and illustrated with dozens of excellent photos. And the ending? Nothing but net.
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9. True Grit – Charles Portis. Beautiful use of antiquated language coupled with a rawboned adventurous plot. As Donna Tartt pointed out in her fabulous afterword to this novel, Mattie Ross is no Huck or Scout. She’s more like Captain Ahab’s little sister.
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10. The Women – T.C. Boyle. Famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his series of mistresses and wives are an endless source of fascination to a shocked and scandal-hungry American public. Their stories are told in a florid, blustery style remininscent of Wright himself, coupled with a series of hilarious passive-agressive footnotes by an older Japanese architect who, in his youth, was one of “Writeo-San’s” minions.

Paring this list down to 10 was difficult, because it was such a great reading year for me.

>October 2010: Buying

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Only three this month. I can restrain if I want to, but it’s a hateful business.
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1. True Grit – Charles Portis. My copy — the 1969 movie tie-in with the folk art painting of the girl and her horse on the front cover and Kim Darby and Little Blackie on the back cover (left) — is back in Missouri. Impatient to re-read the book before the new movie comes out on Christmas Day in the US, I ordered a newer edition (right) from Amazon. Much to my relief, Mattie, Little Blackie, Rooster, LaBoeuf and the rest of the gang arrived safely on Thursday. I was worried that it would get stolen from my mailbox and flung about like my Flashman books did last summer. I prepared myself. Had it gone missing, I was planning to knock — no, make that POUND — on every damn door in this apartment complex.

2. Jazz English Book One Workbook – Gunther Breaux. Only $4.00 (USD) and a steal! Jazz English is my very favorite textbook for English conversation. People borrow it from me and forget to return it and I go out and get another copy. I got to meet Gunther Breaux at the recent (October 16-17) KOTESOL conference, and I hope I didn’t totally gawp and burble. Professor Breaux gave such a great motivational talk about how to test speaking ability that I went all the way from wanting to puke if I had to teach another conversation class all the way to raring to get at them and wishing that my schedule could be nothing but conversation classes.

3. Jazz English Book Two Workbook – Gunther Breaux. Yes, I’m a fan! Go Professor Breaux! Yes, I want to apply for a job at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies so I can breathe the same air….okay, gotta stop. I’m starting to remind myself of Annie Wilkes. Not. Good. Atall.
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It’s a little early to report/confess my buying, but I’m done for October. I’m not going anywhere near a bookstore until early November.

>Reading and Watching: The Red Badge of Courage

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Work is not only the toad that squats on my life, it’s also the professional wrestler who’s got me in a headlock and is making me smell his rancid pits day in and day out. Still, it’s hard to keep a good bookworm down. I managed to pop my head out for a few hours and teamed up the book and movie versions of The Red Badge of Courage.
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Red Badge the book manages to be both brilliant and annoying. I’ll do annoying first: Why bother to give the characters names then not use them? Why refer to them as the Youth, the Loud Soldier, the Tattered Man and the Tall Soldier after we’ve already been introduced to most of them by name? Also confusing is that Wilson, the Loud Soldier becomes the Quiet Soldier after their first battle then finally, the youth’s friend.
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The griping about names is akin to nitpicking. I’m ready to do brilliant now: I’m truly stunned that Stephen Crane never saw a day of battle and yet so perfectly rendered it onto the page. According to various sources I’ve seen, he interviewed countless Civil War veterans thirty years after the fact, so he must have either had a rare gift as a journalist or had some outstanding interviews. Perhaps both.
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Equally stunning is that he was only 22 when he wrote the book. I don’t know whether to be more impressed with his amazing psychological insights or his incredible gift for imagery. Crane, who was also a poet, lays on the imagery pretty thick and sometimes it seems as if he’s flinging it against the wall to see what will stick, but this technique often produced some starkly wonderful results:
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The battle was like the grinding of an immense and terrible machine to him. Its complexities and powers, its grim processes, fascinated him. He must go close and see it produce corpses.
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Here’s the one that has launched a million term papers:
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The red sun was pasted in the sky like a fierce wafer.
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For the seriousness of its subject, The Red Badge of Courage has some flashes of humor as well. Here’s the young lieutenant, rebuking his men for too much gabbing and not enough marching:
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“There’s too much chin music and too little fightin’ in this war anyhow.”
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Once in the heat of attack, the lieutenant has to urge his unseasoned regiment on:
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The men stared with blank and yokel-like eyes at him. He was obliged to halt and retrace his steps. He stood then with his back to the enemy and delivered gigantic curses into the faces of the men. His body vibrated from the weight and force of his imprecations. And he could string oaths with the facility of a maiden who strings beads.
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As the novel draws to a close, Crane lapses into Biblical cadence to describe Henry’s/the youth’s coming-of-age, his transformation from coward to heroic flag-bearer:
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So it came to pass that as he trudged from the place of blood and wrath his soul changed. He came from hot plowshares to prospects of clover tranquility, and it was as if hot plowshares were not. Scars faded as flowers.
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Then it was time for the 1951 John Huston movie, starring Audie Murphy. It’s also annoying and brilliant. Apparently, the film was chopped down from a conventional length to a measly 69 minutes. Then, this horribly obnoxious and intrusive narration by James Whitmore was added. Every time the youth (played by WWII war hero Audie Murphy) goes off alone with what’s meant to be a thoughtful look, the narration blares in again as if the audience can’t be trusted to figure things out.
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Even worse, when Whitmore begins narrating at the beginning of the film, he delivers some cornball lines (over the image of a picture of a clean-shaven Crane) about how Crane was a boy when he wrote The Red Badge of Courage and how its publication made him a man. Then he starchily announces (warns?) that there will be more narration throughout the movie. Awkward, cringeworthy stuff.
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One last picky bit: the characters serve up Crane’s dialogue faithfully, but the lines are set off by little pauses, and don’t touch other lines of dialogue — kind of like those really fancy restaurants where the food is all tidily arranged upon presentation.

There were things about the movie I appreciated. Huston’s direction and the great camera work by Harold Rosson keep the film moving along nicely. Murphy is supported by some terrific character actors like Royal Dano, Robert Easton Burke, John Dierkes and Arthur Hunnicutt — their faces are recognizable from countless Westerns. Rosson comes in for repeated close-ups of the men’s weary and weathered faces, but it always feels respectful and genuine. Furthermore, it adds back in a rich layer that the narration stripped away. Bill Mauldin, a WWII cartoonist (who has a face that begs to be caricatured as well) performs admirably in an inspired piece of casting as the Loud/Quiet/Friend Soldier.
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I’m curious to see how the 1970’s TV movie starring Richard Thomas as the youth compares with this version. I can totally see John-Boy as Henry Fleming.
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As for more books by Stephen Crane, I’m hoping to find a copy of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, his first novel.

>I Can Hardly Wait

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