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>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.


>Virginia Woolf, Reading and Me

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Strange as it may seem, I never really thought of Virginia Woolf as a reader before now. Writer? Yes. Intellectual? Yes. Innovator? Yes. Fragile? Yes. Reader? Not really. I was aware and applauded the fact that she loved Middlemarch and vaguely aware that she wrote essays about books but Virginia Woolf, reader? Wow. I had enough “disconnect” to fill a silo.

According to biographer Hermione Lee, “The confident enjoyment of the intimacy which comes from reading is one of the main sources of happiness in Virginia Woolf’s life. Reading, quite as much as writing is her life’s pleasure and her life’s work. She is always comparing reading to other forms of behavior and experience — relationships, walking, travelling, dreaming, desire, memory, illness. When she writes about reading she makes it overlap with those other things. Often her female characters…will look up over the pages of a book or a newspaper at the beginning of their train of thought.”

Yep, there you have it. That’s the litmus test that decides which people merely ‘like to read’ and which ones are Capital-R-Readers.

I’m going to quote Hermione Lee a great deal in this post because she sums up so beautifully. (Between Lee and Woolf, I need not utter a word, but I’ll jump in when I can’t contain myself any longer.)

“[Woolf’s] reading and re-reading she does in the transitional years between Night And Day and Jacob’s Room — Hardy, Proust, the Russians, Chaucer — is as important to her life story as any of her relationships. During this time, she evolved a way of writing about her reading somewhere between notebook, diary, fiction and criticism.” In her essays, Woolf was very much about having a ‘conversation’ with her readers rather than just imparting information and her opinion.

.We book bloggers owe a debt of gratitude to Virginia Woolf for pioneering this style. We not only read and review, we notice our patterns of reading and often a playfulness and wonderful expanse of imagination emerges. For example, the memes about reading that we circulate, the twice-a-year Readathon and the Bookword Game in which we coin new words to describe our reading experiences more fully seem to have been influenced by Virginia Woolf who would have loved our community. I know she’d be 128 years old and probably not alive even if she hadn’t decided to take that final journey to the Ouse River, but I wish she could come back now with her superb intellect intact and be a hella book blogger. Her delight would be my delight.

Woolf never seemed to tire of examining the act of reading. It was so many things to her: A way to be “steeped in imagination” (trust an Englishwoman to come up with such an evocative phrase that would link reading and tea!), a way to receive “shocks of emotion”, escape, release, addiction, erotic rapture (feeling as if she’s “getting full” of a book), vigorous exercise (as in reading Shakespeare), sunbathing (which is what she felt reading essays was most like “a trance which is not sleep but rather an intensification of life – a basking, with every faculty alert, in the sun of pleasure.”) She also enjoyed it when she could find a book to match her mood exactly.

Lee also suggests that “the pleasure of reading was an act of love.” Those elements of “longing for loss of self” are present. Also, being a serious reader means always being involved in a book which means “a perpetual marriage, a perpetual union.”

Woolf says it best: What a vast fertility of pleasure books hold for me! I went in & found the table laden with books. I looked in & sniffed them all. I could not resist carrying this one off and broaching it. I think I could happily live here and read for ever.

I wish that she had noted which book she carried off so I could have a complete picture of her happily making her way to her study or her garden with the book under her arm. The book-sniffing was nice, too — so unexpected, so fun, so human and so unlike my preconceptions of the formidable Virginia Woolf.

Getting overwhelmed by such a myriad of emotions and sensations would be so easy, but Virginia Woolf always had the author in her sights. In a 1926 lecture entitled “How To Read A Book”, Woolf advises her audience to “track your author down”, see him “leaving things out on purpose” or “using certain words.” She advises the reader to become “the writer’s accomplice.”

I was so pleased to learn that Virginia Woolf did not annotate her books. She felt that annotating forced one’s reading onto a future reader. Instead, she kept reading notebooks. Lee describes these notebooks lovingly and meticulously: “She ruled margin the the notebooks, put the number of the page she was referring to in the margin and wrote next to that the quotation or comment.” Lee also notes that the reading notebooks are “a mixed bag” — on the backs of pages she might have a map she made planning Mrs. Dalloway’s walk in London, notes on writing, sketches for changes to hers and Leonard’s house and even paw prints from their pets. The sign of a mess or disorganized mind? Hardly — another example of how Woolf wanted reading, writing and life to infiltrate each other.

When it comes to discussing the reading process, Virginia Woolf seems so generous in sharing how she made meaning out of her reading. When books were finished, there was the process of “making it whole” in her mind. There would be that moment where there was “a flash of understanding” and another moment when the complete understanding of the book would “float to the top of the mind”. After that, “the effort to communicate about the book could begin, and the intimate union between book and reader opened out into comparisons and contexts.”

Virginia Woolf’s father chose not to send his daughters to school, so Virginia and her sister Vanessa were educated at home in her father’s vast library. Throughout her life, Woolf would continue to self-educate and set herself some strenuous reading lists, but she was not a book snob. She argued that reading “The Greats” would be “too isolating” (which is a problem that I have with the slavish following of books like 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die). According to Woolf, we also need trashy novels “obscure memoirs, mediocre biographies…trivial ephemeral books.” Woolf added significantly at one point in her journal: “I ransack public libraries & find them full of sunk treasure.” I believe she would completely understand and get a kick out of my university library with its quirky English selections.

For Woolf, everything was reading and reading was everything. Books comforted, frustrated, changed and it was all part of one big patchwork. Virginia Woolf probably had to have it that way. For those of us who feel passionate about reading, leaving that world for ‘real life’ can be an unpleasant jolt. Wouldn’t someone as sensitive and finely-grained as Virginia Woolf have felt the strain of going back and forth much more keenly?

>Their Eyes Were Watching God

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I find Zora Neale Hurston so fascinating and I loved this novel. It’s difficult to know which one to talk about first.
According to the introduction to the novel by Henry Louis Gates, Zora Neale Hurston was a well-known and respected novelist and essayist for a couple of decades, but the top male writers of that time like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison were critical of her work. It didn’t help that many of her male characters weren’t portrayed in a flattering light. Furthermore, Hurston dared to mention that prejudice about skin color existed among blacks. These things certainly rankled, and Wright took Hurston to task for writing the shuck and jive kind of stuff that condescending white readers might expect from African-American writers while he and Ellison and others were writing seriously about the horror of being a person of color in America.
What Wright & Co. failed to grasp was that Hurston’s work had a scholarly basis. She was an ethnographer — an anthropologist specializing in dialects and folklore. She studied at Columbia University with Franz Boas, one of the pioneers of anthropology. One of Hurston’s classmates was Margaret Mead, who would go on to do some noteworthy cultural studies. Hurston would go on to do research in the south and in places like Haiti, where she wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937.
Unfortunately, Hurston and her work fell into obscurity, probably because she didn’t fit in with writers like Wright, Ellison and James Baldwin. Late in her life, she wrote freelance articles and worked as a maid and at other odd jobs. She died penniless in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave. About 15 years later, Alice Walker, who viewed Hurston as a spiritual mentor and muse found the grave and put up a marker. (It’s interesting to note that another Harlem Renaissance writer, Nella Larsen, suffered a similar fate and has only recently been rediscovered.)
Their Eyes Were Watching God is told in flashback. A woman named Janie comes walking back into her small hometown after a significant absence. She walks past all the neighbors who are on their front porches gawking at her. She goes into her house and shuts the door and her best friend, Phoeby goes to check on Janie, bring her some supper and yes, find out what’s been going on. Janie uses this opportunity to tell Phoeby her life story. (This device seemed a little artificial, but it really works.)
From the first, Janie had an idea that marriage could be love, romance, sharing mutual adventures, etc. Her grandmother who brought her up and has had an impossibly hard life tries to discourage that type of thinking. When she realizes that her death is imminent, she “protects” Janie by marrying her off to an older man who basically just wants her as a farm hand. After a year or so, Janie runs off with an admirer, Joe, just as the husband asks for help in moving a manure pile.
Joe and Janie move to Eatonville where Joe opens a store. Hurston’s portrayal of the culture in that town is rich and humorous and quite attractive to Janie, but Joe wants her to be his trophy wife and no joining in the chat and fun that goes on right outside the store. After 20 grim years of marriage, Joe dies, leaving Janie well-off. Many men want to marry her, or as she tartly notes, her bank account, but she takes up with Tea Cake, a young harmonica-playing drifter 10 or 12 years her junior.
Even though the couple have several problems — Tea Cake gambles, drinks, occasionally beats Janie and both have jealousy issues — Janie finally feels she’s found the marriage she always wanted, and she’s got a co-adventurer as well as a lover. Janie and Tea Cake go “on the muck” in the Florida Everglades. Everything goes well until the Okeechobee hurricane. During this part of the novel that Hurston’s dramatic storytelling gifts are magnificently showcased.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a powerful book. There are one or two scenes in Eatonville in which I felt that Hurston the ethnographer got the better of Hurston the storyteller and it slowed the story down a bit, but that’s a very minor gripe.
Reading this novel makes me so glad that it (and its author) was rescued from near-obscurity and raised to its proper place as a classic American novel during the late 1960s and early 70s. I was also pleased to see how profoundly Alice Walker was influenced by Zora Neale Hurston. The Color Purple with its rich use of dialect, strong female characters (as well as some scoundrelly male characters) and epic storytelling is a perfect homage to Zora Neale Hurston.
Would I read more of Hurston? I’m almost sure that nothing could top Their Eyes Were Watching God but I’m eager to read more, especially some of her essays and Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston’s 1942 autobiography.
Because I read this book during the week of February 14, I’ll always associate Their Eyes Were Watching God with Valentine’s Day and count Janie and Tea Cake among my favorite couples in literature.

>M Is For Mansfield; M Is For Mailbox

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My former co-worker (and favorite Kiwi bookworm!) Willie went to New Zealand for his vacation and brought back this novel about Katherine Mansfield for me. It arrived today, and looks wonderful.
Mansfield by C.K. Stead covers 3 significant years in Katherine Mansfield’s life: World War I was being fought, her brother was killed, she was in the beginning stages of the disease that would claim her life in 1923 when she was only 34, she was surrounded by most of the legendary literary figures of that time and she was on the precipice of discovering how she really wanted to write short stories. I’m a huge fan of her work, so I can’t wait to dig into this novel.

>100 Books By Women

>[Practically everyone else has done this list, so I thought I’d give it a go. I bolded the books I’ve read, and added comments. I’m so glad Ayn Rand isn’t on this list! How did I get so lucky?]

1. Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind
2. Anne Rice, Interview With the Vampire
3. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
4. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
5. Virginia Woolf, The Waves
6. Virginia Woolf, Orlando [re: the other 3 Virginia Woolf reads — it was a Bloomsbury class, OK? I’m not that intellectual or high-strung or anything]
7. Djuna Barnes, Nightwood [I really want to read this book]
8. Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth [Wharton had me at Ethan Frome, but this is the book that convinced me that she was a master]
9. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence [I want to read it. Saw the movie]
10. Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome
11. Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness [Definitely want to read]
12. Nadine Gordimer, Burger’s Daughter
13. Harriette Simpson Arnow, The Dollmaker [I was surprised to see this book on the list; it seems to be an often-overlooked classic. If you find it, grab it and read it. You won’t be sorry]
14. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
15. Willa Cather, My Ántonia [I may have read this, but it would’ve been before 1993, when I began keeping track, so I don’t remember]
16. Erica Jong, Fear of Flying
17. Erica Jong, Fanny [I had kind of an Erica Jong thing going on in my mid-to-late teens]
18. Joy Kogawa, Obasan
19. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
20. Doris Lessing, The Fifth Child
21. Doris Lessing, The Grass Is Singing [I want to read this]
22. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
23. Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time
24. Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres
25. Lore Segal, Her First American [I’ve never heard of this book or author. Off to Amazon to investigate]
26. Alice Walker, The Color Purple
27. Alice Walker, The Third Life of Grange Copeland [Want to read]
28. Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon
29. Muriel Spark, Memento Mori
30. Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie [I’ve never read any Muriel Spark. Guilt feelings abound]
31. Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina
32. Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea [I like her other novels like Good Morning, Midnight better]
33. Susan Fromberg Shaeffer, Anya
34. Cynthia Ozick, Trust
35. Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club
36. Amy Tan, The Kitchen God’s Wife
37. Ann Beattie, Chilly Scenes of Winter
38. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God [I don’t know why I haven’t gotten around to this!]
39. Joan Didion, A Book of Common Prayer [I may have read this, but don’t remember. Want to read]
40. Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays
41. Mary McCarthy, The Group
42. Mary McCarthy, The Company She Keeps [Want to read]
43. Grace Paley, The Little Disturbances of Man
44. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
45. Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter [And the movie’s damn good, too. What a career Sondra Locke could’ve had!]
46. Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart [Want to read]
47. Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood [See Muriel Spark comment]
48. Mona Simpson, Anywhere But Here
49. Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
50. Toni Morrison, Beloved
51. Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm [Definitely want to read!]
52. Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot
53. Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools [I’ve read everything else by her except this…WTH?]
54. Laura Riding, Progress of Stories [Not familiar with this author]
55. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust
56. Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower [Want to read]
57. Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits
58. A.S. Byatt, Possession
59. Pat Barker, The Ghost Road
60. Rita Mae Brown, Rubyfruit Jungle
61. Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac
62. Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus
63. Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca
64. Katherine Dunn, Geek Love
65. Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle [I’m so happy to see this book on the list! I champion it at every available opportunity!]
66. Barbara Pym, Excellent Women [I was on a Barbara Pym kick in the late 80s, but that was before I was keeping lists of what I read, so I don’t remember if I read it or not. Want to read]
67. Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
68. Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant [YES YES YES!!! Tyler’s opinion is that this is her best book, and I staunchly agree, although I love just about everything she’s written]
69. Anne Tyler, The Accidental Tourist [Wonderful book]
70. Nancy Willard, Things Invisible to See
71. Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry
72. Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Disturbances in the Field [I checked it out from the library once, but couldn’t get it read before the due date & never got back to it. Want to read]
73. Rosellen Brown, Civil Wars
74. Harriet Doerr, Stones for Ibarra
75. Jean Stafford, The Mountain Lion [Her collected short stories are her best work, but this short novel showcases her talents perfectly, unlike her bloated and reader-unfriendly but bestselling first novel, Boston Adventure]
76. Stevie Smith. Novel on Yellow Paper [I’ve heard about this book for years, but have never actually seen a copy in all my years of searching. A definite want-to-read]
77. E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News
78. Rebecca Goldstein, The Mind-Body Problem [REALLY surprised to see this book. Good stuff]
79. P.D. James, The Children of Men
80. Ursula Hegi, Stones From the River
81. Fay Weldon, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil
82. Katherine Mansfield, Collected Stories
83. Rebecca Harding Davis, Life in the Iron Mills [Want to read]
84. Louise Erdrich, The Beet Queen [I may have read this. I forgot]
85. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness [My poor first husband, Manfred, Sr. He tried in vain to get me to read this novel, one of his favorites. I kept resisting because it was SF. I regret that now, and resolve to read the novel if I run across a copy]
86. Edna O’Brien, The Country Girls Trilogy
87. Margaret Drabble, Realms of Gold
88. Margaret Drabble, The Waterfall [I really didn’t like this novel. I’d rather have the time back that I spent reading it]
89. Dawn Powell, The Locusts Have No King [I read Angels On Toast and really liked that, so I’d read this novel without hesitation]
90. Marilyn French, The Women’s Room [I read this when I was 16 and was horrified. I wonder what I’d think of it now, 30 years down the road]
91. Eudora Welty, The Optimist’s Daughter
92. Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries
93. Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John
94. Tillie Olsen, Tell Me a Riddle
95. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
96. Iris Murdoch, A Severed Head [See comment about Muriel Spark]
97. Anita Desai, Clear Light of Day
98. Alice Hoffman, The Drowning Season [I read Blue Diary and Here On Earth, but I’m not sure Alice Hoffman is my cup of tea]
99. Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole [Really funny]
100. Penelope Mortimer, The Pumpkin Eater [Want to read]