#CBR6 Review #56: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

I’ve read two Edith Wharton novels, so I’d consider myself a fan. I thought The House of Mirth, while extremely depressing, was very compelling and engaging. The Age of Innocence has been my favorite so far, because it is an elegant novel. Also, I read it for a class The Chancellor and I were in when we first started seeing each other, so…yeah. There *might* be a touch of nostalgia surrounding it. I’d never read Ethan Frome, but I remember a student complaining about having to discuss the broken pickle dish in high school. I always wondered what that was about.

As it turns out, I needn’t have wondered. Ethan Frome is a not-at-all-subtle tale of irony and broken love. Ethan is foolishly married to the hypochondriac Zeena (short for Zenobia, which reminds me of Zenobia from Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, and seriously, what is it with these American authors???) while pining for her cousin, the beautiful but empty-headed Mattie Silver. Ethan’s longing for Mattie is the stuff Twilight is made of–heavy sighs and panting and blushes and eroticized abstinence. It’s all very junior high. So of course Zeena decides the time has come to pay an actual servant girl actual wages, and she decides it’s high time Mattie was sent away. Which leads to the denouement of our story, the grand irony, and the brittle conclusion. I won’t spoil it for you. You really need to experience the WTF moment for yourself.

I am honestly rather disappointed in Wharton. She, the creator of Lily Bart and Ellen Olenska and May Welland can do no better than a forbidden love between two people who have less erotic tension than THESE TWO JOKERS?

Bella-edward-biology

I mean, if you’re doing the “forbidden love” motif, make it good. Edith Wharton, she the goddess divine of the most twisted Daddy fantasy I’ve ever read (have you ever read “The Palmatos”? I am no seeker of father-daughter erotica, but that is some kinky stuff right there*) can’t even get it up to give us some over-the-bra action. And for what? For the most hamfisted imagery of a broken pickle dish. A BROKEN PICKLE DISH.

My indignation knows no bounds.

 

*Fun story: When I was a wee sophomore in college ten years ago, I took an American literature survey course, which is where I read The House of Mirth for my research paper. My professor, a very gentlemanly older man (now retired) offered me his scholarly book, The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton as a resource. This is where I stumbled on the fragment Wharton had titled “The Palmatos,” as well as the tidbit that her husband had nicknamed her Pussy Willow. So of course when doing my paper on The Age of Innocence four years later, I made The Chancellor read it without any context or warning. He married me, though he has yet to forgive me for it.

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#CBR6 Review #55: Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane

In a shocking twist, I read another depressing book by an American author. Something is wrong with me. I think I need a good dose of something safe and saccharine after this.

So: Maggie Johnson is a beautiful and innocent girl growing up in a city slum. Her parents are drunks and her brother Jimmie is a fighter, not a lover. What’s a girl to do? Apart from trying to clean up after her mother and keep Jimmie from fighting, she falls in love with his friend Pete, a supposed “good guy,” but only if your average good guy is Alec D’Urberville and not Mr. Darcy. That’s what kind of novella this is. Of course, poor naive little Maggie takes the fall for this and her fate, as foreshadowed in the title, is a grim one indeed.

It’s kind of remarkable that Crane died so young but left such an indelible literary mark. His work is uncompromising and unflinchingly dark, but he casts a very realistic glimpse at life in the Gilded Era. Women and children suffered in ways that men did not suffer, and that’s what I gleaned from poor little Maggie’s story. The ruin of a woman was seen as a catastrophic family crisis, but no one actually accounted for the woman’s options or set of choices that could prevent her from being “ruined.”

I would definitely teach this book over The Red Badge of Courage. It’s small but significant for the dissolution of the family in industrial America, and it’s a searing glance at the way women were treated at the turn of the century.

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#CBR6 Review #54: A Streetcar Named Desire

I read The Glass Menagerie in college, but somehow missed out on the crazytown show that is A Streetcar Named Desire. I’m telling you, these American writers did not get hugged enough as kids. And now they’re taking it out on me.

I knew very little about Streetcar before I read it, but I do remember something about a young and beautiful Marlon Brandon yelling “STELLAAAAAAA!” And really, the play is quite simple in concept: Blanche DuBois is a faded Southern belle who comes to live with her sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley in the city. She’s mournful over the lost family home and her aging process, and she is desperate to fulfill her destiny while clinging to the family manners. And yet a brutal conflict with Stanley will call everything we know about the family into question.

Don’t get me wrong, this play is amazing. Blanche is one of the most unforgettable and fragile characters ever created. But yikes. The breakdown of the human mind and the suffering it produces is really hard to read/sit through.

Also: can I go on a brief rant about Stanley? I do not find brutish, rough men sexy. Not even the least bit. He’s violent, he’s rude, he’s overpowering, and he’s just plain mean. There must be a masochistic streak for women who find him attractive. Or maybe it’s just after my years of longing for Jane Austen heroes, I’m kind of spoiled for any other? Who knows. Either way, I feel about Stanley-love the way I feel about Heathcliff-love. Really? (I also hate Wuthering Heights, but I’ll save that rant for later. It can be its own post).

In short: read A Streetcar Named Desire, but don’t be fooled by young Marlon Brando’s abs. The end.

 

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#CBR6 Review #53: The Invisible Thread by Yoshiko Uchida

When we Americans talk about World War II from a cultural context, we (rightfully) discuss the Holocaust. It was a horrible crime against humanity, and we should never be allowed to erase the depths to which the human soul can sink. However, we never talk much about the crimes happening on our own soil–namely, the internment of innocent Japanese-American citizens, many of whom were born and raised in the U.S., and most (if not ALL) guilty of nothing whatsoever than looking “Japanese. Yoshiko Uchida’s memoir, The Invisible Thread, is a true account of her uprooting by internment and the means by which she, her sister, and their parents had to build their life back together.

I won’t summarize it for you here, because The Chancellor’s review is excellent and smartly stated. Read his review first, is what I’m saying.

I’ll only add this: I was heartbroken and heartsick for Uchida and her family. Her narrative voice is clear and strong and appeals to you on so many levels. She doesn’t sugarcoat the past, and she doesn’t gloss over the less than savory aspects of her internment. What really broke me was the way she and her family could not believe the betrayal they were experiencing at the hands of the country they trusted. It’s a difficult sentiment to express, much less to swallow. Uchida balances this shameful and humiliating experience with a graceful and honest voice, one that draws you into her life and makes you want to cheer for her.

I’m so glad I read this book. I think this should be required reading in the middle and high schools (really, for any American), and I’m baffled that it’s out of print. I am definitely teaching this with my own college freshmen this fall.

 

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#CBR6 Review #52: White Fang by Jack London

First of all, a confession. I was, like, one of a teeny handful of girls my age who didn’t care for horses. Everyone was all about Black Beauty and the Black Stallion, and tons of other horseback-riding paperbacks, and I was all, “Eh. I’ll take dolphins” (Misty of Chincoteague was not half bad, but I liked the story, not the horses). Ergo, I thought Black Beauty was a horribly depressing book, and no amount of horse porn could redeem that book for me. I realize it’s very important to raise awareness about the maltreatment of animals, but reading about it feels me with unbelievable distress.

After finishing White Fang and discarding The Call of the Wild prior, I have only this to say: Jack London is the Black Beauty of dog-writers, and I DO NOT APPRECIATE IT.

White Fang opens with two men on a sled conveying a man of some nobility who has died in his coffin back to civilization. And slowly, their dogs get picked off and eaten by wolves. One man tries to go after them with a shotgun, and all we hear is that he doesn’t return. Really, Jack? REALLY? You give us gory descriptions of dogfighting, and yet you can’t say candidly that a man was eaten by wolves? The WTFery just continues from there. One of the wolves, the she-wolf (in the closet) turns out to be White Fang’s mother. We hear about his puppyhood and his mother’s submission to Gray Beaver, an indigenous man, and the struggles of submission to Gray Beaver. White Fang, a wild 3/4 wolf, struggles to survive in the nasty pack of dogs. And then, at the apex of his existence, Gray Beaver is tricked out of ownership to a terrible man named Beauty Smith and White Fang is turned into a fighting dog. It’s truly awful, and not even the resolution can make me forget about the dogfighting scenes.

Jack London has some interesting commentary on the nature of human kindness and on the effects our poor or fair treatment of less fortunate creatures can have long-term effects for both good and ill. But it’s kind of hard to wade through, sometimes.

 

 

 

 

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#CBR6 Review #51: War Dances by Sherman Alexie

*Disclaimer: this book was read via audiobook.*

Sherman Alexie’s writing never ceases to astonish me. He is brutally honest while also being personal, funny, and witty at once. I appreciate the stories he tells, and the way he tells them keeps me interested and engaged. I saw the audiobook at my library and what got me to check it out was his narration of the book–well worth it.

War Dances is a collection of short stories and poetry, like much of his other work. One that really broke my heart was “Breaking and Entering.” Alexie wrote this story in 2009, but it eerily mirrors the Trayvon Martin case, especially with its discussion of the adult man’s perspective. I felt horror, I felt pity, I felt profoundly uncomfortable, but that’s how Alexie wanted me to feel, I am sure. He packs a punch in his stories, but makes you come back for more. There is a lot of autobiographical material in his writing, which adds an extra element. “War Dances” is especially poignant for the way it builds and moves backward and forward in time. The conflict crescendos to the resolution which is moving and slightly painful at the same time.

Of course, not all the stories are alike. There’s an uneven quality, and there were some stories I liked better than others. But that’s a reader’s personal opinion. I never knew that he wrote poetry, and hearing it, as opposed to reading it, was a mixed experience. On the one hand, I didn’t get to see the stanzas or experience the ebb and flow of lines for myself. On the other, hearing Alexie’s inflections and rhythms as he read his own work was an awesome and intimate experience.

I’ve decided to seek out as many audiobooks where the authors read their own work as I can. It’s a cool experience. War Dances is well worth reading, and I am going to find more of Alexie’s work to read. It’s a challenging but fulfilling reading experience.

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#CBR6 Review #50: Ice Bound: A Doctor’s Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole by Dr. Jerri Nielson

My book club chose this book for our next month’s reading selection. I’m not a big fan of biography or nonfiction by people who’ve just emerged from an adventure–I feel that they don’t spend enough time introspecting on what’s happened (though the events themselves may be fresher in memory). After reading this book, I remember why I don’t like this genre.

First, I need to separate this review into two parts: content and style. Let’s talk content first. Dr. Jerri Nielson, an ER doctor, has gone through an acrimonious divorce and lost her adolescent children to her abusive ex-husband in the process. Living iwth her parents and finding no purpose in her life, she decides to take a chance on a one-year stint in Antarctica as a doctor for the South Pole station. The novel chronicles her life over the next year as she adjusts to a new lifestyle, new friends, and a new (extremely harsh) environment. And then, several months into her journey, she discovers a worrisome lump on her breast that becomes large and increasingly painful. With only the most primitive and inadequate equipment and a tenuous internet link to the outside world, Nielson scrambles to diagnose herself–it ends up being cancer. Now, her trip adds another layer of urgency, as she’s stuck on the South Pole for several months and determined to survive until she can be airlifted to a hospital for radiation and chemotherapy. It’s a compelling story, made more engaging by the personal emails sent between her family, her doctors, and her friends.

Style is another matter altogether. Dr. Nielson’s initial chapters were really difficult for me to get through. How important was her divorce and loss of her children to this narrative? Why did I, a third-party, need to know her family’s dirty laundry? Why was it told in chronological order? These and many other writing choices drove me up the wall. There’s an interesting way to do memoir, and a non-interesting way to do memoir, and sadly, Nielson took the latter approach. It’s a compelling and unusual story that could have done with more thought to style and a less passive-aggressive writing voice.

One more thing, and please forgive the judginess that is surely emerging from me: WHY DID SHE LET HER EX TAKE THE KIDS???? I am sorry, I don’t care if my kids would have hated me, but if he had a violent history, if he had already beaten his sons in front of her, would he not continue to do so? I was really angry at her mousy, passive explanation about that. No f**king way would I let an abusive ex-partner snatch custody of my children because I didn’t want them to be “hurt” by the custody battle in court. If it’s their physical safety, I fight for their physical safety, no matter if they hate me. Ugh. I’m done.

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