Monthly Archives: February 2013

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth - Edith WhartonThe House of Mirth – Edith Wharton
Girlebooks, Originally published: 1905
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

There are qualities to The House of Mirth that reminded me of other books around the theme of single women at the turn of the century, such as Thank Heaven FastingConsequencesThe Third Miss SymonsHow do you survive as a girl who is unmarried, and yet brought up for the exact purpose of marriage and nothing else? How to navigate the world of social conventions, of dos and don’ts for women? And how to deal by the time you are relegated to the sidelines of society because you are considered of unmarriageable age or reputation?

Some might call these books bleak. Others might complain about the lack of power in these girls and the unlikeability of the main characters. For me, the themes, characterisation, the painful realism are what made me love Thank Heaven Fasting and Consequences. It is what made me raise my hopes for The House of Mirth to, perhaps, unrealistic heights. I had a more complicated relationship with Wharton’s novel, and with its main character Lily Bart than I had with the books by E.M. Delafield, although it far outranks The Third Miss Symons. Look, perhaps Delafield style just suits me a little better. Perhaps I treated The House of Mirth unfairly by constantly comparing it to the books I had previously read. It is not that I did not enjoy The House of Mirth, or that I did not absolutely love parts of it. By the end it had wholly convinced me. It is just that it would be unfair not to mention my complicated relationship with other parts of the book.

Lily Bart does not lack agency like some might complain Alex Clare and Monica Ingram lack it. She does not subdue to circumstances, or at least, she holds out a little longer. She makes a lot of choices, for herself,for what she believes are her own best interests. Perhaps this is where Lily became a complicated character to like for me. So often she makes decisions that you, as a reader, realise are not for her own good, that at times it becomes hard to believe in her naivety, and to not fall into the trap of condemning her like the society surrounding her might (but which is also always from hindsight, knowing more than Lily does because you have seen this type of story before). The story is written in a way that, for a long time, makes you question whether or not Wharton is condemning her as a “silly” girl, that shouldn’t have been allowed to make these decisions in the first place.. Of course, deep down there were challenges to that socially condemning narrative, and possibly the fact that it makes the reader uncomfortable to be – almost – pushed into the camp of society is what is meant to happen. The fact is: I did not always feel sympathetic towards Lily. And I wanted to feel more sympathetic towards her. Which for part of the story just left me feeling very very conflicted.

On top of that, I felt the story dragged a little in the middle part. In part, this might have been due to my own circumstances, as I had a very difficult time reading anything beyond 10 pages a night at the time when I read The House of Mirth. When I finally settled down and made myself read more than those 10 pages, I quickly fell into the pace of the story again. Nevertheless, I do think it was not all me. Some episodes of circumstances, of choices made that might have been better left undone, were a bit heavy on the details, might have been just a tad shorter to my taste.

But then the latter third of the story happened. And it shook me so deeply. I do not think I will be giving away much when I say that this is a tragic story. Because of that tragedy, being witness to the disintegration of Lily’s life out of prejudice, circumstance, unforgivingness.. my feelings of empathy suddenly leaped and made up for what I had felt was lacking through parts of the story. It cast The House of Mirth in a very different light for me. And whereas previously I feared having to come on here and proclaim to the online world that I knew I should have loved The House of Mirth, but couldn’t, I knew that I might face a much more difficult task: namely admitting that I couldn’t like parts of it, but that I irrevocably loved the ending, and that that ending made me reconsider much of what I felt had been lacking in some other parts. I can see how perhaps the very ending might turn others of (too melodramatic for some, perhaps?), but for me, the last third made the book.

I know, this post lacks any coherent exploration of themes, or any meaningful criticism. But I think Edith Wharton is famous enough, and probably discussed in many a high school, that I need not bother doing that (or perhaps I dare not? – I feel bad enough about saying that I felt some parts of the book dragged a little). If the themes in the first paragraph interest you, if fiction exploring the position of women at the beginning of the twentieth century is of interest to you, if you like books that critique social circumstances, I think you should probably read this. I won’t say you’ll definitely like it, because I know my own feelings about it are all over the place, but I definitely think it is worth a try.

Other Opinions: So, so many.

Cross-posted to the Project Gutenberg Project blog.

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

Library Loot: Rumer Godden

I have not been visiting the library much, as I am trying to read more of my own books this years (so far I have only read 5 so it is not going all that well). But when I saw a message about the rerelease of some of Rumer Godden’s books with new covers by Virago Modern Classics, I was intrigued. I had never heard of this author before (shame on me, I guess), but some of the descriptions did sound fascinating. A quick browse through my library catalogue revealed that they owned two books by the author:

Picture from the LittleBrown website

Picture from the LittleBrown website

A Penguin version of Black Narcissus, a novel about a school run by Sisters in India. Book about mission in Southeast Asia is an instant topic of interest for me, of course! I cannot wait to get to this one.

The other one is a Dutch translation of Thursday’s Children, which is about a boy who always has to accompany his sister to ballet classes, and then decides he wants to be a dancer himself when he quickly encounters cultural prejudice against boys dancing.

Have you read any of these books? I admit I have no clue whether or not Rumer Godden is for me, but I am impatient to find out. I admit, if it turns out I like them, I am very tempted to buy a set of these books. They look so lovely.

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Library Loot is a weekly meme co-hosted by Claire (The Captive Reader) and Marg (The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader) that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

Every Seventh Wave by Daniel Glattauer

Every Seventh Wave - Daniel GlattauerEvery Seventh Wave – Daniel Glattauer
Translated from the German Alle sieben Wellen by Katharina Bielenberg and Jamie Bulloch

MacLehose Press, February 2013
Review copy provided by publisher
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

Every Seventh Wave continues where Love Virtually ends. [Thus, spoilers for Love Virtually from here on out]. Emmi and Bernhard are still married. From time to time, Emmi tries to email Leo, but initially all she receives is the auto reply message Leo set when he moved to Boston. However, when Leo returns from his stay in Boston, Emmi and Leo renew their email contact. And soon that contact starts to slip over the border between friendship and more again, just as Leo has his girlfriend from Boston, Pamela, move in with him.

First, let me briefly state that I like the title for this sequel much better than the English one for the first book. I agree with Caroline that the German title Gut gegen Nordwind captures much more of the book than the rather straightforward Love Virtually. The German title is integrated with the story as the idea of writing while the north wind keeps Emmi up at night is a theme in the novel. Similarly, the idea behind the title for this sequel is part of the story. It has to do with an anecdote and a pretty heavy hint of Emmi towards Leo. However, I won’t reveal more as that might be considered spoiling the book.

As with any sequel, with Every Seventh Wave comes the question if a second book was necessary. I am undecided on the answer. That is to say, no, I do not think it was necessary. Love Virtually is very much a self-contained novel with an ending that works and need not have been revisited. Sure, the ending was perhaps more bitter than sweet, but it certainly fit the story. I was not sure if I wanted to witness that ending being revisited, or revised, in a sequel. And yet, having enjoyed Love Virtually, it was no torturous thought to read this second novel.

Every Seventh Wave is just as compelling as Love Virtually. It has the same witty email exchanges, the same serious undertones (perhaps even more serious at times). Yes, some of the lapses in the story come from the same thing (the “should we meet?” cycle is revisited, albeit in different ways, and sometimes made me sigh), but overall it is a very convincing read. One that you may finish on the couch on a Saturday night. Or during the week because you just want to visit someone else’s life. Love Virtually and Every Seventh Wave for me were escapist reads, but of the most enjoyable sort. For it is not escapism clouded in pink. Instead, there is a realism to it that makes it all the more  compelling.

Every Seventh Wave highlighted some of the excellence of Love Virtually for me. Even things that I had missed in my first contemplation of the book. At the same time, it addresses some of the problems I had with the first installment, or perhaps I should say that it made visible what I couldn’t quite articulate about it in my previous post. Every Seventh Wave managed to sell Emmi to me in a way that Love Virtually never did. Emmi mentions how the ending of the first book, the understanding between Leo and Bernhard, makes her feel cheap, as if she’s a commodity to be traded between men. Yes, I found myself thinking, that’s exactly what made me a little squeamish about it. She also recaptures some of her strength by allowing herself to contemplate her own marriage, and its pros and cons, in a more open and honest way than she did in Love Virtually. (at the same time, it made me wonder if it did not undercut the allowance for diversity of human relationships, which was one of the strengths of the first book?)

I enjoyed Every Seventh Wave, even if I am still not quite convinced that it needed to be written. If you enjoyed Love Virtually, it almost follows that you will enjoy this sequel. In some ways, Every Seventh Wave managed to bring more depth and layers to a story that wasn’t wholly uncomplicated from the outset. There is, I think, a darker undertone to this one that I definitely appreciated. Almost inevitably, there were also episodes that made the story more convenient than it was in the first book. That might not tell you very much, but I am trying not to spoil the manner in which the lives of Leo and Emmi (and Bernhard and Pamela) develop. Let me just say that Every Seventh Wave had its weaknesses, just like I felt Love Virtually had them although perhaps in different places. But despite those minor points of criticism, I felt myself rooting for Emmi and Leo. I felt love, and frustration, and lust, and disappointment along with them. Daniel Glattauer managed to convince me, again.

Other Opinions: Rikkis Teleidoscope, Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, Winstonsdad’s Blog, The Little Reader Library, A Fiction Habit [on the BBC4 Radio Play],  Sasha & the Silverfish, Yours?

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

Sunday Salon: Bookstore Rituals

Bookstores are a little like a safe haven to me. When I step inside I usually feel at ease pretty fast, because I know that I am in a place where most others are looking for the exact same things that I am there for: books.

VanderVeldeGroningenMy favourite bookstore in Groningen. [image credit]

Browsing a bookstore in the Netherlands, where English is not the native language, for me means that I have a set ritual of where I look. I locate the English books section and I go through the shelves set aside for these books. I need not even be looking for a specific title. I admit: sometimes I go into a store just to look at books, see what they have, not planning to buy anything, just to see books. Because Dutch stores have to import their foreign language books and usually have a more limited number of customers that buy them, there is a definite selection in the titles they portray. It is this selection that I am often curious about: Do they have the titles that are receiving the latest hype in the blogging world? Do they have at least a few of the long or shortlisted books for the most recent book awards? Do I recognise some of my favourite books, or ones that have been on my wish list for long? I admit, I judge the store by the quality of their English book selection. Yes, it is unfair for a country in which a majority of the books sold in stores are those published in Dutch. But it is what makes me either love a store, or only go there because it is a bookstore and therefore inherently more interesting to me than, say, a shoeshop.

If I am lucky, the store will also have a separate bookshelf for English books in the Children’s or Young Adult section. This is my next stop in the store. Unfortunately I have to admit that these sections usually only lead to disappointment, as YA books featured in English are often only the very big sellers, like Twilight (again, it makes sense, but it’s not what I’d like to see).

So why do I bother to tell you all of this?

Well, when I was in London last December, and when I visited England and met up with a group of wonderful bloggers the year before, I noticed something every time we entered a bookstore..

Here’s the thing. I always dream of an all-English bookstore. There are a few in Amsterdam, but Amsterdam is at least 2 hours from where I live. I dream of a store where I can enter and not judge it by its having the books I already own, the books I already know about, the books that are familiar to me. I rarely go to a book store in the Netherlands to browse and find new titles, because I know the most effective way to find these books is in my online community where I am more in touch with the Anglophone market. When I am in the Netherlands, my time in a bookstore is limited because I only have so many shelves to browse (five book cases if I am very lucky). So I get to look at all the books they own in English. There is a finite number of books to see. And that is when I leave (with or without a book), because I know that I have seen all there is to see for me. And I can be either happy because I have found quite a few books that I own/want/have heard great things about (this always makes me want to find the shop keeper and tell him or her how wonderful their English books section is), or I leave slightly frustrated by the fact that I am living in a non-Anglophone country.

The thing is, when I enter a bookshop in England, my bookstore rituals go all topsy-turvy. And it confuses me. There is no finite number of shelves to browse (well, there are, but their number is exponentially bigger). There is no looking for the newest titles in between your standard classics, because there are whole shelves of new books. And the Children’s section? I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of books I want to read & touch & have. Same goes for the Fiction section. The Young Adult section. They might even have a separate Classics section.

So what did I do in London? Out of sheer overwhelmedness, I did not browse looking for new to me titles. I had no clue where to begin. Instead, I looked for the familiar, something I had never dreamed I would do in my English-bookshop-of-dreams. Of course, there are a very large number of familiar books. So much so that my partner experienced some of what I experience when we visit a large music store together: I always wanted to see more, him having to wait for me yet longer. The realisation that here are books by A.S. Byatt, by Angela Carter, by Patrick Ness, by Diana Wynne Jones.. They are there, physically there, to choose from. This probably sounds dramatic to any UK, Australian, or US resident, but it is something that definitely made me feel a little in awe. And just a tad overwhelmed. Where do you start? How do you choose? So I browsed the sections that usually make me feel comfortable: I looked for authors familiar to me but whose books I did not own. I held their books in my hand. Then I moved to the Children’s section, because there is something comforting about it being a self-contained section of infinite and yet finite choice. I looked for all the books I love. I stroked their spines. I stood there with 10 unowned books by Diana Wynne Jones before me. Overwhelmed, but very very content.

It brought home the limitations of my regional bookstores in the Netherlands: to see so many of the books you love, or want to own, together in one space, without having to browse Amazon for the titles.. it’s all kinds of wonderful. But it is also a lot to take in when you are not used to it. So I resorted to the familiar in the unfamiliar. More than ever, it brought home to me how my bookstore visits are almost ritualised. In the Netherlands because I only seek out those sections that bring me joy. In the UK because I look for something that helps me be somewhat selective in a sea of choice. And I always, always, touch those books familiar, loved, or that I feel would be loved by me.

It also made me wonder if any other book lovers have such bookstore rituals. Do you?

Interlude.. New Books!

I had planned to share my thoughts about either Every Seventh Wave or The Best of all Possible Worlds today, but I have been hit with another cold since this weekend and my head does not deal well with the foggy feeling that usually accompanies colds, so instead.. I’m giving you a picture of books I bought recently.

I had occasion to visit Amsterdam last week (Bas won free tickets to see Biffy Clyro’s concert – which was great even with a slight fever and said cold). Every time I visit Amsterdam I look for bargain books in English. I was a little amazed at my finds. So many of these have been on my wish list for a long time. Mostly because of the wonderful Ana (or in any case for the top three ones).

Here goes:

Incoming books.. february

Yes, your eyes do not deceive you, I managed to find:

  • Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
  • The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugines
  • Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine
  • Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
  • In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

in one go :D

Any you would particularly suggest I start with? Or would you perhaps like to read one together as a sort-of improvised read along? Either way, I hope you have a wonderful Tuesday!