The Odd Women by George Gissing

The Odd Women was not the book I thought it was going to be. The first five chapters or so concentrate on the three Madden sisters, Alice, Virginia, and Monica, who’ve been left somewhat destitute by the death of their father many years before when they were girls. They each have a bit of an inheritance, but are forced to work as governesses, teachers and shop girls to make ends meet. I thought the novel would continue to tell the story of these sisters and how they survive, but it doesn’t really. And it isn’t even very much about ‘odd women’, women who are husbandless and childless. It is really a novel about marriage and how, though it was the main occupation for women in the Victorian age, it was often highly unsatisfactory.

You see, Monica decides to marry a much older man, Mr. Widdowson, in order to escape her life of drudgery and despair. The main part of the remainder of the novel dissects their failure as husband and wife. Widdowson is jealous, controlling and insecure. His ideal of womanhood is crushed to pieces by Monica’s bold outlook.  He, therefore, smothers her and demands her constant and undivided attention to the point of her desperately seeking a way out of the marriage by turning to another man.

In alternating chapters we read about Rhoda Nunn and Everard Barfoot, a youngish couple who are contemplating marriage. Their manipulations, lies and deliberate hurtful actions toward each other parallel the Widdowsons’s same experience. There are many minor characters, including Monica’s sisters, who we meet throughout the novel, but the main drama focuses on the two sets of lovers and their unsuccessful relationships.

I think Gissing made marriage deliberately unattractive in order to illuminate for contemporary readers why women would ever want to choose a different way of life. Both Monica and Rhoda are strong, intelligent and outspoken women who won’t let men push them around. However, Monica’s options are limited to relying on men, while Rhoda has provided herself a way to live without them. Gissing provides a strong argument, especially in the form of conversations between the characters, for women’s rights and it is a highly questioning novel for its time, addressing not only gender issues, but class issues as well.

For the most part, I don’t care for “message” novels and The Odd Women was very preachy and dry at times, but it is incredibly readable. The narrative moves along at a crisp clip and Gissing makes the fate of his characters as important as the fate of his ideas.

I still would have preferred to read the novel that was formulated in the first chapters about the Madden sisters, not the novel of tangled relationships that it turned into, but I did find it to be very thought-provoking and one of the most engaging Victorian novels that I’ve read.

Sunday Home Cooking

Ever since a co-worker brought a luscious pot of spicy pinto beans to a work potluck I’ve been craving them and wanting to make my own. Today I finally had a large chunk of time at home to monitor the 3 hours of cooking these beans need.

I used the ingredients that above co-worker adds to her beans:

Cilantro, garlic, white onion, roma tomatoes, and serrano peppers, plus salt and pepper to taste

I was very pleased with the way they turned out – not quite as good as co-worker’s, but I will perfect them! I plan to make another pot next weekend. They are the perfect lunch, dinner, even breakfast! I didn’t have tortillas at home so I ate them with with some garlic naan I had on hand. A wonderful mixing of cultures – delicious!

After this picture was taken I did add a dollop of sour cream and some shredded cheese to the top that gave the beans a tang and saltiness that made them that much better.

What did you make this weekend?

A Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrestein

Translated from the Dutch by Hester Velmans

I read this novel for Iris’s Month of Dutch Literature. It was the only Dutch title in my library branch and seemed like a good story so I eagerly started it. I can’t say I completely disliked it, but I was confused by it. It seemed, to me, like the author didn’t really know what effect she wanted to create – dark tragedy or tale of redemption. She tried to combine the two, but it didn’t work for me.

The story is narrated by Ellen, a woman in her thirties who is severely mean, bitter and hateful. When the tale begins she has discovered she is pregnant and this provokes memories of the tragedy that befell her family when she was a teen and that has caused her to be so hard. Her mother gave birth to a fifth child when Ellen was twelve and suffered from postpartum depression after the baby was born. In flashbacks we witness the bizarre behavior and increasingly dangerous actions that Ellen’s mother engages in and that horribly influences her husband and children.

As an adult, Ellen alienates everyone who tries to help her or befriend her and exhibits some signs of mental illness herself. Throughout the entire novel she is constantly pushing people away and shown as being a total shrew to everyone she meets. That is why I was completely bewildered by the ending of the novel that felt like a wrap-up to a feel good TV show and not the realistic ending that would naturally occur in Ellen’s life.

I got the impression reading this novel that it may be the Dutch version of a Jodi Picoult novel. A much darker and depressing version, but a novel in that vein. The writing is very descriptive and Dorrestein’s depiction of Ellen’s family life pre-mentally ill mom is really touching and funny, but the novel just felt disjointed, especially the extreme personality change that Ellen has at the end.

Received

After a couple of months of not buying or mooching very many books I suddenly have books in the mail. I think one of the small pleasures of life is to come home from work and find packages waiting in my mailbox. Divine! So here is what I’ve recently received:

The Dark Tide by Vera Brittain ~ I’ve never read anything by Brittain or know very much about her, but I found this Virago for a good price on Amazon and snatched it up. The plot appeals to me.

Gigi by Colette ~ This was on my Bookmooch wish list and I thought it might be a possibility for Paris in July so I hurriedly requested it.

The Professor’s House by Willa Cather ~ I am an ardent admirer of My Antonia and have always meant to read more Cather.  I’ll add this to my collection of her books to read “someday”.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys ~ Earlier this year I read two of Rhys’ novels and a biography of her and am really intrigued by her as a woman and as a writer. I want to read her masterpiece sometime later this year.

I’ve got a couple more books on their way and then I need to stop. I already cringe at the thought of packing up my library for my move later on this summer and shouldn’t keep adding to the stacks when I really should be purging!

Have you received anything in the mail lately? Have you read any of these titles?

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Before reading The Age of Innocence I was familiar with the basic story of the unrequited passion and doomed love between Newland Archer, a member of high society New York in the 1870’s, and his wife’s cousin, Madame Ellen Olenska. I’d seen the movie and also read many reviews of this classic Pulitzer Prize winning novel. What I was unprepared for was the depth of emotion and strong mixture of reactions that Wharton’s complex tale provoked in me.

Newland Archer and May Welland have both matured in the strict and fussy New York society that demands adherence to its convoluted codes of “form”. While May fully believes in and rarely wavers from the code, Archer has always maintained his distance while going about the motions of what is expected of a young man in his position. When May’s worldly cousin Ellen Olenska arrives from Europe trailing the scent of scandal (she’s abandoned her husband) Archer is immediately captivated by this young woman so different from the women of his acquaintance. And, he wants her. He is sexually attracted to her like he could never be attracted to May. This exhilarating enthrallment begins to consume Archer and it is reciprocated, if not entirely enthusiastically, by Ellen.

Part of Wharton’s genius is her ability to put the reader in each of the major character’s shoes and cause us to feel their anguish and despair. I completely sympathized with Archer when I wasn’t totally disgusted by him. I understood Ellen’s hesitation toward Archer while she was drawn toward him, yet I felt disappointment that she would betray her cousin. My heart ached for May as, at the same time, I felt irritated by her lack of imagination and her rigid conformity.

This is one of two classics I’ve read in the past few years that have really made on impression on me. The other was A Room with a View by E.M. Forster. That they both deal with the issue of following your heart as opposed to doing what your family and society think is right for you says a lot to me. But that is a story for another day…

So who in the novel do I believe was right? It’s hard to say. It would be wonderful if everyone could get what they want in life, but part of Wharton’s message is that we can’t possibly. Choices must be made and how you choose reveals where your loyalties lie. Hearts will be broken and dreams will be smashed no matter what, especially in this situation.

The Age of Innocence is not a happy novel and it certainly isn’t innocent. It is a tragic story of star crossed lovers and the power society and family traditions have on our life choices. It is one of the most memorable and dynamic books I’ve read in years.

Edith Wharton had a wonderful gift for simile. Some from The Age of Innocence that I particularly admire:

“It was the weather to call out May’s radiance, and she burned like a young maple in the frost”.

“They sat down on a bench under the orange-trees and he put his arm about her and kissed her. It was like drinking at a cold spring with the sun on it…”

“She threw back her head with a laugh that made her chins ripple like little waves”.

“Her color did not change, but a sort of white radiance of anger ran over her like summer lightning”.

“…coming back to his wife would never be like entering a stuffy room after a tramp in the open”.

Read what other bloggers think of The Age of Innocence:

BookBath

Book Group of One

Book Snob

Farm Lane Books Blog

Pining for the West

Room for Reading

In August I will be moving from my humble one-bedroom apartment to a slightly larger townhouse with more room for all of my books. One of the great things about my little place has been the beautiful built-in bookshelves that have housed my collection, though my tomes have long ago spilled out into stacks underneath. In my new abode I won’t have a bookcase so I have started exploring the option of buying bookcases from IKEA. And I’ve also realized that I’ll have room for a little reading nook if I choose. I’ve started looking at pictures on Google images of some cozy reading nooks to use for inspiration and these are some that I especially like:

I love the books arranged face out and the little magazine rack. I'm not crazy about the gray, though.

The proximity to the fire and the arrangement of the chair near a plant and a shawl would be so cozy.

The use of white is refreshing and calming and I like the arrangement next to the window.

The classic country look of this nook is very appealing. The chair looks soft and comfy.

Do you have a special reading area in your home? Do any of the above appeal to you or would you choose something entirely different? I’m excited about creating a space devoted to my books and reading.

One Book, Two Book, Three Book Meme

I’ve really enjoyed reading various bloggers’ responses to this meme (I think it was started by Simon at Stuck in a Book) over the past few weeks so decided to have a go at it myself.

1. The book I’m currently reading:

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I read The House of Mirth and Summer when I was a teen, but somehow never got to this. It is marvelously written and I am very much enjoying reading about New York in the Gilded Age.

 

 

 

 

 

2. The last book I finished:

Faith by Jennifer Haigh. It is a superior piece of contemporary women’s fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

3. The next book I want to read:

The Odd Women by George Gissing. I’ve already started this book and I soon want to return to the story of two spinsters and their struggle for survival in Victorian England.

 

 

 

 

4. The last book I bought:

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton. All of the glowing reviews around the blogosphere persuaded me that I must read this.

 

 

 

 

 

5. The last book I was given:

Sadly, I haven’t received any books for gifts in ages! My family prefers to give me gift cards as they are not readers and don’t care to shop for books. I did win The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller from Vintage/Anchor books today so I’ll count that as a gift.

 

 

 

 

 

Read responses from other book bloggers:

Book Snob

Books and Chocolate

Cardigangirl Verity

Dolce Bellezza

Faith by Jennifer Haigh

This is a book that kept me mesmerized through all of last weekend, but I am having the hardest time writing about it! Does anyone else find that the books you truly admired and enjoyed leave you speechless?

Faith is narrated by Sheila McGann, a thirty-something teacher who is determined to tell the full story of her brother Art’s downfall. Art, Father Breen, is a priest in the Catholic church who has been accused of child molestation. The novel is set during the early part of the century when accusations against priests were raging and the church was struggling with how to react. In Father Art’s case the church authorities decide to pay off the family who has made the accusation. Sheila is initially incensed at the idea, but secretly wonders if her brother could really be guilty.

My initial sense of the book was an immediate identification with Sheila. She is an intelligent, likeable and reliable narrator. Her telling of the story encompasses the story of her family, their relationships and their history. Without this nothing that happens later to Father Breen would make sense. The reader is swept along the stormy path of their family story. Not all of the characters are as likeable as Sheila, but Haigh makes them all relate-able.

Not only is faith in religion examined, but faith in family, in authority, in individual decisions as we witness the tragic story of Father Breen. He is an enigmatic character at the center of the novel and, though accused of monstrous acts, sympathetic and charismatic.

I loved this novel because it gives no easy answers. It makes the reader think about the stories behind the headlines and shows that people are more complex than we choose to believe sometimes. I am a fan of character studies and novels that explore motives and the reasons behind actions. If you too enjoy character-driven stories, you will enjoy Faith.

(I’ll be numbering my books read from now on as part of the 52-52-52 challenge)

Sunday Miscellany

I’ve got a few things on my mind this Sunday morning that I want to mention here. The first is that I’ve decided to participate in Iris’s Month of Dutch Literature challenge for June. A few years ago I traced the genealogy of my paternal grandmother and discovered that my ancestors on that side of the family had immigrated to New York from the Netherlands way back in the early days of European settlement in NY. Pretty cool! So, I feel a special affinity with the Dutch and will give at least one book a go. As my library system only carries two books that have been translated from Dutch my choice will be quite narrow, but easily made!

Also on my mind is the appallingly narrow-minded article on YA literature that was published in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. Many YA authors and teen readers have offered their opinions and rebuttals of this article on Twitter. If you’re interested in following the debate search for #YAsaves on Twitter. My own opinion is that every family and kid is different. Why keep books out of the hands of teens just because you don’t feel they are appropriate for your family or child? There are some teens who have experiences that others won’t face and they need literature that reflects their experience and gives them hope. I also don’t think it is wrong for teens to satisfy their curiosity about the dark side of life by turning to books. Adults do it every day! Does that make us all deviant sociopaths? Parents are very involved at my library and are fully aware of what their kids are reading. Most of them monitor the content of the YA literature their teens choose. And that is their right. But it is not my job or inclination to limit access to any books that teens are drawn to. That same kid may come into the library without their parent and ask for Ellen Hopkins books. I’ll take them right to the shelf where they are (though most of them will be checked out). As a professional librarian I am not going to deny them the right to read what they want. Librarian does not equal parent. Phew, okay so that is my two cents! What do you all think? I’d love to hear the opinion of any parents out there.

The Wallow fire from Alpine, AZ

Also on my mind, but completely un-book related is the massive wild fire that is blazing through eastern Arizona right now. Called the Wallow Fire it is 0% contained and has already consumed 184,000 acres of forest. The towns of Alpine and Nutrioso have already been evacuated and the town of Greer is on an evacuation warning. My grandparents, aunts, uncles and many cousins live in the town of Springerville which is about 30 miles from where the fire is currently burning. Their area is covered with a orange hazy smoke and the residents are starting to panic. I feel so frustrated that man is so ineffective against a raging fire like this. Please keep the citizens of these towns in mind today.

Those are my thoughts this interesting Sunday morning. What is concerning/interesting/annoying you today? Have a good Sunday, all!