Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton – Classics Challenge

Most of Edith Wharton’s fiction focuses on the American privileged classes at the turn of the 20th Century.  Specifically, she examines the impact of the strict social expectations on the lives of the elites.  Ethan Frome departs from Wharton’s usual social milieu and focuses on the rural isolation and hardscrabble poverty in Starkfield, a small New England village.  The plot revolves around three main characters, Ethan; his wife, Zeena, and Zenna’s cousin, Mattie.

Several years prior to the events recounted in the novel, Ethan and Zeena entered into a marriage of duty (on Ethan’s part) and convenience (on Zeena’s).  The marriage is loveless and Zeena chases the attention she desires by becoming a hypochondriac.  Ethan once had prospects that might have allowed him to escape the dreary life in Starkfield, but his duty to his ailing parents and then to his bitter, complaining spouse have trapped him in a desultory existence.   It is no wonder that when Zeena’s young, vivacious cousin, Mattie, arrives to keep house and take care of the ailing Zeena, Ethan is smitten and begins to dream of escape.  Before long, Ethan and Mattie acknowledge their mutual attraction which sets in motion a tragic, inevitable chain of events that end in an equally tragic and ironic climax.

The novel is an uncompromisingly sad and bleak examination of life when choices are limited and individual desires are sublimated to the repressed, Puritanical “rules” of society.

Here is the short analysis of the five broad categories I use to consider when thinking about a novel.

Characters

On one hand, Wharton’s characterization is spare and somewhat stereotypical; however, as the novel reads like a fable and the setting and lifestyle portrayed are stark and desolate, the characters seem perfectly wrought for the story they inhabit.  While the three main characters are all flawed in their own particular ways and act on impulses that are completely selfish, the reader cannot help but feel great sympathy for all of them in the end.  I would give the novel 4 out of 5 stars for characterization.

Plot

The plot is uncomplicated and tightly controlled by Wharton.  The main events of the story are told as a flashback in a straightforward, linear fashion.  Wharton also uses a framing device with a prologue that provides some foreshadowing of the events to come, and an afterward that reveals the devastating ramifications of the main story’s conclusion.  Four out of 5 stars for plot.

Writing Style

The spare writing style reflects the setting and the characters perfectly.  Wharton effectively uses symbolism (the color red, the winter cold, illness, crumbling buildings, etc.) to expand on her themes of loneliness, disappointment, despair, loss, and morality.   In general, I love Wharton’s writing and Ethan Frome did not disappoint.  Five out of 5 stars for Writing Style.

Made Me Think

Like many people, I have a bit of a romanticized idea of life in New England.   Wharton does not shy away from depicting the unforgiving, harsh life that was reality in many dying, rural communities at the turn of the 20th Century.  Wharton is also masterful at exposing the terrible impacts on individual happiness and fulfillment in the face of social obligation and expectations.  There is a lot of food for thought here.  Five out of 5 stars for making me think.

Pure Enjoyment

This is a dark, brooding book with an ominous undertone throughout.  At the same time, the narrative is compelling and I was eager to see how the story would be resolved.  While the climax of the main story was easy to predict, the denouement was something of a surprise–but also pitch perfect.  Four out of 5 stars for pure enjoyment.

So, overall 4.4 stars for Ethan Frome.

Classics Club List Update

As noted in this post, I ended up DNFing the very first book I tried to read off of my Classics Club Challenge list.  This presented me with the dilemma of whether or not to replace the book with something else or just cross it off the list.  In the end, I decided to create a list of alternate books.  In the event that I don’t read a given book on the original TBR, I will note that on the original list and read a book off the alternate list in its stead.

I also decided that the British Crime Classics are not really worthy of inclusion in this list.  I am going to remove them from the list and add 10 other classics.

Here is the list of 10 alternates:

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
Evelina by Fanny Burney
The Mysteries of Udolpho  by Ann Radcliff
Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash
The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Victor Hugo
The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Leo Tolstoy
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell
An Autobiography by Agatha Christie

Here is the list of 10 replacements for the British Crime Classics:

Laughing Boy by Oliver LaFarge
A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird
The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin
Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

 

Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman

After reading an old interview with Tony Hillerman late last year, I decided to re-read the Leaphorn and Chee novels in chronological order.  I read the series in the 1990’s but in a rather haphazard way and am now quite certain that there are one or two that I did not read.

Reading the first 6 novels was definitely an interesting and enjoyable endeavor.  While the quality of the novels up through The Ghostway was a bit uneven every book has been a lot of fun to read.  Hillerman  created a terrific mileu for his detective stories and Leaphorn and Chee are great, complex characters.

The first three books in the series (The Blessing Way, Dance Hall of the Dead, and Listening Woman) feature Lt. Joe Leaphorn and the next three (People of Darkness, The Dark Wind, and The Ghostway) feature OfficerJim Chee.  While both of these characters are compelling in their own right, their pairing in  Skinwalkers brings together one of the genre’s greatest detective teams.

While Leaphorn is trying to crack a lead in three unsolved homicides someone makes an attempt on Jim Chee’s life by blasting three shotgun holes in his mobile home while he is sleeping.  This chain of events brings the two  together as they investigate these seemingly unrelated incidents.  Initially,  Leaphorn is skeptical about Chee, assuming that cops don’t get shot at for no reason.  Also, Chee is practicing to become a healer and Leaphorn is vehemently antagonistic to the traditional spiritualism embodied in the yataalii.

For his part, Chee is cognizant of Leaphorn’s scrutiny, but maintains his professionalism and goes systematically about his investigation.  It soon becomes apparent that the Navajo belief in witches or Skinwalkers is playing a significant role in the murder spree, and  Chee’s knowledge of the traditional Navajo religion is crucial to solving the crimes.

Here is the short analysis of the five broad categories I use to consider when thinking about a novel.

Characters

I particularly enjoyed the way Hillerman depicted the evolution of the relationship between Leaphorn and Chee.  The character development of the two main protagonists gets much deeper than in any of the 6 preceding novels. Comparing and contrasting the strengths and weaknesses of each character against those of the other leads to much more layered complexity and interest.  Both Leaphorn and Chee are described as having an almost visceral connection to the landscape which becomes crucial to their criminal investigations.  The minor characters are also deftly drawn–Hillerman does not resort to caricatures.  Five out of 5 for Characters.

Plot

The mystery is intriguing and the narrative momentum keeps you turning the pages.  I am usually terrible at solving the mystery before the author’s explicit reveal, but I did have this one about 90% figured out shortly before the motive was explained.  Hillerman did a masterful job of bringing in magical elements of traditional Navajo culture and giving them credence while acknowledging that the crimes have a logical, fathomable solution.  Five out 5 for Plot.

Writing Style

Hillerman’s writing style is not flashy, but he can sure paint a good landscape or thunderstorm.  His exquisite use of the four corners geographic and cultural backdrop, makes it an integral part of the characters and the plot they inhabit.  While I totally expect and accept violence and sex in my detective fiction, I do appreciate that there is little graphic violence and no explicit sex in Hillerman’s writing.  It is difficult to find anything to criticize, but I did note one instance where a pair of characters travels to a location in one vehicle, but they leave the location in a different one. It is mystifying to me that an editor did not note this discrepancy and flag it for reconciliation. I seem to remember reading somewhere that Hillerman kind of had a reputation for these disparities.  Four out of 5 for Writing Style.

Made Me Think

Hillerman’s exploration of the tension between life on the Navajo reservation and the majority Caucasian culture is always interesting and thought-provoking.  In Skinwalkers, there is the additional tension between the more worldly Lt. Leaphorn and the more traditional Jim Chee which emphasizes that intra-cultural differences are often as important as the larger clashes between the minority and majority cultures.  Skinwalkers also explores conditions of poverty, access to health care, and misappropriation of religious beliefs.  Five out of 5 for provoking thought.

Pure Enjoyment

This book is brilliant. Five out of 5 for pure enjoyment.

I am a real fan of detective fiction, but this is one of very few representatives of the genre that I would rate 5 out of 5.

Effie Briest – Classics Challenge #1

After an aborted attempt to read Calamity in Kent (part of the British Crime Classics series), I recalculated Spin #17 and settled on Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane.  My copy was published by Persephone Books a few years ago and comes with a translator’s note alerting the reader to the fact that the novel has been abridged to “bring it into the framework of the present edition”.

“In order to preserve the central characters and their dilemma as far as possible in their entirety, I have had to reduce the scope of some of the minor characters.”

Since I do not have an unabridged version to compare, I don’t know how much the abridgment impacts the reading experience.  That being said, I did not feel any obvious discontinuities while reading it.

The book has been compared to  other well know stories of young  19th century women caught in unhappy marriages who end up committing adultery and suffer the inevitable social consequences.  Think Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, or Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. 

Effi Briest is set in late 19th century Germany and takes as its protagonist a young 17 year old girl who willingly accepts a marriage proposal from a man more that twice her age.  Ironically, he also courted her mother 20 years earlier but was passed over by her for Effi’s father.   In the intervening years,  the suitor, Geert Instetten,  became a successful bureaucrat deemed to be a very good catch.

After a  brief honeymoon, the newlyweds settle down in a possibly haunted house in a small, quiet village on the Balkan Sea.  There is little to stimulate the interest of a gay young woman in this household–least of all her passionless husband.  She meets a dashing, married military captain and is swept into a brief love affair which is discovered by her husband 7 years after the fact.  As Fontane is lauded as one of the fathers of Prussian realism, there is no fairy tale ending, but the author shows great compassion for his characters as he brings the tale to its inevitable conclusion.

I am going to try to incorporate some standardization in the way I rate books and have come up with five broad categories to consider when thinking about the books I have read.  The categories are slightly different for fiction and nonfiction.  This is a work in progress so the categories and the way I use them will undoubtedly evolve over time.

Characterization 

The major characters are well-drawn and I felt that their motivations and actions were consistent with the author’s character development.  Effi is the character who is most changed throughout the course of the novel–from a carefree child to a reclusive divorcee within the span of 10 years.  But it is all very believable and I would have to give Fontane a 4.5 out of 5 for Characterization.

Plot

As noted above, from the 21st century vantage point, the plot is not  groundbreaking, but it may have seemed much more original and fresh at the time it was written.  Regardless of originality, the plot is well executed and even has a few surprises that are well grounded in the cultural and political situation in Germany at the time.  Plot gets 4 out of 5.

Writing Style

The book is written in a realist style and is very accessible.  There is not a lot of beautiful language, but there is a deft use of metaphor and foreshadowing and even the most benign conversation or action ends up being meaningful.  Some of the most important action takes place off the page and is only confirmed several chapters later.  Writing style gets 3.5 out of 5.

Thought Provoking

Effi Briest is set in a time and place that was not familiar to me and I learned a lot about society and culture in 19th Century Germany.    There seemed to be a budding material prosperity, but the social strictures and customs were still highly regimented and sometimes very harsh.    The book is also an interesting character study of a marriage between unequal partners and the tragic outcome it produces.  There is a lot here, and a second reading would no doubt prove fruitful.  Four out of 5 for Thought Provoking.

Pure Enjoyment

I did enjoy the book and am glad I read it.  However, I did not anxiously look forward to picking it up.    My experience of the book would definitely benefit from another reading, but I am pretty sure I will not be motivated to do so.  Three out of 5 for Pure Enjoyment.

Overall Rating

Overall, I can see the literary value of Fontane’s masterpiece and I feel I got a lot out of reading it.   Overall rating is 4 out of 5.

My First Spin Was a Fail

In March I decided to begin the Classics Club Challenge.  I created my list of 100 classics to read in 5 years and was excited to participate in my first Classics Spin Challenge.  The spin resulted in adding one of the British Crime Classics, Calamity in Kent by John Rowland, to my TBR.

This morning, I excitedly cracked open my Kindle and began reading and almost immediately felt my heart sink.   After 35 pages I found that I just could not devote the 4 to 5 hours it would take to finish reading it.  The premise is not bad–a murder that takes place in a resort town “lift” that transports people from the town heights to the beach, which creates a locked room situation.   But from page one we are subjected to a journalist narrator who not only tells you what he is thinking but tells you why he is thinking it and then tells you again.  He then proceeds to behave in an unethical manner while justifying it to himself and the reader.   It was annoying and preposterous and I am not going to waste my time on it.

Now I have a dilemma.  Do I consider that I have checked a book off my list of 100 Classics?  Do I add another book to the list to account for this total failure?  Do I want to replace all of the 10 British Crime Classics?  I am not sure.

For the time being, I redid Spin #17 and will be reading a Persephone Book, Effie Briest by Theodor Fontane .  I’ll decide later about how to handle books I DNF.

 

Classics Club Spin #17 Selection

The Classics Club Lucky Spin Number is 3.  A review of my list reveals that my first Classics Club read is from the British Library Classic Crimes section of my Classics TBR.  I will be reading  Calamity in Kent by John Rowland before April 30, 2018.  

Looking back, I probably should not have included Crime Classics on my Spin list as I am participating in March Mystery Madness and am reading a LOT of mysteries in March.  On the other hand, Calamity in Kent will provide an easy success for my first book in the Classics Club challenge.  I will also choose another  book off of my master list to be read by the end of April.

 

Classics Spin #17

This is my list of books for the Classics Club Spin 17 event.  On March 9 the Club organizers will post a number between 1 and 20.  Participants will have until April 30, 2018 to finish the book on their list corresponding with the spin number.

  1. No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym
  2. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  3. Calamity in Kent by John Rowland
  4. Manja by Anna Gmeyner
  5. The Two Mrs. Abbotts by D. E. Stevenson
  6. To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck
  7. Lady Susan by Jane Austen
  8. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
  9. Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane
  10. Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield
  11. The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas
  12. Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim
  13. Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
  14. The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan
  15. The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh
  16. The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott
  17. Little Men by Louisa May Alcott
  18. Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski
  19. Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather
  20. Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

Classics Club TBR

classicsclub

100 classics I want to read in the next five years (by March 31, 2023).  This is for the Classics Club  challenge.  For more information see the Classics Club website.

To meet this goal I should try to read 2 books off this list every month.  At that rate, I would finish a little ahead of schedule, but it provides some leeway for life to get in the way.

Note:  This list was edited on 4/29/2018 to replace the British Crime Classics with 10 other titles and to add a list of 10 alternate books that can substitute for any book on the list that ends up on the DNF pile.

Persephone

My long-term goal is to read all the Persephone Classics. This list of 30 books includes all the Persephones I currently own plus a few more that are high on my priority list.

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane – Finished 4/19/2018
The Godwits Fly by Robin Hyde
Maman, What Are We Called Now? by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar
Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg
On the Other Side: Letters to my Children from Germany 1940-46 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg
Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson
The World that was Ours by Hilda Bernstein
The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
Manja by Anna Gmeyner
Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson
The Victorian Chaise-longue by Marghanita Laski – Finished 6/6/2018
An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43 by Etty Hillesum
Fidelity by Susan Glaspell
Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple
Mariana by Monica Dickens – Finished 7/26/2018
William – an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton
Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski
The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Children who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham
The Montana Stories by Katherine Mansfield
The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow by Mrs Oliphant
The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sheriff
Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy
The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby
Heat Lightning by Helen Hull
Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield
The Two Mrs. Abbotts by D. E. Stevenson
Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll
The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Pre-20th Century Classics

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas
The Red Sphinx by Alexander Dumas
Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell – Finished 5/20/2018
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell
Sylvia’s Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim
Lady Susan by Jane Austen
Shirley by Charlotte Bronte
Villette by Charlotte Bronte
The Professor by Charlotte Bronte
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
A study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
The sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
Belinda by Maria Edgeworth
The Backwoods of Canada by Catharine Parr Traill
Little Men by Louisa May Alcott – finished 6/18/2018
Marriage by Susan Ferrier
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

20th Century Classics

The Children by Edith Wharton
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton – Finished 4/28/2018
The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton
The Reef by Edith Wharton
Maurice by E. M. Forster
Nightingale Woods by Stella Gibbons
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott
The Day of the Scorpion by Paul Scott
The Towers of Silence by Paul Scott
A Division of the Spoils by Paul Scott
The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan
The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan
The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan
The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner – Finished 7/19/2018
Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier
The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier – Finished 5/26/2018
Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather
One of Ours by Willa Cather
A Lost Lady by Willa Cather
No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym
Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym
Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym
To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck
In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck
The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck

Replacements for the British Crime Classics

Laughing Boy by Oliver LaFarge
A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird
The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin
Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

Alternates

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
Evelina by Fanny Burney
The Mysteries of Udolpho  by Ann Radcliff
Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash
The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Victor Hugo
The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Leo Tolstoy
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell
An Autobiography by Agatha Christie