One-Minute Book Reviews

April 23, 2011

Edith Wharton’s Comedy of Manners and Morals in Post–Civil War New York, ‘The Age of Innocence’

Filed under: Classics,Pulitzer Prizes — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:05 pm
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“There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free”

The Age of Innocence. By Edith Wharton. Many editions.

By Janice Harayda

American novelists often condemn or ridicule men who dabble in love. Edith Wharton portrays such a dilettante with depth, complexity, and a sympathetic wit in The Age of Innocence, a book that her biographer R.W.B. Lewis rightly calls “one of the few really first-class works of fiction to win the Pulitzer Prize.”

Newland Archer tends to find more satisfaction in thinking about his pleasures – love among them – than in their fulfillment. This trait threatens his well-ordered life when the alluring Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York on the eve of his engagement to the placid May Welland. But Wharton doesn’t seek to condemn her protagonist for his inability to resist either the newcomer’s allure or the dependable comforts offered by his fiancée. She aims to show how others conspire to keep Newland in line with their reverence for the “invisible deity” who blesses their opera boxes, ballrooms, and dinner tables adorned with women in towering ostrich feathers and men in patent-leather pumps.

Wharton’s post–Civil War New Yorkers call their god “Good Form,” the outward expression of their taste. Others might identify their deity as an overdeveloped sense of tribal propriety. The great theme of The Age of Innocence is the power of social custom to thwart the individual desires of both sexes. Ellen arrives New York seeking the freedom missing in her marriage to a callow Polish nobleman, but her free-spiritedness and impenetrable past quickly begin to shut doors to her. Newland has too much loyalty to his tribe to take the decisive action required by their attraction, and his ambivalence requires her to make her own decision about whether to stay or return to Europe.

The elegance of The Age of Innocence lies partly in Wharton’s refusal to cast Newland as a coward or a fool. He is rather a product of a society that has its own appeal for him. And he is too intelligent not to see the injustices and contradictions that its mores involve. At first Newland has hazy fantasies of awakening in May the intellectual curiosity she lacks, perhaps by reading the Faust story to her beside Italian lakes. He eventually concedes defeat with a droll awareness of his limits and hers. There was no point, he realizes, in trying to emancipate a woman “who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free.”

The Age of Innocence brims with such wry observations that help to justify its frequent billing as “a comedy of manners and morals.” Like the greatest comic novelists, Wharton knows that the finest wit comes not from topical one-liners but from ludicrous, incongruous, or absurd situations that reflect enduring human needs or wishes. Unlike Henry James, to whom she is so often compared, she is never windy or opaque but writes as clearly and economically as she constructs her plots. No one would say of Wharton that she was “incapable of offering a thought without pinning a flower in its button-hole,” as the biographer Leon Edel said of James’s letter-writing. And her instinct for clarity helps to explain the effectiveness of her wit. As in Jane Austen’s novels, you always know who is being tweaked.

In a defining scene of The Age of Innocence, Newland and May visit an exhibit of Early Bronze Age and other antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There they see glass shelves crowded with items labeled “Use Unknown,” a symbol the pointless customs of their circle. The ritualized expectations of upper-middle-class New Yorkers don’t lead to tragedy as in Wharton’s The House of Mirth, in which Lily Bart is unable to save herself from the consequences of her failure to marry. The customs instead inspire a banquet of observations that include Newland’s on his fiancée: “What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a ‘decent’ fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal?”

Best line: “There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free; and he had long since discovered that May’s only use of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be to lay it on the altar of wifely adoration.”

Worst line: Newland Archer  sees “a warm pink” blush rise on the cheek of his future wife as she sits behind two other women in a box on the opposite side of the Academy of Music, an opera house. It is hard to imagine how he could have seen so slight a change from such a distance without – and even with – opera glasses, which Wharton gives no sign that he has used.

Reading group guide: By far the best reading group gruide and discussion questions for The Age of Innocence appear along with other helpful material on Wharton on the site for the Big Read project of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Furthermore: This review is based on the 1992 Collier/Macmillan paperback edition of The Age of Innocence, which has an introduction by R.W.B. Lewis and uses the text from Novels: The House of Mirth / The Reef / The Custom of the Country / The Age of Innocence (Library of America, 1986). Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction when The Age of Innocence received the award in 1921. Daniel Day-Lewis starred as Newland in the 1993 movie of the novel. The website for Wharton’s Massachusetts home, The Mount, has more on her life.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 2, 2011

‘The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton’ – A Biography for Young Readers

Filed under: Children's Books,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:25 pm
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The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton: A Biography. By Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Clarion, 184 pp., $20. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

Edith Wharton said that she hoped her biographer would “find the gist of me,” and Connie Wooldridge meets that test in this lively account of the life of one of America’s greatest novelists.

Born Edith Newbold Jones, Wharton came from the elite New York family that inspired the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” Her parents and their circle looked on writing anything except poetry as an unworthy profession, especially for women. And Wooldridge rightly credits Wharton with escaping from the social expectations that might have stifled her career while observing those mores closely enough to write The Age of Innocence, the first novel by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.

The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton also shows how Wharton defied sexual codes by having an affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton while married to the unstable Teddy Wharton, who was conducting his own adulterous romance. Of Wharton’s marital relations, Wooldridge writes: “The sexual side of her marriage to Teddy was a failure.”  This sentence will shock few children at the upper end of the suggested age range for this book. But the line comes across as a gratuitous attempt to justify or at least explain Wharton’s adultery, though Wooldridge doesn’t link her subject’s poor sex life to her infidelity. And young readers who are ready for such material could have handled more information on the great themes of Wharton’s fiction (especially that of the conflict between individual yearnings and the imperatives of a rigid social order), which get less attention than their creator’s fascinating life.

This biography has more than 80 black-and-white photos and illustrations of every stage of Wharton’s life from early childhood through old age, including pictures of her glorious homes in Newport, New York, Paris and Lenox, Massachusetts. And all of these help to make up for the few questionable judgments in the text. One page reproduces mock reviews that young Edith wrote of a novel called Fast and Loose that she began just before her 15th birthday. “A chaos of names apparently all seeking their owners,” Wharton-the-satirist said. She called “the sentiments weak, & the whole thing a fiasco.” Wooldridge need not fear that she will face similar assaults for The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton.

Best line: One of many good quotes from Wharton, in this case about her girlhood: “No children of my own age, and none even among the nearest of my grown-ups, were as close to me as the great voices that spoke to me from books.” The “great voices” included those of Plutarch, Homer and Milton.

Worst line: A caption on page 21 says: “One of Edith’s mock reviews of her first novel.” The book makes clear that Wharton started a novel at the age of 11 and that the mock reviews describe “another novel,” her second, that she began at the age of 15.

Ages: Clarion bills The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton as a book for ages 12 and up, and its mature content justifies the recommendation. But many preteens and teens reject books with the format of this one, which is that of a modified picture book: They want biographies that look like books for adults. So The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton, good as it is, may be a tough sell to strong readers over the age of 9 or so.

Published: August 2010

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 30, 2010

Franzen Snubbed Again — Loses Bad Sex Award

Filed under: Book Awards,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:44 pm
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First the National Book Awards judges declined to shortlist Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Now comes another snub, albeit one that probably makes the novelist happier: Franzen has lost the annual Bad Sex in fiction award to Rowan Somerville’s The Shape of Her. Franzen has at least two more chances to come up with a major award: The National Book Critics Circle awards shortlist will be named in January and the winers of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in April.

March 16, 2010

John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ — Champagne or Table Wine?

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:38 am
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Dorothy Parker called The Grapes of Wrath “the greatest American novel I have ever read,” but many critics disagree

The Grapes of Wrath. By John Steinbeck. Penguin Classics, 464 pp., $16, paperback. Introduction by Robert DeMott. Also available in other editions.

By Janice Harayda

Still enraged that Premier Bankcard is charging a 79.9 percent interest rateon its credit card? Reading The Grapes of Wrath might be cathartic. More than 70 years after its publication, this novel remains one of the most scathing indictments of banking and related industries to appear in American fiction.

In 1936 the San Francisco News sent John Steinbeck to investigate the living conditions of displaced Dust Bowl farmers who were streaming into California looking for work. That assignment inspired The Grapes of Wrath, a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about how displacement and bureaucratic cruelty transform families.

Steinbeck refracts his theme through the bleak story of the Joads, Oklahoma sharecroppers evicted by a bank who set out for California hoping to earn a living as fruit-pickers. Ma and Pa Joad and their children face an almost soap-operatic array of disasters on their car trip and in the blighted Eden of California, where people disparagingly call them “Okies”: hunger, homelessness, illness, death, unemployment and the sadism of rich landowners. Their stoic dignity has endeared them to readers of all ages and to the Swedish Academy, which gave Steinbeck the 1962 Nobel Prize in literature.

The Grapes of Wrath has won less consistent acclaim from critics, who disagree on whether the Joads’ story is Dom Perignon or mediocre table wine. Dorothy Parker, one of the finest critics of her day, called the book “the greatest American novel I have ever read,” and it appears regularly on lists of the most influential works of fiction of the 20th century. But Edmund Wilson said that Steinbeck reduced his characters to their biological drives and animal instincts. And when Jonathan Yardley reviewed a volume of Steinbeck’s collected works for the Washington Post in the 1990s, he was struck by “the solemnity, the sentimentality, the heavy-handed irony, the humorlessness, the labored colloquialisms, the clumsiness” and “the political naiveté” he found in them, though reminded of the “powerfully sympathetic portraits of American farm workers and . . . the vision of social justice” he once admired.

Many of the complaints about the book have merit. Steinbeck conflates poverty and goodness – and wealth and evil – to a degree rarely found in novels written in the documentary style of The Grapes of Wrath. He portrays sympathetically and often sentimentally characters such as a waitress who thinks that the rich are thieves and “the bigger the car they got, the more they steal.” He is less subtle than his fellow social-realist and Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis is in Main Street and other books. You know exactly what you are supposed to think about every issue raised in The Grapes of Wrath, which is why some critics have dismissed it as propaganda or a tract.

But the sentimentality of The Grapes of Wrath is not the cut-rate sentimentality that floods a market full of books by Mitch Albom imitators. It is hard won. And it is rooted in a deep and sincere concern for the brutal conditions endured by the Depression-era poor, some hungry enough to eat coal, as Ma Joad did, or trade a child’s doll for gas that would allow them to flee circumstances. The novelist Don DeLillo rightly said that in The Grapes of Wrath “there is something at stake in every sentence.”

There’s also something going on in every sentence. The Grapes of Wrath keeps its momentum from its opening chapters, when Ma and Pa Joad’s son Tom returns from prison, to its last pages, when the family tries to help a sick man though its own circumstances have grown more desperate. At times, the action includes perceptive observations on what makes life worth living. Steinbeck writes that migrant workers yearned for amusement and found it when they gathered around a fire to hear a storyteller: “And they listened while the tales were told, and their participation in the stories made them great.” The Grapes of Wrath is not a great novel as many critics would define it: a near-flawless work that yields new insights with each reading. It has been made great by the participation in its story of the successive generations to whom it has spoken as if by firelight.

Best line: The title. It appears in this line in the novel: “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Worst line: “‘No, it ain’t,’ Ma smiled.”

Reading group guide with 12 discussion questions about The Grapes of Wrath from by the Big Read project of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Movie link: The 1940 movie of The Grapes of Wrath with Henry Fonda was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two.

Furthermore: The site for the Nobel Prize foundation has a biography and more about Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath. The California Association of Teachers of English site explores some of the author’s local connections. A preloaded digital audiobook editor of the Penguin Classics edition of The Grapes of Wrath from Playaway is available online and at many libraries.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes the publishing industry on her FakeBookNews page (@FakeBookNews) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 13, 2009

Sam Anderson Pans Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Inherent Vice’ With a Brio That Shows Why He Won a National Award for Excellence in Reviewing

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:04 pm
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Sam Anderson won the 2007 Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle and shows again why he deserved it with a stylish pan of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice in the August 10–17 issue of New York. Don’t miss this one if you admire the merciless wit that readers of the New Yorker used to get from Dorothy Parker, one of Anderson’s favorite critics.

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