Book Review, Edith Wharton, Mark Merlis, Neil Gaiman

Three Fan Favorites Are… Mediocre?

Somehow, miraculously, I’ve found my reading groove again. I was something like 11 books behind schedule in my Goodreads challenge (which I intentionally did not make very ambitious this year, as I knew this would be a riotously busy year for me); but, I’ve managed to bring that up to being just TWO books behind schedule (and I’m currently reading 3 – so there!)

Anyhow, here are some thoughts on a few of those recent reads:

American Studies by Mark Merlis

I really wanted to love this book. Or at least like it? The good news, I suppose, is that I didn’t hate it. At no point, however, did I feel much attachment to the story or its characters. It was a struggle to get through it. I’ve never been a “DNF” kind of person; even those books that I actually have not finished sit somewhere in a box with bookmarks still in them. Call it some kind of compulsion, I guess. The main character, Reeve, is a 60-something-year-old gay man who has been brutally assaulted by a young trick he picked up at a bar. The majority of the story unfolds in flashback while Reeve recovers in the hospital. There’s some interesting history of the Lavender Scare/McCarthyism and its purge of homosexuals and “communists” from educational, governmental, and entertainment industries, among others. Interesting thoughts on friendships, family, bigotry, and self-loathing. All said and done, though, I found the pace slow and the story bland; nevertheless, it is also subtly moving and all too human in its consideration of aging, loneliness, and desire. Despite the fact that I was not a fan of this novel, I appreciate Merlis’s perspective and his style. I’m really looking forward to reading another of his, An Arrow in Flight, which I think might be more to my tastes. Final Verdict: 3 out of 5

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Wharton’s House of Mirth was the Classic Book-a-Month Club’s selection for March. Now, I run the CBAM and am in charge of choosing the books. I selected this one because, well, it’s a Wharton I’ve never read and that everyone seems to love. Unfortunately, I felt about this one the way I was feeling about Middlemarch. I just couldn’t connect to it, or care much about it. Now, I’m looking at the list of books I’m briefly “reviewing” here in this post and noticing something similar: I read them around the same time, spring, and didn’t really enjoy any of them, although many people seem to love them. So, if I’m being fair, I think I should consider that I just wasn’t in much of a reading mood for a few months earlier this year? I am normally a sucker for this kind of story. A “dark view of society, the somber economics of marriage, and the powerlessness of the unwedded woman in the 1870s”? Sign me up! (I know that sounds weird, but I love a good critique of class and high society). That being said, I just couldn’t come around to empathizing with Lily Bart. I felt that she had so many opportunities to improve her situation, but didn’t. I suppose part of the point of this story is that she does indeed make one bad choice right after another, and hence the tragedy of her life. Still, even a tragic hero is one we want to root for, isn’t it? Of course, some of the criticism rests at the feet of her snobbish and unforgiving community. Wharton does a wonderful job of leveling those criticisms, but I much prefered her Age of Innocence, or even Ethan Frome. Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 5.0.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I begin to worry that I’m setting myself up for a barrage of hate mail (hate comments?) on this particular set of musings. Oh well. This is the second Gaiman novel I’ve read. The first was Stardust, which I read years ago. I didn’t really enjoy Stardust, and I didn’t really enjoy this one. Something strange happens when I read a Gaiman novel. I see its potential. I see the potential in his imagination, his world-building, his characters, all of it. I brace myself for a pretty groovy ride. And then everything fizzles out and I feel like I’ve been ripped off. The whole concept of American Gods, a battle between the worlds oldest deities, of all types, and the new “false” gods of technology, is so fascinating. Shadow was actually a fascinating protagonist, a non-hero who just sort of falls in with an old god, named Wednesday, who needs help. Shadow becomes a sort of participant-observer in some pretty intense, behind-the-scenes, nasty god business. There are moments, which I won’t give away, that are kind of stunning. But most of the book just seems to, I don’t know, “go on.” I feel it building toward something, and then the something happens, and it’s disappointing and kind of pointless. Funny enough, though, I still want to watch the television adaptation, because I think it might be cool. Final Verdict: 3 out of 5

CBAM2017, Classics, Classics Club, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lorraine Hansberry

Thoughts on 3 Classics

This year, I am hosting a “Classic Book-A-Month Club,” hosted on Goodreads. So far, we have read: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott; the Oedipus Cycle (Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone) by Sophocles; The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton; Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald; and A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. Next month’s selection is The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade by Herman Melville. 

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

This is the third Wharton novel I’ve read, following The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome (read twice). Compared to these others, House of Mirth was a struggle. I didn’t feel invested in the story until about 3/4 of the way into it. I didn’t find the protagonist, Lily Bart, to be a compelling or sympathetic character, as I’m sure readers are meant to. I can certainly see what Wharton is trying to say about the “somber economics of marriage” and “the powerlessness of the unwed woman” at the turn of the twentieth century, but for the most part, I just wasn’t made to care. Normally, this is the kind of story I would empathize with, so I’m not sure what exactly left me feeling so ambivalent and detached. Certainly, personal circumstances may have gotten in the way (this is why I’m still a proponent of reader-response theory; you cannot convince me that one’s personal relationship with a book at a particular moment in time does not matter). I did begin to respond near the end of the novel, when Lily’s circumstances were most dire not necessarily because of her own poor decisions, but because of the pettiness and prejudices of her supposed friends and family. I’ll admit that, had Lily’s circumstances been entirely predicated upon others’ terrible personalities, I probably would have found the story a bit too pathetic and fatalistic (at least currently). The realism, then, is both appealing and off-putting. I found myself thinking Lily Bart had any number of opportunities to turn her situation around, but didn’t. Then, I realized I was becoming psychologically and emotionally attached to her despair because of the personal/professional situation in which I’ve found myself this past year; this perhaps intruded on my experience and prevented me from being able to sink into the story itself, to appreciate it for what it is. I’ll have to give this one a re-read, someday, when I can read it more carefully and from a more receptive/less sensitive position. I’m glad to have finished another title from my Classics Club list, though. 

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This was a re-read for me, and one that was a long time coming. I started reading it when I was about half-way into The House of Mirth and ultimately got to the end of each ’round about the same time. This was not a good thing. I had a very personal relationship with this book for a very long time. As a result, it colored my impression of it for years. Reading it again has been a blessing and a curse. On the positive side, I no longer feel as desperately attached to the doomed relationship Fitzgerald presents in Dick and Nicole Diver (fictionalized versions of Francis and Zelda). In a way, I suppose this means that enough time has passed, and I’ve changed enough, to let go of certain difficult memories and experiences. On the negative side, I did not find the story as interesting or beautifully written as I once imagined. I used to argue vehemently that this book is far superior to The Great Gatsby. Now, I’m not so sure. I think they’re close, but Gatsby may indeed be the masterpiece. I was reminded, however, that Fitzgerald deals with homosexuality in this novel; I had completely forgotten this. He includes homosexual innuendo in Gatsby, too, and he’s one of the very few major literary figures of the time to do this (in more than one work, I now realize). Of course, the portrayal here is not a glowing one, which makes one wonder at the more naturally incorporated moment in Gatsby. Was one of these pre-Hemingway and the other post? This would be interesting to explore. In any event, as a piece of expatriate American literature and a study of marriage, mental illness, incest, psychology, and the like, it’s still a damn fine book. It’s just, somehow, not at all what I remembered. The situation of reading this alongside House of Mirth, at this particular time of my life, also created some problems. The combined assault on my emotional connection to this story plus my closeness to Lily Bart’s circumstances left me feeling exhausted and despondent. Simply bad timing. 

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

Honestly, what took me so long to read this? I haven’t “reviewed” a book in many, many months. I think it’s safe to say that Hansberry’s play is the reason I’m back at it. It’s always such a thrill to read a book that is so alive, so important, so visceral, that it rekindles my faith in the art of literature itself. I’ve never considered myself much of a drama aficionado. I’ve read a number of plays, seen some, and almost always find something to praise; yet, I also somehow think that reading drama is not quite an honest endeavor, because drama is meant for the stage. Still, I loved the characters in this book, their diversity and range of experiences, even while most of them were members of the same single-household family (there’s an opportunity for me to teach Intro to Drama next spring, an opportunity I was not really considering, but I think I’ve changed my mind completely). I loved the main plot and the minor sub-plots, the neighbors interventions and the “I’m not a racist, but…” moments. I loved that the play is set in Chicago, a liberal beacon of the north, and yet reveals the hypocritical racism on which neighborhoods were founded and that we have yet to overcome. I needed this play after my experiences with House of Mirth and Tender is the Night. While the story is still one of desperation, it has a much more hopeful ending. Of course, if I think too hard about it, I have to admit that the reality that probably found the Younger family was probably not a pleasant one. But Hansberry leaves this open, to be determined, which at least offers the possibility that these good people might make it, after all. And, in that way, so too might we all. I can’t think of a message more necessary right now than this. 

Anita Loos, Book Review, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Fantasy, Fiction, Literature, Nathanael West, Rick Riordan, Willa Cather

Reviews: The Earlies, Part 5

Gentelmen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

Very funny but also very serious. A lot of social commentary.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

This Pulitzer Prize winning book by Edith Wharton is, well, prize-winning. Wharton asserts herself as America’s Jane Austen – witty, intelligent, moving, and principled. The ending, especially, is so personal and touching, it’s difficult to get through. 4 Stars.

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Very interesting early-Hollywood read. Seems to anticipate “The Beat” generation.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This book is breathtaking. I’m not a Fitzgerald fan – I hated The Great Gatsby, but Tender is the Night is quite an achievement. Fitzgerald does an incredible job of demonstrating how a life is touched, changed, and destroyed by involvement with a schizophrenic. Perhaps it is my own personal experience which connected me so well with this novel and with Fitzgerald’s emotion – but, regardless, the imagery is vivid, the scenarios and plot credible, and the entire story absolutely moving and painful, as well as vindicating. I had to put the book down at many points, due to its ability to evoke sad and painful memories, but upon completion, I felt whole again.

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

Wonderful story. Surprisingly anti-feminist.. but that shouldn’t be shocking, coming from Cather. She loves to push the envelope! This book reminded me why I love Willa Cather. Great read.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

What a great fantasy book! Based in Greek mythological “fact” – and the author obviously did his homework. The characters and the story work well with the mythology and Riordan even adds to it with a modern twist. I can’t say enough about this book and I can’t wait to read the second in the series. I think the book was much more fun to me now than it would have been if I had read it as a kid because having a background in the gods and myths made the story flow more easily and made it genuinely more interesting. However, I’m sure any young fantasy-fan can pick it up and have a great time.