Month: February 2012

2012 Book #5: Silas Marner

So, after an attempt at some pop fiction, I’ve retreated the comfort of the classics. And comfortable it is.

Silas Marner is about a lonely weaver who moves to a small town after he was falsely accused of a crime in his hometown. His new neighbors are superstitious and wonder why he’d move there – and they treat him accordingly. He finds solace in the gold he saves from his weaving, hiding it under his floor and counting it every night. Until someone steals it. After that, he’s miserable; everyone thinks he’s crazy. Then, one night, a child appears at his hearth. He soon discovers that the child’s mother lies dead outside. Silas decides to keep the child and raise her as his own. Turns out that the child’s real father (spoiler!) is a rich man in the town, but said rich man doesn’t want anyone to know that he’d been married and had a child with a poor woman before he’d married someone closer to his social stature. And I guess I shouldn’t go too much farther with the plot, or you’ll be pissed at me if you read the book.

Because it’s good, and it’s worth reading. I really enjoyed Silas Marner, though it was a bit slow going. There were some spots that seemed to go on forever. I know why Eliot put those scenes in, but I wish she’d kept them a little shorter. This novel is also my first experience with George Eliot. When I was in college, I shunned anything related to the Victorian (which also explains why I did so badly on the Lit GRE back in the day). I didn’t even read A Tale of Two Cities or Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre until after I’d finished my English degree. Which is absolutely crazy. I’d always assumed I’d hate them. Okay, I didn’t especially like Wuthering Heights, but alas.

Anyway, Silas Marner is good, and you should give it a read if you haven’t already. It’s a pretty stereotypical Victorian novel – and a short one. I’m going to give George Eliot another try soon, though I’m a little concerned that if her longer novels are as slow in parts, I might not end up finishing them.

(Also, check out In the process of reading: Silas Marner.)

In the process of reading: Silas Marner

(If you’re wondering what this post is doing here and why it’s not in the Apocrypha, it’s because I’m combining the two. Having two blogs is a waste of time.)

After a couple of bad experiences with pop fiction, I’ve wound my way back to where I’m comfortable: good ol’ fashioned schoolin’ books. Like Silas Marner, which I was never assigned in college (nor was I assigned any George Eliot, at all, but that’s another story for another day). The novel, though really good so far, is a slow read. I think it’s Eliot’s style, about which I’m not complaining. It’s just taking me longer than I thought it would.

So, in the meantime, I thought I’d read a bit about George Eliot because, well, I avoided Victorian-related classes in college because I was sure I would hate them. Which, I guess, is not the case. Anyway, after reading the Wikipedia article (I know), I found a lovely essay Eliot wrote called “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” in which she complains about the female writers of her day. It’s actually pretty funny. She says that there’s a common misconception that poor ladies write novels to pay the bills, and that should make up for at least a bit of their general crappiness. That’s not the case, though: it’s usually rich, idle women doing the writing, and they’re “inexperienced in every form of poverty except poverty of brains.”[1. pg. 180] They suck at writing and at life: “[T]heir intellect seems to have the peculiar impartiality of reproducing both what they have seen and heard, and what they have not seen and heard, with equal unfaithfulness.” [2. pg. 181] There are, of course, women who actually can write (“Happily, we are not dependent on argument to prove that Fiction is a department of literature in which women can, after their kind, fully equal men.” [3. pg. 203]), and of course Eliot counts herself in that number, though it appears that she fit into the idle class, too. No mention of that, of course. But I digress. She says that one of the most significant reasons for so much shitty output from female writers is that, unlike playing a piano, you can write badly and not know it because writing is so freeform:

No educational restrictions can shut women out from the materials of fiction, and there is no species of art which is so free from rigid requirements.  Like crystalline masses, it may take any form, and yet be beautiful; we have only to pour in the right elements—genuine observation, humor, and passion.  But it is precisely this absence of rigid requirement which constitutes the fatal seduction of novel-writing to incompetent women.  Ladies are not wont to be very grossly deceived as to their power of playing on the piano; here certain positive difficulties of execution have to be conquered, and incompetence inevitably breaks down.  Every art which had its absolute technique is, to a certain extent, guarded from the intrusions of mere left-handed imbecility.  But in novel-writing there are no barriers for incapacity to stumble against, no external criteria to prevent a writer from mistaking foolish facility for mastery. [4. pg. 203-204]

I need to read more about authors. I’ve never had an interest in history (again, I know), so I’ve shied away even from Wikipedia articles. When I was in college, getting me to read the biography blurb in a Norton Anthology before reading the actual piece was like pulling teeth. And the essays in the back? Yeah, right. Thus, I’ve read a lot, but I don’t know anything about who wrote anything. I have a feeling I’m missing out.

2012 Book #4: Ethan Frome

Yeah, yeah, I know I’m behind. It’s the middle of February, and I’ve only read a January’s worth of books. I’ve been busy!

Anyway, on to Ethan Frome, which I absolutely loved. As far as I know, this is the first of Edith Wharton I’ve read, English degree and all. And I’ve been missing out. It’s fantastic. This is the kind of book I’ve been needing to read – it’s like rehab for pop fiction.

Ethan Frome is about, well, Ethan Frome. He’s 28 and married to a horror of a woman named Zeena, who makes herself the center of attention by playing sick. For the past year, Zeena’s destitute cousin Mattie has been helping out around the house for room and board, though she’s not especially “handy.” Over the course of that year, she and Ethan have fallen in love, though they don’t act upon it until Zeena goes out of town for a day to see a new doctor. Ethan and Mattie spend the day together, and they kiss. Zeena doesn’t like Mattie, and she’s jealous of Mattie’s relationship with Ethan, so she devises a plan to get rid of her: she comes back from the doctor claiming that he said she must hire a maid and do absolutely no housework. She insists that Mattie leave the following day, and though Ethan tries to come up with something, he can’t really do anything about it. I guess I shouldn’t spoil the end of the novel, though I’ll give one clue: (again, spoiler! spoiler!) Rosebud. And I giggle.

It’s a depressing novel about forbidden love: Ethan is already in a miserable marriage, and, then, once he finds a wee spark of happiness, everything goes to hell in a hand-basket. Which really isn’t a spoiler because the very beginning of the novel explains how miserable Ethan is. Though it’s under 200 pages, Wharton thoroughly explores the characters and their motives, and that’s what makes it such a great read. It’s not an expansive world like those of most of my favorite novels, but a more personal and intimate one.

Wharton is on my shortlist. I’ll read another of her novels really soon because I enjoyed this one so much.

Bonus: If you like Ethan Frome and you’re a fan of 1950s pop fiction, find a copy of Mr. Whittle and the Morning Star. It’s a treat!

2012 Fail Pile #1: The Marriage Plot

I was supposed to love The Marriage Plot. It’s about a girl who just graduated college and who is trying to figure out what to do next. She’s an English major at Brown, taking a class on semiotics, which involves a lot of what I’m writing about in my Thesis Monster. There are also constant literary references to books and such that I understand because, well, I was an English major. She’s a lot like me when I was in college.

So why can’t I get through this book?

I really have no idea, but I’m almost two weeks in (and behind schedule for my 50), I’m only 40% through, and now I’ve lost interest. I even thought about scanning through the rest of the novel just to see what happens, but I don’t even care enough to do that. I guess my biggest problem with it is the part I should enjoy: all of the literary references. And they were great for a while, but at the point where I stopped, that’s all there is. Nothing’s happening but a list of authors and books and ideas. It’s like the Ready Player One of literary references, and I’m bored.

I’ve also been very busy. I got married on Tuesday, and Palmer and I are looking into buying a house soon. Books aren’t exactly at the top of my list right now. And the tight 50-book schedule is kind of wearing on me. I got through more than half of them last year before I had a job and before I got engaged, moved in with Palmer, and got married. Trying to read through books so quickly has made me choose books that are shorter than I want, and I have to read them so quickly that I don’t really enjoy them. Which makes me think it might be a good time to say, well, if I don’t read 50 books this year, that’s okay. I’d rather enjoy what I do read.

So I’ve put down The Marriage Plot, for now, anyway, and picking up Ethan Frome. I don’t think I’ve ever read any Wharton, and I’ve been meaning to for a long time. I’m trying to convince myself that it’s okay not to read it really quickly and that I don’t need to catch up to my schedule. We’ll see what happens.

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