Monday, December 31, 2007

My favorite books of 2007

Here are some of the books I enjoyed most this year, in no particular order:

  1. Wicked by Gregory Maguire.
  2. The Boleyn Inheritance by Phillipa Gregory
  3. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Also enjoyed, but in a more qualified way:
  1. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. An exploration of many kinds of social boundaries, told from the point of view of the ultimate fence-straddler -- a genetic hermaphrodite.
  2. The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. It is similar in flavor to The Alienist. It concerns a psychopath who is systematically inflicting the tortures of each circle of Dante's Inferno on targets that have personally offended him. Several distinguished poets and writers in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Dante Club" are the only experts who know enough about Dante to recognize and anticipate the pattern, to catch him. I loved most of this story and except for the fizzle out ending, it would have made it to my first list.
  3. Harry Potter 7. An enjoyable page turner, as always, but longer and more rambling than necessary (again, as usual). And I found the ending a bit too kiddie
  4. The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory. A fictionalization of the life of Catherine of Aragon. Gives historical perspective, in an entertaining way, as usual.
  5. The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh. A very interesting story about the marginal existence of people living on the remote Sundurban Islands of India. Writing quality varies considerably, and there is a fairly high proportion of melodrama, which brings the book down to my second tier list, but I do recommend it.
  6. Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie
I highly recommend that you stay away from:
  1. The Darwin Conspiracy by John Darnton
  2. The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl -- this was a big disappointment considering how much I liked The Dante Club.
  3. Fury by Salman Rushdie

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The House of Mirth

I just finished listening to a wonderful recording of The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (narrated by Barbara Caruso other of whose recordings I have also enjoyed greatly...especially Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH).

I'd never read any Edith Wharton before but I must say that now I'm planning to.

This story of turn of the (20th) century New York concerns Miss Lily Bart, a "poor, miserable, marriageable girl" who is accustomed to the lap of luxury. Think of it as a Jane Austen set up, but much, much darker.

When we first meet Lily, she is scheming to marry wealthy, dull Mr. Percy Gryce. With her beauty, charm, and wiles, it should be a shoe-in. But just as she is about to clinch the deal, she ruins everything, by realizing how much more she enjoys being with an interesting man. Whom she doesn't want to marry because he can't support her in the style to which she has become accustomed.

Lily has been a poor dependent of wealthy friends and relations for the past 10 years or so. As her name suggests, she has been brought up in wealth as a fragile, ornamental young lady, dependent on all the resources of a hothouse to fully blossom. That is until she is thrust into poverty by her father's economic ruin and death. She lives by making herself useful in various ways to the pleasure-seeking leisure class ladies in her circle, and so, acquires the both the tastes and expensive needs of associating with the rich. Because of her extraordinary beauty and charm she has never lacked suitors. But here lies the problem -- she's just too picky. And like many beautiful, charming young women, she finds that her assets also make her a target for many kinds of insult and victimization.

We watch as one scheme after another that she formulates for her economic preservation falls apart, due to malice, bad luck, misunderstanding, lack of communication or arbitrary social rules that hamper young women. Though some of the factors that contribute to Lily's plight would no longer be relevant today, I think most of them would. But what makes the book so powerful is that Lily's growing backbone is what causes the pillars of her world to crumble, and we weep that her strength is not properly valued.

At the beginning I thought I would hate the story...Miss Bart seems at first such an unsympathetic, spoiled, conniving little gold-digger. But it didn't take long to get me interested. And by the end...well...I am not, in general, a crier, but I must say, I did tear up. I loved every bit of the book except the ending, which I disagree with. Without giving a spoiler, all I can say is that that I think Edith Wharton wrote the ending that Lily would have wanted, but I as a reader found it unsatisfying. I wanted more poetic justice.

I will add that on the strength of my taste for the book, I borrowed the 2000 movie of the same name, starring Gillian Anderson. Don't bother. While it is fairly faithful to the dialog of the book, and the costumes are nice, the acting is pretty bad. And they made some fairly critical plot changes for no better reason that I can see than to save money by cutting down on the number of roles.