Madame Bovary

(image from stereototal.com)

I’ve finally finished Madame Bovary, just 2 months late for the Winter Classics Challenge. I have no idea why it took me so long to read this book, why I had so much trouble becoming engrossed in it, especially as I have read it before, perhaps 15 years ago, and I loved it then…so why don’t I love it now? Is it because I’m older now, and not as sympathetic to the youthful Emma Bovary? Or, as a married woman, I’m not as forgiving of a woman who strays from her marriage so readily? Or, maybe, I already know the story, and I’m out of touch with the writing style, so far removed from my days as a Comparative Literature major in grad school?

The answer, I suspect, is a combination of all of these…the writing is indeed beautiful, so well done, that it is a hard novel not to love. The subject was pretty racy in its time (It was considered obscene when it was first released), but for today’s audience it’s common enough. There are no flaws to be found in the writing, but poor Emma…given any situation, any decision to be made, and she unfailingly makes the wrong choice. Bored living on her father’s farm, dreaming of love and adventure? She falls for the first man who comes along, Charles Bovary, the doctor who comes to set her father’s broken leg. Faced with the disappointment of her marriage, she first looks for salvation in the church, and when that fails her, she seeks the love of another man. When he deserts her on the eve of their elopement, she seeks love and excitement in the arms of another man.

While this is distressing enough, it’s hard to see Emma failed by her clergy, her husband, and her lovers, the issue that seals her fate is her shopping habit. She has a taste for “the good life”, a taste which we all probably share at some level, but she doesn’t pay any attention to the debt that she is accumulating. She never considers the actual payment of the debt, just keeps putting it off further and further, for more and more interest. In today’s society, she would have a Kate Spade bag full of maxed out credit cards. When the piper comes calling, wanting payment on her debts, disaster strikes, unraveling several lives in the meantime.

This book serves as a cautionary tale to anyone with a shopping addiction….please, stop before you get in so far over your head that you’re selling property to pay for drapes, and then selling your furniture and the rugs beneath your feet, just to pay the interest on too many extravagances. Emma’s shopping addiction stems from the same source as her adultery and her initial marriage to a man who is not well matched to her…an innate dissatisfaction with what she has, and a continual desire for a better life.

Perhaps it is wrong of me to want to shake her, to tell her to look around and see the beauty to be found in her family, her village, her life. I want to tell her to stop looking elsewhere for satisfaction, and to try to find it within herself. And yet, if we were all satisfied with our lives, if none of us tried to make things better, to shake things up a bit, where would we be? No fire, no wheel, no immunizations or antibiotics. No progress. Of course, this progress comes at a price…our ecology is rapidly decaying around us, and our world becoming dangerously overpopulated. And while ruminating on ecology and overpopulation doesn’t seem to have anything whatsoever to do with Emma Bovary, I would argue that there is indeed a connection. Because, dear reader, Emma’s problem is that she wants the progress, wants a better life, but she doesn’t stop to consider the consequences. And the consequences she faces? They’re disastrous.

The House of Mirth

I’ve fallen terribly behind in my “Winter Classics Challenge”. I had vowed to read 5 classics during the months of January and February, and here we are, almost at the Ides of March (BEWARE!), and I’m just now finishing my 4th classic. I’m going to spread the blame out here, because East of Eden was kind of slow for the first 100 pages, and it was a mighty long book, too. Then there was the time I spent trying to get into Tell My Horse, which didn’t go very well, due to a regrettable lack of interest on my part. Add to these factors the return of Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and our new TV diversion, Heroes, and I have a lot of fingers pointing all over the place, lots of blame to go around. Unfortunately, you do all know that when you point one finger, you have 3 more pointing back at you, and if I am to be honest with myself, these failures are no ones but my own. Sigh.

Which brings me, belatedly, to the 4th book in my challenge, The House of Mirth. Like any book of its age, the language here requires a slower read (no TV back then, after all), though it wasn’t as slow for me as “The Scarlet Letter“. In The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton tells the tale of her heroine, Lily Bart. Lily is a somewhat tragic figure, born into a life of ease and raised to be amusing and ornamental, and most importantly, to marry well (read, money). She has, unfortunately, only mastered the first 2 of these requirements, and she lacks the money to rescue herself from her failure to manage the third. Why, one might ask, does Lily fail to marry? She is stunningly beautiful, charming, and travels in all of the ‘right’ circles of society. Unfortunately, she keeps shooting herself in the foot, thowing away opportunity after opportunity to marry. She bitterly resents that in order to live the type of life she desires, she must marry ~ marry even though she finds her most promising prospects somewhat repugnant.

She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce ~ the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice ~ but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.

After finishing The House of Mirth, my thoughts turned to Scarlett O’Hara, for in some ways, these characters are very similar. They are both women who are bred to be ornamental, helpless creatures. Bred to marry well, and give the impression, if not the reality, of a life of leisure, where gentility and manners matter above all else. Both are from a time and class that is particularly hard on women, willing to put them aside, ostracize them, and leave them to starve, all for the mere appearance of unladylike or immoral behavior, though everyone might know them to be innocent of any wrong doing.

The difference between them is important, though, because Scarlett looks a problem in the eye, and does not shirk from doing what must be done, be it marrying a man (or two…or three) that she does not love, prostituting herself, theft, or murder. For Scarlett, the end justifies the means, and though she dearly wishes to be a great lady like her mother, she always figures that tomorrow will be another day, and she’ll deal with the messy repercussions of her actions then, after the problems of food on the table and security for her family have been resolved.

Lily, however, is unable to do what must be done. She contrives to be like Scarlett, to marry for money, to ensure her own security and well being, to give herself a life of comfort and wealth. And yet, when push comes to shove, she cannot do it. For her, doing what is right, what is moral and just, is vital, for she knows that while living with the scandal of a crime falsely put upon her is difficult, to have to live with herself if she should fall short of her ideals would be impossible. And she falls short of her ideals often, hating the woman she is becoming. She fears that her resolve to do what is right will wane, and so she does not trust herself to consistently rise above the moral dilemmas which are put before her. This fear, along with the brutal constraints of the society in which she lives, proves to be her undoing.

I liked this book a lot. It really got me thinking. I picked up two more Edith Wharton books, Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence, and I’m looking forward to reading them. They, along with several other books recently added to my ‘to be read’ pile, will have to wait. For now, my fate lies with yet another tragic heroine, Emma Bovary.

Tell My Horse

The third book in my “Winter Classics Challenge” was Tell My Horse – Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, by Zora Neale Hurston. I picked this book up because I enjoyed reading, Their Eyes Were Watching God several years ago. Because that book was a novel, I (wrongly) assumed that this was as well. Rather, it is a travelogue delving into the world of superstition and voodoo. Ms. Hurston traveled to Jamaica and Haiti herself in order to write this book, which is detailed in three parts. The first part is about life in Jamaica, and talks a lot about the culture, and the superstitions revolving around the ‘duppy’, which is the spirit that is loosed from a person’s body after they die. The theory is that while a person is living, their brain and their heart can control the evil which inhabits us all, but when we die, the brain and the heart are no longer working, so the evil is free to move about in the world, causing trouble. There are many ceremonies that are enacted to keep the duppy in the grave, or at least out of your house.

The second part is about Haiti, and tells quite a bit about how it came to be as it is today, detailing the more recent (early 1900s, as this book was written in the 1930s) history of the country, and the politics involved.

The third part is a tale of Voodoo, and describes a lot of the beliefs behind the rituals and practice of Voodoo.

I’m sorry to say that this book did not keep my attention. I am really not that great at reading non fiction, and as interesting as this subject was, and well written, I kept looking for a story, for characters, for something with which I could identify. If you can’t tell by my review, I finished the first part, got a little bit into the second part, and finally, gave up. Sigh. Shame on me, not finishing a book for my challenge.

If any of you are interested in cultural anthropology, and have an attention span that is longer than mine when it comes to non fiction, I would recommend this book. I was disappointed in myself for giving it up, but not disappointed enough to make me stick with it.

Henry and June

I finally finished the second book in my Winter Classics Challenge, Henry and June. I vaguely remember watching the film when it came out, and we own the soundtrack, which is lovely, but I don’t remember a lot about the movie, other than that I liked it. If you’re not familiar with Henry and June, it’s the journal of Anaïs Nin, written in France during a year of sexual awakening, in which she becomes involved with writer Henry Miller and his wife, June. In the beginning of the book, Anaïs finds herself drawn to June, and they share a kiss. June leaves France and returns to New York and the arms of her lover, Jean, and Anaïs becomes romantically involved with Henry. What follows is a very intense affair, which emotionally shakes Anaïs to the core. She enters psychoanalysis, and re-evaluates her marriage, as well as her views of sexuality.

The writing itself is wonderfully evocative, though if you don’t like the ‘f’ word used graphically, this book isn’t for you. The problem for me, though, was that this book is taken from Nin’s journal, and thus it lacks the structure of a novel. There is a feeling of wondering where the heck it is all going. She loves Henry, she hates Henry, she loves June, she hates June, she loves Hugo (her husband), she hates Hugo. In her deft hands, the morality of it all is seldom questioned, and she seems to feel that she is above the morals that shackle the rest of us. While I was reading the book, I didn’t feel badly that Henry was sleeping with Anaïs, because hell, his wife is in New York with her lover, so really has no reason to complain. But Hugo has no knowledge of his wife’s extracurricular activities, and has no idea that she is supporting Henry’s writing and lifestyle with the money he gives her for stockings, clothing, perfume, etc. I believe the term is cuckold.

The first 1/2 of the book was intriguing, and I was compelled by the desire to see how it would end. But eventually I became bored and somewhat disgusted by the participants in this story. I’m not sure if I would recommend this book or not. The writing is notable for its beauty and brutal truth, and as Nin became famous for writing erotica, it is interesting to see the inspiration she found, but I can’t say I really enjoyed it. I’m happy to be moving on to another classic. Maybe Madame Bovary, another tale of a wayward wife. On the other hand, maybe I can’t handle any more of that right now…perhaps I’ll pick up one of my other classics first.

East of Eden

I finished East of Eden last night. Whew, what a story. I can’t believe it took me almost a month (started on the 1st), but I guess that’s what makes it a Chunkster…that it takes awhile to read. What makes it a Classic, though, is not only the fact that it’s over 50 years old, but also that it’s famous, and accepted in literary circles as a great work.

In case you haven’t read East of Eden yet, I’m going to highly recommend that you take a month out of your schedule and do so. This is a wonderful book, full of hope and love, pain and death, sex and violence and betrayal. Everything that makes a good soap opera is here, including tragedy and drama.

I knew that this is a retelling of the Cain and Abel story from Genesis, and I knew that it was an epic story, set in the Salinas valley in Central California. What I didn’t realize, however, was how much sympathy I would have for the Cain figure in the story. In Genesis, I always felt like he got a raw deal, with God favoring Abel’s gift of a lamb over his gift of crops that he had grown. I mean, shepherding seems easier than farming to me, so why favor that one? The answer, according to a conversation held between three of the main characters in East of Eden, is because the folks that originally told that story were shepherds, so of course their God would favor shepherding. Makes sense to me.

Speaking of Genesis, there is one theme that they discuss within the book that is pretty profound, and that is held within the word, “timshel“. I don’t know Hebrew, so I’m not sure of the correct translation, but according to Lee, the highly intelligent Chinese servant in East of Eden, it means, “Thou Mayest”. The crux of the story is that in many translations of the Bible, God says, “Thou Shalt”. Yet, in Hebrew (again, according to the story), the correct translation should be “Thou Mayest”. Thou Mayest rule over sin. Or, perhaps, thou mayest not…the sins of the father are not necessarily the sins of the son, and we do not HAVE to do evil, just as we do not HAVE to do good, and we have control over our actions.

I’m not so sure that the character, Cal, would agree, however. He is tortured, like Scarlet O’Hara in another very long book, by his desire to do good, to be good, and his belief that deep down, he is bad. He does cruel, mean things, and then regrets them deeply. I never knew in Genesis, whether Cain regretted killing Abel. I’m sure he regretted being punished, but I wasn’t sure if he regretted the murder itself. East of Eden gave me a glimpse, through more modern eyes, of what Cain must have suffered after his fit of rage.

I’m going to stop now, because I fear I am going to ruin the story for those who might be interested. The first 100 pages kind of drag, as with many long books. Stick with it, because it’s definitely worth it.

Winter Classics Challenge

Now that I’ve finished the From the Stacks: Winter Reading Challenge, I’m ready to start another one (Am I crazy? Perhaps). This challenge is to read 5 classics during the months of January and February. A classic is a slippery thing to describe, so I’ll just say it has to be a renowned book, and the person who started this challenge said it should be at least 50 years old. I came across the challenge on Lotus Reads, but it was started at A Reader’s Journal So, without further ado, here are my 5 classics:

The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton. This seems a fitting choice for this challenge, because awhile ago, I was trying to fit more classics into my life, and this is one of the books I had chosen, yet it got shoved onto the bookshelf and forgotten.

Henry and June – Anais Nin. Does anyone remember the movie to this book? That Blockbuster wouldn’t carry it, because it was rated NR (two women kissing each other) and yet they would carry movies that were so disgustingly violent. That’s when they lost my business forever. I’m spiteful that way. Doesn’t seem to have hurt their business any, though. Anyway, I’ve heard that Nin is an amazing writer, and I already own the book, so this is as good a time as any to get started.

Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert. I’ve actually read this book before, but I checked with the powers that be, and a reread is OK. I think I was in high school when I read this the first time…and I suspect that the wisdom or world knowledge or whatever that comes with being 41 will give me a very different perspective than that of an 18 year old. I’ll let you know.

East of Eden – John Steinbeck. This one squeaks in at over 500 pages, so I’m going to use it for the Chunkster Challenge as well. Ted told me that this book was one of the first books he remembers ever reading and just LOVING. I read the Red Pony in Jr. High (hated it) and The Grapes of Wrath maybe 5 years ago (loved it), so I’m ready.

Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica – Zora Neale Hurston. I’ve only read one of her books before, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, but it was pretty darned good. This book sounds pretty intriguing…I hope it doesn’t scare the crap out of me. 😉

So now you know what I’ll be doing in January and February. I hope that’s enough time for 5 books, especially since one of them is a ‘chunkster‘. Wish me luck.