I’m only slightly ashamed to say that I am a librarian with little time to read these days. I read some wonderful books with my young children, and there are the informative journal articles I read for work, but my “spare” time is used for sleep, if I’m lucky enough to get some. It could be a good while before I revisit those long lazy days curled up with the perfect novel, I’m afraid. Worse, I don’t even think I have the capacity for sustained concentration anymore, having not had an uninterrupted moment for several years. I suspect my predicament is relatable by many. And so I bring you the 'Reading Minute'.
When I do pick up something to read for leisure I tend to look for the following qualities: Light and easy to digest, but still smart; discreet sections I am able to finish in one sitting without totally losing the thread when inevitably interrupted; finally, if it’s not too much to ask, just make me laugh and feel like I am connecting with a witty, insightful friend.
Lately I have been finding what I am looking for in these sort of autobiographical short essay-type books written by brilliant female comedians and comic writers. Most recently, I listened to the e-audiobook Seriously... I'm kidding by Ellen DeGeneres, which came out in 2011. I enjoyed listening to Ellen read her own book, with plenty of asides especially for audiobook listeners. Her quirky inflections made this series of silly stream-of consciousness musings (Some chapters are between 1-5 lines long, others are 20 pages.) delightful to take in while walking around Lake Merritt, laughing out loud and distractedly wandering into joggers. What I like about Ellen is that, besides being a naturally funny person and a writer with years of experience as a stand-up comic, she also has a profoundly kind take on everything and everyone. She wants us to feel great about ourselves, and to get along with each other, and to take care of the earth. And to laugh all the while, which I did.
Before that I read Bossypants by Tina Fey, also out in 2011. I have heard that this audiobook is worth a listen, too, as she is the reader, and you can’t beat a comic actress performing her own material. Tina, who was a longtime writer on the set of Saturday Night Live, knows how to punch you in the gut with funny. I came dangerously close to wetting my pants reading some of her thorny responses to ugly criticism of her found on the Internet. Bossypants is mostly about her time as the producer/writer/star of the popular sitcom 30 Rock, with hilarious yet affecting flashbacks to SNL, The Second City improv group and her awkward younger years. She goes deep, getting into what it is like being a woman in comedy and not following the lifelong conditioning of trying to please everybody. I think that, in large part, her success comes from giving an authentic voice to the way many talented women today still feel insecure and undervalued. Then she makes fun of the whole thing.
Here are a couple of books on the horizon on which I have already placed my holds with high hopes:
Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham (just out this month), the twentysomething fresh-voiced dynamo behind the hit HBO series Girls, is called "really out-there honest" by The Library Journal. Says Lena of her book: "No, I am not a sexpert, a psychologist or a dietician. I am not a mother of three or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise. But I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all, and what follows are hopeful dispatches from the frontlines of that struggle."
Yes Please by Amy Poehler (out in late October), Tina Fey's BFF and castmate on SNL, as well as The Second City, is described by the publisher as a "big juicy stew of personal stories, funny bits on sex and love and friendship and parenthood and real life advice". Amy is a veteran comic known most recently for her work on Parks & Recreation and, earlier in her career, for several seasons on the Upright Citizens Brigade.
Gotta run, now!
Kate Chopin was from St. Louis and married a wealthy man from New Orleans. She lived in New Orleans and was soon a widow with six children. She supported her family by writing and lost her popularity, because of the scandalous nature of The Awakening. She died in 1905.
We discussed that Guy de Maupassant was an influence on her and she was an influence on many of the upcoming great authors of the 20th century. Her style is called "naturalism," which one member explained meant that the stories contain the hard parts of life, the seamy or gritty parts.
Eight of us brought many opinions about this short novel. There seemed to be a consensus in the group that those who had never read this before were really surprised by the ending. We didn't ask if people liked it, but everyone seemed to have really been caught up in it and had strong feelings about the story. I think everyone really liked it on many levels, if not all the way through.
We thought that the story was universal, that is, a story of awakening sexuality, of first real love, of disillusionment with the possibilities of the expectations put on the future and choices of women, of a broken heart, of the need to escape to try a different course and the despair over what seems to be a hopeless lot in life.
We commented that Edna had choices. She had some money independently from her husband. She could have chosen a life alone and perhaps would have had a fulfilling life that way, as her single older woman friend had. Is the choice for an independent, strong woman only a life alone?
The concept of Awakening, we agreed, encompassed physical, spiritual, moral and emotional awareness. Her movement away from her constricted life was gradual and as unstoppable as plate tectonics.
We disagreed as to whether or not Edna actually had sex with either of the two different men to whom she was attracted. Some of us thought she had not. Others thought she had.
We thought that Chopin did not let us know enough about the internal motives of the men in her book, but by leaving that information out, we could experience her frustration as if it were our own.
We discussed Edna's choices in the current concepts of mental health. Was she clinically depressed? Was she bipolar? Did she have postpartum depression? One member of our group said she recently read that postpartum depression can happen much after the child is born or even during pregnancy. We thought she was depressed and dissatisfied with many areas of her life. While some of these concepts may have applied in the real world to someone who made Edna's choices, we also agreed that she had fewer choices of a fulfilling life, even though her husband was wealthy, than most any American woman has today. We are happy to live in this time.
She seemed to be "property" to her husband, who was much older than she. We also thought she was so very young and immature, that she was just figuring out what her status in life really was.
Her statement that she loved her children, but would not die for them was in great contrast to the other mothers in her circle and even surprising to us, yet understandable.
We liked her foreshadowing the end with the beautiful description of learning to swim in the ocean. We thought the writing was lyrical.
We compared Edna to other heroines in other book club selections, such as from House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy and our main character in The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing...also from our upcoming book, Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.
Two or more of our group also read other short stories by Kate Chopin and also really liked the characters and the surprise endings. One person commented that short stories usually do have surprise endings.
We wondered if relationships with a lover are ultimately about power.
The Awakening remains an American Classic and will endure as a beautiful example of very early feminist literature.
You may have noticed that our online catalog is looking snazzier these days. We have enhanced it with Novelist Select, offering over 5 million reading suggestions to help you find your next book.
The Readers' Advisory database known as Novelist Plus is not new to us, as we have offered it for several years. OPL patrons have often been delighted to find a NoveList match made in reading heaven for their interests. Here you will find "read-alikes" for favorite titles, authors, and series, or browse by topic or genre for lists of recommended titles. Access to NoveList Plus is also available through a mobile interface.
Novelist Select is an extension of this service that has turned our catalog into a place for book discovery, with reader-focused features such as recommendations, series information, book reviews and more. We are seeing NoveList Select gather a community of OPL readers extending beyond the library walls. If you are at home looking for a book recommendation or want to expand your librarian recommendations, NoveList Select can be like a well-read friend who always thinks of the right book just for you.
Say, for instance, you search in the catalog for Flash Boys, a very popular new title by local author Michael Lewis (Moneyball, 2003), holding steady with around 60 holds on our 11 copies. Of course, we have many more copies on order, as we endeavor to maintain a 1 to 3 copies to holds ratio on books. But, while you wait for the supply to catch up with demand, you may scroll down to the bottom of the results screen to find some helpful suggestions about what might interest you in the meantime:
Among the titles and authors recommended here is David Wolman's The End of money.
Great. You follow the link to that title and look at reader ratings and reviews on GoodReads, also embedded in the catalog:
You further scan the professional review literature included right there in the catalog:
You place a hold, and pick it up within the next week.
Done. And, who knows? It may end up being your next favorite book.
We started with a few interesting facts about Thomas Hardy, who like the "Native" in his novel, loved his "heath" wilderness and rual community more than any other place he could choose to live. Hardy has said that he never wanted to grow up. He wanted to stay in the world he lived in when he was 6 years old. Many can relate to that from time to time.
Eight of us discussed House of Mirth and all seemed to really like it a great deal. We agreed that the writing was wonderful and many quotes were shared that pointed out Edith Wharton's fabulous writing style.
Our discussion leader came with a noted biography of Edith Wharton written by Louis Auchincloss, which she passed around so we could see photos of Edith, her home, her husband, her friends and her style of living. Edith Wharton was born a few blocks from Teddy Roosevelt and was of the same incredibly wealthy class of Americans as Teddy Roosevelt. She lived most of her life abroad, (One aside comment was that she may have had to, because her books put her class in a bad light.) During World War I she was involved with raising money from her wealthy friends to aid Belgian refugees and other needed charities. She received the French Legion of Honor for her good works during that war.
She started writing as a child. Her education was through tutors. Her first major publication was House of Mirth, which made her world famous. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Age of Innocence. She also wrote travel books and books on interior decoration, that are discussed as major influences in that art. A major influence on her work was from her good friend, Henry James. Regarding her knowledge of decorating, we discussed that her descriptions of the world her characters inhabit, made it seem real, that her stories about about the interiors they inhabit and about their own interiors such as the secret lives of their worries, loves, emotions, disappointments, hubris, and despair.
She had an appropriate marriage with someone from her class of the very wealthy, but it was an unhappy one. Her husband died after a mental breakdown. She had one affair with Morton Fullerton, a journalist, who was the great love of her life. Edith Wharton died at the age of 75.
Before we started discussing the novel, Milena also shared with us a photo of a famous tableau which was the inspiration for the tableau in the novel. We reviewed that a tableau was a popular entertainment during the 1800s where people attending a large ball or party would dress up to match exactly a famous painting, often depicting nymphs and sprites cavorting through the woods. In this tableau the famous woman in the photo was a wearing practically see-through gown and it was considered scandalous. This was a time of corsets and long dresses where even an ankle was considered seductive. We could see how our main character Lily crossed the line if that is the way she dressed in the tableau in the House of Mirth. We also thought that not only did she bare her body, but in the novel her soul was bared to us.
One member talked about Lily Bart's similarity to Anna Karenina, who also sabotaged her future with impulsive and also carefully planned decisions. We talked of the tragic ending and how many books written in that era, about woman going against the societal rules, often ended tragically. The Awakening by Kate Chopin was also mentioned as an example. We also talked about the double standard for women. Men can gamble and go into debt, but women cannot, in some cases, even gamble. Men can openly have affairs and keep mistresses, but women cannot. Men were in power in the real world, but women were not. There is one rule for men, one rule for married women and another for single women.
The vicious machinations among the women our heroine had to deal with, were compared to Machiavelli.
We talked about the weak men in the novel. Selden was one who came to understand and perhaps love Lily, but would not step forward to help save her from her self-destruction.
We ultimately liked Rosedale, because he was a pragmatist and truly understood the reality of Lily's dilemma, even though he would also not "save" her at the end, because doing so might jeopardize his own social climbing aspirations. We thought Edith Wharton captured the rampant anti-Semitism of the time and noted that even though Rosedale might never be" truly accepted in society," he would be allowed to attend functions and help make money for the "In Crowd."
We noted that Lily Bart needed guidance, especially from her mother, who had long since passed. She did, however, not follow guidance offered her which might have saved her as she spiraled down.
We talked about this being a "Determinist Novel," which ultimately means the dark reality of the big fish eating all the little fish. Poor Lily didn't have a chance surrounded by the sharks of her social milieu.
We discussed Carrie Fisher, who had a symbiotic relationship with the ultra-rich, providing them "happily" with service and therefore being allowed to attend "In" events and therefore be supported. We wondered if it is still the same for the very rich today. Several people offered examples that led us to believe that such relationships are still common with the very rich. We mentioned the Vanity Fair and New York Times social pages which mention the top of society and their gatherings and marriages, etc.
We discussed the difference between the ultra-rich of that era and the ultra-rich of today. Several of us thought that the differences between the 1% and an the rest was much worse then, as compared to today, because there was no true middle class at the time.
We talked of Lily's innocence, but not all agreed that she was innocent. Perhaps she was in denial, or pretending to not understand the consequences of her behavior, gambling, incurring debt from an older man who had ulterior motives and Lily's being a diversion for ladies who wished to dally with men who were not their husbands. Every "innocent" choice led in an escalating pace to her downfall.
Regarding the pace, it seemed at first that the progression of the story was slow. It seemed nothing of huge consequence was happening, that we were watching the idle diversions of the idle rich, when suddenly we realized we were caught with Lily in a tragedy. It seems similar to the analogy of the frog in a bucket of water over a low fire. The frog doesn't notice until it is fatally overcome by the heat. In some ways it felt like a horror story. As we started to realize there was no way out for Lily, we were frantic with frustration and some of us were ultimately in tears.
We discussed some of the class differences and blindness of Lily and others of her world, who had no idea how "the others" lived. We felt sad when Lily realized that her almost thoughtless act of generosity saved a working woman from scandal and that woman found a man who loved her and accepted her in spite of the working woman's mistakes.
We talked about how the pace of the downward rush picked up after the incident at the yacht. We were impressed with Lily's strength under duress and that she took the moral high road in many of her choices. She didn't use the letters to blackmail her way out of her own undeserved scandal as other characters in the novel would.
We noted that today people can discuss their emotions, but then the norm then was to keep those feelings hidden, "stiff upper lip" style. F. Scott Fitzgerald noted that in his writings that nothing is open, nothing is said directly. While talking of other authors we are reading, we noticed many are from this generation. Perhaps someone would like to do a timeline to see the overlap and similar influences of these writers on each other.
Although the title "House of Mirth" has a reference in the book, it is also found in the Bible in Ecclesiastics, "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the House of Mirth." Once you understand what it is all really about, it is hard to be happy and in the moment. The reality is just too very sad.
We discussed the reference to Caliban and Miranda from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Caliban is the monstrous giant with evil intensions from a barbaric place. Other characters were discussed. Many of us thought the early possible love matches for Lily were also boring and oafish, but some did not. It was pointed out that Percy wore galoshes! It just wasn't Done in polite society. It was repellent to Lily.
So, Lily was shallow. Lily was vain. Lily was beautiful and used her beauty, yet she took the high road morally. She never betrayed a friend or stranger. She gained in wisdom as her world melted around her. We were expecting too much from her. She wanted the life she felt entitled to, but didn't want to make the required bargain. As Gerty said of the tragic end, "It is a blessing." Many of us can get weepy just thinking about it.
Edith Wharton nailed her wealthy, American, shallow, ignorant world in this work. Living in France in a world of her own choosing was better. Hurray Edith! You escaped!
M. E. Thomas (a pseudonym) has a blog, Sociopathworld.com. She is a law professor, a practicing Mormon, and not a convicted criminal. Her memoir is a chilling read. Since Sociopaths are such liars, one thinks twice about her seeming honesty about her condition. She attributes her ability to function in the world of empaths to her family, albeit disfunctional, but structured and loving in its way. She gives the history of the psychology world in defining this condition, which is now gravitating toward calling it Antisocial Personality Disorder. In truth the condition is a continuum, but none the less scary.
Of these three books, this one lets you into the mind of a functioning sociopath the best!
Try them all.....
and/or start with the bigger question
Dark Nature: A Natural History of Evil by Lyall Watson, a zoologgist, who believes that evil, as we define it, is part of reality from subatomic levels, through to individuals, through entire societies. This 1996 book convincingly makes the case that such "evil" is a necessary evolutionary element. Our psychopaths cull out the weak in the same way that predatory big cats catch the weakest wildebeast.
All these titles and more on this topic are in Oakland Public Library. Reserve your copy now!