Monday, January 19, 2015

Book 61-The Age of Innocence (96th Book)

The Age of Innocence is the 61st book of my Novel 100  challenge and the first book I read for the challenge in 2015. I found this book easy to read, but lacking in interest. The story flowed well and the characters were interesting, but I wasn't wowed by the book. I was, however, quite interested in the theme which was a retrospective on New York in the 1870s.

The Age of Innocence details the lives of Newland Archer, May Welland and May's cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska. Newland is engaged to be married to May when her much more unpredictable cousin Ellen appears on the scene. Newland has started to have unconventional views about the social mores of New York Society and he finds these mirrored in Ellen's thoughts and lifestyle.  Here are a few of the things that he thought: "Women ought to be free-as free as we are." and "marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted sea." Although May is everything society would want for him, he is attracted to Ellen for her unpredictable nature. The affair is never to be carried out however, and the novel follows Newland as he grapples with his own beliefs and the society that would hold him back.

I found this novel very intriguing because it is about unconsummated love. I was reminded of a paper I wrote in university on courtly love in the middle ages. Courtship amongst knights and ladies of the time was seen to be at it's highest ideal if it was never consummated. Knights would fight wars and win battles in the name of their chosen lady, but their feelings were supposedly devoid of physical desire. Some of the knights had never even met their chosen lady and only corresponded with them through letters. This novel follows along those lines because even after May dies and Countess Olenska's estranged husband has passed away Newland prefers to hold on to the ideal of his attraction for Ellen rather than the consummation of it. "I can't love you unless I give you up." The novel closes as Newland sits on a park bench outside of Ellen's house while his son goes in to dinner  with her.  He slowly walks away as a servant comes out to close the blinds.

According to Daniel S. Burt in The Novel 100 readers of Edith Wharton's time did not pick up on the ironic nature of the novel and were convinced that Newland did the right thing in conforming to society's views and marrying May. It is clear as a modern reader that Wharton meant for the novel to be a scathing and ironic depiction of New York in 1870. It is interesting how novels are seen as time goes on. This was one of those rare novels that did well in it's own time and continues to do well today.  Although it has lost some of its meaning as time has gone on it is still represented as a classic novel.

I am little nervous about book 62, "The Good Soldier" since I am not a fan of war. The thing I like about this challenge is it is forcing me to read things I would never have picked up.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Book 60- The Counterfeiters (95th Book)

My last book of 2014 was The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide. I quite liked this book as I read it and I loved the themes! It was a book, within a book, within a book. What I mean is the book is about an author writing a book about writing a book. Huh?! Yeah, it is as confusing as it sounds. It reminds me a little bit of the movie Inception or The Matrix. The novel is really an investigation of what it takes to write a book and how novels are only the counterfeit to life.

The novel follows several characters some of whom become important some of whom do not. The one mainstay throughout the entire novel is Edouard the novelist who is writing a book called "The Counterfeiters" which is about an author writing a book called "The Counterfeiters". The actual novel that Andre Gide writes includes the journals of Edouard while he is writing his novel. In it he summarizes the actions that other characters take as he tries to find uses for his daily life in his novel. The version of the novel I read also included Gide's journals while he wrote his novel, as well as news articles that inspired parts of his story. It is great to see the writing process so clearly analyzed in the novel.

If you are of a philosophical bent then this is the novel for you. It has several themes in it including many characters who are coming of age and trying to find an identity in the face of real life. "I don't know enough about other people's live to write a novel; and I haven't yet had a life of my own." It also has a theme about the structures that bind us and sometimes shape our identity including religion, family and sexual orientation. "Family egoism, hardly less hideous than personal egoism". It also analyzes the theme of what fiction is and what it does for both the reader and the author. "The novelist does not as a rule rely sufficiently on the readers imagination" There is a lot of stuff jammed into one small novel!

This book is chock full of fantastic quotes about writing. I used to want to be a writer before I realized that I didn't have the internal motivation necessary to plug away at a project of my own accord. I also realized that journalism, which would provide me with deadlines, wasn't a match for my personality. Regardless of all of that, writing will always be a hobby for me and I created The Novel 100 project to give me structure and a purpose to keep writing. As such, the quotes about writing really stuck out for me.

"It sometimes seems to me that writing prevents one from living, and that one can express oneself better by acts than by words"

"...making a novel about ideas instead of about human beings?"

"Yes I know, it sounds stupid. Let's say, if you prefer it, it hasn't got one subject...'a slice of life'"

I don't know if I will ever write a novel, but as an avid reader I like when authors explore what writing does for people. I have had a lot of epiphanies from novelists accurately capturing life. It is much easier to see a situation or problem when you see it represented outside of yourself.

Although this book doesn't have a very high rating for me (I only gave it three stars) I did like it. I think the trouble with my  project is that I have refined my tastes to such a point that I can now rate a book on many things. I am learning to grade novels on a curve. Not all books are going to get a 4 or 5 star rating from me. As the list of novels I have read grows, I think there will be far less 5 star novels  and a whole lot of  "middle of the road" or 3 star books for me.