Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

‘The Cart, Snow Covered Road at Honfleur’ by Claude Monet

In a year when many are commemorating Dicken’s for his 200th year anniversary, I was prompted by a Dovegreyreader post to do the same for Edith Wharton, in homage to 150 years since her birth on 24th January 1862. A perfect winter read, this slim volume with its enticing cover featuring Claude Monet’s painting was confirmed as my choice when I spotted it in Book in Bar’s annual 50% sale.

Sainte Claire du Vieux Château

So I am making it an ‘Edith Wharton’ year which seems appropriate for many reasons, she is a woman after all, she left her country of birth and came to France which interests me (and I have just learned she had a house here in the south of France at Ste. Claire du Vieux Château) and lastly due to the timely association between Wharton’s novels and the popular Downton Abbey series, which prompted an interesting article in the NY Times discussing the era of wealthy American heiresses marrying into the English aristocracy to save them from financial ruin, some of whom are said to have been associated with Edith Wharton.

‘Ethan Frome’ is narrated by a short stay passer-by in Starkfield whom Frome transports to his place of work during heavy snows and is subsequently invited to seek refuge from a blizzard one evening in his home, an abode no one has entered or been invited to for many years. Upon hearing of his invitation, one of the villagers curious to learn more from the visitor, opens up and reveals much of the story of Ethan’s past to him.

Thus we hear how three people’s lives were paralysed by past events, simple lives complicated by forbidden love and a desperate act. It is a story of its time, an era when people of certain classes were restrained in their behaviours, though not in the intensity of their feelings, endeavouring to suppress them for the sake of saving face or fortune.

I found it interesting how Wharton portrayed the angst of the young would be lovers, drawing the reader into sympathising with them, while portraying Ethan’s wife Zeena in a shifty, calculating way, when she would have been reacting to her natural instinct to want to separate the two. Perhaps in another version of the story it may have been possible to sympathise with Zeena had her perspective been portrayed, it is easy to be lured and swayed by a writer’s deceptive tools when there is more emphasis on one side of a story or on certain characters. I also found it interesting that she decided to portray a husband suffering for having fallen in love with another woman, rather than that of a woman who falls for another man.

I can imagine reading this again, I enjoyed the writing and Wharton’s use of metaphor to depict the landscape and the barren living conditions and I look forward to reading another of her works soon.

So, do you have an Edith Wharton favourite? Have you read any of her books?

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Caleb & Joel, Harvard College woodblock print by Annie Bissett

Geraldine Brooks delves into a period of history around 1665 combining fictional characters with the intriguing and real-life characters of two Wôpanâak tribe members, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk and Joel Iacoombs, inhabitants of the 200sqkm island of Noepe, (Martha’s Vineyard) located south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts and the first Native Americans to attend Harvard College.

Thank you to Annie Bisset for allowing me to use her wonderful woodblock print of Caleb and Joel, click to learn more about these real life characters and to see Annie’s excellent artwork.

Bethia is the daughter of a Minister who has ambitions to convert the Wôpanâak people to Christianity. Though they live on the same island, it is not deemed proper that they mingle and Bethia believes she has sinned gravely when she develops a friendship with Cheeshahteaumauk, nicknamed Chuppi ‘the one who stands separate’ the young son of a Chieftain whom she names Caleb. He calls her ‘Storm Eyes’.

“to the extent that my spirit was roiled, so his seemed calm.”

Bethia and Caleb are like yin and yang, they contrast and yet complement each other, light within dark, dark within light, they attract and recoil from each other, moving through life with their separate belief systems, alien and yet understanding, their spirits connected in ways the intellect struggles to comprehend. But while he is able to suspend his beliefs to better understand the ways of the settler’s, something deemed necessary for their survival, she cannot do the same, she observes and feels something, but her fear of it convinces her it must be devil’s work. Caleb is elusive, we perceive him rather than know him, which makes him mysterious, left to the imagination to fill in the gaps. He appears not to have been corrupted and is “all seeing”, at least I imagine him as such.

The book is split into three periods in Bethia’s life, moments when she picked up the pen and looking back recorded certain events in her life, the first period when she was an adolescent on the island records her transformation from carefree girl within a stable family environment to young adult when a change in family fortune requires her to be indentured as a housemaid in a Cambridge school so her brother can continue his education.

I enjoyed this part the most, it touched both her joy and terror of discovering the new, her close relationship with nature, Caleb and the island and her desire to know more while fighting her puritan instinct to punish herself for those thoughts and stifle their continual unwelcome presence. It is the beginning of her repressed crush on the young Chieftan’s son, who appears comfortable in himself with his knowledge and harbours none of her fears of taking that knowledge to the next level.

Thus we find ourselves in the second part, in Cambridge where Bethia’s brother Makepeace and the two boys Caleb and Joel spend a preparatory year before sitting the exam that will allow them entry into Harvard. It was something of a shock in reading to suddenly be thrown into Cambridge, just as it must have been for the protagonist herself, I wasn’t ready to leave the island and wanted to dwell more on the years that were not recounted in the text, but alas, it was not I steering this ship and so reluctantly I let go of that disappointment to await Bethia’s fate. Bethia desires intellectual knowledge or at least to be in the proximity of it, so despite her lot, she is content to be within an educational institution and this attraction forms the basis of future decisions she will make.

An enjoyable read, although the cut off between the three sections always left me wondering and craving a little more for what happened next, never quite reaching fulfillment. The introduction of the characters of Caleb and Joel left this reader wanting more and I was disappointed that we don’t learn more of their experience, which I understand would have required great steps in the imagination, as little details of their time at Harvard are actually known or recorded. But ever thankful to have been enlightened on the achievements of these two young men and their place in the story of America and another great read from Geraldine Brooks.

La Seduction – how the French play the game of life

Séduire * plaire à quelqu’un et obtenir amour ou faveurs en usant de son charme * conquérir l’admiration, l’estime, la confiance * captiver, charmer *attirer de façon irrésistible en parlant d’une chose

Suggested by a local book club and interested in an outsider’s perception of life in France, I find myself in the company of Elaine Sciolino, Paris bureau chief of the New York Times between the pages of her alluring book.

Inspired by a lecture she gave at the NY public library in 2008 entitled ‘Séduction à la française’ the author explained how seduction was key to understanding France and the French, positing that one of the reasons for President Sarkozy’s low ratings in the popularity polls post-election was because he had not mastered these rules. He may not play by the rules, but he did find his counter balance when he married Carla Bruni, who Scioloni describes as:

a modern-day woman with the manners of an eighteenth-century courtesan, skilled in the art of movement and the rituals of conversation.

Intriguing indeed and what fun the author must have had flirting flitting around the micro empires of Parisian style, beauty, cuisine, politics and culture, meeting presidents, diplomats, artists, writers, chefs, businessmen, merchants, farmers, philosophers, journalists, fashion designers, perfumers and museum curators.

The book describes a world and a manner of being I know little about, despite living within its midst these past six or so years; but Paris, like many large cities is not necessarily typical of the rest and after listening to others discuss this book, opinion is indeed varied, some suggesting ‘la seduction’ old fashioned, a prerogative of certain social classes, political circles or even pure fantasy. I tend to think there are sufficient anecdotes to say oui to all of those suggestions.

What is certain is that cultural perceptions are different even when values may be similar. While a certain look ‘le regard’ from a man is welcomed as a complement in France, it might receive a verbal legal threat in America. In France, there is greater tolerance and less testing the waters of behaviour that in the US might be construed as sexual harassment.

Statue of Benjamin Franklin, Paris, 16ème - Photo Lycée Condorcet

An interesting example of how long things have been so, was observed ( and well portrayed in the excellent HBO series ‘John Adams’) in the conduct and perceptions of Benjamin Franklin (first Ambassador to France) and John Adams (the second American president), Franklin understood it impolite to discuss business at dinner, immersing himself in the peculiarities of French culture while pursuing his goal; Adams however, saw Franklin’s indulgences and game playing as a complete waste of time, his disapproving manner causing the French to frown and exclude him completely. When Franklin died, France mourned him like a hero; people thought so highly of him, some believed he had been a president.

One of the paradoxes is the attitude towards privacy. Behaviours complicit in la seduction are accepted, but it is frowned upon to indulge in more than fanciful rumour; the media keep their distance from any story that verges on incriminating a person for something considered to be private or slanderous. This was highlighted recently when Sarkozy whispered an insult in the ear of President Obama about another Head of State and although the comment was overhead and reported widely by English and American media, it was not reported until a week later by the French press and even then it was kept very low profile. Not one French person I asked knew about the story. The sanctity of the right to privacy is paramount.

The chapters on gastronomy and concocting perfumes I particularly enjoyed, time spent with a connoisseur passionate about their work is pure joy and since mixing the essences of plants and flowers is one of my own passions, I was happily lost in these chapters imagining the sweet mix of aromas and the taste of Guy Savoy’s mother’s home cooking. See him work his magic here and experience his culinary art of seduction.

I recall reading ‘Sixty Million Frenchmen can’t be wrong’ by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, a Canadian attempt to understanding France and the French and their effort to explain the root of the differences. One of the analogies they made that has stayed with me was to suggest that visitors should expect a culture and a people as dissimilar to themselves as they might assume when visiting Japan or China. All are ancient civilisations and have many traits, laws, beliefs, habits, attitudes and ways of doing things that go back generations, centuries.

Our institutions originate in the decadence of ancient Rome. We are an old people. The mistresses of monarchs, from Louis XIV to Napolean III … are part of our history. – Patrick Devedjian, Paris

Rather than debate whether this is an accurate portrayal or not, I see it as another contribution to an attempted unveiling of what lies within an ancient culture and how that influences what we encounter in our modern day interactions and visitations in this intriguing country and among her patriotic people. It remains a slow opening mystery to me, so I just continue to listen, observe, interact, read and learn.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Although I live in France, speak the language and love to read, I confess I don’t read nearly enough in French and admit I am holding any intent in that direction in abeyance for a while, comfortable with the certain knowledge that I will indulge the desire eventually. The last novel I bought in French was a translation of The Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel, a gift for my friend B, so she could read it in her ‘langue maternelle‘. It is serendipitous then, that she bought me ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ for Christmas, another novel with an unforgettable feline presence. We will share the experience of our respective tigers soon, the discussion sure to cross both languages.

And so to Téa Obreht’s debut novel and Orange prize winning ‘The Tiger’s Wife’.

I do enjoy traversing cultures and storytelling whose origins are unfamiliar, requiring an open mind and suspension of judgement. Obreht brings us to a land that has been split in two, where crossing a border causes suspicion and having the wrong accent or name can be dangerous.

Natalia is a young doctor who travels with her friend Zora across a hostile border to bring medicine to an orphanage. On her way she learns that her dying Grandfather has followed her and passed away in a neighbouring village. His personal effects, including his copy of ‘The Jungle Book’ that he always keeps with him are missing; Natalia takes a detour during her visit to retrieve them, enabling her family to render their funereal rituals in peace.

A  simple story, there is little depth to the living characters, we don’t spend much time with or get to know Natalia’s mother, grandmother or her travelling companion Zora. The contemporary story outline is a frame within which to retell stories and reflect on memories the grandfather shared with Natalia, presented as flashbacks.

However, this is where Obreht’s narrative really shines, when the deathless man appeared everything came into focus and I was hooked. The grandfather’s encounters and conversations with the deathless man are curious and engaging. We meet the equally legendary villagers of Galina where he grew up and in a fable-like manner, we learn how the background of these characters led to their subsequent behaviour and the role of the Tiger’s wife.

We encounter village rumour, superstition, stories and incidents where truth and the imagination make equal contribution to the version passed on or ‘dug up’ in the present day. The stories often feature a well-intended, admirable type such as Luka, the butcher’s son and Dariša the bear hunter, transformed by events which see their nature change, the humble youngster becoming a wife-beater, the caring turning brutal, the compassionate victimised.

Framing stories within another story can be distracting, particularly when we have a preference for one over the other and when the narrative voice changes; it reminds me of the Rumi scholar and novelist Elif Shafak’s book The Forty Rules of Love’ which I adored for the most part, the fable like story of the dervish Shams unfolds like an exotic journey; the contemporary story within which it was framed didn’t work so well, though I do recommend the book.

I hope more novelists succeed in crossing cultures and bringing into the light their stories, myths and family legends with creative inspiration.

Lest we forget.

The Versatile Blogger Award

Blogging awards make excellent writing prompts and get me writing about something other than books as well as encouraging good blogging etiquette; i.e. visiting other blogs, commenting and being supportive.

This lovely award has been passed on to me most recently via Fi’s Magical Writing Haven whose exquisite river of stones vignettes are a joy to indulge in.

However, I must also say thank you to a few others who have also mentioned this blog.  So ‘Merci beaucoup’ Elizabeth, medieval historian at Lapidary Prose who used her award to acknowledge her gratitude to family, followers and supportive writers and Subtle Kate from Sydney and Liz Shaw who offers creativity prompts for writers, journalers and artists at The Writing Reader.

Ok, 7 things you may not know about me:

  1. I am an Aquarian.
  2. The 1600 acre hill country sheep farm where I spent my childhood was one of the Middle Earth locations in the film ‘Lord of the Rings’.
  3. Golden Plover, Whitsunday Islands

    I once worked on the 104 foot (30m) tall ship ‘The Golden Plover’; I was employed as a hydro ceramic engineer (dishwasher), except when the Captain or 1stmate shouted “all hands on deck”.

  4. I have visited more than 30 countries.
  5. I was a bridesmaid at a traditional African wedding in Lagos, Nigeria.
  6. I am married to a man who was born in a manger refugee camp in Bethlehem whose name starts with J.
  7. I like to read Buddhist philosophy.

And a few more blogs I recommend:

Arabic Literature (in English) – I don’t travel as much these days, so I love to read translations, experience different cultures and travel through books.

Books & Bowel Movements – Cassie’s enthusiasm for books and the way she writes about them is contagious and I love that she loved ‘The Bone People’.

Tomcat in the Red Room – he doesn’t post very often, but writes the most amazing reviews and has a natural vocabulary I envy.

Nexus –A humanities teacher and an artist sharing wonderful moments in the classroom and elsewhere.

Hooked – One woman at Sea, Trolling for truth – when I need to go to sea I watch one of her video posts; the writing is exquisite and I hope she publishes a book soon.

Ragnarök – The End of the Gods by A.S.Byatt

Seduced by the cover and the promise of something a little different from her norm (having read ‘Possession’ and ‘The Children’s Book’), I picked this up in its beautiful hardback form and for once allowed the impulse a rare indulgence.

Part of The Myths series, which includes Margaret Atwood’s, ‘Penelopiad’, the publisher Canongate invited select writers to retell a myth in their own way and this is A.S. Byatt’s contribution.

Ragnörak is a Norse myth, the story of how things came to be and how they and world are destroyed after a series of conflicts, revenge takings, mutations and natural disasters. Byatt’s version is neither a short story or novel, more of an insight into the myth, the perspective of a thin young girl in wartime, an immersion into the created world and its end, concluding with the author’s thoughts on myths.

Yggdrasil, the imagined world

Coming to it without knowledge of the mythological background, I found myself immediately immersed in life forms that grew and transformed, creatures that came into existence, hunted, survived, wrapped their tentacles around and invaded trees, forests, lakes, streams, oceans and the planet.

Strange but alive, it is a kind of living nightmare; the young girl (who I immediately came to think of as the author as a young girl) tries to understand and make sense of the world around her, while rereading her ‘Asgard and the Gods’ stories that invade her imagination and develop her awareness and understanding of belief or disbelief as it turns out.

She did not believe the stories in ‘Asgard and the Gods’. But they were coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive.

The pages are infiltrated with images of nature in abundance, colours, textures, millions of living things and creatures, moving, sliding, digging, squirming, biting and gulping, with an omnipresent sense of foreboding. The Gods celebrate as they always do with fighting and shouting, self-destruction an ever threatening accomplice. Jörmungandr, the angry, sensuous, snake with an insatiable appetite is particularly haunting and memorable.

In her ‘Thoughts on Myths’ at the end, Byatt notes the difference between fairy tales and myths, the former giving the reader the pleasure of recognizing repeated variations on similar narrative patterns, while myths often torment, puzzling and haunting the mind who reaches into them.

We are reminded of the world we live in and the corruption, contamination, pollution and ultimate destruction of the living organism we inhabit and can only wonder if we too are destined for such a fiery end. For me, it was more of a beginning, another entry point into the mysterious and meaningful realm of ancient mythology.

Further Reading:

Peter Conrad, The Observer

M John Harrison, The Guardian

Ursula K Le Guin, Literary Review

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Emerging from Abraham Verghese’s ‘Cutting for Stone’ reminds me what it was like returning home after three months travelling in Asia; home is familiar, but everything else feels strangely altered by the recent experience.

Except, it is not Asia I traverse, but reading my way through Addis Ababa in central Ethiopia to a hospital in the Bronx, via the eyes, ears, heart and hands of Marion Stone. Marion and Shiva are identical twin boys left orphaned when their mother dies during childbirth and their father, unable to cope with the revelations of that day, abandons them for good.

Raised by Hema and Ghosh, doctors in the Mission Missing Hospital, kept running by Matron’s unrelenting pursuance of international donors, they become a close-knit family, often struggling but nearly always overcoming the day to day dramas of the hospital and the equally unpredictable events of a volatile political environment.

Marion and Shiva follow their role models into the medical world and we too enter the operating room with such verisimilitude, it’s almost like watching an episode or ER (the nearest I have come to knowing what trauma surgery might be like).

Ethiopia & the Horn of Africa

Five hundred plus pages of bliss, I don’t recall when I was last so content that a book continued after 400 pages, so happy was I to enter the author’s realistically created world, taking me to those exotic but familiar to him locations, putting me through numerous experiences I will likely never encounter.  Verghese’s words on the page bring a life-like quality; there is a richness to his prose that is metaphorically beautiful and a perceptive tension that is heart racing mad. It’s a roller coaster ride from start to finish and by page 472 tears of joy were flowing.

Gripping, enticing, compassionately delivered, eye-opening, heart racing, it is an unforgettable journey and a thrill of a read.  I finished it on the first day of 2012 and I can’t imagine reading better than this for a while, it could well become one of my best reads of 2012.