Bookish Thoughts

This morning when I went running I had to dodge large puddles of water. The air carried the scent of thawing ground and for all the world I could have believed spring was arriving exceptionally early to Michigan and probably this meant we are all really, really screwed.  But now,  several hours later, the clouds have dispersed and every twenty minutes or so the temperature drops a few degrees and it smells like it could snow.  I hope the El Nino winds have finally ceased and the weather gods will smile on us and bring piles of snow and this time next week I’m sitting down to blog after a long afternoon cross-country skiing.

In the mean time, I performed a remarkable feat and returned from the library without checking out any books (I did snag three c.d.s – The Best of Emmy Lou Harris, The Raconteurs and Les Miserables).  I originally thought I could complete the From the Stacks challenge but I was distracted by Gilead  and The Fallen and having only read two books for the challenge so far I’ve decided to cut myself some slack and allow January to be a new start – I’m going to focus on reading 13 classics in 2007 instead.  Tomorrow I’ll take my gift card from my sister-in-law to the bookstore and choose my first classic…I’m thinking of Anna Karenina, Lolita or East of Eden. Unless something else calls to me, of course.  I’ll let you know.  Today, though, I have three books I want to discuss.

The first book I finished in 2007 – Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson.  I have to confess, some books, as I read them, call out and demand a blog post from me – I felt like that with both Lisey’s Story and The Kite Runner,  as well as with the two other books I’ve reserved to discuss in this post.  I didn’t particularly feel this way about Gilead but I’ve also made a decision to blog, however briefly, about everything I read this year, and so here I am.  I ended up enjoying Robinson’s novel much more by the end than I did in the beginnning.  At first I found the lack of chapters off-putting but certainly, this decision serves the narrative structure.  I found Reverend John Ame’s voice engaging and strangely calming, and I think maybe the reason I don’t feel called to write about this book is because of its very nature – much of the text centers around the ideas of grace and forgiveness and I almost feel like Ames’s voice carried me along in a similar state of grace – I felt calm and compassionate while reading this book, almost as though by reading this story of redemption and understanding I was momentarily blessed with similar qualities.   But I didn’t come away with anything really to say about it other than the experience of reading the book equals, in some measure, the messages from the text.  I look forward to Housekeeping. 

The other two books I want to write about, in conjunction with one another, are A Room with a View and The Awakening.  I read Forster’s book first, and completed Chopin’s in early December.  Upon completing The Awakening I kept thinking how much it reminded me of A Room with a View, even though Forster’s is British Literature and Chopin’s is American Lit.  After extensive research  a couple of searches on google, I couldn’t find any mention of these texts being taught together but it seems to me certainly they must be? In comparative literature, if nothing else? Or have I just had too much vanilla almond tea lately to make sense out of this?  Both novels have women as central characters – Lucy in ARWAV and Edna in TA.  Both novels begin with the heroines vacationing, Lucy in Florence and Edna at a summer colony of the coast of Louisiana, and both characters meet men who transform their experiences while away from home.  Lucy meets George Emerson and Edna meets Robert Lebrun.  Both women fall in love with the men they meet, although Edna’s emotions are considerably more dangerous since she is already a wife and mother…

Ugh. Do you ever start writing and have this GREAT idea in your head and realize as you type it’s impossible to execute? I honestly don’t think I have the vocabulary to say what I want to say about these novels.  Let me try another way: When I was in college I had a British Literature teacher who once lectured on how thoroughly disappointing American Literature is – she said after the American Revolution British artists kept waiting and waiting for great American artists to finally reveal themselves and here we all were, in 1997, still waiting for some flicker of American greatness to reveal itself. She also claimed it impossible for British and American Literature to truly converse with one another because the experiences forming each are so disparate intellectual engagement isn’t possible.  For some reason, this lecture always stuck with me, but it was upon finishing The Awakening that I realized how truly off-base this professor was, that day.  The Awakening  was published in 1899, Forster’s novel in 1908.  A mere nine years apart, both novels feature heroines who fall “in love” while vacationing, and in both instances their love interests are inappropriate, Lucy’s because of George’s unsuitablility and Edna’s because, well, for God’s sake, she’s married! While one novel is light in nature and even humorous (ARWAV), Chopin foreshadow’s her tragic ending in every chapter.  Despite different approaches (one satirical, one earnest), both novels feature women transformed by music – Lucy’s potential greatness transcends her when she plays the piano, as relayed to us by Reverend Beebe, while Edna taps into the greatness she believes in herself when she listens to Madamoiselle REisz play.  In both instances, the lead characters at first follow convention but end up shirking it in favor of following their hearts.  Lucy’s decision to break off her engagement with Cecil Vyse and elope with George Emerson costs her her family (which I never have fully understood) while Edna’s decision to move out of her home and take up residence around the block, shipping off her children to their grandparents allows her the freedom to at least pursue Robert.  Of course, Edna’s “awakening” is more fraught with complications than is Lucy’s…Edna’s is more obviously a sexual awakening and rejection of the roles society is forcing her to play while Lucy simply follows her heart and stays with the complicated Emerson.

Well, I’ve been trying to write this post for an hour and I fear I’m no closer than I was when I started.  I guess what I am trying to say is that the experience of reading Chopin’s book echoed the experience I had reading Forster’s, and made me think that these books could certainly be a considered a cross-Atlantic discussion on the roles women assumed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  For all of that, I found Chopin’s novel much more opulent and much more sensory than Forster’s, although the perfect word to describe Forster’s novel is “delightful.” And now I’ll conclude with Kate Chopin’s response the all the negative reaction that emerged upon The Awakening’s release, so upset were people with the ending – it’s fantatstic:

Having a group of people at my disposal, I thought it might be entertaining to myself to throw them together and see what would happen.  I never dreamed of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things and wroking her own damnation as she did.  If I had had teh slightest intimation of such things I would have excluded her from the company.  But when I found out what she was upt to, the play was half over and it was then too late.

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8 Responses to Bookish Thoughts

  1. When Gilead turned up at my bookclub (where we exchange rather than dissect books), it somehow didn’t grab me, but your review makes me think I should have given it a chance. I will look forward to hearing what you think of Housekeeping.

    A Room With a View is indeed delightful. When I think of it though, I can’t get Helena Bonham-Carter out my head so I think the movie version – which was quite good – has taken over my memory of the book. It sounds like The Awakening is worth a read, so thanks for pointing me to it.

  2. Andi says:

    Lovely post if you ask me!

    I wish I could say I came to some sort of positive conclusion about Gilead, but I found it a little maudlin and gave it up after 100 pages or so (I *think* I made it that far). I tend to favor more postmodern, edgy, cycnical writing (who’d have thought), so maybe that’s why I didn’t jive with this particular book.

    And I’ve never read The Awakening! Isn’t that a crime?

  3. litlove says:

    It always astounds me the things people say in class. I mean, how on earth could that lecturer have justified turning what was at best a personal opinion, into an assertion? Extraordinary. I like your comparative reading very much, Courtney, particularly as I can see exactly where you’re going, with very similar contexts resulting in very different moral lessons and emotional experiences. I loved both of those books when I read them, but never thought to bring the heroines into comparison. Is it the nature of holidays to welcome a freedom from constraint that can be as liberating as it can be destructive? Or is Edna just Lucy’s older, tragic sister; does she foreshadow possibilities that Lucy in her innocence cannot yet envisage? Very interesting and thoughtful post!

  4. Dorothy W. says:

    I like your comments about Gilead — sometimes there’s not a whole lot to say in response to a book, and that’s not a bad thing at all! And — I know I’ve said this before, but still — I need to read more Forster!

  5. Stefanie says:

    We’ve hardly gotten any snow here in MN either. My parents live in Southern CA and my mom told me last night she heard the El Nino was almost over. So we will both keep our fingers crossed for a good dumping of snow!

  6. LK says:

    I’ve started and stopped Gilead–just didn’t suck me in. But I will give it another go at some point, and your post will help me.

    I loved Room with a View. Never thought about comparing it to The Awakening, though never read the latter, either. (Another shameful literary lapse for old LK.)

    That teacher should be spanked with a copy of anything by Hawthorne.

  7. Charlotte, I think you would really enjoy the Awakening – it’s a very sensuous, opulent story. It’s pretty slim in terms of pages, too.

    Andi, interesting you found Gilead maudlin. It could be read that way but I also felt an undercurrent of joy running through it…

    Litlove – the odd thing is, other than that statement, she was a really good teacher and ended up writing one of my recommendations for grad school – she always wanted me to be a professor. It was her one odd moment! I forgive her for it, although it DID stick with me, which is too bad in light of the many many amazing lectures she gave…

    Dorothy – I think you’ll like Forster!

    Stefanie…well, we’re finally getting a little bit. At least it’s cold enough to snow. HOw about you?

    LK – LOL! And, I think you would like The Awakening. It’s very intriguing and dark and sort of sexy….

  8. Stefanie says:

    We’ve been boucning around the 30s all winter. But I think finally, it is getting cold. There is hope when they put the public ice rink back out on the lake yesterday. And today we have flurries!

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