Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

At 157 pages, this was a quick read and could likely be done in one sitting.

Well, you just know from the first page that Ethan has met his reckoning day and may be taking others along for the miserable ride. Young love, ignorance, and poverty are the ingredients for the ultimate of disasters.

Set in the fictitious town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, the dreary tale is narrated by an unnamed out of town engineer who unfolds the story slowly and meticulously as he and the reader learn the facts simultaneously.

Ethan Frome is a man not meant to live a happy life. The death of his father leads to the end of his education followed by his mother’s illness and subsequent death that results in his obligatory marriage to her caregiver.

Ethan’s wife, Zeena seems to live a wretched life parallel to her husband. Knowing she is in a loveless marriage, she spends her time and what little money is available on medical care for illnesses that are most likely imagined.

Zeena’s cousin, Mattie Silver comes to the Frome home to assist in the household and allow Zeena to get the rest she is presumably prescribed. The palpable chemistry between Ethan and Mattie leads to an ultimatum followed by a devastating accident.

I wouldn’t know where to begin with Ms. Wharton…author, landscape designer, traveller, animal lover. It seems she certainly lived her life to its fullest. Of course, I’d want to chat about her writing methods and would invite her for a garden party for two.

My rating for Ethan Frome is a 9 out of 10.

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Next up , Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho

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A Day Off by Storm Jameson

The title does not fit its contents as it is rather a long and lonely day in the life of a woman desperate to survive by counting on no account people. A rather sad tale not to be read by those in an already low mood.

Having reached middle age, the unnamed narrator has never learned self reliance and it has lead her to a bitter and isolated life. Each potential glimmer of the character’s empathy ends in scorn and self-pity. Not someone I’d wish to spend much time with. She sees the world only from her own view point and justifies her self-serving treatment of others as truly justified.

John Cratus spends time with the protagonist, but eventually distances himself, as well as his financial support. Perhaps already committed to another or just exasperated by the gloominess, he is evidently not sending any expected letters with accompanying cash.

Ernst Groener, a former coworker and eventual partner in a cafe is another defeatist. Although hardworking, he is also a somewhat hopeless fellow who leaves hurriedly believing his heritage will bring about serious troubles.

Quotes:

They were muddied and confused by the thinking of other people, her mother, the young woman who as she was had been debauched by the machines, the men and women and children, street on narrow street of them, heaped together in rooms much too small for them, scarcely separated by walls too thin to keep back a sound, forced to abandon privacy , to deny the decencies, like animals penned together, and their souls a burden to them.

Ms. Jameson sounds like someone I’d enjoy spending time with. Perhaps we’d share a cup of tea and discuss the current state of affairs (she’d probably fall out of her chair). Her passion for equality and politics are remarkable.

My rating for A Day Off is a 7 out of 10.

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Next up , Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome

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Drunkard by Emile Zola

The hardest part about this phenomenal read was actually finding it. I searched libraries, bookstores, online, etc. to no avail and ended up getting a very old, very used paperback from Australia as a gift.

Why this masterpiece was so difficult to find is a conundrum I could not solve. I don’t sing its praises lightly and believe it deserves to be on the top of every bibliophile’s reading list.

Zola takes his reader down, way down, into the Parisian gutter to see people at their very worst. Its central character is a laundress abandoned with her young son by her lover. As she tries desperately to better her position, her inability to see those decent from those indecent lead to her inevitable downfall.

Gervaise, the laundress, is cruelly nicknamed Clop clop due to her lame leg, by her frugal in-laws. Her well intentioned attempt at running a successful business fails when she excuses inexcusable behavior by those around her and succumbs to her own gluttonous and hedonistic whims.

The ex lover of Gervaise, Lantier, turns up and manages to ingratiate himself to all. His cunning charms and self serving schemes seem to come off without anyone noticing the detriments he leaves behind. A cad if ever there was one.

The tinsmith, Coupeau pursues Gervaise who eventually relents and marries him. While he initially appears to be a hard working and devoted husband, an accident leads to his downward spiral into unrestrained drinking and eventual alcoholic dementia.

Goujet, the blacksmith, aka Guele-d’Or (yellow beard) is the only sympathetic character to be found. He adores Gervaise and assists her financially and takes her son in to learn his trade. His honorable character prevents him from any aggressive pursuit and his one attempt to sway Gervaise away from her current situation fails. When he eventually sees Gervaise at her lowest point, the shared shame they both feel acknowledge they will never meet again.

Quotes:

While the storm had been raging, she had sat there with her eyes fixed on the clouds, as if she were looking into the future, seeing distant things, of grave import, in the vivid flashes of lightning.

She was absorbed in the hundreds of pins fastening on the lace, and she felt happy at being there, breathing the good, cleanly odour of the place, into which the delicate work brought a sort of meditative silence.

And in his delight at merely being alive, he loved to lounge about doing nothing, his muscles relaxed into a peaceful slumber; it was like the slow inroad of idleness, which profited by his convalescence to soak him, drowning him delightfully.

And the great kiss that they exchanged, mouth to mouth, in the midst of the dirty things, was like a first step in the slow, downward course of their life.

However unlucky you may be, there are always good times now and then when you can get on even with the people you detest.

Yes, she had come to that; that revolts one’s dainty notions no doubt; but if one had eaten nothing for three days, we should see if dainty notions would hold their own against the needs of the stomach; or if one wouldn’t rather go on all fours and eat dirt like the rest.

A wine shop would aptly serve as a meeting place with Mr. Zola and we’d be sure to avoid the brandy. I’d love to ask him how he was able to be so descriptive with the workings of a laundry, tinsmith and blacksmith. Its evident he did not live a charmed life, but lived as those he writes about.

My rating for Drunkard  is a 10 out of 10.

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Next up , Storm Jameson’s A Day Off

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Emma by Jane Austen

I had a very difficult time appreciating this book. Perhaps it was just not my cup of tea or perhaps it was my disdain for meddlers.

Emma Woodhouse, 21, fancies herself a matchmaker following the marriage of her beloved governess to a Mr. Weston. She now takes on all the single women around her and loses sight of her own happiness.

Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, suffers from hypochondria and is sometimes more the dependent than the parent. Unfortunately, his narrow worldview has unintentionally affected Emma’s outlook.

Mr. Knightley possesses what Mr. Woodhouse lacks; common sense and keen observation. His love for Emma eventually negates his criticisms of her matchmaking.

Quotes:

Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken; but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not

A cup, or rather a pot, of tea would be the icebreaker for a chat with Ms. Austen. Would love to get her take on the current state of dating. I fear she’d turn purple if I were to share how people are matched today so I’d respect her and discuss her writing process instead.

My rating for Emma  is a 6 out of 10.

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Next up , Emile Zola’s Drunkard

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Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

An assortment of rag tag characters are introduced in Cannery Row, most struggling to get by and some who choose to live below their means to avoid a traditional life style. All are, of course, very distinct and unique individuals living around the cannery district of Monterey, California.

The one stand out is Doc, who lives and works out of his lab collecting animal specimens for Western Biological. Everyone wants to do nice things for Doc, but the harder they try, the more disastrous the results of their efforts.

Mack is the ringleader of a group of men living in a converted shack dubbed the Palace Flophouse. His schemes are initially well-meaning, but always self serving and typically end in catastrophe. He approaches his plans with “I and the boys…” and the person at the receiving end knows to proceed with caution.

The local grocer, Lee Chong, while hard working is also self-serving and seems to always end up better off in the end of his many dealings with Mack and the boys. His store supplies all the needs of the locals and his inventory includes food, liquor, decorations, fireworks and much more.

Doc, while seeming out of place among his neighbors, is melancholic and seems to help his mood by sharing his love of music and literature with those who visit. His loneliness is what makes him overlook the inevitable disasters of opening his home to those near by.


Quotes:

The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success.

Monterey would be the obvious choice for a little tete a tete with Mr. Steinbeck. I think any topic would allow for a colorful conversation and yarn spinning session. I would attempt to steer our conversation to the art of composition in hopes of absorbing just a tad of that artistic genius.

My rating for Cannery Row  is a 9 out of 10.

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Next up , Jane Austen’s Emma

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Everyone knows the story of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame…or do they? I thought I did, but I only had a limited glimpse of the intriguing tale spun expertly by Victor Hugo.

The Festival of Fools in Paris is held on January 6 1482 and various circumstances bring out cruelty and humanity simultaneously. Those revered are revealed as beasts and those seen as hideous are shown to be the true angels.

Quasimodo, abandoned and left at Notre Dame, was adopted by the seemingly revered Dom Claude Frollo. He knows little of life beyond the bells of the cathedral other than the fear and disgust of those he does encounter. Any small act of kindness to him is seen as extreme benevolence and he innocently devotes his life to those he believes are worthy of his loyalty.

Another abandoned child, La Esmerelda grew up with gypsies and her beauty and enchanting dancing attract men where ever she goes. An amulet she secures around her neck is all that remains of her heritage and she hopes to one day find her mother.

Phoebus, a Captain, is Esmerelda’s true love who saves her life and then destroys it by keeping mum the true circumstances about his stabbing. A true hedonist, his only love is himself.

Quotes:

The belfry of the transept and the two towers were to him were like three great cages; in which the birds,trained by him, sang for him alone; and yet it was these very bells which made him deaf. But mothers love that child best which has cost them most pain.

Then began between the doctor and the archdeacon one of those congratulatory prefaces with which it was at this period customary to precede every conversation between learned men, and which did not hinder them from hating each other most cordially. However, it is just so today: the lips of every learned man who compliments another scholar are like a cup of honeyed poison.

Royal palaces, princely mansions and above all churches, had the right of sanctuary; sometimes an entire town which stood in need of repopulation was given the temporary right.

At Dom Claudes unexpected proposition, the poet’s benign and open face had suddenly darkened, like a smiling Italian landscape when some fatal blast sweeps a cloud across the sun.

I believe politics would be an intriguing conversation with Mr. Hugo whose own views evolved over time. He would surely see parallels to the current state of democracy. Hopefully, we’d also find time to discuss his writing processes.

My rating for The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a 9 out of 10.

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Next up , John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Had no idea what to expect with this book, and being aware that the author was a Philosophy teacher, was a bit uneasy. By the end of chapter two, I was enchanted and could have easily read the book in one day, were it not for work and family.

The novel is set in an upscale Parisian apartment building in the early 2000’s. Alternating perceptions of life at 7 Rue de Grenelle are narrated by Renee, the building’s concierge, and alternately, by Paloma, a 12-year-old tenant who has decided that life is not worth living.

Renee Michel describes herself as a short, ugly and plump 54-year-old working as a concierge for 27 years. She has hidden her intelligence and appreciation of the arts, believing that revealing her true essence would alter the life she has come to endure. Her nature, however, is uncovered by a new tenant and a very insightful young girl.

Paloma Josse also hides her intellect and smarts from all, including her family. She sees adults as absurd and plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. After meeting Renee and seeing beyond her facade, and then being treated as an equal by the new tenant, she comes to realize that she is not alone in the world.

The tenant who upends Renee and Paloma, Kakuro Ozu, brings freshness and light to all he encounters. He is very wealthy, but not at all ostentatious, and becomes the catalyst for putting those around him at such ease, that they can reveal their hearts and souls, unapologetically.

Quotes:

I think lucidity gives your success a bitter taste, whereas mediocrity still leaves hope for something.

What is an aristocrat? A woman who is never sullied by vulgarity, although she may be surrounded by it.

Some people are incapable of perceiving in the object of their contemplation the very thing that gives it its intrinsic life and breath, and they spend their entire lives conversing about mankind as if they were robots, and about things as though they have no soul and must be reduced to what can be said about them–all at the whim of their own subjective inspiration.

For where can one find more noble distraction, more entertaining company, more delightful enchantment than in literature?

It would be hard to know where to begin with Ms. Barbery. My French is appalling so I would definitely not start there. Topics would not be difficult to choose; from Marx to Tolstoy, Eminem to Michael Connelly’s Bosch. Love that she is a strict grammarian and would want to discuss her writing processes.

My rating for The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a 9 out of 10.

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Next up , Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Almost from the start, I knew Tess’ fate was sealed and perhaps that is why I was unable to muster up much in the way of sympathy for this doomed young woman.

The Durbyfields struggle to survive and when the patriarch mistakenly believes he is a descendant to the wealthy D’Urberville family, both he and his wife set about using their daughter, Tess, to make their claim to what they hope is a fortune.

Sadly, Tess is put in the path of the scoundrel, Alec D’Urberville. The naive and inexperienced Tess is urged in to working at his family’s farm and her future is forever damned.

Angel Clare is Tess’ true love, but his unyielding judgment of Tess when she reveals her past prevents what should have been a fairytale love story. His independent character has allowed him to persue his own interests rather than follow his brothers in the clergy, yet his strict religious upbringing has not given him the ability to forgive what he believes is unforgivable.

The cad, Alec D’Urberville may actually love Tess, however, his constant pursuit and seduction eventually result in taking Tess’ future away. His comeuppance is no surprise and perhaps, even well deserved.

If Jack Durbeyfield, the family patriarch, spent as much time trying to support his family as he did supporting his drinking in the pub, things may have turned out quite differently. If only…

Quotes:

She knew how to hit to a hair’s-breadth that moment of evening when the light and the darkness are so evenly balanced that the constraint of day and the suspense of night neutralize each other, leaving absolute mental liberty.

The gray half-tones of daybreak are not the gray half-tones of the day’s close, though the degree of their shade may be the same. In the twilight of the morning light seems active, darkness passive; in the twilight of evening it is the darkness which is active and crescent, and the light which is the drowsy reverse.

Any meeting with Mr. Hardy would most definitely have to be out-of-doors as his rural upbringing is quite evident in his writings. Maybe a slow stroll and then some tea with a light lunch would allow me to discover his writing methods.

My rating for Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a 7 out of 10.

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Next up , Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog

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The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

After being enthralled with The Three Musketeers, I was trepidatious with The Count of Monte Cristo, fearing I’d be disappointed. My fears were squashed as Dumas once again delivered an adventure that had me nearly trembling with anticipation over the Count’s exploits.

In the early 1800’s, 19-year old Edmond Dantes seems to be looking forward to a wonderful life; a promotion from sailor to captain of the Pharaon, marriage to his beloved Mercedes and well liked by all who knew him. He is unaware of those who envy him and suddenly finds himself imprisoned far away from everything and everyone he loves.

The dashing Edmond Dantes seeks revenge against those responsible for the losses he has suffered on trumped up charges and years isolated in prison. The education he has received while imprisoned serves him well as he plans the perfect retribution against those who have wronged him.

Deeply green with envy, Monsieur Danglars has his own plan to rid the world of Dantes and after doing so, improves his life financially and socially. Growing quite comfortable over the years, he is extremely unprepared for the fate that awaits him at the hand of his mortal enemy.

Monsieur Morrell, the Pharaon’s shipowner, is an honest man and the only one that tried to help Dantes when he was falsely accused. He also helped Dantes father who had no support while his son was imprisoned. Morrell is in dire financial straits when Dantes eventually escapes and is unaware that the miracle that has saved him from suicide came from the man he once tried to save.


Quotes:

His whole manner gave evidence of that calmness and resolution peculiar to those who have been accustomed to facing danger ever since their childhood.

“And now,” said the man on the yacht, “farewell to kindness, humanity and gratitude. Farewell to all sentiments that gladden the heart. I have substituted myself for Providence in rewarding the good; may the God of vengeance now yield me His place to punish the wicked!”

No matter how hardened to danger a man may be, he always realizes, from the pounding of his heart and the shivering of his flesh, the enormous difference there is between a dream and reality, between a plan and its execution.

Truly generous men are always ready to become sympathetic when their enemy’s misfortune surpasses the limits of their hatred.

Only a man who has felt ultimate despair is capable of feeling ultimate bliss. It is necessary to have wished for death, Maximillian, in order to know how good it is to live.

What a thrill it would be to go on an expedition with Mr. Dumas, perhaps in a little dinghy. We could discuss his own adventures and how he applied those experiences to his novels.

My rating for The Count of Monte Cristo is a 10 out of 10.

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Next up , Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles

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Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway highlights Ms. Woolf’s knack for stream of consciousness minus the tediousness so many other writers fail to note. Her ability to capture the uniqueness of a multitude of characters made for smooth reading.

Set in post WWI England, the novel addresses class, PTSD, disease and suicide in a 24-hour period preceding a party being hosted by Mrs. Dalloway.

Clarissa Dalloway narrates much of the novel. She holds herself at arms length from those around her so we never get that in depth view of her true being. As quickly as a truth slips out, she quickly reels it in, fearing that she may embrace that image, but others may reject it.

Clarissa’s ex, Peter Walsh, still obviously carries a torch for her. Unlike Clarissa, he is emotionally expressive and is easily brought to tears. He both admires and scorns Clarissa, still conflicted after the passing of many decades,

Miss Killman is the martyred tutor to Clarissa’s daughter, Elizabeth. Bitter about her lot in life, she despises Clarissa and punishes her by influencing her daughter.

Suffering from severe PTSD, Septimus Warren Smith never truly returned from the war. Rather, he subsists with his wife’s support and has found his life to be unbearable. Surely, Clarissa and Septimus merged become Virginia.

Quotes:

Septimus Warren Smith, aged about thirty, pale-faced, beak-nosed, wearing brown shoes and a shabby overcoat, with hazel eyes which had that look of apprehension in them which makes complete strangers apprehensive too.

It ended in a transcendental theory which, with her horror of death allowed her to believe, or say that she believed (for all her scepticism), that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part to of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places, after death. Perhaps — perhaps.

I’d love to be in the shadows at a party hosted by Ms. Woolf and watch her take in every nuance of her guests as she quietly observes their every movement and every dialog. Revealing myself, I’d ask to compare notes to see if our perceptions were in sync.

My rating for Mrs. Dalloway is a 7 out of 10.

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Next up , Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo

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