Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Age of Innocence

“Not to understand the doer is to have no certain knowledge of what has been done, or why it was undertaken” – Philip Wylie, The Disappearance

In the last chapterWarning! I am about to spoil the ending of a book published in 1920! of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence Newland Archer, after the death of his wife, has traveled to Paris, where his true love Ellen Olenska, who he has not seen in over 30 years, resides. When Archer arrives he finds himself paralyzed, only able to look up at Ellen’s window on the fifth floor:

Archer sat down on the bench and continued to gaze at the awninged balcony. He calculated the time it would take his son to be carried up in the lift to the fifth floor, to ring the bell, and be admitted to the hall, and then ushered into the drawing-room. He pictured [his son] entering that room with his quick assured step and his delightful smile, and wondered if the people were right who said that his boy "took after him."

Then he tried to see the persons already in the room--for probably at that sociable hour there would be more than one--and among them a dark lady, pale and dark, who would look up quickly, half rise, and hold out a long thin hand with three rings on it. . . . He thought she would be sitting in a sofa-corner near the fire, with azaleas banked behind her on a table.

"It's more real to me here than if I went up," he suddenly heard himself say; and the fear lest that last shadow of reality should lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the minutes succeeded each other.

He sat for a long time on the bench in the thickening dusk, his eyes never turning from the balcony. At length a light shone through the windows, and a moment later a man-servant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters.

At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.

On its own, this passage is powerful enough, a tragic ending for the reader who has been hoping against hope that true love would finally triumph and Newland and Ellen would be united. But a little more insight into Wharton's possible source for this scene truly makes this passage tragic. Wharton named Archer after two characters in novels by her good friend Henry James: Christopher Newman (The American) and Isabel Archer (The Portrait of a LadyDiscussed in depth here.). In fact, a character in The Age of Innocence says to Archer, “You’re like the pictures on the wall of a deserted house: ‘The Portrait of a Gentleman.’”.

Wharton goes even further than referencing James’ work. In his wonderful examination of The Portrait of a Lady and its relation to Henry James’ lifePortrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece., Michael Gorra describes this heartbreaking story:

“[James] had once stood at dusk on a city street, watching “for the lighting of a lamp in a window on the third storey. And the lamp blazed out, and through bursting tears he strained to see what was behind it, the unapproachable face.” James had stayed there for hours, wet from the rain and repeatedly jostled by the hurrying crowd, ‘and never from behind the lamp was for one moment visible the face.”

The similarities between this story and Newland Archer’s vigil seem so clear that one assumes James told this story to Wharton as well. We do not know for sure who James was looking for in the window. Perhaps it was Paul Zhukovsky, a Russian who James had developed “a most tender affection for”As described in Gorra's book. as Colm Toibin in his fictionalized version of James’ life, The Master, speculates. Whoever it was, it is almost a certainty that it was someone James loved, a love that due to the social norms of the day was doomed to be unrequited. In this wondrous passage Wharton has not only captures the emotion James must have felt standing there, paralyzed in the rain, but has passed it along to us, her readers. For three hundred pages we have yearned for Newland and Ellen to finally be together. And we, like Newland, like James, are left wanting.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


As I’ve previously mentioned I am very particular about the appearance of my books. After I’ve read them I still want them looking brand new when I put them up on the shelf. So, instead of writing notes in the book like a lot of people do I prefer to write notes separately. Here’s a look at the different types of notes I take.

Whenever I read a passage that really makes me think for whatever reason I write it down. Also, if I’m reading a novel and a family tree starts to grow and all of a sudden there are tons of cousins to keep track of I start a family tree. Here’s an example from Henry James The Portrait of a Lady:


Of course this method does has its drawbacks. As you can see there’s a big gap between pg. 65 and 325. I’m fairly certain there was something worth writing down in there. Unfortunately, what tends to happen is I end up bringing the book places but forgetting the note book. I have every intention of going back and writing stuff down later but hey, life happens.

Vocabulary Words
This doesn’t happen much, but this particular book of critical essays on the work of David Mitchell proved to be a doozy My handwriting sucks but yes that is the phrase "deleuzian rhizome" you see.:


Oh, and speaking of David Mitchell...

Keeping track of the connections in David Mitchell's books Very much deserving of its own category.
One of these days I’m going to make a map-based graphic representation of this. One of these days.


Sunday, June 2, 2013


Many of my friends know that I read a lot, so I get asked to make recommendations on a frequent basis. Unfortunately I’ve always found it very difficult to decide what book to recommend. Usually, the person asking isn’t a very frequent reader, and upon finishing The Hunger Games has decided that maybe this reading thing isn’t too bad and wants more. Often this person was soured on reading during their high school English class, when Mrs. Master of Fine Arts made them write a twenty five page paper on the symbolism of the rose bush in The Scarlet LetterYes I'm speaking from personal experience. The mere mention of Nathaniel Hawthorne makes me break out into a cold sweat.. Basically, this person almost drowned when they were a kid and after cautiously dipping their toe back in the water they are now about to jump off the high dive. And you’re the lifeguard. Do you just say hell with it and throw them Dan Brown or Ender’s Game? Or do you throw caution to the wind and recommend a book that you love? I once recommended Cloud Atlas to someone that unbeknownst to me had PTSD from an English 101 paper on Moby Dick. This person has stopped answering their phone and I think unfriended me on Facebook.

All of this is a very long way to say that recommending books is a difficult and dangerous thing. Thankfully there are a few individuals who accept this challenge, even from people they have never even met. Who are these fearless literary warriors?

Up first is John Warner, the Biblioracle. Every so often the Biblioracle comes out of hiding and offers to make recommendations based solely on the five previous books that a person has read. I’ve always found this fascinating because the Biblioracle doesn’t care if you liked the books or not. He does not ask for this information. All he cares about is the last five books you’ve read. I’ve taken him up on this offer on several occasions. Here’s how it turned out:

The first time I used the Biblioracle, I followed the letter of the law and provided the following books which were the exact five books I had read previously: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, The Magician King by Lev Grossman, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, and A Planet of Viruses by Carl Zimmer. Now I don’t know what went through the Biblioracle’s head, but I imagine this one was tough. Two of the books are non-fiction and I’m fairly certain the Biblioracle usually recommends novels. Luckily he could probably infer from my double dose of Murakami that I’m a fan of his other stuffBased on this information the perfect book would be about cats making pasta in an old well while listening to classical music and talking about ears.. With only this information the Biblioracle, before I could even blink, recommended Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon.

A few mouse clicks later and the book was on its way. The premise sounded interesting with three different stories gradually coming together, and I thought the Biblioracle might have nailed it. Ultimately however, I was disappointed. The characters were not well developed and the plot twist was not enough to overcome what I felt was boring prose.

But hey, the first time I tried Thai food I didn’t like it but I gave it another shot and now it’s one of my favorite cuisines. So when I heard the Biblioracle was back in business I went to wait in line with all the other desperate readers looking for something new. This time I decided to game the system a bit. I lied to the Biblioracle. I eliminated the non-ficition and tossed away any book I didn’t likeSuck it Jonathon Franzen.. This time I told him the last five fiction books that I had enjoyed: number9dream by David Mitchell, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard, and The Man in My Basement by Walter Mosley.

This time the Biblioracle hit a home run. I may not like postmodern art but I love postmodern literature. Give me multiple perspectives, jumping around in time, and fragments to put together and I am a happy person. So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman had all this and also a cherry on top... it really surprised me. I don't want to give too much away, because slowly figuring out exactly what was going on is one of the pleasures of reading this novel. In fact, for me, this book was muddling along until all of a sudden the pieces came together and I was blown away. The multiple perspectives and style were a bit slow in the beginning, but wow is the payoff worth it. I can see how perfect a recommendation this was. The multiple perspectives of Mitchell, Murray, and Flynn are there, as well the horrific elements present in Dark Places. A missing girl drives the story, much like Pittard's novel, and ethics are at the center just like Mosley's. Well done Biblioracle. Well done.

Next up was a new service from a bookstore called Paperback to the Future. For $20, an employee of the bookstore will interact with you via e-mail and then mail you a book that suits your reading tastes (and promises it will be a book you haven’t read). As finding and enjoying a good book is well worth $20 I went ahead and signed up. First, the employee who contacted me asked me to name three of my favorite books (I went with Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, Replay by Ken Grimwood, and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray), one book I read recently and loved (The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball), and one book I read recently and hated (Freedom by Jonathan Franzen). After this exchange the employee sent me an email with a simple question: Burroughs, Bolano, or Calvino. Definitely Calvino, as If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is awesome and Invisible Cities has some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever readIt also didn't hurt that I've never read anything by Burroughs or Bolano..

About two weeks later The Facts of Winter by Paul La Farge arrived. I had never heard of the book (as the store's website suggested) but I immediately loved that it was published by McSweeney'sWho also publish the awesome looking Grantland quarterlies.. The author, Paul La Farge claims this book is a translation of a book written in the early 20th century by a Frenchman named Paul Poissel about dreams people had in Paris in 1881. The first 3/4 of this short book consists of Poissel's french on the left and La Farge's "translation"Obviously La Farge is the true author.on the right describing a dream that may last only a few sentences and at most several paragraphs. Though I couldn't quite understand the thread that tied all these short dreams together, the afterword is what really made the book intriguing. I also enjoyed the second person plural point of view as it is a technique of Calvino's I mentioned enjoying in my response to Paperback to the Future. And the reasoning behind the structure of the dream parts is satisfying. However, I do like my disparate threads to have some underlying connections and the ones underlying these short dreams is much more tenuous than say the threads in Mitchell's Ghostwritten, Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, or Ball's The Way Through Doors. Overall this recommendation ended up somewhere between the two by Biblioracle.

So there you go! Don’t bother me anymore. You want a recommendation? Go ask Biblioracle or Paperback to the Future. They’ve got the life preserver you need. Me? All I’ve got is silent film actor biographies and the latest Henry James novel I’ve fallen in love with.