17 July 2007

12. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Another excellent book.

First, a word about the copy I have. I took it from the book room at school, a virtual used book shop. I am going to be teaching this book next year and so I took a look at the copies we have available. I found a bunch of copies that date back to the 60s. They have the covers that are glued stitching, the ones that if you hold it in your hand long enough your hand gets tacky from the glue leeching out from the humidity of your grip. I like to look through the old copies, checking out the names of the kids who checked them out, looking at the dates, wondering where those kids are now...and the teachers too. I found a copy of Ethan Frome that I am going to keep forever - a few months after my birthday someone with my own last name signed out the book. Bizarre.

So, the tale is about Ethan Frome. His wife is a malingerer who uses her "illnesses" as a weapon against him. She is so sick and needy that she needs a helper around the house. Her family sends Mattie Silver along to tend to her. Ethan and Mattie were made for each other and the mutual attraction between them draws them closer and closer together in that Wharton-glacier like way. Maybe less glaciers than tectonic plates. If you have read Age of Innocence then you know what I mean.

Everyone talks about how sad this book is. I didn't find it half as depressing as AoI. Ethan is no Archer and Mattie Silver is no Ellen. Sure, it's has a sad ending, but it doesn't hold a candle to Victory by Conrad or The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. Them are some sad books.

I won't discuss the ending any furthur in fear of giving away too much.

Ultimately, I recommend it.

10 July 2007

11. The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

A great play and the first I have read by him.

Tom and Laura Wingfield live at home with their single mother Amanda. Their father, "a telephone man in love with long distances," deserted the family when they were young.

Amanda rides herd on Tom, telling him he smokes too much, eats too fast, goes to the movies too much, drinks too much, doesn't work hard enough, is too selfish, and on and on.

Tom works at a warehouse and writes poetry on his breaks. He does go to the movies a lot, but simply to get away from the house and have some adventures, if only by proxy.

Laura, unfortunately, is a very, very shy girl. She doesn't work, doesn't have any friends, and for the past six years since she graduated from high school, seems content to listen to old records and polish her menagerie of little glass statues.

All Amanda wants to do is get Laura set up with a gentleman caller.

That's all I'll say about the plot. The writing is exquisite. Check this opening description of their apartment building:

The Wingfield apartment is in the rear of the building, one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population and are symptomatic of the impulse of this largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society to avoid fluidity and differentiation and to exist as one interfused mass of automatism.

Like a crowbar to the side of the head, man!

A really excellent play; I wish someone would read it and then have a dialogue with me.

I'm very much looking forward to reading Streetcar Named Desire. And I understand that Williams also wrote a number of short stories and some of them he used as mannequins for the dressmaking of his plays, but I still want to read them. The guy can really turn a phrase.

10. Anthem by Ayn Rand

This old classic...is is more a philosophical tract disguised in a thin plot than an outright story.

Living in some future hyperorganized state, the main character, Equality, is not like the others. He is smarter and more sensitive to the missing element in his society. His whole life is planned for him, right down to the schedule of his daily activities. One day in the midst of his job as a Street Sweeper he and his coworker Equality discover a secret tunnel leading down to some long-forgotten subway platform.

During the next few months he spends his evenings in the tunnel doing experiments and trying to discover some secrets of Mother Nature. He winds up rediscovering electricity.

Bringing his discovery to the Council of Scholars sets the book toward its not very surprising conclusion.

This is a philospohical tract about the evils of collectivism, or, as I read it, the evils of recognizing that we are a community and that we are in fact responsible for our brothers and sisters. In Rand's super-organized state, human emotion is suppressed and social interaction is limited. At one point, Equality reminds Liberty that "anything not permitted is automatically outlawed." Even friendship, because it prefers one individual over another, is banned.

I think this book/author has done more damage to the socialist movement by its gross misinterpretation of what socialism and communism are. Certainly if Rand wants to rail against totalitarianism, that's one thing, but to dismiss and satirize a philosophy that recognizes that we are a community is another. Equality's main goal in the story is to build his house into a fort where he is not obligated to any other person.

Unfortunately for Equality and for Rand we are not a world of self-involved, self-centered two year olds who can't think, feel, or see beyond our own limited field of vision.