Book Review: “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton

Hard as it is to picture New York City’s 5th Avenue lined with houses, it is much more difficult to really grasp the way American high-class society functioned a mere century ago. When I read Jane Austen’s female characters’ trials and tribulations, I remember that she and they are some two hundred years removed from my world of tank-tops, flip-flops, cougars and boy-toys. The names of pastoral English counties and villages, if they still exist, echo in my ears as from long in the past.

Wharton’s Lily Bart, however, inhabits a world that includes Central Park, 59th Street, Madison Avenue and Long Island. These familiar names resonated within me as I read of Mr. Trenor’s crude flirtation with and near-rape of poor Lily, and reminded me that a hundred years is not so very long. It chills me to think that the same streets I walked just a couple of weeks ago used to be inhabited by a society that excluded women like Lily Bart if they were whispered about and tainted by the slanderous tongues of their so-called ‘friends.’

Lily is not an innocent by any mean, but to be fair, she is painfully honest with herself. She’s manipulative, shallow, wasteful and sometimes tactless, and knows herself to be ornamental rather than useful. But she’s the heroine of this beautiful book, and despite her many shortcomings – or maybe because of them – I loved her from the first chapter. Her fall from grace is described gradually, through a series of events that are seen by her social-circle as indicative of her ‘fastness.’ In truth, she’s not fast at all – she’s rather picky, and though she intends to marry someone rich enough to support her gambling habit as well as her wardrobe, she never manages to follow through on these base instincts.

Wharton’s language is subtle, but any reader attuned to the nature of witty word play that floods novels of a certain era will be able to pick up on the truth behind the niceties: the couple having marital difficulties are clearly cheating on each other, Mr. Trenor is asking for physical and not monetary repayment of Lily’s debt, Gerty Farish represents what Lily might have been under different circumstances. So much of this is between the lines, however, that a reader trying to ignore the hints will lose a lot of what is being conveyed.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the book is the way Lily’s change of outlook affected my own opinions. The odious Mr. Rosedale and the gossiping Mrs. Fisher became my favorite characters by the closing chapter – their knack of speaking the blunt truth rather than beating around the bush was refreshing in Lily’s world of careful conversation and venomous whispers. Wharton’s ability to change a reader’s mind is to be admired.

I highly recommend The House of Mirth, although I daresay you won’t find much to laugh at in its pages.

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Walk-Rage

I read while I walk. I think I’ve mentioned this before. It’s one of my quirks. I know that a lot of people find it extremely strange. I suppose I can understand that, but honestly, I don’t see how different it is from walking while listening to music. Lots of people, and I among them, walk from place to place with earphone wires dangling around their face, leading from their ears to a pocket or a bag. This is considered quite normal for this day and age. Now that we have the ability to have music in our pockets wherever we go, we do so.

Well, books have been around a lot longer than iPods. They’re also a form of entertainment, in addition to being a source of knowledge for the reader and a method of organizing it for the writer. So why is it so strange that I read while I walk?

I’m not unreasonable. I know why people look askance at me when I do so. They think I can’t see where I’m going; they think I’m going to knock into someone; they think I can’t possibly take in anything I read when I do it in that fashion. I can address each one of these concerns. First, I have terrific peripheral vision. Maybe it’s developed because of my little habit or maybe I had it before, but I can promise you that I very rarely stumble while reading, nor do I hit lampposts or trees. Second, because I have good peripheral vision, I also notice people, and rarely knock into anyone. I can honestly say that the times I’ve bumped into people while I was reading is exactly the same as when I was simply distracted, walking too fast or had misjudged the distance between me and someone else. It’ happens to everyone, right? Third, and finally, I read slower while I walk. I do sometimes need to read a line over. But why is it anyone else’s concern how much I take in while I’m reading?

Now, my detractors may think other things as well, but I’m not sure what. Do they think it’s simply too nerdy to read all the time? Do they think it’s just so very strange to see a young woman with black rings in her lips and a book in hand? I’m not sure. Frankly, I don’t care.

What I do care about, and I’ve discussed this here before as well, is the comments I need to receive. Even saying it’s the strangest, oddest, most bizarre thing in the world to be doing – why does that give people the right to comment on it to my face? They can talk behind my back about the strange girl all they want. But what gives them the right to ask me, mockingly of course, “What chapter are you on?” or demand, mockingly of course, “How about you read some of it aloud?”

Of course, there’s the whole issue of my pierced lips – those draw many inappropriate, and to my mind, unneeded comments as well, but that’s for a whole other post, some other day. The reason I chose to write, yet again, about my habit of reading while I walk is because I received the most offensive comment I’ve ever gotten today, one that made me so furious that it put tears of rage and hurt in my eyes and made me actually yell back a retort.

I was walking to the mall, bag slung over my back with my tiny laptop in it, on my way to Aroma, one of the major coffee-shop chains in Israel. I’ve recently discovered their delicious ice-espressos, to which I add some milk and turn into delicious ice-coffees that aren’t sweet or too milky. The apartment was getting oppressive, and I didn’t manage to write there, so Sir B. F. came up with the idea that I may want to come here – and indeed, here I am, writing a too-long blog post as part of my write-two-hours-a-day goal.

As I was walking, I had my book out. Funny enough, it was actually “The Mandolin Case” – a book by fellow blogger Dr. Tom Bibey. I was in the middle of a particularly exciting part, and I was waiting to see just what that “sumbitch” Olden was going to try now and how he was going to get out of his newest predicament, when I noticed, as I always do, someone walking from the opposite direction. I moved aside automatically and kept reading. As he passed, this fat, balding man who was wearing shorts and sunglasses said the following:

“Someone should give you a slap ’round the face and maybe then you’ll learn not to read when you walk.”

I literally stopped with shock, and I felt my stomach clench so hard it felt like a rock had taken up lodging in my abdomen. Someone should hit me so I won’t read while I walk?! If you can believe it, my throat is closing up right now and I feel tears prickling my eyes again, which is embarrassing as I’m in a public place with families, toddlers and businesspeople all around. How dare he?! How can someone say that? I was so furious that I yelled back, my voice breaking.

“Are you saying you want to slap me? Have you no shame?” This is a rough translation from the Hebrew – if any of you know the term chutzpa, then what I said was “Are you saying you want to hit me? What chutzpa!”

He yelled back something about it not being him who wanted to hit me, just that someone should, but I’d already turned away by then and had started walking, sticking my nose back in my book but seeing red rather than black on white.

Newspeak

I have, as the title would imply, been reading George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” It is an incredible book, and I am truly ashamed of not having read it before now. Then again, perhaps now I can understand it better than I would have four or five years ago.

As anyone who has read, or even heard of, the book knows, it is about a society and a government that have developed themselves in a way that eradicates all possibility of independent thoughts and actions. Or rather, the people who matter, the higher levels of society, are not allowed to freely think and feel, while the masses, the “proles”, lead their lives oblivious to what is going on in the government and in the country, concerned as they are with their day to day trivial matters.

While all of that is disturbing enough, one of the things that most troubled me as I was reading was the concept of “Newspeak.” Newspeak is the new language, one that is comprised of shortened words and terms so as to eventually kill the possibility of independent ideas, because there just won’t be enough words to express them. In the book there is actually a whole department whose job it is to eliminate words, useless words that aren’t necessary. I truly felt my heart pound with shock at the explanation in the book of how language doesn’t need the words “excellent” and “splendid” because they’re just “good” with a bit of exaggeration. Instead, there would be “plusgood” or “veryplusgood” to express things greater than just plain “good.”

How horrible the English language would be if ever it were reduced to such a bare bone! Just think; novels, poetry, plays and songs – all ruined, unable to exist anymore or even be written. Shivers literally go down my spine at the very thought.

Big Brother

Will someone please explain to me the fascination people seem to find with watching other people lead absolutely boring lives inside a house? I will never understand it. I see the allure of certain so-called “reality shows” – so called because I know for a fact they’re all freaking scripted – like Project Runway, which is actually about exposure and talent, or even America’s Next Top Model, which is entertaining, if not particularly intelligent.

But what’s with this new [old] genre of Big Brother shows? What’s with people wanting to watch some normal people like themselves stuck inside a house for months with nowhere to go and nothing to do? What is so damn interesting about that?! Every day when I go to work I hear people talking about the damn show – heck, now they can watch it twenty-four seven cause they’ve made a whole freaking channel dedicated to it!

Oh yeah, by the way, did you know that those shows are scripted as well? Meaning you’re not even watching the real goings-on in the house, you’re watching planned and scripted dramas! So why not just turn on a soap-opera? At least then you KNOW it’s scripted and you’re not believing some lame lie!

Argh. I hate this new reality-tv-based society. I like writers who write scripts and tell everyone in no uncertain terms that that’s what they’re doing. Seems more creative and interesting that way. Then again, maybe it’s just me.

I’m a Fan. Deal With It.

Being a loyal and dedicated fan of anything is a problem. Do you want to know why? Well, I’ll tell you why.

First, inevitably, none of your friends will be fans of the same thing. They’ll either look down on you because of your fandom, or they’ll just pity and ridicule you fondly for it every chance they get. Either way, you’re alone in this except for strangers you might meet and befriend through your fandom.

Second, you’ll waste money to no end. No matter what it is, be it merchandise or new music or tickets or rare items, you HAVE to have it. You just have to. Your world won’t be complete without every single artifact you can find that has to do with your fandom.

Third, you will be branded something extreme – emo, football freak, Trekkie – even if you’re relatively healthy and don’t spend all of your time on forums and at events.

Fourth and finally, society at large seems to find it amiss when we fans scream and yell and gather for some reason or other and often we will have a hard time fitting in if we don’t learn to curb our enthusiasm and find some topics of conversation that don’t have to do with our love.

Conclusion? It’s obvious, of course! Love nothing to the extreme and succumb to the mediocrity of society and of life! Then we’ll all be happy. In a mediocer way at least.