Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence

Graduate life is proving to be both scary and exhilarating. Just when I finally thought I’d have more time to write and blog, I find myself the busiest ever. It is one of those times when there are so many things I want to do, that I do not know where to even start. But I’m getting better at managing my time, which means I’ll blog more regularly. It also means I have found enough time to go over my past readings, revisit old novels and watch some of my favourite movies, which is why I’m writing about Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. I believe this is one of those cases in which the movie is just as delightful as the book. But I being no film critic, I’ll content myself with writing about the book.

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The 1920s were for American literature a time of renovation in many ways. It is hard for me to imagine the first decades of the twentieth century without thinking of Gatsby, Art Deco and WWI. Yet amidst the chaos, the glitter and chic haircuts, the rapid changes, there is also the curious, nostalgic figure of Edith Wharton.

Wharton was born in New York in 1862, to a wealthy family. She wrote more than 20 novels and many more short stories between 1899 and 1937, when she passed away. Thanks to her family’s immense library, Wharton was always an avid reader. She was also interested in architecture and interior design—an obsession her writing does reflect—and was an intimate friend of Henry James. Although Wharton entered the spotlight as a writer thanks to her novels Ethan Frome (1911) and The House of Mirth (1905), it was her 13th novel, The Age of Innocence, which won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1920.

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The novel follows the life of Newland Archer, a young man whose life in New York’s elite of the 1870s is seemingly perfect. He’s engaged to May Welland, who is not only one of the most popular and respected heiresses of his social circle, but the very image of innocence and purity. However Newland admires her, he can’t help but feel that there are so many things he can’t discuss with her, such as the new and strange artistic movements making their way from Europe to America, to which Newland feels drawn to and which he would like to explore.

Unlike his friends, Newland finds it amazing that there can be a life so different to his: la vie bohéme, the life of the cafés and the studios, of small apartments and sordid parties. Such acquaintance makes him question his social duties and his relationship with May. His doubts are aggravated by the arrival of May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska. Ellen has spent the last decades in Europe among artists and is now separated from her husband, a situation the New Yorkers find shocking. The way Ellen behaves, disregarding every social rule, represents everything Newland has always wanted, but has been too afraid to try.

In a way, Newland’s dilemma is the dilemma of his times. He is torn between the familiar, a neoclassical word full of beautiful shapes and light, and the unstoppable future, the innovations in art and architecture that can only precede a new conception of the world. While the world he knows is beautiful, he knows the price to pay for it is ignorance, a blissful ignorance every one of his acquaintances seems to get on with by calling it innocence.

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Drawing by Dante Ferretti

New York in the last decades of the XIX century, the city in which Wharton grew up, is recreated with detail, both in its buildings and streets, as in the hypocrisy of its society. The irony of such conventions is subtly exposed by Wharton through the descriptions of her character’s, specially the lack of communication between them:

 

“What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a ‘decent’ fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal?”

The most wonderful thing about Wharton’s novel is how she exposes the crash  between the old and the new, the classical and the extravagant, mostly through the descriptions of spaces and clothes. Wharton displays a narrative skill that manages to incorporate every detail, every piece of furniture, every door, window or garden of the houses belonging to the upper classes of New York, in her critique of their outdated moral standards. Her descriptions are so precise and exact that they border on the baroque. The spaces in which the novel takes place are a crucial element of the novel, and their configuration through a prolific use of nouns and adverbs manages to establish a sense of saturation and oppression, which helps us understand Newland’s suffocation:

 

“The small bright lawn stretched away smoothly to the big bright sea. The turf was hemmed with an edge of carlet geranium and coleus, and cast-iron vases painted in chocolate color, standing at intervals along the winding path that led to the sea, looped their garlands of petunia and ivy geranium above the neatly raked gravel.” (Wharton, 129)

Newland’s doubts come from his belonging to a rigid social structure from which he can see no way out, which implies certain, strictly defined roles for women, for art, culture and civilization itself.

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Drawing by Dante Ferretti

Wharton also explores the cultural differences between America and Europe. In a time which proved crucial for all arts in the Old Continent, Wharton’s New York seems outdated and decadent. It is a New York isolated by social conventions in which the protagonist’s sufferings come from realising this, a realization which implies a loss of innocence, “that kind of innocence, the kind of innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!”

Much of the charm of The Age of Innocence comes from the use Wharton makes of language: a precise, abundant, a bit snobby yet delightful choice of words awaits in every page—Henry James used to say of Wharton’s personality that it was like a “brilliant hyperbole”—. The book is also a personal testimony, a nostalgic remembrance of a time that was long gone by the time Wharton wrote about it. By the 1920s a rapid wave of change and industrialization had erased the remains of the society in which Wharton grew up. The new century would prove to be, as Newland Archer suspected, thoroughly different.

Have you read any of Wharton’s works? If so, how did you like them?

I am currently reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck and I can honestly say I hadn’t enjoyed a novel this much in a while.


 
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New Year’s Book Haul

New year, new reads. 2018 was for me a very interesting year reading wise, in which I discovered many new authors and in which I read a lot of nonfiction, something new for me. This year, however, I intend to make that a tradition. December is usually the month in which I go like, treat yo’self, and buy myself lots of books, despite having a literal pile of things I haven’t read yet. Do you even find there are books you just can’t get around to read, no matter for how long they sit on your nightstand? I have plenty of those and I intend to give them a chance this year. The actual TBR pile is pictured here:

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However, I do not have the self-control not to buy new books that caught my fancy, and  so I ended up with this gorgeous pile of books that I really can’t wait to read:

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What surprised me about these books once I piled them up was that there’s just one work of fiction, most of these books are history books or essays. I’m very much into essays right now. You can also notice many of these are about outdoors and travelling, that has been a major subject for me in the last few months.

This being my very first book haul ever, I think I’ll just proceed to talk about each of these books.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich

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“Journalist Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by the meltdown—from innocent citizens to firefighters to those called in to clean up the disaster—and their stories reveal the fear, anger, and uncertainty with which they still live.”

A couple of years ago I read Alexievich’s War’s Unwomanly Face and I must say I had never found any history book as compelling and haunting. Alexievich’s writings dwells somewhere between history and literature, and does so with utmost honesty. On the book I read she mentions how she prefers to think of what she does as a “history of the heart”, bringing up those voices that History has long ignored—women, children— and discussing the seemingly unimportant details that are in the very core of “big” historic episodes, like wars. European history and the Soviet Union are themes that interest me and I expect I’ll have a lot of feelings about this book, which is written in the same interviews/monologue style.

 

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport

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“Rappaport aims to present a new and challenging take on the story, drawing extensively on previously unseen or unpublished letters, diaries and archival sources, as well as private collections. It is a book that will surprise people, even aficionados.”

More about Russia. This was a birthday gift from a friend who knows me really well, but I haven’t had the chance to read it. This book is a part of a historical trilogy which includes The Last Days of the Romanovs and The Race to Save the Romanovs. As any Downton Abbey fan, I admit I have a soft spot for royal families and agonizing empires in changing times. I really can’t wait to read this.

 

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

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“Romantic Outlaws brings together a pair of visionary women who should have shared a life, but who instead shared a powerful literary and feminist legacy. This is inventive, illuminating, involving biography at its best.”

I saw this book on my Goodreads suggestions some weeks ago and I was absolutely thrilled when I found it ON SALE in a bookshop in Ottawa (ten dollars!). I really love Mary Shelley and I am excited to read more about her life, and honestly what best than some good old 19th century feminism.

 

Finding North by George Michelsen Foy

“In 1844, Foy’s great-great grandfather, captain of a Norwegian cargo ship, perished at sea after getting lost in a snowstorm. Foy decides to unravel the mystery surrounding Halvor Michelsen’s death—and the roots of his own obsession with navigation—by re-creating his ancestor’s trip using only period instruments.”

Honestly I bought this book because it was $4* and the cover was pretty, but I am genuinely looking forward to reading it now! It’s about a guy who tries to find his way in the sea using only old navigation instruments, so yes, I’m on board. And it has pretty awesome old maps inside, what’s not to like?

*I found it in Chapters, Ottawa, just like Romantic Outlaws. This shop has the best deals ever, no kidding.

Mysteries of Winterthurn by Joyce Carol Oates

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Finally some fiction. Last year I read another of Joyce Carol Oates’ gothic novels, The Accursed, and I just couldn’t put it down. It was creepy and engaging and satirical in the best way. I had been trying to find the rest of her gothic novels but somehow they don’t have them anywhere in Mexico. So I ran into this one in Quebec City and of course bought it. I am a big fan of gothic literature, and this gothic revival of which Oates’ is capable of is just impressive, it has what I like best about gothic novels—style and themes— and the very necessary critiques of current events. I’m both excited and a bit scared to read this one.

 

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

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“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

This is a book I have read before, haphazardly and in different moments of my life, but I never had an actual copy of it, mainly because every time I see it in a bookshop, it’s an ugly edition. So I finally bought one that is not too shabby and not very expensive, and I can’t wait to give it my whole, undivided attention. Both Thoreau and Emerson have shaped my life in very important ways— they’re the kind of authors I go to when at a crossroads or undecisive, so I just know it will be a rewarding read.

 

Wilderness Essays by John Muir

 

Muir is an author I have been wanting to read for a long, long time now. I have come across fragments of his essays now and then and he reminds me of Thoreau and Emerson in his approach to nature and wilderness. The outdoors is a subject that interests me greatly and I love to hear different perspectives about it, about experiencing nature, about civilisation and about traveling. This comes at the right time, I think, as I have been paving the path reading other books on similar subjects by Cheryl Strayed, Bill Bryson and Edward Abbey. Human interaction with the untamed is a topic I’m ready to explore deeply in 2019, both in my reading and my life. Also, just look at this gorgeous edition.

In fact, I started the year reading a book along those lines. I am now reading and very much enjoying John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley in Search of America. I haven’t yet read any of Steinbeck’s famous novels, but WOW. This book is just amazing. I can’t help but think of Holden Caulfield saying how he wishes he could just call an author and talk to him, that’s exactly how I feel. And to be honest I really have a crush on Steinbeck. This book is a memoir as well as an in-depht analysis of the American way of life, of the American wilderness, of the search for meaning and the need of moving, of loneliness and companionship. It is a wonderful book of which I’ll be writing about soon.

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Have you read any of these?

I’d love to hear about your TBR for 2019!

 

Best Reads of 2018

Another year gone by! 2018 was a great year, both personally and professionally. Many things ended this year, and many exciting adventures started to take form. My reading lived up to expectation too, and I found myself reading “the right book at the right time” several times. I did not read as much as other years, but I read things that interested me, inspired me and challenged me, and I even revisited old favorites. So I would say it was a fantastic year for reading. Here are some highlights:

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

This was the first book I read by Ishiguro and I loved it. This is one of the most sadly beautiful novels I have ever read. Narrated from the perspective of Kathy, a girl created for the purpose of becoming a “donor”, along with many other children, for sick people. The whole purpose of these artificially conceived children is to one day give all their functioning organs to deadly ill people. However, Kathy becomes first a carer for other donors and so delays her own donations.

The setting of the book is an England in which kids like Kathy are raised in boarding schools away from society, where they learn about their “mission” and how they’re different from “normal” people. Kathy’s best friends there are Rachel and Tommy. Apart from the romantic triangle between them, Ishiguro builds through Kathy three of the most complex characters in literature who, despite of being told repeatedly that they are not human, love and cling to life bravely and painfully. Kathy herself is a very interesting character, her narrative mixing an honest recollection of the past as well as some reflections on memory and the arbitrariness of it, a topic with which dominates the whole novel and accounts for the generally nostalgic tone of the book.

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman

Last December I discovered Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and fell in love with it. So this year I got my hands on a beautiful edition (the UK edition) of the first volume of The Book of Dust. This story is set in an earlier time than The Golden Compass, and tells of Lyra’s Oxford while she was a baby. The protagonist is a young boy called Malcolm, whose parents own an inn and who has a canoe called La Belle Sauvage. The lives of Malcolm and Lyra will become intertwined when a creepy (very creepy, really) villain and Mrs Coulter try to steal her from the convent where Lord Asriel placed her. If you haven’t read His Dark Materials, it doesn’t really matter, although they give a lot of information about how this universe works. I recommend this for any fantasy readers: Pullman is a master of the genre.

 

Wild, Cheryl Strayed

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Strayed tells the story of how, at 26, after her mother’s death and her divorce, she made the rash decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, underestimating both the preparation time most hikers take and the physical demands of hiking. She, however, kept to her word and hiked all the way from California to Oregon. Packing mistakes, snow, terrible heat, water scarcity, getting lost and finding creepy men along the way are only part of the obstacles Strayed came across during her journey.

What most interested me about Strayed’s book was the honesty with which she stated her motives in hiking the PCT. I could not help but sympathize with an unprepared, delusional, female solo traveler. I found the book sincere when describing the things that usually lead to a trip, or an expedition as wild as this: “my life is falling apart”. Such sincerity would have seemed cliché were it not for the honesty with which the author addresses this search for meaning in nature and how she shatters this expectations dropping some truths like: nature is indifferent, there’s nothing glamorous in hiking and having your toenails fall off (yes, that still haunts me), and you’ll probably be too busy worrying about surviving that you won’t have time to ponder over your life. But your life and your choices and who you are will always come out when you’re stripped from your comfort zone and left alone with your courage. Every choice out there, whether to quit or to keep going, will be a step towards self-discovery, and the way in which this books portrays that, with humour and angst and anger, rang true to me.

Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

I really think this book changed my life. Jon Krakauer, with honesty, tact and journalistic mastery narrates what he found about the life and death of young Chris McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, an American who hitchhiked his way to Alaska to live in and from nature only. I love this book because I think the critical job Krakauer does to distance himself from McCandless, without idealising or ridiculing him, is amazing. He talked to people who met him on the road, to his family and friends and collected other anecdotes from people who did similar things, and in the end this book is about more than McCandless, it’s about the urge that moved him and people like him to get away from “civilisation” and find a deeper meaning in life through a restored connection with nature and the hard work of survival. The book does not idealise nature either, it shows it at its best and worse, at its majesty and it’s moodiness and lethality. I recommend reading this to anyone interested in hiking, nature, ecology or American transcendentalism (Thoreau’s writings are a great companion for this).

 

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë

My main reason to read this unpopular piece of nineteenth century literature was that I love both Emily and Charlotte Brontë’s writing, so I had to read Anne too. And she’s great as well. The book starts with the arrival of a mysterious young widow in a small town in England. She’s a bit rude and very reserved, so obviously the most handsome dude in town falls for her. Oh, and she has a child. However, people soon start talking about her, as no one knows where she came from or if she’s really a widow, and handsome dude needs to know the truth, so she gives him her diary to read. And her diary is most of the book. Anne Brontë reflects on many things in this novel: first, the social position of women; second, the implications of marriage both as a political institution and as a love affair; third, human nature’s propensity to vice; and fourth, religion’s role in both the submission and the liberation of women.

I must say I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. In style, it is very different from them in the way it uses literary devices like the letter and diary format, prayers and such. Nevertheless I found it a good companion, never too dull in its reflections and never too dramatic in its depictions of the sorrows of marriage. A very recommended for classic literature lovers as well as feminists (this might be Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House antecesor).

Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrera

The book narrates the odyssey of a young Mexican girl who crosses the border to the USA in search of her brother. It is an old story, but Herrera’s mythical and poetic prose make it one of the best books by a Mexican author I have read.

A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods was one of the most interesting books I have read in a while, and definitely the funniest. Bryson’s talent to turn simple and even dramatic situations into hilarious episodes is outstanding. His honesty while reflecting on nature is also admirable. Whatever Bryson passes, whether it’s a mountain, a town, a refuge, an animal, he investigates about and presents his knowledge to you in a very subtle matter. He rants about the government, hunters, the pioneers. He talks of the beginnings of the earth, the separation of Pangea, the birth of the mountains. He describes the changes in American culture, migration patterns, natural catastrophes. He tells of serial killers, obscure anecdotes of the trail, TV commercials.

And all of this, in some way or other, is part of a more profound reflection on the theme that appears again and again in the whole book: the relationship between civilization and wilderness. 

Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov

Bulgakov is a unique author. Heart of a Dog tells the story of Sharik, a stray dog taken in by a famous surgeon during the Soviet regime in Moscow. Little does Sharik know, he’s the chosen victim of an experiment to turn him into a man. A satire and wit only paralleled by The Master and Margarita, this is a crazy story full of cynicism, dark humor and a heart-breaking insight of humanity and animality. Heart of a Dog is a theatrical, wild ride with the only downside of being too short.

 

Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This year I thought I would read more non-fiction. I ended up reading mostly travel books —Krakauer, Strayed, Bryson— and, by a fortunate twist of fate, revisiting a beloved author. It could seem like this book has nothing to do with The Little Prince, yet the same sense of wander and the conflicts between humans and a hostile world run through the pages of both books. Wind, Sand and Stars is a series of writings about de Saint-Exupéry’s experience as a pilot for the airmail carrier Aéropostale. He writes of the planes, the trips, of friendship and love, of death, heroism and of how it feels to be in a plane thousands of feet above the ground, all by yourself. A wonderful book.

 

The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates

This was the creepiest thing I’ve read in a while and, also, my first Joyce Carol Oates novel and I can’t wait to read more of her books. It is a very complex story, but basically what you read is this historian’s account of what happened in Princeton at the beginning of the 20th century, when many women disappeared, were found dead, and other strange occurrences took place within the elite of the town. Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair, Jack London and even Sherlock Holmes appear in this crazy book, as well as the devil himself and other creatures (vampires!). When his sister is “abducted” shortly after her wedding, it is up to Josiah Slade, whom we follow through the historian’s doubtful account, to solve the curse that ravages the town. This is a really entertaining, disturbing, scary, funny novel that touches on many social issues like racism and sexism. Also, it is an admirable work of fiction; I am amazed at Oates’ narrative talent and critical insight.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Burrows

Written as a series of letters and diary entries, the book follows the journey of the writer Juliet Ashton to Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, to write a book about the occupation. The book is, to put it simply, an ode to literature and the many ways in which it is intertwined with life, an ode to literature as a means of survival, as a means of resilience and, most importantly, as a means of resistance.

 

Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey

This book is life changing. Edward Abbey got a job as a park ranger at Arches National Park in Utah and this book is formed by a series of essays on different topics that he wrote there, living on a van during the winter. Abbey’s reflexions on wilderness and our relation with it are as actual as his his critique of capitalism. This book is at times bitter as desperate, exasperating and sad, hopeful and exiting. Abbey is such a gifted writer, mixing narrative with his essays, conveying closeness, warning, teasing, teaching. This book is so important for the challenges we face today in regards to global warming and consumerism, and it is also a wonderful piece of prose.

I am currently reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry and finding it delightful. It’s been, overall, a very good year for reading. What were your highlight? How should I start 2019?

Spooky Reads

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
—Alfred Hitchcock

The days get gloomier and my load of work for uni gets heavier and heavier: time for some spooky reads. I have always enjoyed reading about ghosts, vampires, superstition, magic and curses. I think the supernatural and otherworldly has always been a strong subject in literature, coincidences and oddities have always fascinated writers, and the unexplicable is always a great presence in our lives. Perhaps that is why we read about ghosts and haunted mansions, or perhaps we just need a scare every now and then. Either way, there is no greater season for unsettling reads than fall.

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Illustration: Edward Gorey.

If we get technical, there is a difference between horror and terror. Terror is anticipating something dreadful, fearfully expecting that those slight knocks on your windowpane are not the skinny fingers of a ghost. Horror is going out to actually find a dead corpse knocking on your door; it is the shock of actually seeing something dreadful. I honestly side with Ann Radcliffe, a pioneer of the gothic novel and sickly heroines, when she said terror dwells on indetermination and therefore requires more from the reader. Gothic novels, for example, could be categorised at terror, and also the reads I am about to suggest… although I can’t guarantee that the monsters and creatures that creep in their pages won’t actually come out of under the bed. As always, read at your own risk.

The Monkey’s Paw“, W.W. Jacobs

First things first. I think this short story is one of the greatest examples of terror. Could write about what it is about, but it’s so short you should just read it right now. Let’s just say, be careful what you wish for.

 

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

As it title lets out, this is about a haunted house. This house is supposed to have driven out its inhabitants for years and now, a scientific is determined to prove that it is not haunted by bringing a group of peculiar people who are likely to perceive anything that is amiss in the house— among them an artist, a clairvoyant, a reclusive young woman—. So is the house haunted? Strange things definitely happen, but the thing with Shirley Jackson’s writings is that you should always fear people more than you fear ghosts. Did I mention Jackson was also a witch?

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Illustration: Edward Gorey.

 

Night Shift, Stephen King

What do quitting smoking, cornfields, trucks and a laundry press have in common? Basically that, when passed through King’s imagination, they can turn out to be pretty damn scary. In the stories that compose this volume you’ll find a wide variety of subjects; from creepy children to killing machines. It is really scary at times, but also entertaining and unsettling in more than one way. From King I have also read The Shining, which scared me a lot, and Pet Sematary, which I coulnd’t even finish.

Collected Short Stories, M. R. James

When it comes to ghosts, there is no one better than M. R. James. These the old fashioned ghosts than have been shaping nightmares forever, and another perfect example of “anticipating the bang”. The settings for Jame’s stories are also phenomenal: old abbeys, boarding schools, deserted inns, foggy paths in the night. Definitely read this, start right here with Number 13.

The October Country, Ray Bradbury

This small book of short stories might be Bradbury at its best. Ghosts, circus entertainers and mummies lurk in the pages of these stories, that I would describe as creepy. What is wonderful of this book is the way that the strange and the grotesque mix with human emotions such as nostalgia and love.

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Illustration: Edward Gorey

Of course, one should never skip the classics: Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde deserve a space on any spooky shelf. If short stories are more your thing, then most of Edgar Allan Poe‘s tales will definitely creep you out, an the same goes for the weird stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Charles Dickens and E. T. A. Hoffman also wrote a considerable number of short stories that involve ghosts. There’s Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper and Daphne DuMaurier’s “Don’t Look Now”. Ans also the American Classics, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. There are also many very good anthologies, like Late Victorian Gothic Tales from Oxford University Press.

 

Happy reading…

and be careful 🎃

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Illustration: Edward Gorey.

 

P.S. Currently I am reading Joyce Carol Oates’ The Accursed, so I might be adding it to the list. Next for me is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. What are you reading? Anything you would include in this list?

Best reads of 2018 (so far)

June is over. Although I’m way behind on my reading, I have had the chance to read a few amazing books this year. I chose six I would love to discuss further with anyone interested, here they are:


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Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

To be honest, before he won the Nobel Prize, I had never read anything by Kazuo Ishiguro. I had watched the movie for this book some years before and I liked it, so I decided to read Never Let Me Go to get acquainted with Ishiguro. And I loved it. This is one of the most sadly beautiful novels I have ever read. Narrated from the perspective of Kathy, a girl created for the purpose of becoming a “donor”, along with many other children, for sick people. The whole purpose of these artificially conceived children is to one day give all their functioning organs to deadly ill humans. However, Kathy becomes first a carer for other donors and so delays her own donations.

The setting of the book is an England where kids like Kathy are raised in boarding schools away from society, where they learn about their “mission” and how they’re different from “normal” people. Kathy’s best friends there are Rachel and Tommy. Apart from the romantic triangle between them, Ishiguro builds through Kathy three of the most complex characters in literature who, despite of being told repeatedly that they are not human, love and cling to life bravely and painfully. Kathy herself is a very interesting character, her narrative mixing an honest recollection of the past as well as some reflections on memory and the arbitrariness of it, a topic with which dominates the whole novel and accounts for the generally nostalgic tone of the book. A must read, really, an overwhelming reflection of what it means to be human.


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MAUS, Art Spiegelman

This graphic novel was recommended to me many times before I finally got to it in January. It is one of the most inventive and heartbreaking pieces of graphic literature I’ve read. Spiegelman represents every race with different animals, Jewish people being mice (hence the name), and narrates, through text and mostly blank and white, simple drawings, his own creative process as a first generation American in New York, as well as his father’s recollections of WWII, Poland and the concentration camps. The simplicity and raw honesty of the stories told is at times painful and heartbreaking, but hopeful and even fun too.


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Into the Wild
, Jon Krakauer

I’ve written about this one in other posts and that’s because I’m OBSESSED with it. I think this book changed my life. Jon Krakauer, with honesty, tact and journalistic mastery narrates what he found about the life and death of young Chris McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, an American who hitchhiked his way to Alaska to live in and from nature only. I love this book because I think the critical job Krakauer does to distance himself from McCandless, without idealising or ridiculing him, is amazing. He talked to people who met him on the road, to his family and friends and collected other anecdotes from people who did similar things, and in the end this book is about more than McCandless, it’s about the urge that moved him and people like him to get away from “civilisation” and find a deeper meaning in life through a restored connection with nature and the hard work of survival. The book does not idealise nature either, it shows it at its best and worse, at its majesty and it’s moodiness and lethality. I recommend reading this to anyone interested in hiking, nature, ecology or American transcendentalism (Thoreau’s writings are a great companion for this).


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The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman

Last year I discovered Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and fell in love with it. I only wish I had read it younger, although probably I wouldn’t have understood its critique of Catholicism and institutional religion. So this year I got my hands on a beautiful edition (the UK edition) of the first volume of The Book of Dust. This story is set in an earlier time than  The Golden Compass, and tells of Lyra’s Oxford while she was a baby. The protagonist is a young boy called Malcolm, whose parents own an inn and has a canoe called La Belle Sauvage. The lives of Malcom and Lyra will become intertwined when a creepy (very creepy, really) villain and Mrs Coulter try to steal her from the convent where Lord Asriel placed her. If you haven’t read , it doesn’t really matter, although they give a lot of information about how this universe works. I recommend this for any fantasy readers, Pullman is a master of the genre.  


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Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

This is actually a reread for me, but still one of the best reads of the year. I absolutely love this book. Around a thousand pages, and still a complete page turner and a complex reflection on what it means to be brave and the different kinds of courage people can possess. Scarlett O’Hara is both one of the most hateful and greatest characters ever written, and equally complex and wonderful are Rhett Butler and Melanie Hamilton. Set in Georgia during the American Civil War, the book tells the story of a slave-owner’s daughter, her loves and struggles when her way of living suddenly disappears. Perhaps this book wouldn’t be that interesting if Scarlettn was not so selfish, mean, stubborn, wilful… and brave. What makes the book for me are the characters, and although I really like Mitchell’s descriptions of the old south, they’re obviously idealised and very politically incorrect nowadays. However, this is a novel that must be read once in everyone’s life. 


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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë

This one I just finished. My main reason to read this unpopular piece of nineteenth century literature was that I love both Emily and Charlotte Brontë’s writing, so I had to read Anne too. And she’s great as well, this family was something else. The book starts with the arrival of a mysterious young widow in a small country town in England. She’s a bit rude and very reserved, so obviously the most handsome dude in town falls for her. Oh, and she has a child. However, people soon start talking about her, as no one knows where she came from or if she’s really a widow, and handsome dude needs to know the truth, so she gives him her diary to read. And her diary composed most of the book. Anne Brontë reflects on many things in this novel: first, the social position of women; second, the implications of marriage both as a political institution and as a love affair; third, human nature’s propensity to vice; and fourth, religion’s role in both the submission and the liberation of women.

I must say this book is not quite as good as Wuthering Heights in feeling or Jane Eyre in style, it is very different from them in the way it uses literary devices like the letter and diary format, prayers and such. Nevertheless I found it a good companion, never too dull in its reflections and never too dramatic in its depictions of the sorrows of marriage. A very recommended for classic literature lovers as well as feminists (this might be Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House antecesor).

Have you read any? I’d love to hear what you think of these on the comments! 

Which have been your best reads so far? 

Were It Not For Coffee…

“Were it not for coffee one could not write, which is to say one could not live.”
—Honoré de Balzac
“Coffee gives you time to think. It’s a lot more than just a drink; it’s something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself.”
—Gertrude Stein

For me, it is impossible to imagine a world without coffee. It is better to believe that humanity has always counted with its help to get through everyday life, through mornings, through sleepless nights. Nevertheless, the history of the dark, hot beverage we worship today is relatively recent. The use of the coffee tree can be traced far back, to texts like the Odyssey, the Bible or the Quran. In ancient Ethiopia, coffee beans were mixed with other fruits to create a fermented beverage. In other regions of Africa, coffee was used because of its medicinal properties and later it came to the Middle East, where it was known for its stimulant effects. Time after, around the 14th century, it became popular in Rome, not without some discussion against its “demoniac” effects. As to America, coffee arrived during the Conquest and its use dispersed quickly.

The coffee plant, a slender tree with cherry-looking red fruits, does not bear much resemblance to the toasted, aromatic beans we buy in coffee shops these days. We owe this presentation of coffee to 18th century Europe, where coffee was reserved for royalty and aristocracy. The beverage we now know counts Louis XV of France and Rousseau among its first adepts, also Voltaire, who it is said used to drink around 40 cups of coffee mixed with chocolate a day.

It makes sense that a beverage capable of dispelling sleep and improving attention became more and more popular as the world entered the Industrial Age. It also became available not only for the rich, but also for the middle classes and the intellectual circles. Coffee’s popularity caused the emergence of places specialized in its preparation and distribution, cafés. Today we can find many kinds of cafés, but despite their inoffensive image, their history is related to political meetings, literary debates and revolutionary gatherings.

 

Cafés oscillate between the private and the public, between the intimate and the social. The place cafés occupy in history has been crucial for the development of philosophy, politics and literature; hundreds of artists and thinkers have met there to discuss and share ideas. Even when it is a public space, it is also intimate to the extent that many private conversations happen at the same time and voices fade in the general murmur.

Also, cafés are surrounded with an intellectual aura, they used to represent the vie bohème and, even now, poetry readings and exhibitions take place in chic cafés. The characters from Cortázar’s Rayuela, listening to jazz and wandering around Paris’ cafés, the characters from Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes drinking cup after cup and gathering in ramshakled coffee shops in Mexico City, Franz Kafka reading his writings to his friends in a small café in Prague, are just some examples of the close relationship between artists and intellectuals, specifically writers, and cafés.

Even when cafés offer many commodities for groups, but they also have their charms for the lone visitor. Some of the most important literary works have been written in cafés. Hemingway speaks of his writing experiences in cafés in Montmartre and the Latin Quarter in Paris. Scott Fitzgerald and T. S. Eliot also wrote in cafés, J. K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a small café in the heart of Edinburgh, The Elephant House, McCuller’s The Ballad of the Sad Café takes place in, well, a sad café.

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Apart from encouraging writing, cafés offer a discreet window to the outside world, an opportunity of solitary observation fuelled by caffeine consumption. Cafés open up a space and time where one can just be, where one can just look around or think with the excuse of drinking a cup of coffee. The action of drinking coffee is really just that, an excuse for being late, an alibi, a justification for taking time for one’s self. To drink coffee is to postpone: postpone sleep but also defer physical activity, put off the everyday routine and privilege, instead, intellectual activity, reading, conversation, thought.

Coffee is a place and an activity. The beverage in itself, the extract from coffee beans, is also linked to intellectual life and literary work. Technically, coffee is stimulant because it contains caffeine, a chemical compound that affects the central nervous system directly. Its effect is not that different from that of cocaine, but in a minor degree: it affects behaviour, mood and the answer to external stimuli.

Even when it would be necessary to consume more than 100 cups of coffee to die from it, just a couple of them can dispel sleep and improve our attention capacity. Balzac used to drink more than 50 cups a day when he was working on La Comédie humaine, and he thanked the magic elixir for his writing abilities; he wrote day and night, just taking some naps.

The work of the sleepless writer involves the voluntary deferring of sleep to satisfy a much more urgent need: writing. No matter how relieving sleep might be, night-time seems to be the favourite moment of the day for writers. It is at least the only moment they really own, that moment in which they don’t have to work, perhaps the only time they can dedicate to their personal projects, those which the course of everyday life makes them postpone indefinitely. Night-time also offers silence and a new chance for astonishment, because thins are different in darkness, when it is certain that everybody else sleeps. But night-time could be the theme of another essay; the truth is, coffee allows one to rebel against one’s own body clock, a chance to appropriate the time that shouldn’t belong to consciousness; coffee is a tool in the exploration of night-time.

If Balzac represents sleepless, coffee-addict writers, it is important to speak of the other type of sleepless, coffee addicts, the ones that defer sleep in the pursue of another necessity: reading. Maybe they have to read, maybe they want to read, but in any case, caffeine-fueled reading is a different kind of reading. The effects of coffee, agility and even nervousness, make of it an altered reading that may have some incidence in dreams, that might result in misinterpretation or overinterpretation (the best kinds of reading).

And for the sleepless writer/reader, coffee is an ally in the mornings too. This time is also about postponing, about delaying the start of the day. The morning cup represents a brief time in which we can collect strength to take us through the day. Morning coffee is an intimate moment, a chance to really wake up, with every sense, a personal time in which we may read a book or the newspaper to find out the kind of world we woke up in that day, or simply look at the coffee cup until sleepiness is finally gone.

In the end, to drink coffee is an act of faith, a possibility to be more, to write more and to read more (activities that might be the same), a door into the world. Just like ink and paper, coffee is necessary to literary life. I’m not saying other professions don’t count on coffee, but maybe those who haven’t felt the frenzy of drinking coffee after midnight just to be able to keep reading or writing, don’t feel shivers down their spines when they think that, were it not for coffee, many masterpieces would have never been written.

Where the Wild Books Are

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

—Virginia Woolf

Aging and decay are characteristics that generally have a negative connotation. The first is a consequence of the passing of time; the second one, a consequence of use. People grow old, health declines, buildings deteriorate, old clothes rip, electronic appliances become obsolete. But not books. What we think of as a despicable mark in most objects, functions differently with books—more like the growth rings of a tree, maybe because there’s a genealogic relationship between them. While everything we consume tends to adjust to the principles of the new and novel, while we make efforts to obliterate the signals of time in the things we possess, books carry those marks with pride, like windows to past lives.

Unlike new books that come wrapped in plastic and are exhibited among the most varied stationary, notebooks and pencils, on shiny shelves with their brilliant barcodes—old books prefer gloom, dark and silent places among ripped pages and dust. They show their stripped backs and their washed covers discretely, expectant yet reserved, as if they knew that no encounter is fortuitous.

Old books, “second-hand” books, usually have yellowish pages. This colour comes in different shades and it is due to the decomposition of the organic and chemical substances present in paper. Their pages are also thicker— as if they fed on dust or as if they breathed and held their breath each time they’re read through. They look like thicker and bigger than those other, thinner volumes, with their white and perfectly pressed pages,  the ones we can find in regular bookshops.

Second-hand bookshops, nhave a characteristic smell, something between decay and humidity. Even when there are common smells to all books, each one has its own essence, a particular fragrance. An investigator from London University College, Cecilia Bembibre, gathered information about these smells and found more than thirty aromas, among which were wood, citrus, chocolate, body fluids and musk. Each book’s smell reveals something not just about its paper composition, but also about the use it has been given, the kind of storage it has gone through and maybe even about its most private history.

Some other marks also reveal part of this history. The most interesting are, for me, stamps, names and dates scribed on a book’s first pages, as well as underlined paragraphs and notes on the margins. It is common to find that many books on second-hand bookshops and thrift stores used to belong to a library. To mark this, it was usual to stamp ex libris on the books, a Latin phrase meaning “from among the books of”. This phrase is most commonly found on the first blank page and it is probably the mark that offers most information about a book’s precedence.

Other books have simpler marks— inscriptions on pencil or pen, in the calligraphy of the first owner, maybe her or his name, maybe a date. It is also possible to find books dedicated to someone, as a gift, or editions signed by its author. Even when much data can be inferred from these marks (if the writing is big or small, inclined, thick or thin), notes and underlining are much more revealing. From light underlining with pencil to highlighting in fluorescent ink, asterisks, brackets, notes on the margins—they are all vestiges of first reading, of an specific personal experience in other time and place.

Maybe to go through the pages of an old book and trace with our finger those parts where a pencil or a pen signalled an idea long ago, a revelation, a connexion, is a form of time travelling. With a bit of luck, books that guard other type of testimonies can be found: old papers, bookmarks, postcards, stamps, supermarket receipts. The most enigmatic experience I have had with a second-hand book happened three years ago, in Cambridge. There are several old-books stands in Old Market Square to which I used to go often. Once I found an old edition of Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. The edition was dated 1986 and had a small stamp on blue ink that read A. N. E. Harris—that is all I realised when I bought it and it took me more than one year to read it, during which the book stayed on a pile with many other books I had bought impulsively.

When I finally opened it again, I discovered a little photograph between pages 250 and 251 in which appeared two people, a young man and a young woman, both with blond hair and similar traits, maybe siblings, wearing thick jumpers, smiling and looking at a point above the camera. The photograph is a bit smaller that a Polaroid and the colour is faded. There are not other marks in the book, except for an underlined quote: “He waited day after day, saying that it was perfectly absurd to expect, yet expecting”.

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If one of those people owned the book, if one of them was A. N. E. Harris, if the picture was there by mistake and was looked for after, if it was there for a specific reason and if it had something to do with the quote underlined, are questions I still ask myself. All those questions lead me to think of the place where I found the book and of the process of selection it must have gone through, to end up between all those other books, piled on tables and inside boxes on the floor. What usually happens with that kind of bazaars is that they also place some empty boxes nearby so people who want to get rid of books can leave them there.

Second-hand bookshops work in a similar way, as refuges for books that have started to overflow their owner’s bookshelves or that have been replaced for newer editions. Sometimes bookshops look actively for them, especially those that specialize on rare editions. Whatever the reasons are for someone to get rid of a book, many of them end up in these temporary homes, organized and classified by booksellers that know every corner of their shops and their inventories, by titles and authors and themes and genres, wonderful people that end up acquiring a mysterious air and a slight smell of humidity.

Many of the biggest bookshops sell almost the same kinds of books; it is easy to go there and find something that we already knew we wanted. But in second-hand bookshops there is no way to know what we will find— it is like the labyrinth like corridors, the dust and smell confound us and take us to books we didn’t know we were looking for. These encounters, unexpected but never casual, allow is to think of reading as an experience and not just as an acquisition. Old books show us the intimacy of the act of reading. They show themselves as permeable bodies, subject to time and atmospherically conditions, bodies in which almost all marks are indelible. Of course it is possible to read on many devices, but it would be naïve to think that where we read from does not affect our experience of the text. Because if we think of a book as a container, we should think of it as a container from which we not only take, but as one in which we also leave things, sometimes accidentally.