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Review: The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Pages: 420 Original date of publication: 1905 My copy: 2000 Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: Borders, 2000
The title for the book famously comes from the Ecclesiastes quote, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” Lily Bart is possibly Edith Wharton’s most complicated character, and this novel one of the best portrayals of the glitter and cruelty upper class New York society. When the novel opens, Lily is 29 years old, unmarried, and trying to “keep up with the Joneses,” so to speak. Torn between her desire to fit in with society and a desire for a relationship, Lily fits in nowhere. This novel then is the story of her downfall.
I first read The House of Mirth in high school, but really didn’t appreciate it the way I do now—or even understand the complexity of the themes that Edith Wharton explores. Reading The Age of Innocence a couple of years ago led to a newfound love for Edith Wharton’s works. No one except …

Six Degrees of Barbara Pym's Novels

This year seems to be The Year of Barbara Pym; I know some of you out there are involved in some kind of a readalong in honor of the 100th year of her birth. I’ve read most of her canon, with only The Sweet Dove Died, Civil to Strangers, An Academic Question, and Crampton Hodnet left to go (sadly). Barbara Pym’s novels feature very similar casts of characters: spinsters, clergymen, retirees, clerks, and anthropologists, with which she had direct experience. So it stands to reason that there would be overlaps in characters between the novels. You can trace that though the publication history of her books and therefore see how Pym onionizes her stories and characters. She adds layers onto layers, adding more details as her books progress.
Some Tame Gazelle (1950): Archdeacon Hoccleve makes his first appearance.
Excellent Women (1952): Archdeacon Hoccleve gives a sermon that is almost incomprehensible to Mildred Lathbury; Everard Bone understands it, however, and laughs hysterically (ch. …

Review: Quartet in Autumn, by Barbara Pym

Pages: 218 Original date of publication: 1977 My copy: 1977 (Perennial) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: Philly Book Trader, July 2010
Quartet in Autumn centers around four retirement-aged office workers in London: Edwin, Norman, Letty, and Marcia. Edwin, a widower, is a church hopper; Norman, struggles with his anger; Letty’s an eccentric spinster whose childhood friend is set to marry a much younger clergyman; and Marcia, a survivor of a mastectomy. As the story progresses, Letty and Marcia do retire from their jobs (“something vaguely to do with filing”), an occurrence that brings the characters together more than they realize.
You might think it’s a depressing novel, but it’s bittersweet in a way. The characters are stuck in a kind of limbo; stuck in the past and remembering how things used to be, but still faced with the decisions they have to make about the future. So it’s interesting to see how each one copes with change in their lives. Pym’s novels always contain the…

Review: Bonk: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach

Pages: 318 Original date of publication: 2008 My copy: 2008 (WW Norton) Why I decided to read: saw Mary Roach speak at a conference How I acquired my copy: Denver airport bookstore, October 2012
In Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Roach explored the topic of the human cadaver and how it’s used in science. In Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, she does pretty much the same thing, except with sex and sexuality. Roach wanders out into the fringes of scientific exploration in her books, into the areas that aren’t considered “typical,” and she writes her books with a liberal amount of humor. Roach traveled all over the world to witness—and even participate in—clinical trials involving sex. Every now and then she footnotes her writing with random stuff, including a note about who Millard Filmore’s running mate was (trick question!).
From start to finish, Bonk is an entertaining read—even if I did get a few odd looks as I was reading it in public. Sure, the subject matter…

Review: Moonraker, by F Tennyson Jesse

Pages: 162 Original date of publication: 1927 My copy: 1981 (Virago Modern Classics) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: Library Thing member, July 2011
One day, young Jacky Jacka visits a witch, where he sees a vision of a woman in a bowl of water. The vision leads him to seek passage on a ship to the West Indies, which is then hijacked en route by the pirate Captain Lovel and the crew aboard the Moonraker. The year in 1801, a time when Napoleon had control of the high seas and the days of swashbuckling piracy was—nearly—on its way out. The story takes young Jacky throughout the Caribbean, and along the way he meets a Frenchman named Raoul and a black man Toussaint L’Ouverture, who works to free Haiti from the forces of Napoleon.
On the surface it’s a fun tale; Tennyson drew her inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson, and obvious comparisons might be made between this book and the Pirates of the Caribbean films. But this novel goes a bit deeper than that. F Tennyson Jesse was…

Review: Aurora Floyd, by Mary E. Braddon

Pages: 384 Original date of publication: 1863 My copy: 1984 (Virago Modern Classics) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: bookshop in Charing Cross Road, London, September 2011
Aurora Floyd is a member of that genre of novels called Victorian sensationalist fiction. Published in the 1860s, sensationalist novels, mostly written by women, addressed the fears that people of that era had and addressed issues such as adultery, bigamy, murder, and other scandalous social issues. Nothing is ever what it seems in a novel like this. This novel has all the classic elements of this brand of novel: a young woman, Aurora Floyd has a deep, dark secret, which leads her to reject marriage proposals from two men (but then accept one). As the story plays out, her secret threatens to come out as well and destroy the life she’s created.
Aurora isn’t your typical Victorian heroine, but given the heroines we seem in fiction these days, she’s pretty much the same as the rest: she’s strong-willed, unfe…