“Garden Party”

Mansfield, Katherine. “Garden Party.” Garden Party: and Other Stories. Garden City, New York: Garden City Publishing Company, Inc., 1922.

Reason read: June is National Short Story Month.

“Garden Party” illustrates many themes: wealth versus poverty, insensitivity versus compassion, death versus life.
Wealthy Mrs. Sheridan has been preparing for an elaborate garden party with flowers and tents, food and music. Servants and gardeners and workers toil like busy bees here, there, and everywhere setting up chairs, organizing the musicians, placing the flowers just so. The excitement catches with her four children, too. But when a terrible accident leaves a man dead right outside their gates daughter Laura doesn’t thinks it’s appropriate for the show to go on. She questions the sensitivity of their actions. Later Mrs. Sheridan allows Laura to bring a basket of food to the dead man’s family. Walking through the poor neighborhood gives Laura a new perspective and in the face of mortality she learns about living.

Quote to quote, “The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty stricken” (p 71). What a devastating image.

Author fact: the location of the garden party was modeled after Mansfield’s own property.

Book trivia: my copy of Garden Party was marked up like someone was editing the book. Bummer.

Nancy said: Pearl asked her readers not to neglect Mansfield, calling “Garden Party” brilliant.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust to Go in the chapter called “Kiwis Forever! New Zealand in Print” (p 124).


Man in Gray Flannel

Wilson, Sloan. The Man in Gray Flannel. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002.

Reason read: Wilson was born in the month of May. Read in his honor.

This is the story of Tom Rath and economic survival in the 1950s era. Tom’s wife, Betsy and their three children want the good life. Tom is determined to give it to them, even if it means slogging to work doing a job he doesn’t completely enjoy. When a new prospect for employment pops up Rath jumps at the chance to move up the ladder but it is not without consequences.
The Man in Gray Flannel epitomizes the proverbial meaning of life in a material world. It is also a study of 1950s conformity and climbing the corporate ladder. You have one man who is a slave to his workaholic lifestyle and is miserable because of it while another man is angry because he can never get ahead. Tom’s boss, from the outside, projects an image of ease and calm amidst his wealth while Tom encounters roadblocks in every aspect of his life. The new higher paying job is not what he thought it would be. Secrets from his time as a solider in World War II will not stay buried. His wife wants more and more. Even the seemingly straightforward last will and testament of his grandmother’s estate doesn’t seem to be in his favor.
Confessional: the odd thing is, despite all of Tom’s setbacks and struggles, I couldn’t entirely feel for him. I felt more for his boss.

Author fact: This is Sloan Wilson’s first book.

Book trivia: The Man in Gray Flannel is autobiographical.

Nancy said: Pearl said absolutely nothing about The Man in Gray Flannel.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter “100 Good Reads, Decade By Decade:1950” (p 177).


Best of Everything

Jaffe, Rona. The Best of Everything. New York: Penguin Books, 1958.

Reason read: August is the best time to read Chick Lit.

The year is 1952 and women in the workplace are finding their collective ambitious voice. In The Best of Everything five young women seemingly only have the employment of a New York publishing company in common. Caroline wants to climb the corporate ladder; to go from typist to editor. April is as naive as they come but learns the timeless power of sex appeal. Gregg has the life of a jet setting actress, but secretly wants to settle down and be a housewife. Barbara is a single mother with a young daughter and Mary Agnes is mousy; too shy for words.

One central theme to The Best of Everything is the need women feel to protect themselves from predatory men. They are always defending themselves against the less than admirable advances of the amorous kind. There is a great deal of strategic purse shuffling and genius body blocking at parties and at the office. Yet, they all want to be married to respectable men.

A few quotes (out of hundred) to quote, “It’s like holding hands and jumping off the top of a building; did we think it was going to be any easier because we were holding hands?” (p 95), “It was like trying to categorize something in order to make it exist” (p 118), “The hard mechanical palm he had extended to her in his handshake had not been a unique phenomenon, it had simply been an uncovered part of the entire unyielding whole” (p 164), and probably the most tragic quote ever, “She leaned out the window and all of a sudden the mile long limousine with the two of them in it and the liveried chauffeur and the armful of rises and the soft music and the hip flask if bourbon wasn’t glamorous anymore; it was ridiculous; they were two frantic stupid people speeding through an ugly-smelling countryside to attend the murder of love” (p 194).

Author fact: In 2005 Jaffe wrote a foreword to The Best of Everything. In it she admitted her rise to success happened before she had even published the book. Who she knew helped a great deal.

Book trivia: The Best of Everything is Rona Jaffe’s first novel and it became a New York Times Best Seller and a movie.

Nancy said:  The Best of Everything is a given when thinking about the category of fiction that primarily explores the lives of young, single women.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Chick Lit” (p 53).


“Xingu”

Wharton, Edith. “Xingu.” New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916.

Reason read: June is short story month.

This is a story of contradictions. Even though this story is less that fifty pages long, it packs a wallop of a punch. Though billed as a satire it is also a humorous and witty commentary on human psychology. Some even think it is a cerebral jab at Henry James after he criticized Wharton’s writing. No matter how “Xingu” is perceived or meant to be perceived, Mrs. Roby is my hero.

In a nutshell, a group of snobbish high society women form a lunch group to gather and discuss didactic topics and one-up each other. In their view, the weakest link is Mrs. Roby, a seemingly not-so-bright woman who doesn’t appear to fit in with them. She asks all the wrong questions and clearly doesn’t know societal protocol. When the group invites an even snobbier author to discuss her latest book, “The Wings of Death,” the event falls apart. Osric Dane is even more dismissive than the snobs in the group. It isn’t until Mrs. Roby one-ups them all by mentioning a xingu philosophy. No one has ever heard of xingu but they all, including author Osric Dane, must pretend they know it well. Only after Mrs. Roby and Ms. Dane leave does the group dare to look up the word xingu and discover they have been duped. Xingu is actually a river in Brazil.

Author fact: something I did not know about Wharton is that she was a designer.

Nancy said: if you have never read Wharton Pearl suggested starting with the novella “Xingu” (p 144).

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Literary Lives: The Americans” (p 144).


Underworld

DeLillo, Don. Underworld. Read by Richard Poe. New York: Recorded Books, 2003.

Even though this is a long book I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. From the prologue I was hooked. By the way, everyone loves the prologue best. But the book as a whole, I don’t know how to describe it. It’s a stand-alone novella in itself. I guess I could equate Underworld to a bumble bee ride. At times the plot flies over time and space, flitting from one character to another without really touching down long enough to establish foundation. But, there there are other times this bee lands, spends an inordinate amount of time digging around one particular scene and rooting among the details; rolling through the dialogue and repeating itself a lot. Diverse yet nitty gritty. If you get to the part when Nick is trying to talk to his wife while she watched a movie you’ll see what I mean. Excruciating! I found their dialogue painful.
As a whole, Underworld is a biography of 20th century American culture, flayed and dissected and analyzed. Guts and all. It’s 50 years of society spanning the country, from Arizona to New York and points in between. It’s 1951 and fifty years beyond. There is no real plot. There is no real point other than to show the complexities of the times we live in.

Reason read: February is National History Month and Underworld is chock full of history, real and imagined.

Author fact: Although Don DeLillo is mentioned five times in Book Lust I am only reading three of his books, Libra, White Noise and of course, Underworld.

Book trivia: Underworld is a huge book – over 800 some odd pages long. I had to borrow an audio recording and a print version just to finish it within the month!
Audio trivia: I just had to mention this since it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a library do this: the Westborough Public Library warned me, “the cost to replace this item is $109.75 Please handle carefully!” Why not make it an even $110? Just saying.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “American History: Fiction” (p 22).


Lord of the Flies

Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Perigee Books, 1954.

What high school English lit teacher hasn’t put Lord of the Flies on his or her syllabi? What student hasn’t read at least one excerpt from this book? I shudder to think classrooms have moved to the movie version, but if that means Golding’s story lives on, so be it.

This could be called the most chilling sociological experiment of all times (besides Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game.) What happens when you take the most prim and organized society (proper English boys from a prep school), hand it the suggestion of chaos and violence (they are escaping a nuclear war), then leave it to its own devices without guidance (a deserted island without adults)? All normalcy goes out the window when the boys try to build their own hierarchical, structured society. In a Darwinian approach some boys, the strongest & smartest, rise to the top while weaker boys become scapegoats and victims of paranoia. In the beginning the group is held together by necessity. They recognize the need for fairness and organization, especially if they want to be rescued. But all that vanishes when the younger boys become increasingly convinced there is a monster on the island. No amount of rationalizing can calm them. Fear and violence escalates until there is no turning back. All calm is lost to tragedy.

Probably the most frustrating part about the book was something very deliberate on Golding’s part. When the boys are finally rescued the Naval officer is embarrassed by the children, especially Ralph’s emotional breakdown when remembering how it all fell apart. You want the officer, the adult, to be more understanding, to take the boys more seriously.

Book Trivia: Lord of the Flies influenced musicians like U2 and Iron Maiden and sparked television parodies but a full length movie has yet to be made.

Author Fact: Golding won a Nobel Prize for literature.

Favorite line: “The group of boys looked at the conch with affectionate respect” (p 128).

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called “100 Good Reads: Decade by Decade (1950s),” (p 177).


House of Mirth

Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. New York: Signet Classic, 1964.

House of Mirth is one of those classics you read to analyze society from several different angles: society and the woman’s role it in; society and the pitfalls of economic status (or lack there of); society and the role of etiquette. House of Mirth is the book you read in college, in grad school and then go on to write about in your dissertation.
In a nutshell, Lily Bart is an orphaned young woman desperate to keep up with the Joneses. She is in love with status and wealth. After her father’s ruin and subsequent death, Lily’s mother pins her hopes of future fortunes on her daughter’s good looks. Only she too passes before Lily can put her beauty to good use and be married off to some wealthy bachelor. Lily is then taken in by a wealthy relation who tests Lily’s morality in the face of greed and luxury. In a modern spin, Lily is a classic gold digger, looking to “land” a prosperous mate at whatever cost.

Best lines:
How Lily describes New York, “”Other cities put on their best clothes in the summer, but New York seems to sit in its shirtsleeves”” (p 7). How I sometimes feel, “She wanted to get away from herself, and conversation was the only means of escape that she knew” (p 20).
The perfect example of Lily’s “sacrifice” for wealth, “She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce – the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice – but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honor of boring her for life” (p 29). Really?

Author Fact: Edith Wharton got married when she was in her early 20s in 1885 but wasn’t afraid to get a divorce 28 years later. Rock on, girl!

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called “New York, New York” (p 170). But, also from Book Lust in the chapter called “100 Good Reads, Decade by Decade: 1900s (p 175).