Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Classics Circuit: The Children by Edith Wharton

I’ve been a fan of Edith Wharton’s novels for over 15 years, so I jumped at the chance to participate in this tour, and am glad it compelled me to read one of several Wharton books that I already owned but hadn’t previously read. Many, many thanks to Rebecca Reid for bringing us The Classics Circuit. To see more "stops" along Wharton's tour, click here.

First, a smalI confession: I just finished reading The Children two days ago, my tour date is tomorrow (I'm writing on the evening of 1/27), and I don’t know how I can get enough coherent thoughts together to really do justice to the book. I feel like I could spend a week writing about it, yet in the limited time I have, I’m not sure where to start. I fear I’ll just share my impressions as I think of them, and it will be a jumbled mess. This should not reflect upon your opinion of the book, as Wharton is too polished and intelligent to make a jumbled mess of anything.

Description (from the back of the book):
A bestseller when it was first published in 1928, The Children is a comic, bittersweet novel about the misadventures of a bachelor and a band of precocious children. The seven Wheater children, stepbrothers and stepsisters grown weary of being shuttled from parent to parent “like bundles,” are eager for their parents' latest reconciliation to last. A chance meeting between the children and the solitary forty-six-year-old Martin Boyne leads to a series of unforgettable encounters.

Martin Boyne meets the Wheater children on a cruise, when he and the eldest child, Judith Wheater, find themselves seated together on deck. From the moment Boyne first sees Judith, he is awed by her maturity and self-assurance. He can’t tell if she is mother or step-mother to one of more of the other children, or a governess, because she looks quite young, but directs the whole brood as though she were their mother. As the true governess, Miss Scope, soon tells Boyne, “Judith’s never been a child – there was no time.” Judith’s parents, Cliffe and Joyce Wheater, had frequent arguments throughout their marriage, and after having three children – a twin brother and sister, Terry and Blanca, coming a few years after Judith – they divorced, and married other people. After those unions went wrong, they reconciled and remarried, and had a fourth child, the toddler Chip. The other three children are what Judith calls “the steps,” step-children from the other relationships. One of the girls is actually a half-sibling, fathered by Cliffe Wheater, but the other two are Joyce’s step-children, not related to the Wheaters by blood, but part of the family just the same.

Throughout the book, Judith’s primary goal is to keep all seven children together. This is easier to do if Cliffe and Joyce Wheater remain together, even if they themselves are on a perpetual honeymoon and leave most of the childcare to the governess, the nurse, and Judith. But their relationship has always been volatile, and they both have wandering eyes. Moreover, they’re rich enough to live in hotels and send their children away on a cruise with their paid caretakers. In many ways, the Wheater parents are less mature than the Wheater children, and certainly less mature than their daughter Judith.

Martin Boyne was friendly with Joyce Wheater in their youth, and was also acquainted with Cliffe Wheater in college. These loose, long-ago connections, combined with Judith’s singular personality and Boyne’s genuine sympathy for the children’s situation, cause Boyne to befriend Judith and all the children, and to become their supporter and ally in their attempts to remain together. I should add that Boyne is not the only adult who comes to believe that Judith’s view is the most beneficial for the other children; we soon find that Miss Scope and the nurse also take their directions from Judith without hesitation.

It is not surprising that Martin Boyne develops romantic feelings for Judith Wheater, as she has strength, wisdom, and determination far beyond her fifteen years. Wharton has created a very appealing character in Judith, and I found myself drawn to her, hoping she’d succeed in keeping all the children together. Boyne’s feelings for Judith are complicated: he does sometimes see her as the child she still is, and even when his fiancĂ©e says she believes he’s in love with Judith, he dismisses the idea, and insists that “Judith’s as much a child to me as the others.” But she isn’t really, because she’s made herself responsible for the rest of them, and if Boyne is to help the children, he must confer with Judith about every change in the family’s situation -- and that is what he does.

Wharton develops the relationship between Boyne and Judith with delicacy and great skill. For a long time, Boyne seems truly not to realize that his feelings are changing, and never seeks to take advantage of Judith in any way. For her part, Judith likes Boyne a great deal, but although she calls him “dear” and “darling” multiple times (which I figured must be common for that time period, their class, and their usual society), it never occurs to her that his feelings for her are anything but friendly and paternal. She may often behave like a woman, but Wharton reminds us in many small ways that Judith isn’t a grown-up yet. Part of what draws Boyne to Judith, and to all the children, is the way they make him feel younger. Unlike the Wheaters and their set, and unlike his fiancĂ©e, Rose, Boyne has never been married. He is middle-aged, but not yet old; the sense of adventure and possibility is palpable when he’s with the Wheater children.

A few lines that stood out for me, that I really liked… The step-siblings new step-mother comes to see the Wheater children and hopes to take those two children back to their biological father. She says Judith seems to forget that the other children have parents. Judith replies, “’No. It’s the parents who’ve forgotten.’” When Boyne goes to visit Rose, to let her know what has happened with the children, and to determine their own future, Wharton describes his feeling, “He had been to the country from which travelers return with another soul.” During one of the rare evenings when Boyne is not with the children or Rose, Wharton writes, “[H]e was suddenly aware of an intense unexpected satisfaction in being for once alone, his own master, with no one that he need be on his guard against or at his best before; no one to be tormented or enchanted by, no one to listen to and answer.”

The Children is not quite on the same level as some of Wharton’s more famous works, but the story held my interest, the characters were well-drawn and most were sympathetic, and the writing is great, as we’ve come to expect from Edith Wharton. I feel as though I too met the Wheater children, and had a very enjoyable time with them.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Recently traveling, currently reading

It may seem that I became quiet all of the sudden, but really I've been busy. A week ago, I flew to Washington, DC, for the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board. I had a poster accepted for a poster session, and was able to get approval to travel. The meeting was better than I expected, but DC in January was also much as I expected: too damn cold! There was some sun, yes, but the wind could be biting at times.

One neat thing was that my hotel was in Dupont Circle, and I visited both the bookstore and cafe areas of Kramerbooks and Afterwords Cafe (on different occasions, and DID NOT buy any books at Kramer's), and had a good time browsing in Second Story Books, where I confess I DID buy two used books. They were having a 20% off sale, so each of my five dollar books was only four dollars. One of them was a hardcover of Winter Trees by Sylvia Plath, which I'd borrowed from the library and read more than once in my youth, and am thrilled to have found at such a great price.

On my flight to DC last Saturday, I started reading The Children by Edith Wharton, as I'm scheduled to do a post for The Classics Circuit at the end of this month. I read four or five chapters on the plane, and enjoyed getting into the story. Then, I ended up not reading any more of it during my trip -- nor did I continue Vanity Fair on my iPod Touch, nor begin my next audiobook. The conference was good, but it took a lot out of me; I was getting to bed too late, and then rising early to attend sessions. I never had a long enough down time to focus on reading.

On the flight home, Edith was my companion once again, and I was glad to have her. (My other companion, the guy in the seat next to me, had an Amazon Kindle, and yes I asked him about it, and yes he told me how much he loves it. That was my first time seeing one in real life. Not bad!) I read some more before bed, and found it hard to put down, and even (I hate to admit it) skipped ahead to glance at the ending. I read some more on Friday evening, and plan to get ready for bed soon and read at least half an hour more before sleep. I am off work Monday, and looking forward to some extra reading time.

Today I got some overdue housecleaning done, kitchen and bathroom that badly needed my attention, and started a new audiobook: The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. Although my copy of the book is part of a "three-novels-in-one" edition, I think it will be fair to count this one for my RYOB Challenge. I'm already into the third hour of the audio, and I love it. I'll probably need to do some dusting tomorrow or Monday, so should be able to get through more of that this weekend as well as the Edith Wharton. Vanity Fair has not been abandoned, but merely set aside for now; I'll pick it up again after my post for The Classics Circuit is done.

It feels good to get back to my reading. Now I just need to get back on the treadmill! Thank heavens for three-day weekends.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

RYOB Challenge 2010, or, Shopping in my own shelves

It's only in the past few months that I've started thinking about reading challenges. I know there are challenge groups on LibraryThing, of course, and I've been a member of the 50 Book Challenge for 2008 and 2009 (mainly to have a single place to track my reading, not really expecting to make 50 books...and that's okay). But after I started following book bloggers on Twitter, got a glimpse of how many book blogs there are, and heard about all these challenges, I began to wonder which of them might be a good fit for me. The one I've chosen: the RYOB Challenge, which encourages you to Read Your Own Books. (RYOB is one of several challenges hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading -- thanks for the extra motivation, MizB!)

For years now, I've been acquiring books much faster than I can read them. I love used book stores, the annual Friends of the Library sale is one of my favorite days of the year, I'm a sucker for a bargain, and I just love books -- looking at them, having them around, dusting the shelves they rest upon, and of course reading them with whatever time I can manage. But I'm at the point where I might have -- MAYBE -- too many books, or at least, too many books that I haven't read yet. At this moment, my LibraryThing collection called "Your Library" (books I currently own) contains 868 books, of which 413 are tagged "tbr," meaning "to be read." That's a lot of books, already in my house, patiently waiting for my time and attention! Clearly, participating in the RYOB Challenge makes a great deal of sense for me.

The rules are simple: decide on a number of books you'd like to read in a given year, and choose those books from your own collection. The guidelines state that e-books and audiobooks are allowed (which makes me so happy, as audio allows me to turn housecleaning time and summer walks into reading time). Re-reads are not allowed, because those don't affect your TBR Mountain. Books must be read between January 1, 2010, and December 31, 2010. I was initially thinking I'd choose 25 books, but I've decided to be a bit more ambitious and aim for 30.

One final note: I came up with the idea of "Shopping in my own shelves" when I was at Hastings some weeks ago. I think anyone who loves books and reading can relate to browsing at a bookstore, and getting that warm and fuzzy feeling as one encounters books one already owns, and/or has previously read and enjoyed. That day at Hastings, my eyes seemed to be drawn more to books I already "knew" than to potential new acquaintances and acquisitions. I thought, "I should just try shopping in my own shelves when I get the urge to browse." Imagine, a whole crowd of warm and fuzzy feelings as I peruse my collection, and decide which one to spend time with! (I realize it sounds like dating. What can I say, it's book love.)

With Jeff still out of work and his severance ended, shopping in my shelves could be my pastime for months to come, by necessity. Participating in the RYOB Challenge will make it more fun, and add to a feeling of accomplishment as I whittle away at my TBR total.

Friday, January 1, 2010

100 Mile Fitness Challenge 2: Jan.--Mar. 2010

A blogger named Trish (of Trish's Reading Nook) is leading the 100 Mile Fitness Challenge, in which participants try to walk or run 100 miles during a three-month period -- specifically, January 1 through March 31, 2010. You can substitute other exercise as well, as long as it falls within the guidelines. Fifteen minutes of another kind of exercise counts as one mile. I learned about this challenge in early October, but just didn't get my act together to participate. By posting here, and then linking over to the main challenge page, hopefully I'll be motivated to stick with what I've started.

Although Trish is leading the challenge, she writes in the 100 Mile Fitness blog that she did not make up the challenge, but isn't sure where it originated. But she gets the credit for setting up the blog and bringing the challenge to book bloggers. So, I also want to acknowledge Rebecca, who blogs at Lost in Books, because I'm pretty sure that's where I first read about this challenge.

I walked on the treadmill today, knowing that I was starting the challenge, and completed three and a half miles. However, I just reviewed the rules this evening and found that partial miles aren't allowed. Darn it, I should have just stopped at three! But even if that distance doesn't count for the challenge, I was still burning calories, which is more important in the long run.

My plan to complete this challenge is to watch lots of TV on DVD while spending quality time with the cool treadmill we bought last summer. I started watching one of my Christmas presents today: the first two episodes of the first season of Pushing Daisies. (That's probably my favorite gift that I didn't already know I was getting. Three of my presents were things I bought/ordered myself, then told Jeff to give me for Xmas: two books, one CD. I'm easy to shop for, see?!?) This afternoon, I bought season three of Friday Night Lights on sale at Best Buy. I am SO EXCITED that season four of FNL will be starting on NBC before too long! (Note to self: find out NBC premiere date ASAP!)

Finally, we also got a couple Wii games for Christmas that should help me: Wii Fit Plus, and a Jillian Michaels game. I weighed myself with Wii Fit Plus today before I started on the treadmill, and plan to track my weight as I go along. I was happily surprised to find I'd only gained three pounds since whenever I did my last weigh-in (easily at least two months ago, possibly much longer). I figured it would be worse, like eight or ten pounds, so I can handle three. ;-)

Hopefully I'll get my next post up, about my 2010 reading challenge, before the end of the weekend. After being pretty quiet this fall, I've been feeling energized to get things written! And it feels good.