Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

Appointment in Samara
John O’Hara
1934, U.S.

I finished reading Appointment in Samarra this morning, as part of a readalong hosted by Meredith (Dolce Bellezza) and Tom (Wuthering Expectations), and find I am still working my way through my own thoughts about it. I feel at a disadvantage in approaching the text as I have read very little from the time period, save a dozen or so Agatha Christies, are those are really not of the same vein as O’Hara’s novel. Even the era is largely unknown to me (outside of the music), set in December 1930 towards the start of what today’s reader knows will be a long Great Depression (but when the novel’s characters still hope that ‘next year’ will be better), and the literature written in the time is even less familiar. By and large, I have not (yet) read O’Hara’s contemporaries.

And yet, there’s a familiarity there, a familiarity that comes from O’Hara’s inclusion of small details of everyday life, the vivid characters that populate the novel, and even from the Pennsylvania coal country setting (which is not so far removed from my midwestern town just outside the edges of Appalachia). It is set in a time and place removed from my own, but by using small, but specific details, O’Hara grounds it in a way that makes me feel I know the place, the characters.

On the face of it, the story is simple enough: it centers around the lives of Julian and Caroline English, their social set, and those nearby who observe or intersect with the Englishs’ everyday lives. The inciting event: Julian throws his drink in the face of Harry Reilly at a holiday party, breaking social taboos and apparently triggering a cascade of ever more self-destructive behavior. And yet it is more than just that. Although set tightly primarily over a period of four days, with glances backwards, and in the final chapter, a look forwards, the ends are not all neatly tied. Real life is messy, and this story is messy: the plot, the characters, the resolutions. This is part of what makes the story so engaging, I think.

Indeed, I find the whole story very real. Sure, to say that throwing a drink in someone’s face will lead to spiral of self-destruction, may sound over-dramatic (especially in an era when all social conventions seem to have been thrown out the window), but I think the truth is, the drink incident–the party–is really entering Julian’s story in medias res. It is not that there is necessarily some specific preceding incident that explains this social crime, but the build-up of Julian’s character to the place where he loses all self-control (if he ever had any) seems to have been an ongoing circumstance. As the novel progresses and we learn more of his character, his past decisions, and his lack of consideration for others (I believe in 21st century terms we would say he has low “emotional intelligence”), it seems apparent that while there may not be an easy explanation for Julian’s actions, the pieces were all there for his self-destruction, and this is just the form it happened to take.

On the other hand, while the story centers around Julian, there are so many other characters there, and his self-destruction spirals out to encompass–or at least impact–many of them. Caroline, is fleshed out as much as Julian and drawn with real sympathy. Lute Fliegler is Julian’s employee, and I am still not sure what to make of the fact that his point of view bookends the novel. Does the destruction of Julian open a way for Lute? Helene Holman and Al Greco both have encounters with Julian that appear to completely change their life trajectories–and yet, we don’t know precisely where. It is yet another nod to reality: any given person’s story only ends with their death; while they live what’s next may always be unknown.

I decided to read Appointment in Samarra almost on a whim: only the day before I read about the readalong, my dad had asked if I were familiar with “Samarra,” and then recited the W. Somerset Maugham retelling that is the epigraph for O’Hara’s novel. He had read it somewhere recently (not in O’Hara), and thought I might know it. When I saw the readalong announced, it seemed inevitable that I must join in, and I am happy I did. It is a novel I feel I could come back to, and perhaps explore other of O’Hara’s writing as well.

Farewell Summer, Welcome Autumn

It’s hard to believe we’re already through the first week of September. I know that time has passed slowly for some, with all the various upheavals of 2020, but it seems to have flown by for me just as much as ever—and in spite of the extra 1.75 hours or so in my working days, thanks to work-from-home. I guess I’m just good at always finding ways to fill it.

Reading was one of those ways, and while I didn’t quite make my goal of 10 books for the 20 Books of Summer challenge, I’m mostly happy with the outcome: 9 1/2 books completed in the three month time-span, of which one was the very dense The Mysteries of Udolpho and two nonfiction books that, while informative, were slow.

My Completed Books:

  1. 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence – Howard Means
  2. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain
  3. So Good They Can’t Ignore You  – Cal Newport
  4. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
  5. The Color of Law – Richard Rothstein
  6. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe
  7. The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
  8. The Secret of Chimneys – Agatha Christie
  9. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

Started but not yet finished:

  1. Wheeshet – Kate Davies
  2. The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. Shop Class as Soul Craft -Matthew B. Crawford

I’m a bit disappointed not to have made it further in The Lord of the Rings, but it has the disadvantage of being a set of owned books that aren’t subject to the whims of library renewals (and other’s hold patterns). Needless to say, I hope to finish it and the other incomplete books soon.

However, now as the weather starts to turn cooler, the birds start their migrations south, and the colors begin to turn autumnal, I start to think of more seasonal reading. I’d love to participate in the fifteenth edition of R.I.P., and I do have a mystery on hold at the library (fingers crossed it arrives in time), but now I’m wishing I’d had the foresight to wait until September to read The Secret of Chimneys! If I have time, I have a Poe collection I’d love to finally read, or maybe some other Christie or one of the many Victorian thrillers I have on my to-be-read. Maybe…

Because first, in addition to some non-renewable library books (currently reading The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins, though of course that reads quickly), there’s the current Classics Club spin, for which I’m supposed to read An Oresteia (Agamemnon by Aiskhylos; Elektra by Sophokles; Orestes by Euripides ) by the end of the month. And which I haven’t started yet. (Ahem.)

I’ve also signed up for the Appointment in Samarra readalong hosted by Meredith at Dolce Bellezza and Tom at Wuthering Expectations are hosting a An Appointment in Samara readalong. I’m actually nearly a 1/3 of the way through and it’s going well, so that’s the book I’m most optimistic on finishing ‘on time.’

And finally, Cleo at Classical Corousel is hosting an informal Decameron readalong from now until the end of the year. That will have to wait on the other books, though! (I’ve read selections in the past and if memory serves me well, they read quickly, so fingers crossed.)

What are your autumnal reading plans?

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

The Mysteries of Udolpho
Ann Radcliffe
England, 1794

The dawn, which softened the scenery with its peculiar grey tint, now dispersed, and Emily watched the progress of the day, first trembling on the tops of the highest cliffs, then touching them with splendid light, while their sides and the vale below were still wrapt in dewy mist. Meanwhile, the sullen grey of the eastern clouds began to blush, then to redden, and then to glow with a thousand colours, till the golden light darted over all the air, touched the lower points of the mountain’s brow, and glanced in long sloping beams upon the valley and its stream. All nature seems to have awakened from death into life; the spirit of St. Aubert was renovated. His heart was full; he wept, and his thoughts ascended to the Great Creator. (37, Volume 1, Chapter 4)

I sat down to The Mysteries of Udolpho expecting one thing but getting another.  Knowing it to be advertised as a “Gothic novel,” and having read others in the genre from around the same  era (The Castle of Otranto and Castle of Wolfenbach), I was anticipating something more fast-paced, silly, and perhaps containing actual supernatural elements. True, it remains within many of the Gothic tropes (innocent and vulnerable young heroine, remote locales, a dilapidated Gothic castle, a brooding villain), but it also explains away any seemingly supernatural elements and leans heavily on the Romantic side of its personality with the Natural World becoming almost a character in its own right. In short, it reminds me more of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein than Horace Walpole’s Otranto, a comparison I had not anticipated.

I also had reason to expect it to be more “horrid”–and more of a 20th century style thriller–because of Jane Austen. Namely, Northanger Abbey. Any number of Gothic novels are referenced in Austen’s early novel, but Udolpho looms larger than the others, as Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Moreland discuss it avidly, with Isabelle vowing not to reveal the mystery of the “black veil” for anything in the world. But it was not Northanger Abbey I thought of as I read Udolopho. It was Sense and Sensibility. Yes, Northanger Abbey is known as a parody of Udolpho (and other Gothic novels). But the concerns of Sense and Sensibility, the tension between the Romantic natures and feelings (sensibility) of Marianne and the good sense and reasoning of Elinor, are reflected throughout Udolpho. In some ways, the entire novel is an argument in favor of tempering (or overwhelming) one’s sensibility with good sense, and heroine Emily St. Aubert is seemingly an amalgamation of the two Dashwood sisters. She aspires to the sense of Elinor while her nature inclines her to the sensibility of Marianne. But to read it thus is to go backwards. No, Radcliffe came before Austen, so it is Elinor and Marianne that appear distilled from Emily, two characters of an argument that was clearly already in progress a decade before Sense and Sensibility was published.

“All excess is vicious; even that sorrow, which is amiable in its origin, becomes a selfish and unjust passion, if indulged at the expence of our duties–by our duties I mean what we owe to ourselves, as well as to others. The indulgence of excessive grief enervates the mind, and almost incapacitates it for again partaking of those various innocent enjoyments which a benevolent God designed to be the sun-shine of our lives. My dear Emily, recollect and practise the precepts I have so often given you, and which your own experience has so often shewn you to be wise.” (St. Aubert, Volume 1, Chapter 2)

Although the 21st century reader may be at times pressed to sympathize with Emily’s plight (I may have thought “can’t she grow a spine already!” at one particular moment of exasperation), the reader realizes that Emily is continually–and as the novel progresses, more often successfully–endeavoring to live by her father’s teachings to moderate her passions, to have strength of character. This strength of character, glimpsed even early, proves essential to Emily’s ultimate fate.

“Never, till this evening did I know what true devotion is; for, never before did I see the sun sink below the vast earth! To-morrow, for the first time in my life, I will see it rise. O, who would live in Paris, to look upon black walls and dirty streets, when, in the country, they might gaze on the blue heavens, and all the green earth!” (Blanche, Volume 3, Chapter 10)

But Radcliffe and Austen, though writing in overlapping eras, are writing from different perspectives. I have never once thought of Austen as a Romantic writer. Radcliffe clearly is. Nature and setting are of supreme importance. The isolation of location is, of course, essential to the plot points. But nature is also used to illuminate character. The “good” characters, that is those we should root for and sympathize with, are all drawn to nature, and appreciate its wonders and beauties, even in the most (naturally) dangerous locales, while the “bad” characters (okay, fine, some of these characters actually are reprehensible or evil people–but not all of them) tend to disregard the natural world, or see it as an inconvenience. A retreat in the country = good; a sojourn in the big city = bad. An interesting dichotomy, and perhaps the defining characteristic of Romanticism.

Thanks to Cleo at Classical Carousel for hosting the readalong! I would not have picked up The Mysteries of Udolpho nearly as soon as I did were it not for her. Much enjoyed. Though now I find myself with a strange hankering for more Austen?

I read  The Mysteries of Udolpho as part of a readalong, as part of my “Sensation!” project list, for “Written by a Woman” for Back to the Classics and “Over 500 pages” for Reading the Classics.

20 Books of Summer

How to pick a summer read?

Something light, fluffy, perfect for a lazy summer afternoon?

That thick doorstop you’ve been meaning to get to and now might finally have time for when it’s too hot to do anything else?

Off the top of the tottering tower of to-be-reads threatening to topple over?

The library book you STILL haven’t read even though the library’s been digital-only for over two months? (Uh…is that just me?)

A children’s classic full of its own lazy summer afternoons?

The possibilities–and interpretations–are endless. And it can be impossible to predict: what seems like a “good summer read” in June may be the last thing you want to read come August. But this is one of the joys of summer – more relaxation and fewer rules.

Even since I saw the first posts popping up for 20 Books of Summer hosted by Cathy at 746 Books, I’ve been thinking about what I hope–or expect to read–this summer. Twenty books in a three month period is, unfortunately, a bit of a stretch for me. Well, maybe if I switched to all kid’s lit or Golden Age Detective Fiction. But then I saw Cleo’s clever twist: select a list of 20 books, from which to read 10. Well, I can do that! Um…maybe? (Reference: unread library books.)

So I started going through my shelves. First, I pulled the library books. Because, well…(I have no excuses, really.) Then the books I already wanted to read. Throw in a couple children’s classics that I’ve been hankering to reread. Add a readalong title, a few books that are family loans that have been around longer than the library books (I’m the worst at reading borrowed books, apparently), and leave a space for an Agatha Christie that will have to come from the library, and we have a book stack.

From the bottom:

  1. The Wind in the Willows – after Cleo posted recently, I decided I needed to reread, probably in August
  2. 67 Shots – (Non-fiction). I had intended to read this in time to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shootings, but didn’t even open it.
  3. Beowulf – possible reread; I’m in a bit of Medieval mode at the moment (current read: The Nibelungenlied)
  4. The Trumpet of the Swan – another possible August reread. And I need to go birding; there’s area wetlands that have Trumpeter Swans (and Bald Eagles – so exciting to see!)
  5. The Sound and the Fury – I keep pulling it off the shelves to read and getting distracted. This year, really! (Even if not this summer.)
  6. Call Down the Hawk – I pre-ordered this when it came out, so of course I haven’t touched it. At least that means I’m not anxiously awaiting the sequel…
  7. Britt-Marie Was Here
  8. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry
  9. Loving Frank – These last three are books that one of my aunts loaned to me thinking I’d like them. I couldn’t say as they’ve been gathering dust ever since. Ahem. At least one of the three better get read this summer!
  10. wheesht – A collection of essays on creativity and making. I’ve read a few, but want to start over and really give them their proper due.
  11. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – this feels like it should be a summer read. Anyone want to whitewash a fence?
  12. The Mysteries of Udolpho – A readalong with Cleo and Jean, it starts June 1. I broke my book-buying ban (see: tottering tower of tomes) since – gasp – the library doesn’t have a copy, even if they were open! Of course, I’ll probably want to reread Northanger Abbey afterwards, and it didn’t make the list…
  13. One Hundred Years of Solitude – I was supposed to reread this for a readalong with Silvia and Ruth but the timing ended up right when I hit a reading slump. But I think I’m ready to pick it up now.
  14. The Odyssey – Yep, another library book, another reread. I still intend to read it.
  15. The Fellowship of the Ring
  16. The Two Towers
  17. The Return of the King
  18. The Hobbit – This is the big plan for the summer – with everything going on, it feels like the right time to reread these. And they go well with The Nibelungenlied. Maybe less violent…
  19. Seaward – I’m not sure my brother actually knows I have this…time to get it read and return
  20. Unpictured: The Secret of Chimneys – next in my Agatha Christie chronological reading. It may end up a digital read, depending on the library.

So, you might notice the problem: while I may not have time to read 20 books, it would appear that I’m planning to do so. And then there’s the books that didn’t make the cut but that might sneak in anyways. Good thing we can change our list! And that there’s a summer staycation coming up…

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth
Edith Wharton
1905, US

(For the spoiler-averse, this post speaks in generalities about the trajectory/end of the novel.)

There was a moment reading The House of Mirth when I suddenly realized that I knew Lily Bart. No, I don’t mean that literally, of course, nor even that I know a wealthy-born, now poor New York Society young woman. But I know someone with some of the same personal characteristics as Lily, a realization which gave me new perspective on her character, pointing to the realism in which Lily is drawn.

I began the novel at the start of December as part of a readalong hosted by Cleo of Classical Carousel (though, true to form I a) started late and b) didn’t finish the least bit on time). It is the story of Miss Lily Bart and the turn of the 19th/20th century New York (old money) society she lives in. Lily is of this society, but lacks the money to maintain herself in it, the consequences of which form much of the drama of the novel.

As I read through each section, I would check in on Cleo’s posts and the comments, noting that many people have lots of feelings about/opinions of Lily – for better or worse. And indeed, she IS a fascinating character. Is she merely naïve? Foolish? Hopelessly optimistic? Incapable of truly facing (or perhaps understanding) reality? Returning to the novel, with these comments in mind, I realized that I knew her. And recognizing that I could see some of the same characteristics—I can’t even consider them flaws, necessarily, as the context can matter so much—in someone I know in my own life, I could see that while it’s so easy as a reader to condemn Lily for her failure to learn from her mistakes, her failure to understand, her failure to make better decisions, her failure to change (or change too late), the reality is that in Lily, Wharton is portraying a personality as realistic as the early 20th century New York set Lily inhabits. Perhaps the story depends on more chance and coincidence, for better and for worse, than real life does…but perhaps not.

I also find it fascinating that the social ills of which Lily is accused are not the ones she is guilty of. This then, suggests to me that more so than condemning Lily, Wharton is condemning her social milieu. Lily hasn’t really done anything wrong in the first half of the novel. Other than be a relatively poor, unmarried woman. Her mistakes are those of not fully playing the game, and of outspending her resources. The first is truly what she is punished for as the second might be forgivable had she obeyed the unspoken rules of the first.

It strikes me that perhaps she does not really belong in the society to which she aspires—perhaps she is more like Lawrence Seldon than she believes (and perhaps the mutual attraction?). Perhaps, as her beauty (which we are reminding of unceasingly) is more refined than any other woman in high society, is Lily also too refined for high society? Certainly, there seem opportunities for Lily to turn her fortunes around, which she declines out of moral reservation. Regardless, it seems a condemnation of the double standards of the rich (or perhaps “civilized society” in general) with one set of rules for the married vs. single, for men vs. women, for rich vs. dependent. For all her flaws and mistakes, Lily seems to me as much a victim as she is a participant in her own downfall. She has never been taught to see beyond the narrow confines of her world, and when she finally sees a glimmer of hope and life beyond herself it is too late. A devastatingly beautiful story.

Many thanks to Cleo for hosting, her insightful posts, and the encouragement to read along (even though I’m always behind)!