NY Times Book Club

Every week, I read the Sunday NY Times. Along with breakfast and a leisurely coffee, I can relax for at least an hour or two dipping into its different sections. Surprisingly, I find the Business section quite interesting and of course, there’s the Opinion pieces and competition between my husband and I over who gets to read that first. But I digress.

Two weeks ago, I noticed a full page ad for the Times’ book club inviting subscribers to join a discussion of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. I’d never read any of Wharton’s fiction, but I did read her WWI diaries – a fascinating look at Paris and other parts of France during that terrible conflict. Those diaries gave me tidbits of inspiration as I wrote Lies Told In Silence. A NY Times discussion of an author who wrote in the late 19th and early twentieth century sounded like a great idea to me, so I signed up.

Edith Wharton – source Goodreads

If you’re interested in a synopsis of The Custom of the Country, you can check it out here.

The main character, Undine Spragg, is a Midwestern girl who attempts to ascend New York society. Needless to say, those of influence in NYC are at first not the slightest bit interested in a brash, grasping young woman whose only attractive feature is her beauty. That is, not until the son of a family from established New York ‘aristocracy’ decides to marry her.

Claire Messud, author of The Emperor’s Children, presented the novel along with details of Edith Wharton’s background and writing career – apparently Edith wrote her first book at 40 and has many works to her credit, including novels, poetry, novellas, non-fiction, and short stories.

Claire Messud called The Custom of the Country a ‘comedy of manners’ that was written during a time when Wharton was divorcing her husband Teddy Wharton and relocating to Paris. Messud suggested that Undine Spragg – the initials US being significant – is an indomitable heroine of unwavering ambition. Watching the chat comments it was clear to me that many of those attending disliked the heroine intensely – my opinion as well.

What was it like to participate in a book club of more than 4000 people? Actually, there was no participation – unless you call a chat column that scrolled so quickly you couldn’t really read it participation. However, I did appreciate Claire Messud’s presentation and her enthusiasm for both Wharton and The Custom of the Country and I applaud the New York Times’ book club venture.

I think I’ll try Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence next.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Unravelled Blog Tour – Edwardian Promenade

Unravelled Blog TourToday Evangeline Holland, an author and expert on all things Edwardian, hosts a guest post by yours truly titled WWI JOURNALS MIGHT HAVE BEEN THE EQUIVALENT OF BLOGS. I am very grateful to Evangeline for her support on the blog tour for Unravelled. Do check out her very fine blogs: Edwardian Promenade and Evangeline Holland.

The post begins like this:

In May 2009 while researching WWI Paris, I found three journals that vividly brought the home front experience to life. These were On the Edge of the War Zone by Mildred Aldrich, Fighting France by Edith Wharton and Paris War Days by Charles Inman Barnard. At that time, Aldrich and Barnard were journalists, Wharton already a well-known novelist. These were people who had lived through it and written about their experiences with great regularity. Excitement bristled as, pen in hand, I read every single word…

Inspired by Edith Wharton

I had never read Edith Wharton until I stumbled upon her collection of articles Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort available online from Project Gutenberg. Having moved to Paris prior to WWI, Wharton applied her prize-winning writing skills and incredible eye for detail to describe the war for Americans. What an inspiration.

Her connections to people such as Walter Berry, President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris, enabled her to travel to various sectors of the front and her writing captured the sights, sounds and horrors of war with passion and clarity.

Wharton describes the streets of Paris when war is declared then the look of Paris six months later under martial law:

FEBRUARY dusk on the Seine. The boats are plying again, but they stop at nightfall, and the river is inky-smooth, with the same long weed-like reflections as in August. Only the reflections are fewer and paler; bright lights are muffled everywhere. The line of the quays is scarcely discernible, and the heights of the Trocadéro are lost in the blur of night, which presently effaces even the firm tower-tops of Notre-Dame. Down the damp pavements only a few street lamps throw their watery zigzags. The shops are shut, and the windows above them thickly curtained. The faces of the houses are all blind.

In the Argonne she sees hard working soldiers and ruined villages, nurses tending the wounded and a view of fighting from a village rooftop:

The cannon were booming without a pause, and seemingly so near that it was bewildering to look out across empty fields at a hillside that seemed like any other. But luckily somebody had a field-glass, and with its help a little corner of the battle of Vauquois was suddenly brought close to us–the rush of French infantry up the slopes, the feathery drift of French gun-smoke lower down, and, high up, on the wooded crest along the sky, the red lightnings and white puffs of the German artillery. Rap, rap, rap, went the answering guns, as the troops swept up and disappeared into the fire-tongued wood; and we stood there dumbfounded at the accident of having stumbled on this visible episode of the great subterranean struggle.

Wharton is inspired by the faces of ordinary French citizens and soldiers, their determination and dedication:

In each of these earthly warrens (ingeniously wattled, roofed and iron-sheeted) stand two or three artillery officers with keen quiet faces, directing by telephone the fire of batteries nestling somewhere in the woods four or five miles away. Interesting as the place was, the men who lived there interested me far more. They obviously belonged to different classes, and had received a different social education; but their mental and moral fraternity was complete. They were all fairly young, and their faces had the look that war has given to French faces: a look of sharpened intelligence, strengthened will and sobered judgment, as if every faculty, trebly vivified, were so bent on the one end that personal problems had been pushed back to the vanishing point of the great perspective.

In spring 1915, it’s the movement of war’s men and materiel that catches her eye:

Standing up in the car and looking back, we watched the river of war wind toward us. Cavalry, artillery, lancers, infantry, sappers and miners, trench-diggers, road-makers, stretcher-bearers, they swept on as smoothly as if in holiday order. Through the dust, the sun picked out the flash of lances and the gloss of chargers’ flanks, flushed rows and rows of determined faces, found the least touch of gold on faded uniforms, silvered the sad grey of mitrailleuses and munition waggons. Close as the men were, they seemed allegorically splendid: as if, under the arch of the sunset, we had been watching the whole French army ride straight into glory.

My copy of Fighting France is full of notes and underlined sections and I could cite many more examples. Wharton’s tireless efforts on behalf of French and Belgian citizens affected by the war earned her the title Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. She remained in France for the rest of her life.

Wharton brings all aspects of war – large and small, human and inhumane, soldier and citizen – to life. Find time to read Fighting France, you won’t be disappointed.