Top Ten Tuesday: My Five-Star Reads

In this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, we’re sharing our latest five-star reads: the best of the best, la creme de la creme, our very own A-game! As luck would have it, in the five years that I have been blogging, I have only given a five-star rating to exactly ten books, out of 107 books total!

I’d say that less than 10% is reasonably selective, so if you’re searching for a perfect springtime read, make sure you pick up one of these!

5 Star Collage

  1. 1984 by George Orwell
  2. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  3. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker
  4. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
  5. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
  6. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Ed note: sequels not recommended, so read at your own risk!)
  7. Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman
  8. I’ve Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella
  9. Bossypants by Tina Fey
  10. Yes Please by Amy Poehler

So which books would give five out of five stars? Share your top recommendations in the comments!

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Why I HATE Jonathan Franzen

Good, because haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate!

A couple years ago, I published one of my most popular blog posts–my rant on why I can’t stand Nicholas Sparks. And while my loathing for him is still going strong, I want to spend today extending my annoyance to another author dominating the industry…Jonathan Franzen.

Well-known for his novels The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010), I’m aware that writing this rant could come back to bite me in the ass in the future. Franzen, after all, has been labeled a “Great American Novelist” by TIME magazine. His net worth is estimated into the tens of millions. He’s got a *lot* of opinions, and he certainly isn’t afraid to share them with the world.

Too bad, he’s full of crap.

Need proof? Behold, my reasons why I HATE Jonathan Franzen:

1. He’s a book snob. I appreciate Franzen’s respect for journalists and the print media they produce, but that doesn’t mean that online communication is evil. You know that you’re out of touch with the world when you call the Internet a “bloodsucking monster squid.” Sure, I prefer paperbacks to ebooks, but without social media networks like Twitter and Goodreads, I never would have stumbled upon new books and authors–not to mention have virtually met all of my wonderful followers! That world of bloggers you despise so much is the same one praising your own work. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, Franzen.

2. He’s a sexist book snob. Case in point: his long-standing feud with Jennifer Weiner, whom he believes is “freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias in the canon.” You know, the legitimate problem from which he gains a massive amount of privilege. The same gender bias that consistently places him at the top of the NYT bestseller list while hordes of female authors get stuck with cutesy covers because they’re deemed ‘commercial’ rather than ‘literary’ writers.

See what I mean?

If I ever felt guilty for hating on Franzen without actually reading a single word of his, I just refer to the fact that he’s committed the exact same sin:

I have yet to hear one person say, “Oh, she’s really good, you should read her.” And basically if two people say that about a book I’ll read it. I know no one, male or female, who says, “You’ve got to read Jennifer Weiner.”

Maybe if Franzen spent more time supporting female authors and less time huffing and puffing over why gender discrimination is, like, just not his problem, man, then he wouldn’t come off as such a jerk.

Because of course men can’t write about young women without replicating Lolita. It’s not creepy, you are.

3. He definitely doesn’t put the “sex” in sexist. I find it ironic that Franzen believes he’s better than all those romance novelists like Weiner, and yet he can’t write a love scene to save his life. Here’s an example, courtesy of fellow Franzen hater Madeleine Davies from Jezebel:

Click on the link above to read more tidbits, but you’ve been warned! I want to bleach my eyes after laying them on that horror. Dare I say, Franzen makes E.L. James look good!

4. Did I mention he’s sexist? One of my favorite books of all time is The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (an award, I should add, that Franzen has yet to win).

You would think that Franzen could recognize such genius, but alas, you’d be wrong. What did Franzen decide to write in The New Yorker on Wharton’s 150th birthday?

Edith Newbold Jones did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn’t pretty.

Nothing says literary appreciation like calling a writer ugly and sexually ignorant! But wait! There’s more!

Lacking good looks and the feminine charms that might have accompanied them, she eventually became, in every sense but one, the man of her house.

Ah yes, the only reason why Wharton became a renowned writer is because she was practically a man! Silly me to forget that pretty women are worthless when it comes to putting pen to paper.

Instead of publishing a kind commemoration, Franzen managed to objectify a woman who has been dead for almost 80 years. Classy!

So yes, just like with Nicholas Sparks, I haven’t read Jonathan Franzen–and after witnessing this misogyny, I don’t intend to. I’m sure that there are plenty of straight, white, male authors who reach great levels of success without demeaning women or other marginalized populations, but these men clearly do not qualify.

What are your thoughts? Is Franzen one of your fav writers or just a literary frat bro? Were you aware of his less-than-admirable opinions, and does it change how you see him? Share your love or hate in the comments!

Please let this be sarcasm…

Book Review: Gilded Age

Image via SheKnows.com

Rating: 3 out of 5

Well, 2013 is off to a slower start than I anticipated, given that it took me three weeks to finish this book! Good thing I set the reading bar a little lower, because life just keeps getting busier and busier!

Gilded Age is Claire McMillan’s modern adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and although it was entertaining in its own right, it was a basic copy-and-paste version of the original plot. Lily Bart is now Ellie Hart, and she’s exchanged New York City for Cleveland. Most of the characters are named similarly to their Wharton counterparts, but they’re no less wealthy or tied to societal norms.

Society has just changed slightly since the turn of the century. McMillan adds a 21st century edge to the plot, giving Ellie a stint in rehab instead of a mere gambling problem. The most envied social circle–involving the Gryces, Trenors, and Dorsets–includes marijuana at their cocktail parties, while the wilder bunch–based on the Gormers–up the ante with harder drugs and partner-swapping.

An interesting aspect of Gilded Age, however, is that the unnamed narrator is a married, pregnant woman. As Ellie’s oldest friend, she acts as her foil, highlighting the two extremes of promiscuous debauchery and submissive domesticity.

The only problem with this dichotomy though is that it feels out of place in this setting. Lily Bart lived in a world which made it very difficult for a woman to climb the social ladder without marrying, and her dependence on her aunt’s inheritance spurred a believable downward spiral into poverty.

On the other hand, Ellie is a grade-A hot mess who foolishly signed away her divorce settlement and refuses to keep a job like everyone else. Lily, despite her many mistakes, was more of a victim of her circumstances, whereas Ellie, fueled by her addictive personality, promptly rejects the idea of joining the working class and stomps around without regard to others.

The best example of this disregard is Ellie’s penchant for other women’s husbands. I couldn’t fathom why, in 2012 when you don’t even need a man to achieve economic and social status in America, Ellie would degrade herself by chasing those who are already taken or pick through the bargain bin of unworthy suitors?

And while I understand McMillan’s choice of narrator as the fly on the wall witnessing Ellie’s doom, I would have appreciated more character development on her motivations. It would have flushed out the story’s details better, as well as provided more insight to her actions.

Ultimately, this tale ended up reading more like a Midwestern episode of “Gossip Girl” (no insult to the show intended!) than a powerful critique of one of literature’s most renowned novels. McMillan’s characters were too callous and hypocritical without all of the multifaceted nuances of Wharton’s, making all the gender double-standards fall a bit flat.

Thus, Gilded Age makes a decent beach read, but stick to Wharton for true societal commentary. In fact, after reading this novel, I wish that I could have rated The House of Mirth higher. Sometimes you need to read a sub-par adaptation in order to really appreciate the original.

The House of Mirth (Book Two)

Cover of "The House of Mirth (Signet Clas...

Cover of The House of Mirth (Signet Classics)

Rating: 3 out of 5

I’ve finally finished my 25th book of the year! I’m so happy to reach my 2012 reading goal, as well as cross another novel off my “5 Classics I Really Want to Read” list (which leaves Anna Karenina and Catch-22 for next year). I posted my review of the first half of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, so today I’ll offer my thoughts on Book Two:

Book One left off with Lily Bart slipping down the social ladder due to her increasing debt and failed attempts of nabbing a husband. Book Two begins with a cruise around the Mediterranean, where Lily joins the Dorsets and Ned Silverton. This is all the master plan of Bertha Dorset, who wishes for Lily to keep her husband George distracted while she pursues Ned.

When Bertha humiliates Lily by kicking her abruptly off the yacht for allegedly having an affair with George, Lily’s reputation is ruined. Her ego becomes even more bruised when her aunt dies, leaving her a fraction of what she originally was to inherit. Facing a life of poverty, Lily desperately seeks salvation by assimilating into a new social circle and revisiting suitors she previously snubbed.

Eventually, Lily finds herself cast aside into the working class, suffering from financial trouble and emotional turmoil. Her attitude that she was more superior to less beautiful women and less promising men backfires as people of lower rank surpass her, gaining prosperity and happiness where she could not. And although the ending is ambiguous, the reader learns that Lily’s fate is as much due to her own follies as the elite’s oppressive and alienating conventions.

Unlike other female protagonists created by Austen or Chopin, Lily is characterized as a woman who realizes much too late the consequences of believing that she could always do better and marry richer. When your motive is not directed by personal happiness, tragedy is bound to ensue, and Wharton paints that harsh reality. The House of Mirth is obviously titled ironically, because it’s not some fairy tale where a knight rides in to rescue the damsel in distress.

Rather, it’s an apt depiction of social Darwinism, where only the most handsome, charming, wealthy, and powerful individuals survive. For females of the human species, according to authors of this time period, marriage is the key to successful social mobility–another way of looking at cultural “evolution,” one might say.

There’s so much more to this story in regards to themes, motifs, and symbols, so I recommend it to someone who is a fan of the “fallen woman” genre. However, for those who are new to experiencing these types of classics, I believe that The Age of Innocence, The Awakening, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights portray the battle between love and money just as well, but also offer a more emotionally investing read because of their characters.

I’ll be making a nice transition into next year, since my first novel in 2013 will be a modern adaptation of The House of Mirth, called Gilded Age by Claire McMillan. How will Wharton’s tale play out over 100 years later? I’ll have to read and see!

Favorite Quote: 

Lily: “That’s unjust, I think, because, as I understand it, one of the conditions of citizenship is not to think too much about money, and the only way not to think about money is to have a great deal of it.” 

Selden: “You might as well say that the only way not to think about air is to have enough to breathe. That is true enough in a sense; but your lungs are thinking about the air, if you are not. And so it is with your rich people–they may not be thinking of money, but they’re breathing it all the while; take them into another element and see how they squirm and gasp!”

The House of Mirth: Book One

Cover of "The House of Mirth (Signet Clas...

Cover of The House of Mirth (Signet Classics)

Earlier this week, one of my favorite television shows, “Gossip Girl,” ended after six seasons. The program, which spotlighted the lives of New York City’s social elite, was influenced heavily by Edith Wharton’s work. The characters once reenacted The Age of Innocence in a school play, and one couple in the show, Lily and Bart Bass, were named after the protagonist of The House of Mirth, Lily Bart.

Wharton was a perfect inspiration for the teen TV hit, since she grew up among the power-players. As I’ve stated in my review of The Age of Innocence, her family originated the saying “keeping up with the Joneses.” This Pulitzer Prize-winning author became the voice of the wealthiest Americans of the early 20th century.

The House of Mirth (1905) begins with Lily Bart, a single woman in her late 20s, suffering from gambling debt. Raised by a father who experienced financial ruin and a mother who resented him for their “dingy” lifestyle, Lily is a on a mission to find a rich husband.

Lily knows just how beautiful she is, so she decides to work her feminine charms on multiple prospects. There’s Percy Gryce, a well-to-do but dull bachelor; Gus Trenor, a married man who helps with Lily’s investments; and Lawrence Selden, a man with passion instead of a fortune.

Book One does an excellent job of introducing the many characters, with plenty of details about their family backgrounds, financial situations, and style of dress. Fitting into this elite world proves increasingly more difficult, given that every little mistake is noted and gossiped around town at lightning speed. Lily’s confidence in scaling the social ladder fluctuates every day, depending on whether she garners male attention and a steady income.

On one hand, you want Lily to achieve happiness, but on the other, you have to shake your head at her foolish methods. Her vanity gives her a sense of entitlement, and her penchant for flirting with men for money without acknowledging the danger of that exchange gets her into even more trouble.

I’m a sucker for ‘fallen woman’ stories which highlight the battle between love and money, but as I’m halfway through this novel, I must say that although The House of Mirth is a well-written critique of New York’s upper class, it doesn’t hold up against The Age of Innocence. There’s enough drama and backstabbing in this literary soap opera, but so far it lacks the romance as seen between Newland and Ellen.

Lily reminds me of Madame Bovary, in the sense that both women play a large role in their respective demises. Even though the novels don’t have the fast-paced action many modern readers require, I love the social commentary because I feel that much of it is still relevant today. We are often just as concerned with reputation as these characters of 100 years ago. And as much as we’d like to think we choose significant others out of love, finances are still important in making and maintaining marriages.

I’m looking forward to finishing my last book of the year, but if I’m going to meet my goal, I better stop blogging and start reading Book Two! Keep an eye out for my review, and my recap of the 25 novels I read in 2012!

Book Review: The Innocents

Image via Goodreads

Rating: 4 out of 5

I was pleased with Francesca Segal’s The Innocents, her modern adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Wharton’s novel is one of my favorites, and you can read my review here.

To sum up the original story, it follows the forbidden romance between Newland Archer, engaged to the simple-minded May Welland, and Ellen Olenska, May’s scandalous cousin. It’s a quintessential battle between love and societal obligation.

Segal’s version is basically the same plot, but swaps the New York elite of the 1870s for the Jewish community in today’s London.  Adam Newman is also a lawyer, and the object of his desire Ellie Schneider faces similar judgment for her provocative behavior.

But even if you’ve read The Age of Innocence, Segal provides an engaging adaptation with plenty of unique aspects. No one can compete with Wharton’s prose, but Segal’s writing is insightful, offering cultural commentary on what it’s like to be part of a Jewish family.

The characters were also multidimensional: You feel angry with Adam’s quickness to commit adultery, but at the same time, you understand his frustration from passively submitting to his high school sweetheart-fiance instead of experiencing more of the world.

The Innocents is an apt reminder that lovers not only enter into a relationship with each other, but also with one another’s friends and family. It’s so important to know who you are and what you want, because although you should respect those closest to you, you should not let them dictate how to live your life.

I won’t spoil the ending, but Wharton fans won’t be surprised. Adam soon realizes what’s at stake when a whirlwind of lust threatens his solidifying future, and I enjoyed his emotional journey as he decides whether to take the risk. Wharton will always be queen of her story, but Segal certainly makes the royal court.

Masterpiece Monday: 5 Classics I Really Want to Read

So if you’re like me, for some reason (boredom, intrigue, shame over your reality show obsessions like “America’s Next Top Model”), you’ve Googled “best books of all time.” I love reading the classics, and every now and then I like to spice up my reading with some intellect. Usually after a string of chick-lit novels, I’m craving a challenge.

Right now I’m enjoying Francesca Segal’s The Innocents, but often find myself feeling nostalgic for its inspiration: Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. This, of course, makes me look forward to reading another Wharton novel waiting for me on my bookshelf: The House of Mirth.

Thus, I thought that I would share with you my list of the five classics that I really want to read soon, starting with The House of Mirth.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905): The title is derived from Ecclesiastes 7:4, which states, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” That little tidbit of info alone tells me that this story is going to be dramatically tragic, and hopefully in the best possible way. When it comes to the struggles of upper-class women in the Gilded Age, Wharton is queen, and I am her humble reading servant.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877): This tale covers two goals on my reading list–experience another great ‘fallen woman’ story and finally read a Russian author. I’ve been recommended this novel by a few of you guys, and I trust your judgment. Plus, I seriously can’t get enough of 19th-century women pushing the boundaries of femininity and morality. It’s like literary crack to me!

Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945): This is a story which I already know a lot about, since I watched the film adaptation in my high school European History class, and I routinely reference it as an example of allegory to my students. And frankly, I’m tired of mentioning a book that I still haven’t actually read. I fell head over heels in love with 1984, so there’s little chance that I’ll dislike Animal Farm. Why I continue to put off good reading, I’ll never know!

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961): I feel that if you’re going to use “catch-22” regularly in conversation, you might as well read the book which originated the term. I don’t actively seek out war stories, but it sounds like Catch-22 is much more than that. I’m a big fan of satire and anything chock-full of mentally stimulating themes and allusions, so I’m pretty sure this fits the bill.

The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925): I already love Kafka after reading his amazing shorter works, such as “A Hunger Artist” and “The Metamorphosis.” His writing is unique: bizarre, existential, and humorously morbid. Even though he died before he could finish writing it, I don’t want to die before I can finish reading it!

So what are the classics that you haven’t gotten around to yet, but you definitely want to read? Share your picks, and offer your opinions on mine!

And check back next week, because I’ll be discussing the five classics that I NEVER want to read. Any guesses???