Thursday, January 20, 2011

Books We Have Hated

Literary Blog Hop

This week's questions for the Literary Blog Hop asks us to consider if there are any "works of literary merit" we were required to read for classes and utterly hated.  I suppose the answer to that for me is no--but only because I read so few works of literary merit at all in my anti-academic high school.  (As I've said before, I hated Clan of the Cave Bear when we slowly read the whole thing aloud in my English literature class.)

But there have been books I've read on my own which I disliked.  I wasn't too keen on Faulkner's short story "The Bear" when I read it in eighth grade--primarily because it seemed like too much of a boy book to me.  (I have since learned that what I read was a highly abridged version.)  My father told me I would appreciate Faulkner more when I was older.  I hated his statement and resisted it for many years, but when I read a Faulkner novel during a long weekend in college, I realized my father was right.

Ethan Frome: (Classics Deluxe Edition) (Penguin Classics Deluxe Editio)The book I have hated most in my life, though, is that innocent-looking little volume by Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome.  I was 17 years old, uncompromising in my condemnation of those stupid characters with their stupid desires and how ineffective they were in doing anything that mattered to anyone.  Everything seemed dreadfully bleak and cruel--from the characters to the landscape.  I read it in one sitting, starting it after dinner and staying up late into the night, reveling in my new experience of really hating a book.

The next morning, I put on my new dress and walked into an interview for a college scholarship.  One of the interviewers asked what I had read lately and what I liked about the book.  I was still so obsessed with my disgust with Wharton that I ranted for half an hour--in complete exhilaration--about how much I hated the book.  My interviewers broke out laughing and offered me the scholarship.

*  *  *

The years have passed and I have read no other Wharton.  But I've held onto my hatred for long enough.  That gorgeous flashy Penguin Deluxe edition pictured above has me ready to give the short novel another chance.  I suspect, after seeing friends and bloggers rave about the beautiful book, that I might be mature enough to appreciate Ethan Frome this time.  Any bets?

57 comments:

  1. I have to admit, of the 3 or 4 Wharton books I've read, Ethan Frome was by far the best, though I've disliked all of them...Wharton and I don't get along at all!

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  2. Is it terribly bad of me to hope you still hate it, even if just a little? I’d like to read the speech you gave the scholarship interviewers :P

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  3. i'd bet you like it more now than you did then, but there are better books you can read by wharton...out of the few i've read by her, it's been my least favorite.

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  4. Amanda: Yippee! Another Wharton hater!

    Alexandra: I love this comment. Only as I wrote this post did I realize how much my intense hatred had to do with how engaged in the book I was. It certainly didn't bore me! But it might have been the first book I ever read where I confronted characters I found completely dislikeable. Now I rather like books where I want to slap the characters...

    Ellen: What are some of your favorite of Wharton's books?

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  5. The only Wharton I've read is Summer, which I really did love.

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  6. I've never read any Wharton but your college story reminds me of my interview for a place at university when I lost my temper with the dons interviewing me and started foaming at the mouth about the iniquities of the law on obstructing policemen. I too was offered a place.

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  7. Amy: I am not even familiar with that one! Glad to hear your positive recommendation.

    Falaise: How funny. I wonder if interviewers are just so bored with samey-samey politeness that any spark will charm them? I'm usually very mild-mannered, by the way--which made my outburst all the more remarkable and long-lasting in my memory.

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  8. "The Age of Innocence" was the first book of hers I read, and I loved it--it's still one of my favorite novels. "The House of Mirth" was interesting, but I can't recommend it just because all the characters--including the heroine--were so loathsome. I liked a couple of her short stories, too.

    I hated "Ethan Frome" as much as you did, though. That's the novel that should have been titled "Bleak House." Ugh.

    Incidentally, as a Poe fan, you might be interested to know that he makes a cameo appearance (not a very flattering one, though) in her "Old New York."

    As far as books I was assigned in school, there were three in particular that I found excruciating: "The Great Gatsby," Margaret Drabble's "The Ice Age," and Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon."

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  9. Undine: Thanks for sharing your thoughts on her other novels--and especially for the Poe reference.

    And Gatsby! My 11yo son is currently reading The Great Gatsby for a banned book club at the local library--and my partner and I have decided to read it with him and discuss it as a family. I haven't read it since high school. I'll try to put together a post about our discussions.

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  10. Most of what I remember from Ethan Frome is the way Zeena's chronic illness (or hypochondria) is treated. We will sometimes intone "complications" the way she's described doing, with a mix of fervor and dread. I'd almost re-read it just to see how that theme feels now.

    I read a little-known Wharton novel, "The Fruit of the Tree," a few years ago, and wrote about it on DSTU:
    http://disstud.blogspot.com/2007/07/assisted-suicide-in-whartons-fruit-of.html

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  11. What a great story! I really like Wharton, but can certainly understand how a 17 year old would hate Ethan Frome. I'd be curious to see what you'd think of it now.

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  12. Penny: It will definitely be a great book to reread with disability themes in mind. And thanks for the link about Fruit. Fascinating review! I wonder if Wharton's personal experiences let to this book as well. What do you think of the Hermione Lee bio?

    JoAnn: I'll definitely let you all know when I read it. Thanks so much for dropping by.

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  13. Ah, the Hermione Lee bio is way too huge for me to take on. (Extremely slow reader.) So I had a Wharton friend show me the relevant parts.

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  14. Yes, it was bleak, but I admired the writing so much that I loved the book. My only complaint was with the title. ETHAN FROME as a title never appealed to me at all. I only read it last year, and then I wondered how different this book's popularity might be if it were called something else. You have to admit, it isn't too long!

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  15. Well, the bleakness and cruelty haven't gone anywhere so my bet is on bookhurling.

    And I can't look at "The Bear" the same way after the last scene (after all the credits) of "Talladega Nights". Was so-so on the movie but I still giggle over this. Call me shallow...

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  16. Shallow - that scene is brilliant! I don't know if it will have the same impact on people who haven't seen the movie. The movie also has a crucial reference to Camus.

    One crucial difference - feel free to tell me I'm wrong - but at 17, did you ask if a book was well written or badly written? Presumably, that's relevant now? I guess I could ask the same thing of a number of the commenters.

    You may very well still dislike the book for any number of reasons. But the ground has shifted, a lot.

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  17. P.J.: The name is definitely one of its flaws in my book. I could never get the syllables straight. Ethram Frone? Effing Thrown, maybe?

    Dwight: Ha! It is such a light little book that bookhurling won't be that destructive, at least. And thank you so much for the Faulkner lines. My southern historian self embraces the questions about the meaning of the past, and my new lit self appreciates the modernism and symbolism lines.

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  18. AR: I absolutely did not. When I look back, it is clear to me I recognized something wonderful in the book. After all, it completely drew me in. Otherwise I would not have sucked it down so fast and then insisted on talking about it so much. Clearly it resonated deeply.

    But at that age, I was completely caught up in my dislike for the characters and how they handled what they were going through. The lack of sympathy for characters was completely new for me and it was an issue I had not even imagined before. As a grown-up reader, I rather like holding my characters at arms length.

    Of course, being more experienced with love and relationships also may give me quite a bit more sympathy for the characters anyway. I think everything will be different this time.

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  19. Oh no! I thought I'd love Ethan Frome!

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  20. Count me as another one who hated Ethan Frome in high school--the same year we were also assigned Mrs. Dalloway. Perhaps they are both great books, but not for high school students. I don't remember anyone truly liking or understanding either. This past year I finally read Lord of the Flies and all I could think about upon finishing it was why didn't we read that back then?

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  21. I love Edith Wharton, but then I must have been in my late twenties before I ever began to read her. I can imagine how frustrating her characters would be to a modern 17-year-old! Not that I've read Ethan Frome; I might give it a go one of these days. I think you owe this book a second go - it got you a scholarship after all! :)

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  22. Jillian: I suspect you will--and I am really hoping I can let go of previous hatred and embrace what everybody says is the beauty of this book. I was just too immature for it. But in some ways it really pushed me and helped me grow into a new kind of reading and appreciation. I look forward to seeing what you think.

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  23. Sylvie: Mrs. Dalloway is DEFINITELY a book for grown-ups, not because of its style but because of it emotional themes. At least my emotions were much more blunt and unsubtle at the age. And I have not yet read Lord of the Flies--but I am looking forward to reading it with my son in a year or two.

    litlove: What a great point. I never thought about it quite like that!

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  24. Ethan Frome is so very bleak. I can still picture in my head the description of their house and I feel cold just thinking about it. I actually like Age of Innocence more than Ethan Frome, but there are still a lot of characters who are full of unfulfilled desires.

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  25. Are you sure you didn't on some level, like it . My reasoning being that you read it in one sitting & for a book you despised that's pretty good going.maybe it was just the characters you couldn't warm to.

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  26. Robyn: Perhaps I should make sure I have a warm blanket and a cup of tea before I start reading!

    PL: Yes--absolutely. And that kind of reason to hate a book doesn't work so well when you're a more mature reader. That is one reason I think I'm hopeful I'll enjoy it more this go round.

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  27. Ethan Frome is totally the wrong book to assign to a high school student. To appreciate the book, you need to understand the difficulty of marriage and having obligations that you need to keep. High schoolers tend to have a romantic view of marriage and usually don't have too many obligations that they couldn't drop if they wanted. I really liked Ethan Frome, but even as I read it, I was thinking how glad I was to have waited until I was more mature to read it.

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  28. I feel as though I am in the minority here. :) I read Ethan Frome as a senior in high school (for an AP English class) and absolutely hated it. I didn't get it. But when I read it a couple years later, I absolutely adored it. I wrote a post about it if you're curious (http://aliteraryodyssey.blogspot.com/2010/01/book-16-ethan-frome.html)

    Now I adore Wharton and own almost all of her work. She fascinates me and I love her writing style. I will say that she takes some getting used to, and of course, like all authors, some things are better than others. If you want to try a small taste, I highly recommend one short story in particular, "Roman Fever." It is excellent. :) And I do hope that you come to like her. :)

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  29. I've never actually read Ethan Frome (or any Wharton) but I have trouble reading about characters I can't sympathize or identify with. I love that you ranted about how much you hated the book and got your scholarship! Bravo!

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  30. Listener: Absolutely. That idea of having obligations and responsibilities take time to percolate before one can really understand a story like that, I think. All these comments today make me look forward to a reread of Ethan Frome.

    Allie: Thank you so much for the recommendation of the story. I'll check it out tomorrow if I can. And I am so pleased to hear you tried the book twice with such different experience! That definitely bodes well.

    Red: Strangely, I think my reaction to unsympathetic characters has changed dramatically in the last two decades, and I am not sure why. More and more I find myself enjoying characters that seem radically different from me. Thanks very much for the bravo, and for stopping by.

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  31. I love Wharton, but Ethan Frome is my least favorite of the four of her books that I've read. I didn't dislike it; I just didn't love it. My favorite is probably Custom of the Country, which offers up perhaps one of the most loathsome main characters I've ever encountered, the deliciously named Undine Spragg.

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  32. I agree that Ethan Frome is not a book that should be read in high school. I don't think most 17 yr olds can grasp books such as that. Age of Innocence is probably my favorite Wharton, followed closely by House of Mirth.

    Kat @ A Journey in Reading

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  33. Teresa: Did you happen to notice that one of the comments above was written by Undine? Wonder it this is where she got her name?

    Journey: I think both of these will also be on my reading plan. Glad to hear you enjoyed them!

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  34. Great job on the scholarship! :)

    The more posts I read the longer my dislike gets (I keep reading titles and thinking 'oh I could have picked that one too').

    I wrote about Animal Farm (I am not an Orwell fan)

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  35. Oh no! I didn't mean to add to your dislike pile! I hope I'll have a very different feeling when I reread Ethan Frome.

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  36. What a coincidence. I just started reading Ethan Frome, and it's very depressing. The setting seems to echo the bleakness of the characters' lives. I do like the sense of mystery though, since I don't know what happened to Ethan in the past.

    Also, I think it's kind of lucky that you hated this book so much. It helped you win in a scholarship. :)

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  37. Haha. Good ol' Ethan Frome. I love how it seems almost everyone who had to read it in High School hated it, or at least did not enjoy it. I don't remember disliking it that much - but I couldn't remember it too well either (I remembered the movie more). I re-read it a couple of years ago and I'm certain that I enjoyed it more on the second go-round, but it's definitely no where near as great as some of her other books, like Age of Innocence.

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  38. Wow. Reading Clan of the Cave Bear out loud with a bunch of teenagers--the purest of tortures!

    Re: Edith Wharton--I confess to a perverse appreciation for House of Mirth, but in fairness that did come about with a second, later reading.

    I've been told that if you found Ethan Frome, et al. too depressing for words, that The Glimpses of the Moon is more 'uplifting.' If I turn my head I can see it on my shelf, still unread...

    I can't think of a book that I truly "hated" but I really didn't care for Stendhal's The Red and the Black.

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  39. I have not ever read Wharton. Your reaction is humorous, though...'reveling in my new experience of really hating a book' haha. What you wrote on my blog about Heart of Darkness is very true! Looking back, it seems to be quite a deep book with complex political themes, and expecting high school students to fully understand and appreciate it was probably wishful thinking.

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  40. Darlyn: I'm looking forward to seeing what you think as you complete the book. The idea that the setting reflects the bleakness of their lives seems like great literature now--but that is certainly not the way I read it when I was younger!

    Adam: Definitely on my list--but I think I need to tackle this book first just to get the demons out of my closet.

    Nancy: Yes--_Clan_ was horrible. Who knows--maybe I would have loved it had I not read it aloud with teenagers in the ENGLISH literature class.... Haven't red Stendhal yet but even the title makes me a little nervous.

    Bailey: Thanks for your comment. I do look back with quite a bit of fondness for the emotion it triggered in me.

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  41. I liked Ethan Frome although it left me feeling depressed for days. I think a lot of the problem with books I read in school that I didn't like was that I wasn't ready for them. I had a high school English teacher who said we should "lose our innocence" as soon as we could, and it really annoyed me. But she didn't mean it the way I interpreted it back then. I'm sure she was just frustrated by how naive we all were. (Many days I wish I could get that back!)

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  42. Em: Thanks!

    Susan: What a poignant story! As the mother of an 11yo, I am sometimes impatient for him to grow up faster, and at other times want to keep him young and naive forever. (I can't imagine trying to teach literature to a gang of kids his age!)

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  43. Oh, Ethan Frome. I almost forgot about Ethan Frome. I never really approached Wharton again after that until I was assigned House of Mirth, which I actually enjoyed quite a bit.

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  44. AGH...Ethan Frome that was 10th Grade Honors English. I might have finished that one. I can't imagine Clan Of The Cave Bear being read aloud...that sounds painful

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  45. You read Clan of the Cave Bear out loud as a class!?!?! That sounds so unbelievably horrid.

    I loved Ethan Frome! Not that that means anything. :)

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  46. Laura C: Thanks for the recommendation. A lot of people seem to enjoy some of Wharton's books more than EF.

    Mistress: It is a short one. Clan was extremely painful!

    Trisha: Yup. My teacher had just read Clan of the Cave Bear and was completely entranced with it. It took us forever, too. I hope I will agree with you about Ethan Frome the next time I read it. And I think writing this post and receiving the excellent comments have convinced me to reread it soon.

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  47. Funny how a slender book like Ethan Frome can inspire such foment! I tend to think Parrish Lantern is on to something: that your intense engagement with the book might hint at attachment. I'd love to hear what you think if you do reread. Ethan Frome triggered one of the more intense discussions (arguments) in my bookclub. I'm with those who like the book, but I don't see how a high school student would relate.

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  48. Wharton is not an easy author to read!

    Some books are so difficult to get into. And those put us off that author too, for always.

    And my teacher spoiled A Passage to India for me. But I did go back and loved it!

    Here is my Literary Blog Hop: Disliked Book post!

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  49. My read was STONEHENGE DECODED...uggh.

    Stop by my blog if you like...I also have a giveaway that isn't very literary, but check it out.

    http://silversolara.blogspot.com

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  50. Bibliophiliac: How interesting that your bookclub was split on this book. I think you and PL are absolutely correct that I would be able to recognize the good parts without getting so sidetracked by what my 17yo self could not stomach. I promise to read it soon!

    Gautami: Isn't it heartbreaking when teachers make students dislike the books? I'm sometimes very envious that I did not study great literature in school--but I am extremely glad I have not had my love of books shaken by requirements.

    Elizabeth: Thanks for stopping by!

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  51. LOL about the scholarship story :) I can totally picture that scene!

    I'm also considering rereading the books I read in high school and hated. Our viewpoints change as we get older, and as we read more I think our opinions on a lot of things change. I wonder if starting over with a new palate will end up making us like books we hated in the past :)

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  52. I love the scholarship story. Sometimes we can be so much more passionate about the things we find we don't like than those we do :)

    The best Edith Wharton I've read was an anthology of ghost/paranormal stories she wrote.

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  53. I rather disliked Ethan Frome. I found it superficial and maudlin, and I disliked every character in it. I really enjoyed THE AGE OF INNOCENCE and liked THE HOUSE OF MIRTH. I haven't read either of those for a few years, though, wonder what I'd think now.

    Anyway, so maybe there is a Wharton for you somewhere? They are all rather depressing, though...

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  54. I've been complaining about Edith Wharton for a while now. But I'm giving her a second try next month -- The Age of Innocence. I loved the movie. I hope I like the book.

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  55. Kelly: Yes, absolutely. As we grow and change and experience new things, literature we used to hate or feel bored by starts to seem more appealing. I am sure the process must happen the other way as well.

    dragonfly: ooh...ghost stories! Must put on my list for Halloween. Thanks!

    Rebecca: Yes, that maudlin feeling was exactly the problem. And I think AGE and HOUSE are definitely going on my list after the many recommendations I've seen here and elsewhere.

    Risa: Can't wait to see what you think!

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  56. Loved Ethan Frome. Books I was forced to read in school and hated were '39 Steps' (John Buchan) and 'Wizard of Earthsea' (Ursula Le Guin).
    Nowadays I usually finish a book but was totally defeated by Lawrence's '7 Pillars of Wisdom' (unreadably boring) and Hemingways horrible 'Green Hills of Africa' where his beastly wife couldnt wait to blast a lion to death. (Maybe there was literary merit in this work but I loathed the characters too much to continue- though if the lion had got Mrs H I'd gladly complete it!)

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