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Books 132-134: The Age of Innocence, The Wind in the Willows and Spies.

These three books were the December selections for my reading groups. Two were early 20th century classics and the third a nostalgic look at childhood during WWII.

Book 132: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton, 1920.
Genre: Classic. Historical Fiction.
Other Details: Norton Critical Edition, edited by Candace Waid, 524 pages.

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel looks back to the post-Civil War period in old New York and chronicles the lives and loves of a group of highly privileged, inter-related families. The main character is Newland Archer, who has just become engaged to the innocent, conservative May Welland. Despite this he finds himself falling in love with her Europeanized cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, who has returned to New York after the failure of her marriage. Newland is torn between following his impulse to be with Ellen or to do what everyone expects him to do, which is to settle down with May.

This was a beautifully executed novel with a subtle streak of social comedy. It wasn't a huge surprise to discover that Cecily Von Ziegesar had modelled her Gossip Girl series upon The Age of Innocence. I chose the Norton Critical Edition so that I could read additional material on its author, her influences and the context as well as various critical essays. I particularly enjoyed the piece on the two film adaptations of the novel. However, I only dipped into these after completing the novel rather than reading each and every page.

Book 133: The Wind in the Willows
Author: Kenneth Grahame, 1908.
Genre: Classic Children's Literature.
Other Details: Paperback. 304 pages. 1995 edition with introduction by William Horwood, illustrations by Patrick Benson.

A welcome re-read of a classic children's book that I first read when very young. It is the story of Ratty, Mole, Badger and of course the irrepressible Toad of Toad Hall. It is a gentle, pastoral story with some very memorable episodes such as Toad's obsession with automobiles and the liberation of Toad Hall when it is taken over by a group of weasels from the Wild Wood. Then there is Chapter 7, which never fails to move me, when Ratty and Mole go in search of a missing baby otter and encounter Pan, the Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

My edition included an introduction by William Horwood, who has written a number of books about anthropomorphic animals and four sequels to The Wind in the Willows. It was beautifully illustrated by Patrick Benson and also included a sample chapter of Horwood's The Willows in Winter. We all agreed it had a timeless quality.

Book 134: Spies
Author: Michael Frayn, 2002
Genre: Period Fiction. Coming of Age.
Other Details: Paperback. 272 pages

This short novel set during WWII won the 2002 Whitbread Award and is currently a text studied at A-Level for English Literature in the UK.

In his old age Stephen Wheatley returns to his childhood home. He is unsure of what he is seeking but as he walks the once familiar streets the story begins to unfold. One day while they are playing his friend Keith announces out of the blue that his mother is a German spy. The boys begin to spy upon her; following her as she goes about her daily errands. Keith's mother does have secrets but they are very different to what the boys suspect. Still their seemingly innocent activities do have serious consequences, which are slowly revealed by the narrator.

This book didn't quite work for me even though it certainly is a powerful evocation of childhood and tapped into my own memories of games played with my brother and friends that sought to penetrate the mysteries of the adult world. I feel part of the problem was its rather muddled final chapter, which introduced a new element to the story that almost felt tacked onto the end.
Tags: animals, british, classic, fantasy, historical fiction, kidlit, literature, pulitzer winner, young adult
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