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School reading: Jay Varner on the 'insufferable' 'Ethan Frome'


When Jay Varner graduated from college, he returned to his hometown in Pennsylvania and took a job at the local paper covering local news, including police and fire reports. That's where his first book, the memoir "Nothing Left to Burn," starts -- and things soon get interesting. Varner explores his unusual family history: His father, who'd died years before, was a brave local fireman; his grandfather Lucky, a convicted arsonist. Varner, who now lives in Virginia, will be one of nearly 100 authors at the National Press Club's annual book fair Nov. 9 in Washington.

Jacket Copy: What was the least interesting book that you were assigned in school?

Jay Varner: To this day, "Ethan Frome" remains the most insufferable book I've ever read. If you name a character Ethan Frome, there's no reason he shouldn't be fascinating. Instead we get this awful, depressing bore.

JC: What grade/class were you in, and what was the name of your school?

JV: Senior year English at Lewistown Area High School in Lewistown, Pa.

JC: Did you read the book?

JV: I did. I don't remember Edith Wharton's sentences as terrible, but her symbolism is painfully overwrought. Luckily, the book is short, which makes the relentlessly bleak story slightly more bearable.

JC: What did you learn from it? Why does it stand out?

JV: Not to sled into trees. Seriously, if your characters enter a suicide pact and decide to sled into a tree, something is terribly wrong. And here's the thing -- these miserable, dreary people don't even die!  They end up horribly injured and are damned to even more pain. I'm also pretty sure part of the plot hinges on obtaining glue for a broken pickle dish. Thrilling! The phone book has better hooks than this.

JC: Did you have to take a test on it, or write a paper? Do you remember what grade you got?

JV: I'm pretty sure I wrote a paper comparing Wharton's New England to Nathaniel Hawthorne's New England in "The Scarlet Letter." It was the latter half of senior year, and I was already accepted to college, so the grade was just as unimportant to me then as it is now.

JC: Which teacher assigned it? Did she assign lots of good or bad reading?

JV: Mrs. Richards actually did assign some great reading. "A Separate Peace" and "The Great Gatsby" were the most memorable -- and books I continue to read every few years. That made assigning Wharton, Hawthorne and "Wuthering Heights" at least forgivable. We did, however, watch the Mel Gibson version of "Hamlet" rather than read the play because we ran out of time at the end of the year.  That's kind of unforgivable.

JC: If you were teaching that class today, what book would you assign your students?

JV: My school tried to avoid controversy, but I was the opposite. So I would deliberately bring in books I knew had been banned from the curriculum: "Slaughterhouse-Five," "1984," "Animal Farm," "Catch-22," "In Cold Blood," "A Farewell to Arms." The book that touched me the most in high school -- and what should be a prerequisite for graduation -- was "The Catcher in the Rye," which was sadly never assigned by any teacher when I was there.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Jay Varner. Credit: Eric Kelley

Comments () | Archives (9)

The comments to this entry are closed.

I'm sorry you have such a strong negative opinion about Wharton's "Ethan Frome." I was also assigned it in high school, and it remains the book that inspired me to major in English in college.

We were forced to read "The Scarlet Letter." Dreadful then, dreadful now.

I love Ethan Frome, and have read it many times. Wharton's decription of the bleak, snow covered landscape is perfect alongside decriptions of the haunted Ethan.

The movie with Liam Neeson is also amazing!

Novels in English classrooms??? An incredible concept!!! You listening, LAUSD?

I can see where a book might not be one's cup of tea, but to abhor a book makes me think one has a lazy mind. You want insufferable, try anything written by Marcel Proust.

Does this guy imagine that there aren't any intelligent, thoughtful people out there who liked the books that he doesn't like?

Or is he God and we were all made in His image?

Jeff Beckwith, my copy of "Remembrance of Things Past" make a great doorstop. However, I think I got a great quote out of it, something along the lines of "Actions, based on previous actions, for which the prime motive has ceased to exist."

I also disliked Ethan Frome.

As a high school English teacher (juniors, AP) I teach "Catcher" (and Gatsby) every year and every year the students love it. "Ethan Frome" is, sadly, Wharton's worst book, but is taught nonetheless. Jay Varner, please don't let that turn you off of Wharton! Try "The House of Mirth" or another of her more substantial novel. Your teacher had no business giving you that question without giving you Wharton properly.


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