Category Archives: book club

Summer reading question: If you love Pride and Prejudice, should you read Eligible?

My book club met recently (hours before the Cavs began to play the game that would win them the NBA championship, to be exact) on a rooftop to discuss Curtis Sittenfeld’s modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Eligible. Sittenfeld, best known for Prep and American Wife, was approached by the Austen Project and asked to write it. For many people, Pride and Prejudice is such a classic, it would feel sacrilegious to tamper with it in any way. Basically for that reason, I’ve never read any other fan-fiction stories like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Death Comes to PemberleyIMG_3294

So. The questions you might be asking:

Is this novel as good as the original? Of course not.

So should I read it? Yes. It is almost 500 pages, so I started a few weeks before book club, just in case. However, I finished it in 3 days. That is to say, I got really into it.

Why? Honestly, it’s just entertaining. I was surprised that my reading life became so engulfed, especially because I knew where the story was headed. I thought some of the changes were especially appropriate–Elizabeth and Jane are 38 and 39 in New York City and the reimagined Mr. Wickham as a single New York male felt so appropriate (and spot-on), as did his relationship with Elizabeth. The play on reality TV (Mr. Bingley was a contestant on “Eligible”) made for an entertaining parallel. Also, much of the book takes place in Cincinnati, so my southwest Ohio heart burst at all the mentions (there were many) of Skyline Chili.

What are the caveats? The biggest one for me was that Elizabeth just isn’t the same–she is a beloved, respected character to me, and in the translation I felt like she took on some of the worst of my generation. If I wasn’t constantly comparing her to the original, I may not have been so critical.

My book club essentially decided that Eligible is like candy–not super good for you, per se, but a lot of fun. My friend who hosted came up with some great questions that got me thinking and if you are interested, I am happy to send them your way. Sittenfeld herself said in a Vanity Fair article in April: “I feel that Eligible is this act of admiration. I considerPride and Prejudice perfect. I don’t think it needs to be improved upon in any way. I never felt like. . . . It wasn’t as if the estate of Jane Austen had found me and asked me [to] write this. I mean, I really feel like this is supposed to be fun, and it’s essentially—it’s fan fiction. It’s fan fiction that I worked really hard on.” 

 

Fates and Furies and being known.

9781594634475_custom-a1c60d0db7c4d3d9fce99ec338b463c8ea95ca03-s400-c85“Mathilde’s heart was a bitter one, vengeful and quick. [True.]  Mathilde’s heart was a kindly one. [True.]” (page 380)

0ne of the lessons I’ve been working on teaching my students is that readers look for and explore nuance. It’s easy for them (and the rest of us!) to make quick judgements of characters (and people!) with generalized language: she’s a good person, he’s a bad person, etc. I’m trying to get them to hold multiple ideas about a character in their mind at once, to consider multiple causes of behaviors, to consider other perspectives.

I got to put this concept to work while reading Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which was marketed as a book about marriage and tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde who met and married during the final weeks of college. Divided into two parts, Fates focuses on Lotto’s story and Furies on Mathilde’s; crossing over from one to the next reveals new details and backstories to what happened in the first half. After discussing with my book club, we thought that a better description would be it’s a story of a marriage, but it is more a story about the degree to which we allow ourselves to be known, and to which we pursue truly knowing those closest to us.

The women in my book club all came from the perspective that marriage (and best friendship) is a place where we wanted to be truly known and truly loved, though we concluded that it’s impossible to know a person completely. What made this book so interesting was that Lotto and Mathilde were looking for very different things in their marriage: Lotto needed a muse and someone to take care of him; Mathilde needed security. Neither of them seemed to want to be fully known, or somehow didn’t consider it as an option.

One of the more interesting lines in the book for me was “He knew her; the things he didn’t know about her would sink an ocean liner; he knew her,” (page 331). This line was narrated not by Lotto, but by an unnamed narrator who occasionally commented on the events in the story, which is significant because it shows that Lotto himself wasn’t cognizant of how much he didn’t know about her. Mathilde, however, was keenly aware.

The other fascinating part of the story is the thread Groff spins through that most other people were constantly looking at Lotto and Mathilde from the outside and thinking it was the epitome of the best kind of marriage. And perhaps for the intents and purposes of Lotto and Mathilde, it was, but there was another moment I thought really compelling that adds a layer to consider:

During a Christmas that was emotionally wrought for the characters, Groff spent a significant number of pages writing an account that a stranger passing by on the street saw through the window “a circle of singing people bathed in the clean white light from a tree, and his heart did a somersault, and the image stayed with him; it merged with him even as he came home to his own children…All those years, the singers in the soft light in the basement apartment crystallized in his mind, because the very idea of what happiness should look like,” (page 75). Mathilde and Lotto didn’t truly know one another, their friends didn’t truly know them, and this scene extends the idea that we so easily misinterpret the world around us. It’s a lonely idea. (And it got metacognitive when we, as readers, realized the misinterpretations we made about Mathilde before we knew her story that came in the second half of the book.)

What I walked away from book club thinking the most about was how one of my friends called their relationship the opposite of what Brene Brown writes about in her books–that opening ourselves to vulnerability is what allows us to live wholeheartedly. A lot of our conversation circled around the compassion for the characters we felt as we learned more about them, and the frustration and sadness we had for them as we watched them keep an arm’s length–which may feel safer and more secure, but in the long run ends in loneliness.

So–is this book worth the hype? I think so. The more I think about it the more I want to discuss it and what it says about relationships and about gender. I didn’t get into it here and don’t want to spoil some plot lines, but learned that both Lotto and Mathilde were crafted to combat some gender stereotyping in literature, which is always interesting food for thought.

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth.

In preparation for our book club last week, a friend of mine sent out the article Does Fiction Have the Power to Sway Politics? from the New York Times, and the ways that authors Mohsin Hamid and Francine Prose answered the question was fascinating. At the end, Prose writes: “After reading Chekhov, I feel, however briefly, that we are all suffering humans, deserving of sympathy and tenderness. Who knows how our social and political lives might change if we were all persuaded to read at least one Chekhov story each day?”

And perhaps its not Chekov, but she is onto something with this daily reminder. I was walking not long after I read the article to the subway to get to my book club and evening light was just setting in when I turned the corner and saw two of my students laughing at a man’s dog that was jumping and doing tricks. This year at work has felt difficult–partially because that is the nature of being a part of community who wants to teach well, and partially because of the political atmosphere that exists for teachers right now in New York State. It’s easy to feel discouraged, to say the least. But seeing these two students outside the building just laughing and being kids, however cheesy it may sound, made me so happy. It was the reminder I needed, like Prose said. That moment literally turned me from someone feeling rushed, discouraged, and tired back into an inspired, joyful person.

For book club, we read The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, a debut novel by Christopher Scotton. One of our members interviewed him as the book was getting ready for publication and was able to arrange for him to join our book club for a half an hour for a conversation about the book, which was an amazing experience and made me like the book even more. Emily’s interview is a much more beautifully written overview than what I can provide here, but to briefly explain the story, set in IMG_0284the 1980s, a 13 year old Kevin and his grief stricken mother spend the summer in her hometown of Medgar, Kentucky to live her father after the tragic death of Kevin’s brother. Her father becomes the rock that Kevin needs at this critical life juncture and local boy Buzzy the best friend. Scotton pulls together a story that connects the smaller story of grief and growing up with larger threads of social justice connected to Medgar’s mining of the mountains and the town’s struggle to accept difference. For me, it was a book that allowed me to completely escape from my day to day and reminded me of a mix between To Kill a Mockingbird and Stand By Me.

What stuck with me the most from our discussion is the fact that Scotton mentioned he wrote this book with his sons in mind–and how he wanted Pops, the grandfather, to feel like the kind of grandfather kids should have. We extended this conversation afterwards into the idea that this book questions the dominant narrative of what it means to be a man–the poignant picture of Kevin dealing with his grief, and the way the reader sees Pops walk Kevin through the experience while simultaneously sharing his own story of grief over his wife is truly moving.

There is a moment in the story when Kevin and Pops are camping and see the Perseid meteor shower and at the end Kevin says: “I knew that I would never be able to look at the sky the same way again. And everything else I’ve seen since that early morning so many years ago–every waterfall, every canyon, every mountain–is judged by the watermark of what we witnessed that night” (341). We spent a lot of time, then, discussing moments in our lives that felt like touchstones–moments of connectedness and beauty that we can return to for strength. Moments that remind us of what is good and true far into the future. And though watching my students laugh and play with a dog isn’t exactly the same thing, for me this week it was a like a rescue boat and it reminded me to keep my eyes open for the good so that I don’t get swallowed by a life of overwhelm.

It’s worth it to read the hell out of The Goldfinch.

goldfinch

And though it’s only May, I can easily say this has been my favorite reading experience of the year.  There are a few reasons for this, I think.  One, taking the time to soak up a book as a work of art changes the reading experience.  Knowing I was going to a book club meeting made me want to be sure I thought about what Tartt was up to as an artist.  Then, talking about the story in the backyard of a neighborhood cafe was an incredible time of hearing other perspectives and ideas.  I did a lot of underlining throughout the story, and then a friend read  her favorite passage aloud and I couldn’t believe it wasn’t marked in my copy (page 603 if you’re curious).  I’ve gone back to read that section multiple times since.

Knowing I wanted to share this process with my students–that there are real readers out there who study books for fun–also motivated me to basically read the hell out of this book.  This kind of thinking is rewarded by Tartt.  Though one could move through the book and be pulled by the plot, there are so many threads to unravel and questions to consider that by the end I felt as though I had a thoroughly philosophical experience. Not to mention that her writing is gorgeous.  The main threads I followed as a reader were Theo’s (the main character) development as a person, how the loss of his mother impacts the trajectory of his life, the role of chance and meaning in our stories as humans, restoration and hope, and of course, art.

(Though I won’t go into specifics beyond the basic plot, if you are hoping to pick this one up and want to go into it as a blank slate, I wouldn’t read any further.)

The reader learns in the opening pages of the story, from Theo’s present-day adult narration, that he lost his mother in a random accident when he was thirteen.  In his present day he had dreamed of her, and then takes the reader back to his 13 year old self and through the rest of the book, we watch him grow up.  On page seven he says, “When I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier…Her death was the dividing mark…I’ve never met anyone who made me feel loved the way she did.”  Much of the book is Theo trying to walk through his adolescent and young adult life without clear direction.  Readers can ponder alongside: what anchors us as people?  How do we recover from various kinds of loss? What enables us to survive, endure, find peace?

The narrative sounds like him finally able to think through the course of his life in order to seek out meaning, which felt like one of the weightier issues for me as a person: freedom comes from reflection (and reflection can come in many forms).  Half way through the story Theo says, “It was years since I’d roused myself from my stupor of misery and self absorption; between anomie and trance, inertia and parenthesis and gnawing my own heart out, there were a lot of small, easy, everyday kindnesses I’d missed out on” (470).  I think and write about this often: how it is easy to mechanically go through the motions of daily life and to hold what we most need to work through either at arm’s length so that it never intersects with our thought patterns, or tucked so deep inside ourselves for so long that to unearth it feels much too difficult.  And so we move through life in a petrified state, in both the figurative and scientific state: we become scared and so we change to stone.

To say any more at this point would take away from your discovery through Theo’s journey,  so I’ll conclude with this: toward the end he says “Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair” (771).  This, I believe is the key to enables us to feel truly alive.  And this is what we must work toward, each in our own way.

Summer Reading List & Notes

Each June I marvel at the fact that I have a job that affords me the opportunity to end a cycle, refresh my mind, and freshly begin again in September.  One of the ways that my mind refreshes itself the most is through getting lost in reading and being outside, so each June I revel in the creation of my summer reading list.  My last day of school is June 20th, as I’m taking a day off to travel for a wedding shower in the great state of Ohio, and I’m participating in 2 of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Projects summer institutes, which will end on July 5.  Technically my days of freedom start July 6th, but it does take over an hour to commute up to Teachers College, so I plan on getting lots of reading done that way, too.  After that, you’ll find me in the park.  
Reading conclusions of summers past can be found here, if you’re looking for books I’ve already written about.  Or, feel free to join me in reading some of the books below.  Outside of my book club, these are unintentionally overwhelmingly female and modern.  Also, as a note, I decided that for summer reading, I could take a break from my New Years Reading Resolution, and could purchase new books.  
Southwest Ohio Ex-pat Former English Majors Summer Book Club
Two of my great friends from home and I decided to read together this summer.  We each picked a different book for a different month of summer

June: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
July: Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
August: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon
Fiction: 
These come from the on-going list I keep on my phone from whenever I am wandering through a bookstore, a habit I highly recommend for those times when you have no idea what to read next or in an attempt to curb an out-of-control book buying habit 🙂

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (I’ve been on “Lost Generation” reading kick lately)
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (from an imprint that brought me Elegance of a Hedgehog and A Novel Bookstore)
Mystery Books for my August Travels (& an e-book trial run): 
There is something wonderful about having a mystery read while stuck in airports or when flying across the Atlantic (!).  I am also trying something new with these titles and borrowing my fiancee’s e-reader in my first-ever attempt to not add 15 pounds of books to my suitcase weight.  I will probably add my August book club choice on it as well.  It’s best to travel prepared, you know? I’ll write more about my e-book experience upon return, as it’s bound to be a bit hard for this lover of turning paper pages.  I’m also trying to encourage public library e-book check out with my students in the fall, so I need to be able to speak knowledgeably by then!

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
The Stone Cutter by Camilla Lackburg
Nonfiction: 
Though I’m generally heavy on the fiction, I like to mix it up and I’m pretty excited about all of these

The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan (Lately I can’t get enough of history)
When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson (the description of this book of essays sounds perfect)
The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt (because I adore her)
Young Adult (this could be a bit ambitious, but that’s a good way to plan for reading, right?)
I try to stay somewhat informed about what my students are reading, be full of recommendations, and be knowledgeable about the young adult literature world.  This summer’s stack has the widest variety ever, from 50 Cent’s novel to a transgender protagonist, to nonfiction picture books and collections about people who helped change and shape the world.  The only one missing is Wonder by R.J. Palacio, because I may have already pulled it from the stack and started it! 



Happy Summer Reading!!