Category Archives: classic lit

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.” 

 

An Unlikely Pairing: The Lost Generation & The 4th of July

Lately I’ve been on a Lost Generation reading spree.  It started with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald with a student book club and giving them some introductory information about the era and then I happened to read The Paris Wife, which is a semi-fictional story narrated from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway.  Afterwards, I was fascinated by not only their relationship, but the ex-pat community in Paris, so I went on to read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which was a memoir of his time in Paris which he wrote not long before he died and published posthumously.  I was so entrenched in the era that I decided I wanted to read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, which was on my summer reading list, right away.  Then of course I re-watched Midnight in Paris and noticed all the inconsistencies (though I still love it).

Just like Woody Allen’s Gil Pender, it is easy to get caught up in the romance of the ex-pat community in Paris–the incredible art, literature, salons.  Though it is impossible for me to not say that what this reading spree brought up in my thought life the most was how glad I am to be a woman today.  The culture of multiple mistresses and people openly accepting it, coupled with double standards for women and hypocritical expectations for wives in light of it all was truly grotesque.  Zelda Fitzgerald’s own artistic life was stunted by Scott having her publish under his name or forbidding her to pursue dance or publish her writing work at all, saying that he had claim to the ideas within it.

The concept that struck me the most while reading, though, was that of memory, which I’ve written about quite a bit over the years.  It’s the great invention of the mind in Rodman Philbrick’s Young Adult Freak the Mighty. In Evening, by Susan Minot, it colors the narrator’s entire existence.  In Man Walks into A Room, Nicole Krauss’s main character loses his memory of all things relational.  In The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai talks about some parts of our narrative are lost and some are purposely forgotten.

I am trying to decide where it fits for Hemingway.  Early in The Paris Wife, he takes Hadley on a trip to where he recovered from being injured in World War 1.  In his mind, the field was still desecrated with loss of life and the town where he was taken care of was pristine and quaint–but neither was the case when he arrived:

“When Ernest found the slope where he’d been wounded, it was green and unscarred and completely lovely.  Nothing felt honest.  Thousands of men had died here jut a few years earlier, Ernest himself had bled here, shot full of shrapnel, and yet everything was clean and shiny, as if the land itself had forgotten everything,” (103).
“For the whole visit, Ernest wrestled with memory.  Everything had changed and grown dingy in the four years since he’d been here,” (102).  
I suppose it is one of those mysteries of being human–how we can long so deeply for times that are past, even if those times were accompanied by struggle.  Perhaps in our minds, they remind us that we made it through, or perhaps the struggle has been slightly erased so that we don’t remember that part anymore.  Hemingway himself describes it in A Moveable Feast: “There are many sorts of hunger.  In the spring there are more. But that’s gone now. Memory is hunger,” (57).  
Elk Lake, 2011.  I only wish I had a
picture of the American flag boxers
my best friend and I *sewed ourselves*
for 4th of July 1996. 
Today, for me, memory is hunger.  On some levels the memories I’ve been escaping to this morning seem insignificant–but it happens every 4th of July that I am in New York City–a city I love with all my heart.  All I want right now is to be watching my hometown’s parade, wearing my running clothes from the annual 5K, thinking about swimming in somebody’s pool and going up to the high school for fireworks later.  Or, sitting at a simple lake house, eating off the grill, and watching a homemade fireworks display planned by friends I’ve known since the mid nineties.  I keep finding myself wanting to justify my nostalgic longing for these simple memories or the audacity I have for writing them in connection to Hemingway–but I’m not going to, because it’s what is true for me today (which is interesting, because the quotes I wanted to write about in this post have been sitting in my blog drafts for a month)

What I do think is worth considering, though, is when you begin to appreciate what is past.  Hemingway did not write of nostalgia until the end of his life.  A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his early years in Paris, was published after he took his own life and carries a tone much different from his earlier work.  In a painful-to-read confession he states that he wishes he had died before falling in love with anyone else.  I’m not sure that I believe him, completely.  Hadley asks him in The Paris Wife, not long after the visit to the town where he was shot and recovered: “When does it mean something? When everyone finally gets smashed to bits?” (145).  I think that is a fair read of Hemingway–and a terrifying way to live, but it pulls together my thoughts.  When he was with Hadley, he could only think of what might be next. The present didn’t take on any value until it was long gone.

This year I started talking with my students about the idea of being present where you are, whether it is in a class discussion, a book club, or with their friends.  I suppose that is what I wish the men of the Lost Generation understood (hoping that it wasn’t that restlessness that produced their drive and in turn art), and on a much smaller level, what I need to remember as I go over to the Brooklyn Bridge Park to celebrate Independence Day with dear friends later.  It is in view of the Statue of  Liberty, after all.

an aside, after my initial posting: I want to think later today about the implications of these American writers who chose to do so much of their writing elsewhere.  Looking at the title of this post, one might infer that my writing about it was a little more academic.  But alas.  It is a holiday, after all.

On packing an apartment & Fahrenheit 451

I started a new graduate program and although I am doing one class at a time, it has, as I feared it might, taken a toll on my reading-and-writing-for-pleasure life.  The good news is my current class is called Literature for Older Children, so the books I’m reading and the thinking I’m doing aligns quite nicely with my passion for literacy.  But it also means I have a stack of 4 books I’ve finished that I want to write about.  I chose today’s book based on the other current time-stealer of my life: moving.  

My new lease a few blocks away starts next Saturday, so I spent last night packing and ended up with 20 boxes of books.  I admire when people move here with a suitcase or two, and part of me craves the simplicity of space that accompanies such a move.  But I remember when I moved to New York almost ten years ago now and felt  I needed to bring my books with me so that I would remember who I was in this brand new city. And through 5–almost 6–apartments I have packed and unpacked and added to the stacks.  Handling every book I own last night was an incredible experience in reflection because I began to see my story in the conglomeration of texts: my elementary reading self in my mid eighties copies of The Wizard of Oz and Number the Stars, the eight Virginia Woolfs I read in half a semester and how I was never the same again, the striking poetry contained in the prose of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy that cultivated the kind of book I love to read as an adult.  
In keeping with my New Years resolution to read book I already own, I finished Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury a few weeks ago and it reignited (see what I did there?) my passion for not just reading as much as I can, but for getting as many books in front of my students as possible.  Reading in 2013 the futuristic book Bradbury wrote the book in 1950 was fascinating (and reminded me of reading Super Sad True Love Story a few years back) because though his portrayal of futuristic technological and political powers were close enough to feel incredibly eerie.  
Montag, the main character, is a fireman–and in his time that means they start fires to burn books rather than put fires out.  Books cause people to think and to question–they disrupt ones mental “peace”–so the government has decided to do away with them.  Montag begins to feel restless and decides to quietly figure out what it is about books that makes them so dangerous.  
He is asked by a closet former reader: “How did you get shaken up? What knocked the torch out of your hands?” 
Montag replies: “I don’t know.  We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren’t happy.  Something’s missing.  I looked around.  The only thing I positively knew was gone was the books I’d burned in ten or twelve years.  So I thought books might help.” 
“It’s not the books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books…Take it where you can find it, in old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself.  Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget.  There is nothing magical in them at all.  The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.” 
Yes. And so upon reading this book I was re-reminded to keep my eyes open for the mysteries and to ask questions.  I was re-reminded that if my life feels off-kilter, chances are I’m forgetting to dwell in the details that make life rich and instead choosing to occupy myself with errands and to-do lists.  Packing up my own books reminded me of the stories that enrich my story and grew my desire to share this with the 100 students I see everyday: that they might question the world and seek beauty and desire understanding.  And I can’t do that unless I am living in such a way myself.   

The Great Gatsby and how the city seen from the Queensboro Bridge changed everything

Every year I have students join a book club with me (I’ve written about World War Two and Harry Potter) and this year I added The Great Gatsby to the list of choices for students who are ready to jump into some more classic, adult literature.  I studied The Great Gatsby in high school, college and graduate school, but those lenses into the story don’t seem to quite fit for 8th grade.  Luckily I still have time to think about that, but I also got stuck figuring out how to write about it here: this is not a book review or a literary essay blog, so I went back to my roots and thought about how the story speaks into life at this moment, and at this moment I am thinking about the city.  My city.  New York.

Most New Yorkers with a literary slant in their lives know all the classic lines about where we live, and Fitzgerald’s description is one of the best: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and all the beauty in the world,” (73).

This is the New York I like to think about the most: the one that still feels magical 9 years later, the one that offers up perfect autumn dinners eaten at the counter and walks into bookstores on the corner and cafe tables on the sidewalk and life swirling around.  The one that has perfect theaters for rainy Sunday matinees that follow a long brunch at a South African restaurant.

And yet. There is also “…a valley of ashes–a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air,” (27).

This is the New York that I also think about.  I can be literal and think about the insane amount of trash that we proffer to the sidewalks or the hours lost waiting on a train that has been rerouted for the weekend.  I can calculate the money I have spent in rent over the years or figure out how many pounds of groceries I have carried over x amount of miles.  I weigh these things often these days. Or, more heavily, I can think about the students who walk into city schools coming from families who don’t value education and don’t see their own worth and a system that doesn’t know how to help.  I can think about the men and women who sleep on the streets and the paralyzing feeling of not being able to help as I walk by with my smart phone in hand.

I dream a lot about a little house with a fire place on a little piece of land, where life could be quiet and where I could see the sunset every day.  And that may happen still.  But.  Living in a place filled with both beauty and ashes has changed the way I read the world around me–and I don’t think I could ever be the same, or shake the feeling that no matter how cozy my life is, whether that is reading my book while homemade tomato sauce is simmering on my stove in my studio apartment or some future multi-room home in my future, there are ashes scattered around me–and that I should never stop looking for ways to help beauty and life to grow among and out of them.

War and letters and stories.

I had a rough start with For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.  As his is typical style, it was written in a matter of fact, moment by moment description, in this case mostly from the voice of Robert Jordan, an American fighting with the revolutionary guerillas in the Spanish Civil War.  But, Hemingway accomplished his goal and while reading it I felt like I was there with him, moment by moment, which is probably also the reason why I never made it past 3-5 pages when reading it before bed and why it took multiple in-flight reading swathes of time and my break from school to finish.
About two thirds of the way through, Jordan spends time reading the letters found in the pockets of a dead opposing cavalryman, which spurs on one of the longest inner conversations that the reader hears in the story. The entire account is fascinating, and is Jordan thinking about who and why he has killed.  Here are a few excerpts:
“You never kill anyone you want to kill in a war, he said to himself,” (302)…
“How many of those you have killed have been real fascists? Very few. But they are all the enemy to whose force we are opposing force,” (304).
“Listen, he told himself. You better cut this out.  This is very bad for you and your work,” (304).
I would argue, and actually don’t think it’s that controversial of a theory, that the reading of his dead enemy’s letters were what brought on his mental struggle with the death that accompanies war.  What I find interesting about this, though, is that it comes back to the core of my own beliefs: once you know someone’s personal story, even the bits of daily minutia detailed in letters Jordan read, it is near impossible to view them in the same way.
I struggle with war because whenever I read about it.  I am constantly thinking about the lives of the lost–on either side–and generally it is the daily minutia that destroys me.  The first time I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., it was the displays of the personal effects those sent to concentration camps gave up: the piles of brushes and razors, the pile of shoes.
This is what creates empathy in literature and I why I plead with people to read…and write.  To me, reading is the great metaphor for understanding humanity and a reminder for me to remember that everyone in front of me has a story–whether it’s a student who is driving me crazy, the driver who is honking at me to walk faster through a crosswalk, a stranger I pass on a run.
The interesting part of this excerpt from the book, though, is that Jordan says that thinking in this vein is very bad for his work–which is true.  To fight for his cause in this context, personalizing the enemy would lead to failure.  He talks himself through the fact that he must do what he is doing to create a better world for the future: and yet, there are people fighting on the other side who believe the same thing, whether it is war on a national level or between two people.  And sometimes, looking back, there is a clear, right side.  Sometimes there isn’t.
I wonder a lot about the fact that throughout history, it has come down to fighting to achieve freedom. I wonder a lot about what this says about us as people.  I wonder about what would create a world (or nation or state or city or home) without violence.  I don’t think it’s possible to live without conflict, but I wonder what it would take to teach us to handle it differently. Over the next week or so, I’m going to be writing about it as many of my recent reads have been about war, both fiction and non fiction, adult and young adult.   I have no answers and it only gets more complicated, but reading and writing is the only way for me to work through it all.