Category Archives: current 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.” 

 

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.

Sometimes you just need a book to get lost in.

There is something about making my way through a brick of a book that is so satisfying.  My friend Julie handed me her 830 page copy of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and I decided I wanted it to be my companion for my December break, which meant lugging it in my carry-on and trying to creatively balance it while laying in bed reading.  But what its size guaranteed was I would have a single story to get lost in for at least a week (and as it turns out, it took me a couple–I blame staying up too late with my family while at home).

The Luminaries is set in a growing town in New Zealand during its gold rush in 1866.  A new man arrives in town after being terrified by something he saw on the ship on his way there and accidentally stumbles into a criminal mystery involving a wealthy man who went missing, a prostitute who supposedly attempted suicide, a hermit who was found dead, and gold, of course. Soon enough, a cast of 12 men realized they have connections to the crime and we hear their different tales.  Catton structures the story against the planetary and stellar positions and says in her note to the reader that the story is Piscean in nature: “an age of mirrors, tenacity, instinct, twinship, and hidden things…which affirms our faith in the vast and unknowing influence of the infinite sky.”

Part of me wishes I read it with people, because I am certain there are intricacies I missed, but also I enjoyed just getting lost in the story and seeing how decisions and happenstance connect people and create a narrative force forged of money, hope, love, fear–the age-old motivations that exist around every corner, if you’re a story hunter.  Just throw in some fate for good measure.  So, I wish that I had more intelligent things to say about this novel, but I treated it is now what I’ll refer to as a “Christmas break” read–which sometime is exactly what you need.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer and the curse of envy.

I probably should have read this book with people.  I think I may have had more grace with the characters if I had.  Though, I still read it quickly and stayed up too late reading a few nights in a row to finish it.  Perhaps it was these characters seemed too realistic and I’m tired of this reality.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer is about a group of friends who meet at a summer camp for the arts and follows them through adulthood.  Five friends who live in Manhattan invite Julie, the main protagonist who lives in a Long Island suburb and whose father just died, into their fold and christen her as Jules.  She can’t believe her luck as she becomes part of, what seems to her, as the most interesting groups of people she could have possibly crossed paths with: a budding cartoon artist, a son of a famous folksinger, a dancer, an actress.  As they grow up, they have varying degrees of success–the cartoon artist becomes incredibly wealthy creating a Simpsons-esque show, one is involved in directing, one abandons his talent to attend MIT and study robotics.  Jules makes an unsuccessful run at acting and ultimately becomes a therapist and struggles to make ends meet with her husband.  A lot of the book is dedicated to Jules envy of her wealthy friends and Wolitzer explores within all of the characters what it takes to be happy.

Though I moved through this book quickly, I lacked patience with the characters.  It seemed to be that everyone was miserable.  And that was depressing.  Then as I started thinking about it, so much of the fiction I read is about adults who are miserable.  That was even more depressing.  I tried to unravel where this was coming from in our culture: can we blame it on advertising creating a constant want for more? Or perhaps our susceptibility to advertising? Or the way that our attention spans have shortened thanks to social media? The instagram-ification of curating one’s life? No.  I think it comes down to a bit of mental discipline.

I initially sat down to write this post on the 4th of July and didn’t get very far.  While I was trying to write at my annoyance of the characters not being satisfied with what they had, or seeking out satisfaction in all the wrong things, I couldn’t do it.  Because I was moping about the fact that I didn’t have beach access or a lake house or outdoor space or a hometown parade.  I could not shake the hunger of want (the post I ended up writing that day touched on it a little bit).  In hindsight now, I am humbled at my own ridiculousness–let’s look at this pattern of the rest of my day:

 My fiancee (the best person I know) made me waffles (my favorite brunch food) and forced me out of the apartment to go on a walk to the park (my favorite place in Brooklyn).  We got coffee (mental relaxation) and browsed Park Slope Community Bookstore (a bookstore open on the 4th of July felt miraculous).  We went to have burgers with dear friends and later sat with another dear friend while she had to get an emergency medical test done (both the essence of community). See what I’m saying? I have a lot to be thankful for and the things with the most true value are the ones that make life the most full, if I stop and think about it–and do that more than I dream of someone else’s lake house.  And once I realized that I had the same kind of envy as Jules, I was able to have more grace with her as a character–I can’t judge because I’m no better.

Interestingly enough,  one of my favorite quotes is on the sidebar of this blog: Teddy Roosevelt said that “comparison is the thief of joy.” They told me in graduate school that learning is recursive–sometimes I have to stop and just keep remembering for the umpteenth time where true life resides.  It, of course, is easier to complain and compare and want–but, the quality of life outcome just does not compare with training my brain to be thankful in the moment.

Tree of Codes: an exercise in interpretation

Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer was on my radar for a long time.  It was published in late 2010, but I knew that I wanted to read it with other people because it’s die-cut structure, taken from Bruno Schultz’s The Street of Crocodiles, is so unique (see picture.  He removed text and his story is what remains).  What he has left his readers with is like a heightened, poetic literary experience that feels almost universal because they barely know the narrator.  Its publishing house, Visual Editions, says that “books should be as visually interesting as the stories they tell.” Luckily I have some kindred readers in my life, so we finally got to it after purchasing it at least six months ago.   We had our book discussion last week and realized that we wanted to nerd out, reread it, and reconvene in August for further conversation.   This interview from the New York Times further explains how this book is unique.


One of the most significant parts of our conversation came from looking at the book as a whole and the gaps in between the words: that perhaps they were a metaphor for what we know of people’s stories.  If we only get a small part of the text, what do we do with that information? Do we try to fill in the gaps? Accept that they are there? It made us think about whether we can we ever know the entire story of anything be it a historical event, a person’s life, or anything in between.

What pulled this together, though, was a statement in the middle of the story: “We find ourselves in the tree of codes.”  I am still thinking through what the “tree of codes” actually is, but I keep connecting it to the narrative of life: that there are stories and moments that we are left to interpret and seek out some kind of meaning.  A few pages later it says, “the last secret of the tree of codes is that nothing can ever reach a definite conclusion.”  This, of course, reminded me of reading–how one can read between the lines and take things away from the story, but how in art, and in turn life, interpretations may vary.

The biggest question from the text came on the third page from the end: “what was there to save us?” Having read The Street of Crocodiles after I initially read Tree of Codes, I know the deeper story of the original narrative; that there was a named conflict and that this question was practical.  In Foer’s version, when the conflict and story is more general and open, the question feels even more weighty.  It leads me to think about the different things that people need to be saved from in this life.  It makes me think about hope.  It makes me think about what matters and where beauty and truth and words fall into the picture. It also conjures up feelings of sadness that can surround beauty, as well, and nostalgia, and the wondering if it will all ever fit together.

So, if you want to, find a copy of this book.  It will take you no longer than an hour to read and will provide you with seemingly endless fodder for mid summer thinking if you have been left in a haze of humidity and discussions revolving solely around the weather.  I’ll be back with some continued thoughts in August.