Eligible–Curtis Sittenfeld (Audiobook)

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I guess it’s very nineteenth-century of Elizabeth Curtis Sittenfeld to publish under a male pseudonym, and I realize it’s her authorial name, but it struck me as odd for a piece in the Austen project, given that Austen was one of the first to publish as a woman and forego the fiction of male authorship.

Some reviewers have panned this book, some because it’s an Austen remake.  As someone who absolutely adores Pride & Prejudice, I would never dismiss someone for writing an Austen homage novel.  I enjoyed listening to this novel because I love Pride & Prejudice and all of the characters, but there were several elements of this remake that I did not enjoy or that puzzled me.

First, the sexual tension (or ST, as it is referred to in Eligible), is crucial to Pride & Prejudice.  How can there be that tension when Darcy and Liz sleep together so early in the novel–and in such an anticlimactic way?  That was seriously disappointing and contributed to my lack of enthusiasm for the rest of the novel. I do not object to the more modern nature of the conceit–I object to the fact that the conceit was not carried out in a way to retain the tension crucial to the original–the whole reason, likely, that readers have continued to make this Austen’s most popular novel.  I wanted to see what Sittenfeld was going to do.  I did not care that much about the two characters “finally” getting together because they had already gotten together.

Sittenfeld’s Liz Bennett is true to the primary character traits found in Austen’s Liz for the most part, but she is just less likable and, at times, less believable.  She cannot stand Darcy, but spills her guts to him when they meet up during a run and then, oops, realizes to whom she is talking.  Liz is a journalist and lives in New York City, so presumably is fairly sophisticated, but when she learns her new brother-in-law is transgender, she asks a ridiculous question about his genitalia and seems more like her Midwestern backward mother than the urbane woman Sittenfeld is trying to portray.

Mrs. Bennett is racist, a lovely characteristic, and a shopaholic.  She avidly desires her daughters to marry, but reacts very poorly to Lydia marrying a handsome, successful man because he is transgender.  Sittenfeld’s situation here, a replacement for Wickham’s abduction of the underage and desperately naive Lydia, just does not work.  It makes Mrs. Bennett too awful and Darcy’s intervention underwhelming and uncompelling.  It also makes the crucial scene where Liz receives the letter about Lydia’s abduction and Darcy’s reaction to it, which she misreads so terribly, also not work in Sittenfeld’s version.  The stakes are too low, the situation too ridiculous, even if likely in today’s conservative Midwest.

Throughout the novel, Lydia accuses Mary of being a lesbian.  When Mary learns that Lydia has married a transgender man, she gleefully calls Lydia a lesbian. Again, tone deaf on this whole sexual identity issue.  Most bizarrely, Sittenfeld ends the novel with a profile of Mary including her choice of dildo, frequency of its use, personal hygiene practices (no shaving) that seems to be mocking the only woman in the novel who does not follow at least some element of conventional femininity.  Mary cannot just be a woman content to be herself with her own independent pursuits.  She must be a caricature of a feminist, although a feminist who definitely does not want to be thought to be a lesbian and who relishes calling her sister one for marrying a transgender man.  Ugh.

That this is the Pride & Prejudice chapter in the Austen Project is seriously disappointing.  That this was published to such fanfare is seriously disappointing.  Regardless, my family did not see me without headphones, finding excuses to listen to the book (biking, gardening, cleaning) for several days as I lost myself, again, in the story of Liz and Darcy.  God help us if this becomes a movie, but I fear it may.

Finished 8/11/16

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The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley–Jeremy Massey

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How could a reader not love the name, Paddy Buckley?  Paddy is all his name implies–he’s dependable, loyal.  He’s a caring undertaker with a loyal, lovable group of Irish guy-friends.  He lost his pregnant wife two years ago to a brain hemorrhage and is still grieving deeply.  He is not sleeping, but sleepwalking through his life, trying to lose his grief in assuaging the grief of others through his work.  Until he meets a beautiful widow with whom he makes an immediate and fateful connection.  So begins a highly eventful week (the last four days) of his life, which include his entanglement with the most ruthless criminal family in Ireland.

This novel muses plenty about life and grief (big themes for me the last few years).  Paddy’s adventures are creative and entertaining.  The characters are interesting.

I was a bit wary with the novel’s start, a message from Paddy after his death that opens his retelling of his last four days.  I was also, with all of the madcap craziness of those four days, a little (a little mind you) disappointed with the ending.  It was a quick read, however, highly entertaining, and the places were well drawn, as were the characters.  I’d love to have read more about the owner of the funeral parlor, Frank Gallagher, and sense another novel waiting for him.  Massey, from a family of undertakers, includes many details about the processes about which many of us wonder, but are afraid to ask.  These details add to the curiously attractive elements of this story. Also, a nod to the designer of the dust jacket.  Well done.

Finished 8/7/16

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child–JK Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

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The day I began reading this long-awaited latest Harry Potter adventure, I saw an image on Twitter of a birthday gift Rowling received from her son:  a mug with an owl, below which reads Irritable Owl Syndrome and above which reads Fuck Off.  The caption read “a most hilariously inappropriate birthday gift from a son.”  Her son is 13.

Then I read the Cursed Child, which revolves around parents and teenage children and parents’ ability–and inability–to see their children for who they are rather than who they wish they themselves had been/were.  Harry Potter, who, while famous, was never quite perfect, either in school or with his friends, continues these weaknesses as an adult.  At work he prefers to act in the field rather than keep up with paperwork.  At home he strives to be the right father without having exactly experienced having a father–and having had a push/pull relationship with his father-figure, Dumbledore.  James, his eldest son, to whom everything comes easily, seems to have been an easy child to parent.  Albus Severus Potter, however, more introverted, struggles to live in his father’s famous shadow, particularly once he arrives at Hogwarts, where he’s sorted into Slytherin and becomes friends with Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius.  Scorpius is a kind-hearted, studious boy who, shortly after starting school, loses his mother and struggles with his grief with a father who is not overly demonstrative.

Rowling touches on familiar themes for children–the difficulty of choosing between right and wrong, the need for recognition and acknowledgement of our gifts, and the power of loneliness and humiliation–as well as the inability to change the past, no matter how rightly-intentioned we may be.

The comparisons between Harry/Albus and Rowling and her son are obvious.  Growing up in the shadow of Rowling, revered as next to God by many people under 50 (and some over), cannot be easy.  I cannot imagine having to turn in a piece of creative writing to anyone knowing Rowling was my mother.  Or try to live up to her other male creation in any other way.

Many advice columnists recommend talking to teenagers while in the car or doing some other activity because teenagers (and adults, really) are more likely to feel safe to engage in emotional topics when they are not engaged in eye contact or intense one-on-one conversation (let’s have a talk scares nearly everyone I know).  I wonder if Rowling, through her play, is talking to her son without eye contact.  Telling him she will screw up, but that she loves him, recognizes him as his own person with his own talents, is proud of him, and knows he is capable of making it on his own merits.  Or maybe she is just helping the rest of us have that conversation.

Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed this latest chapter and, despite some initial concerns about how reading a screenplay would change the experience, quickly found myself again in the world of Harry Potter–a place that, thanks to Rowling, is always available for a quick get away.

Finished 8/4/16

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry–Gabrielle Zevin

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Book nerds love books about book nerds and books.  Book nerds love fantasies about making a living selling books, being around books, maybe even living above shelves and shelves of books.

Zevin, a book nerd, knows that and gives the rest of us book nerds just what we want.  A widowed bookseller (Fikry) whose bookstore is on a New England island, but not Nicholas Sparks style.  He’s not white (one of my favorite lines is when an islander asks him if his daughter is his because they’re both black, but different kinds of black–I know people who could ask that question).  There’s a rare edition of Tamerlane, stolen during the night.  There’s a suicidal single mother (not messy, drowning–it’s an island after all) and a baby left in a bookstore with a note to please raise her among books (yup).  There’s a womanizing author who’s never been able to replicate the success of his first novel (the best friend).  There’s an overly tall, poorly dressed, awkward book rep who finds love in the bookstore.  There’s a tragic sister-in-law married to the womanizing author who is the drama/English teacher at the island high school.  And, to top off what sounds like a Nicholas Sparks cast, a good-hearted police chief who discovers his love of reading and starts a Chief’s Choice book group and befriends the bookseller.

This sounds like it could be a Nicholas Sparks book, but it’s New England, not the Carolinas, and Fikry prefers short stories to novels and probably despises Sparks (he’s a book snob, as is mentioned several times).  Zevin’s characters are not interchangeable pieces in a bestseller factory.  They are real, flawed, interesting people.  While it’s a book set in the midst of books and book lovers, it’s about love (also a potential Sparks element), but not treacly diabetic-reaction-inducing love.  Complicated, messy, sometimes disappointing love.

Apologies to Mr. Fikry, but I love used books (I’m a convert after years of new-book snobbery) and I buy most of them from Amazon (again, apologies).  I love when people underline or comment (this improves value for me rather than reducing).  In my ex-libris copy of Fikry, there were no marginal notes, but, on the one page I had to mark a quote, someone had already dog-eared the corner.  Perfect.  Here’s why.

Each chapter begins with a note from Fikry regarding a book or short story.  In this particular chapter, Fikry’s note (about Dahl’s The Bookseller) tells the addressee that it’s all about connection (yes, like the one I experienced with the former reader who had already dog-eared the page with my quote).  Here’s the quote (and you can judge how Sparks it is):

“We aren’t the things we collect, acquire, read.  We are, for as long as we are here, only love.  The things we loved.  The people we loved.  And these, I think these really do live on” (251).

Despite Fikry’s wise observation, I am going to collect this book.  I buy and read many.  My shelves are overflowing, so I now make very careful choices about which I keep and which I pass along for others to fall in love with–or to pass along to someone else who might connect with them.  But this one I’m keeping.  And I’m looking up more from Zevin, whose style makes me want to keep turning the page.

Finished 8/3/16

extraordinary–miriam spitzer franklin

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My 9-year-old daughter read this novel while we were camping and she was so engrossed that I had to see what had won out over the beach.  Pansy’s best friend, Anna, has suffered brain damage as a result of spinal meningitis contracted while at a Girl Scout camp that Pansy had promised to attend, but backed out of at the last minute.  Pansy often breaks promises or fails to do what she wishes she could because of fear of failure–or gross bugs.  Pansy feels terribly guilty for leaving Anna alone at the camp, which leads her to pledge to become extraordinary during fifth grade, her first without Anna at her side.  She joins Girl Scouts.  She learns to ice skate.  She hits the top of the Independent Reader list.  She makes jokes in front of class to explain unusual behavior rather than blushing and staying silent.  Along the way she makes new friends and struggles to understand her old friend, Anna’s twin, Andy.

extraordinary is a wonderfully written, fast-paced novel about love and friendship and facing our fears.  Franklin takes on huge themes, but never comes across as preachy.  Pansy is adorable and, apparently, identifiable for young readers.  It was a heartwarming read for a mom on a summer morning, as well.

Finished 8/1/16

Bettyville–George Hodgman

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This is categorized as a memoir, but it’s really a love letter–and a confession.  Bettyville is a love letter to Hodgman’s parents.  This might be expected of his mother, based on the title (his mother is Betty), but it’s also a love letter to his father, Big George.  It’s a love letter to his hometown, Paris (Missouri) and to the life of all small Midwestern towns full of farmers and church-going hardworking folks.  It’s not a love letter with blinders, and this is where the confessional element comes in.  As Hodgman shares his love for his parents and hometown, he also unravels how complicated that love is, due in large part to his being gay in an era when no one in smalltown Midwest anywhere had heard of Pride.  What is amazing, given his story and his struggles, is that Hodgman loves the people who would not accept him, who made him shear off parts of himself that he spends his adult life trying to put back together (or realizing that he needs to).

Hodgman’s prose is poetic.  His is one of those books that I read and re-read passage after passage, line after line because the language itself is stunning.  This is not entirely surprising given that Hodgman spent years editing others’ work.  Those years paid huge dividends in Bettyville.

When his father, who never mentioned or accepted Hodgman’s sexuality, dies:

“I flew at 6am the morning after he died.  At home, I felt his presence.  The place was filled with him, as it had been, though he was missing and his big chair, where I had last seen him, empty.  Near his workbench, I spotted two gifts, handmade, left for me to find: The first was a small cube with photographs glued on every side.  To keep the pictures safe, to make them last,  a coat of polish had been carefully applied.  The photographs, views of our backyard at different times through the year, showed the way it looks in snow, in springtime when the trees are in blossom, in summer when all is green, and in fall when the leaves are colorful…My father’s hands were swollen when he made this memento, all the seasons of home, for me. He was dying.  He could barely grasp a pencil….. a second gift, a wooden hand created by tracing his own on a piece of wood.  Like the cube, it was carefully polished.  At the base where the wrist is, there are three carved letters: GAH, his initials and mine.  I was grateful for these gifts.  I had wanted some goodbye and he had left it, without saying anything.  My silent old man.”

 

On his hometown and the people in it:

“Mammy’s people were farm people.  Sometimes it is simply to imagine them, those who lived here once, all the good people, crossing the river, coming in from the country for church on Sunday mornings with clean, coerced hair and their best clothes.  Think of wrinkled faces, mischievous eyes, hands in immaculate white gloves, wistfulness, innocence, worry over money, or crops, or sickness.  Think of the men, itchy to get back to work; mayors and merchants in their hard-pressed white shirts, tight collars, and stiff coats; lacy girls in ribbons; stoic boys, uncomfortable in their finery, confined in rarely worn shiny shoes; big-boned farm women with ample bosoms in dimestore brooches; old, milky-eyed codgers, freshly shaved with a few hairs still peeking out of their ears and noses; mothers with careful glances, pulling their kids away from puddles, holding their hands, smoothing, their hair, and wiping their cheeks.  I picture them all moving across the land, the days, through time, crossing Main Street, clutching their crosses and Bibles, trying to stay pretty, trying to look pious, walking together, traveling in their snorting, hard-to-start cars, or heading toward town in their buggies or on horseback to bow their heads and pray together to Jesus, who, in the stories I read, stood for love, charity, and kindness offered every day to others, even those unlike ourselves.  Kindness may be the most difficult of virtues, but when I have encountered it, it has meant everything to me.”

But not blind:

“Every week or so, a gay kid somewhere jumps off a bridge or slashes his wrists.  I am told that a boy near here hanged himself because his father could not accept who he was.  On television, I listen to the things they say, the right-wingers, and fundamentalists, and all the people who consolidate their power by hurting other people.  I want to cover up the ears of kids and say ‘Do not take it in.’ I took it in.  I really did.  I heard everything that people in the world around me said about who I was.  It hurt me, but I thought I had no right to say anything because I was wrong.  I didn’t know what silence would cost, how it would change my life.  It takes a long time to outrun the things that the world drills into you.”

Betty, with her list of forgotten words, her list of hymns, her struggles with her hair and her natty old sandals.  Betty, emotionally distant, but George’s champion–“Mind your own business”, “You are my business.”

Do yourself a favor.  Read this beautiful book.

Finished 7/31/16