Does the world really need another retelling of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE?

eligible-review-ewRecently listened to Curtis Sittenfeld’s ELIGIBLE, which proudly announces itself, on the cover, as a modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice. This strikes me as something the book is unduly proud of. It hits the notes of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE in such a straightforward way, almost as if it feels there’d be some punishment if it deviated too much from the story.

The book is about five sisters, Jane, Liz, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia, who are the daughters of a Cincinnati blue blood, Mr. Bennett, who has run through his fortune and whose wife, Mrs. Bennett, becomes obsessed with the idea of marrying off her eldest daughter, Jane, to a newly-arrived doctor, and reality TV star, Chip Bingley.

I enjoyed the book. I liked Sittenfeld’s debut, PREP, and I enjoyed PRIDE AND PREJUDICE as well. But throughout the novel I kept asking myself, “Why?”

For what reason does this exist? The characters are so close to what they were in Pride. Mr. Bennett is sarcastic and long-suffering, but fundamentally ineffectual. Mrs. Bennett is silly and frivolous. Liz is moralistic. Kitty and Lydia are shallow. Mr. Darcy, who’s another doctor at the nearby hospital, is principled but ungracious. It’s all the same! So why bother with it?

Sittenfeld is a talented and observant writer, and it was fun to see her map these characters to modern times. Liz, in particular, benefited from the juxtaposition. In PRIDE, Liz thought well of herself but had no reason to. She had sense, but she was still living the same shallow life as her sisters, because nothing else existed for women of her time and class.

In ELIGIBLE, Liz doesn’t get off quite so easily. Although she’s the only sister to support herself (as the writer for a women’s magazine, clearly based on Ms., in New York), there is a certain frivolity and aimlessness to her. And it’s not like those qualities aren’t present in the original source material. Liz was always the witty one. She was always the person who enjoyed the repartee at parties while pretending not to enjoy it. After all, if it wasn’t for that, Wickham could never have been a draw for her. But in Pride and Prejudice, the structure of society forced her into the role of society girl. Here that’s not the case. She could reject all of that, but she doesn’t. Because of that this version of Pride and Prejudice becomes a more personal story: it’s about her growth into a belated adulthood.

In fact, the best part of the book is the middle, when the story morphs suddenly into Cold Comfort Farm. Liz, realizing her family is badly in debt, starts to rapidly fix up the lives of her sisters: pairing off some and forcing others to get real work. Romance falls almost by the wayside as she takes everybody reluctantly to task. I can’t remember if this is part of the original source material, but if it is I’ve completely forgotten about it.

Ultimately, the book was really…fun? I’ve been reading a lot of light domestic fiction lately, and this one felt a lot more lively than most. The characters were better defined and more humorous. But I hesitate to give the book a pass for that, since a part of me wonders if I mightn’t have been better off simply rereading Pride and Prejudice.

In which I unveil the theme for my upcoming year’s reading

I’m in Mumbai right now. Both of my parents grew up here, so it’s kind of the motherland. I’m also still reading Les Miserables. As such, I have no recent books to blog about, so I will instead post scattered thoughts

  • I just renewed my membership in SFWA. I know that when I first qualified for it, I blogged about how I wasn’t sure if it was worth the money, but I think I’ve gotten my $80 worth. It was through SFWA that I got to participate in the Baltimore Book Festival and get profiled by the Baltimore Sun and meet Cat Rambo and Sarah Pinsker and a bunch of cool Baltimore Science Fiction Society guys. And there’ve been a few other interesting opportunities, like the SFWA banquet in New York, that I had to pass up the first time around but will definitely avail myself of in the coming year.
  • I’ve been seeing a bunch of awards recommendation posts lately, and I have to say: I don’t know how anyone manages to vote in the best-novel category. I’ve read exactly three novels that were originally published in 2011: John Scalzi’s Redshirts, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, and Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman. And, while I enjoyed all of them, I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable nominating any of them for an award—I literally have no idea what books came out in the last year. How many people have actually read more than twenty novels that came out in the last year?
  • Also, why would you want to read so many recent novels? I guess there’s something to be said for being in touch with the zeitgeist, but I can’t help but feel like that would entail reading a lot of mediocre novels.
  • My Daily SF story: “We Planted the Sad Child, and Watched”) is one of 256 stories on Tangent Online’s recommendations for stories published in 2012.
  • I see so much buzz for N.K. Jemisin and Saladin Ahmed’s novels and I am sure that all of it is well-deserved…but I have no desire to read them. It really is just a prejudice against the format. I don’t think I can ever again read another fantasy trilogy.
  • For that matter, I actually don’t think I’ve read a published secondary-world fantasy novel in years. I guess maybe Nabokov’s Ada? But…er…that doesn’t really count, does it? Nowadays I tend to avoid anything with swords in it. I don’t know why that is: until well into my twenties, I read tons of that stuff. Oh well, I’m sure I’ll get back into it eventually.
  • Normally, I give myself a theme for each year, to guide my reading. In 2010, it was Russian Literature. In 2011, it was Proust. And in 2012, it was the Victorians. This year, I considered reading the Modernists but…in the end…I decided to stick with 19th century literature for another year. Sorry everyone, there’s just so much of it and I like it so much. There’s still tons of Trollope, Eliot, Dickens, Zola, Flaubert, Balzac, Hugo, and Dostoyevsky that I haven’t read. And, honestly, Modernism doesn’t excite me. I am sure I will love it someday, but someday is not today…
  • Other themes I considered:
    • The Ancients – Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, etc.
    • The 18th century – Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift
    • Eastern Classical Novels – The Story of the Stone, Journey To The West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms (I kind of already made a big start on this one by reading The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book)
    • Medieval and Renaissance Literature – Montaigne’s Essays, Pascal’s Pensees, Beowulf, The Song of Roland, The Canterbury Tales, etc.
  • But no, I am sticking with the 19th century. Sometimes you just got to go with what makes you happy.
  • I especially want to read more Eliot. The more I think about them, the more Middlemarch and the Mill On The Floss grow in my mind. Those were two truly excellent reading experiences. She doesn’t have the bagginess of so many Victorians: pretty much every page was good. Are any of her other books similarly interesting? I am thinking of reading Daniel Deronda.
In addition to being one of the English language's top novelists, George Eliot was also a total badass--all the movies that've been made about Jane Austen's (rather tepid) personal life should instead be about about GE. She is an inspiration to late-bloomers everywhere.
In addition to being one of the English language’s top novelists, George Eliot was also a total badass–all the movies that’ve been made about Jane Austen’s (rather tepid) personal life should instead be about about GE. She is an inspiration to late-bloomers everywhere.

Predictably Good Books (that I read in 2012), Part One

I feel like there’s no way to say “Pride and Prejudice was really good” without somehow indicating that you know it’s supposed to be good and that you’re not surprised it’s good. And that’s why this entry is titled “Predictably good books.”

_PnPPride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – I love Jane Austen. Before reading P&P, I’d read literally every other Jane Austen novel. But I had a mental block about the big P because it was the very first assigned-reading class (I was supposed to read it way back in 10th grade) that I just gave up on reading (beginning a long association with Cliff Notes). I really can’t say why I found this to be soooo boring when I was 16. But at age 26, I can tell you that this book is the bomb. It’s the only novel of hers, other than Emma, that’s reliably funny. Aside from the main triangle (Elizabeth Bennett, George Wickham, and Mr. Darcy) everyone in this book is hilarious, from the Liz’s overserious suitor Mr. Collins to her silly and clueless parents. And the book is well-plotted, too. The structure is interesting and interesting things happen. I don’t think there is anything about this novel that is not perfect. Well, except for Liz Bennett’s priggishness. Seriously, Jane Austen, I don’t understand why you hate dancing and joking around and having fun so much. Not since Mansfield Park (where the main character throws a huge fit because her cousins are putting on a play in their living room) have I been so mystified about what an Austen character’s problem is. Seriously, why is she down on her parents and her sisters? I guess that’s the curse of creating delightful comic characters—no one will believe you when you try to tell people that they are actually terrible and immoral people.

_SSSilent Spring by Rachel Carson – Yet another book I was supposed to read for class (during my junior year of college I took an English course called Visions of Ecology where we were assigned a ton of SF novels…the course probably would’ve been better if I’d actually done the reading…) But anyway, this is a really masterful document. Of course, you probably all know that this is a long tract about how pesticide spraying is killing tons of animals and probably causing cancer and stuff too. But, aside from the wonderfully ominous language, the interesting thing is how it’s structured. It doesn’t start off at the beginning, like most nonfiction books, by telling you, “This is the case I’m going to make.” And it doesn’t go from specific to general and then back to specific again. Instead, it’s this free-flowing impressionist mass of detail—die-offs and sprayings and extinctions are listed by the dozens—that are grouped in chapters according to some very intuitive progression. It’s a page-turner.

_MMMiddlemarch by George Eliot – This is a tome. I read it in Madrid and it took me a solid week. But it wasn’t difficult to get through. Each page is delightful. It doesn’t have the super-tedious stretches or the absurd plot elements that I’ve come to expect from Victorian novels, just page after page of good solid observation (and slightly outsized characters). Structurally, this novel kind of resembles Anna Karenina in that it’s about three pairs of lovers and contains one love triangle. The main love story, where Dorothea suffers through a marriage to the tedious priest Mr. Causubon was (while still interesting!) not the most fun part of the book. The other two plots, where Doctor Lydgate slowly has to sacrifice his intellectual ambitions in order to please his wife and where the feckless ne’er-do-well Fred Vincy has to shape up so he can marry his childhood sweetheart Mary Garth were, for me, the heart of the story. But there’s just so much stuff in here! It’s kind of amazing. For instance, it’s treatment of politics (all the characters have some interest in politics, and the capstone of one of its books is a very rough Parliamentary campaign) is one of the best I’ve seen (although it helps to do some Wikipedia reading so you know what bills and such they’re talking about). It’s kind of unbelievable how good this book is. I kind of want to reread it now.

_wwcwWhy We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr – This is King’s account of the Birmingham Bus Boycott. It’s a wonderful document—a whole book written in that morally powerful voice that Kind perfected. The centerpiece of the book is King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and a fairly large portion of the book is dedicated to taking down the black and white moderates who are urging him to wait and to proceed slowly in his crusade for justice. Personally, I love this kind of squabbling, especially when it’s set as such a historical remove that I can imagine myself on the right side.

_TBSThe Blind Side by Michael Lewis – I feel like I’ve mentioned this one a few times in the last few weeks. It’s Michael Lewis book about Michael Oher, an NFL tackle who came from a very rough background and was adopted by a white family whose mother was later portrayed by Sandra Bullock in the Oscar-winning film of the same name, etc. etc. This was the most purely enjoyable reading experiences that I had this year. There was nothing difficult about this book. It was the perfect mix of narrative and analysis. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell meets Tobias Wolff. The story of the movie The Blind Side actually forms maybe only about one third to one half of the book (and it’s much more fleshed out in the book, too, of course, especially since it contains much more of Michael Oher’s own voice and own story). The rest of the book is about the changes in the game of football that made someone like Michael Oher into such a valuable property. Now, I don’t know anything about football and I don’t really care about football at all, and I still loved this book. Sports are driven by numbers and economics in a way that’s different from almost every other field of human endeavor. And I love reading about that.

Quick Reactions To Books That Probably Deserve Long Reactions

Okay, so sometimes I feel like I am neglecting this blog. That is not really true, I guess, but I built up quite a lot of posting in March and February, and I am getting slightly more traffic than I used to get, so I kind of feel like I owe it to you folks to post something once in awhile. Still, the heart wants what it wants, and right now what it wants is to unsystematically ramble about the books I’ve read so far in April.

The Game: Penetrating The Secret Society Of Pickup Artists by Neil Strauss – I am so embarrassed to have read this book. I mean it. I was seriously considering never telling anyone that I had ever read it. It is basically about nerds who form little clubs where they try to scientifically figure out how to pick up women. And I felt compelled to mention it because this book is the most entertaining book ever. It supplants my old most entertaining book ever, which was Carolyn Jessop’s Escape (a memoir growing up in a polygamous Mormon splinter sect). Yes, I guess there is something about creepy sexual subcultures that just really appeals to me, nonfiction-wise. I am going to do my best not to explore what that means.

The Game is so amazingly ridiculous that it is hard to believe it could be real. I am convinced that everyone in this book is gay. They are so homosocial. They’re all about just bro’ing out together and forming little cliques and having all this drama with each other. All the heat and sizzle in the book comes from relationships between men. Women are barely a presence at all.

Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga – When I originally read this book, around a week ago, I had so much more to say about it. In fact, I realize now that I never wrote about The White Tiger, which I read two months ago and really loved too. Basically, both these books are supreme poverty porn. There is something deliriously intoxicating about how miserable it is possible to be in India. The beauty of Aravind Adiga is that he writes poor characters as if they were rich people transplanted into the lives of poor people. He makes the lot of a Delhi-based driver, who is richer than 75% of Indians, seem like the most miserable thing imaginable. It’s not psychologically accurate, but it is emotionally compelling.

Parallel Lives, Volume III by Plutarch – Classically educated people are huge fakers. You know how, when you read old writers, like Emerson (especially Emerson), they’re always mentioning little anecdotes from the lives of Romans and Greeks that you’ve never heard of. And these anecdotes usually illustrate some sort of moral point? Well those guys had just read Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, which is a collection of little anecdotes about famous Romans and Greeks that he uses to illustrate moral points.

You know, the novella length is really ideal for biography. I don’t really want to spend 100,000 words learning about some guy, even if he is an awesome guy. But sometimes I do want to know more about a person than I can find in their Wikipedia entry. The length of each of Plutarch’s lives is about perfect (15-20k words). Also, at least in the Project Gutenberg version, each volume focuses on a different part of Greek/Roman history. Volume III was about Alexander’s conquests and about Rome’s Civil Wars. It had a lot of big guys in it: Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Crassus, Pompey, Cato. I liked it. I know that the right way to learn history is systematically, and not by studying the biographies of great men, but sometimes it’s fun to say ‘Screw that’ and skip straight to the exciting stories and colorful personalities.

Waiting For The Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee – There are some authors whose work I really like, but who I never look forward to reading. I really enjoyed Coetzee’s Disgrace when I read it last year. I stayed up and finished it at like 3 AM. But I never even felt tempted to pick up anything else by him. Waiting for the Barbarians is a fantasy novel though! Well, kind of. It’s fantasy without any magic. Or worldbuilding. It’s basically like Kalpa Imperial. It’s about an unnamed magistrate at the edge of an unnamed empire that is at war with some pretty generic barbarians. It’s really hard to pin down the appeal of this book. But it is totally captivating.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde – I’ve been reading through a number of Wilde’s essays lately, and I was like, “Hmm, I am totally unfamiliar with his artistic work. If it kind of sucks, then it would be somewhat foolish to take seriously these essays about producing art and the nature of art and the awesomeness of being an artist.” So I read some of his plays. This one is amazing. You know how when you read the comedic portions of Shakespeare, you end up being kind of amazed at how quick and clever everything is, but you’re not actually amused because it’s too much work to figure out what is going on and anyway the jokes are in old-timey language so your brain cannot really interpret them as jokes and anyway a lot of the jokes are puns, which don’t really do it for modern audiences anyway? Well, reading this play is what it must have been like for one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries to read one of his comedies. It is that good.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – Ever since reading Emma, two years ago, I have steadily read through every single one of Austen’s books (except Pride and Prejudice) without ever being really satisfied with any of them. All of them have bits and pieces of what I liked about Emma (in this case, I found the slow, fitful plotting and some of the dialogue to be to my taste), but none of them have quite done it. I really wanted to like this one just because most people do not like it. But in the end I could not, for exactly the same reason most people can’t. Fanny Price is totally insufferable. What is her deal, seriously? What makes her so much better than everyone else? Also, the novel is severely confused about some things. If Fanny is good because she wasn’t spoiled, then why are her brothers and sisters (who grew up with much less nice stuff than she did) not good as well? Does being rich make you good? Or does being poor make you good? This book is confused. All it can say for certain is that if you put on an amateur theatrical in your house then you are totally beyond-the-pale in terms of your evilness. Oh well, I guess I will finally go read Pride and Prejudice.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John Le Carre – I’ve been reading JLC, but somehow don’t really have anything to say. What book of his should I read next? I’ve only read this one and Call For The Dead (which I almost kind of liked better?)

Methland by Nick Reading – This is a very entertaining book. It’s about meth in small town America. I am fascinated by small towns and the way that they’ve gone, in the national consciousness, from idyllic places to hellish dystopias. But I just need to say one thing. The drug problem is over. Drug use peaked in 1980. Since then we’ve had 30 years of drug use at roughly current levels (went up a little in the 2000’s, but not nearly to 80s levels). What we have now is systemic. And we have learned to live with it. It’s not going to get worse. It’s probably not going to get better. Why do we keep pretending like drugs are something new? They are not. They are not new. They are nothing to get worried about. Oh, another problem that is totally over (briefly touched on in this book) is illegal immigration. Seriously, look at the number of illegal immigrants entering this country. That number has dropped precipitously. And you know why? There are no jobs for them here anymore. There aren’t even any jobs for us. We solved illegal immigration by becoming poor. Also, amphetamines were basically legal in the 40’s and 50’s (in the form of things like Benzedrine inhalers). Cocaine and heroin were legal in the 20s. If the drug problem is merely one of supply and demand, then why were these eras not a hellish, swirling vortex of drug abuse? I think there is a good chance that drug use actually was really high back then*, but since it doesn’t fit into our cultural narratives, we have forgotten about it.

*I mean, Thomas De Quincy’s Confessions of An English Opium Eater was about getting narcotized to all hell way back in 1804. And yet, somehow, we never think of Regency England as high-tide for druggies (The reason Mr. Darcy was a jerk was probably because he was in withdrawal)

A Jane Austen novel that enlightened me as to the curious joys of the non-masterpiece

As I’ve alluded to before, one of my greatest reading experiences of 2009 was staying up until 4 AM (on a Monday) reading Jane Austen’s Emma. It was all the more surprising to me because back in 10th grade, Pride & Prejudice was the very first school-assigned book that I didn’t read. I mean, I got about a third of the way through it and then I literally flung it across the room and read the plot summary in Cliff’s Notes instead (as I recall, I even found the plot summary dreadfully boring).

Since then, I’ve been unable to approach Pride & Prejudice. Time and again I consider it, only to quail as a wave of boredom rears up out of my past and fills my limbs with a dreadful languor. However, I have been systematically making my way through the rest of Jane Austen’s ouvre.

I read Sense & Sensibility, which was pretty good, except that I had a hard time following the plot and who was who (it might have been the high fever I was running at the time).

Then I read Persuasion, which was okay, except it was…how can I put this delicately…quite humorless. I don’t know, it was good though. It’s the only Jane Austen novel I’ve read that devotes any time to the actual “falling in love”. Most of her novels seem to pretty much elide it and focus on confusions and previous engagements and the obstacles of being penniless (which is just the way I like it, don’t get me wrong).

But you know what Jane Austen is completely and totally the bomb? Northanger Abbey. I just finished reading it a few days ago. It’s definitely the lightest one of her works that I’ve read. Nothing serious happens. It’s just clever authorial asides, witty exchanges and send-ups of Gothic-novel tropes (the heroine is a girl who loves herself some 18th century Gothic romances). I found it delightful. Northanger Abbey dismisses the details of this “falling in love” stuff with one paragraph and a wry grin:

She was assured of his affection; and that heart in return was solicited, which, perhaps, they pretty equally knew was already entirely his own; for, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.

Sometimes I am quite torn about the merits of exploring an author’s backlist. Usually authors have one, or two, or at most three real masterpieces. Given that there is only a limited number of works I’m going to read in my life, I wonder whether it might not make sense to read more of the masterpieces and fewer of the trial runs.

But as this novel proves, sometimes the trial runs can make us realize exactly what we loved about the masterpieces. Northanger Abbey has none of the structural complexity or plotting of Emma. I mean, really, it barely has characters. But it has the same sort of sparkle. And when that sparkle isn’t being overshadowed by the overbearing presence of Emma Wodehouse, it can be appreciated all the more.

You should read Northanger Abbey because it doesn’t need any reason to bust out with stuff like this:

“I see what you think of me,” said he gravely—”I shall make but a poor figure in your journal tomorrow.”

“My journal!”

“Yes, I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings—plain black shoes—appeared to much advantage; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense.”

“Indeed I shall say no such thing.”

“Shall I tell you what you ought to say?”

“If you please.”

“I danced with a very agreeable young man, introduced by Mr. King; had a great deal of conversation with him—seems a most extraordinary genius—hope I may know more of him. That, madam, is what I wish you to say.”

“But, perhaps, I keep no journal.”

“Perhaps you are not sitting in this room, and I am not sitting by you. These are points in which a doubt is equally possible. Not keep a journal! How are your absent cousins to understand the tenour of your life in Bath without one? How are the civilities and compliments of every day to be related as they ought to be, unless noted down every evening in a journal? How are your various dresses to be remembered, and the particular state of your complexion, and curl of your hair to be described in all their diversities, without having constant recourse to a journal? My dear madam, I am not so ignorant of young ladies’ ways as you wish to believe me; it is this delightful habit of journaling which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated. Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female. Nature may have done something, but I am sure it must be essentially assisted by the practice of keeping a journal.”

Sense and Sensibility

Although my book-blogging has long been in abeyance, I do write, in my spreadsheet, little one-line summaries of the books I read. However, they are remarkably short on any literary insight. I just finished Sense and Sensibility and my review reads: “I found this book to be frequently somewhat tedious, and occassionally confusing, but the fact that it has held my interest through four days of headache, Guantanamo-like sleep deprivation, stomach pains, intestinal problems, and general physical and emotional exhaustion, it is probably a much better book than I think it is.”