15

‘Eligible’ for my love

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve spent the last 20 years in a love affair with Pride and Prejudice. I’ve read it when I’m happy, when I’m sad, when I need a break from the world, when my reading mojo needs a jump start. I spent an entire summer re-reading it over and over when I didn’t have any other books with me. I didn’t have to go to class in grade 12 English when we studied it because I already knew it so well.

For almost the same amount of time I have more or less shunned any derivative of P&P retellings, spin offs or stories “inspired by.” There have been exceptions: I did really enjoy Darcy’s Passions, Death Comes to Pemberly was well done and of course Bridget Jones’ Diary is a classic in its own right.

But generally, I’m not a fan.

So I was apprehensive about reading Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld (who was mentioned in my recent love, The Name Therapist!). I’d recently been burned by a modern retelling of Emma by Alexander McCall Smith (who generally is one of my favourites) and wasn’t so excited about that happening with my #1 favourite book of all time.

And yet, what I had read about Eligible was positive.

I spent an entire day with this book, unwilling to leave it.

eligible

Elizabeth Bennet lives in New York but is summoned home to Cincinnati after her father has a heart attack. She and Jane come back to help look after the family and the house and make sure that their dad eats less meat and more greens. While she’s there, Liz meets Darcy and Jane meets Bingley and the classic story spins out much as expected.

My big issue with McCall Smith’s modern Emma was that Emma was an asshole. She was shallow and not that clever and really just wanted to cook and clean a house her husband bought for her. There was nothing modern about her! Sittenfeld manages to jump this hurdle with aplomb. Liz is very much a modern girl – she has a successful career writing for a magazine; she enjoys her work. And far from being a pathetic spinster, she’s had a series of relationships, always returning to one less-than-ideal situation with one Jasper Wick, our Wickham.

While Sittenfeld definitely moves the story through certain P&P plot points, a lot of it is shed in order to make the story more modern. Lydia doesn’t run off with someone shady, she dates someone who is Transgender. Kitty and Mary are more fully formed characters than they ever were in the original,Mr Bingley was basically The Bachelor and Sittenfeld has no problem introducing sex into the relationships. None of the characters’ ultimate goal is marriage (except for Mrs Bennet, but would we recognize her if she wasn’t obsessed with marrying off her daughters?) so even Charlotte doesn’t run off and get married within an hour of meeting Mr Collins though she does move in with him quite quickly.

A couple of things about this admittedly did bother me. I didn’t see that Charlotte needed to be so overweight, as the only reason someone didn’t want to marry her. In a world where she was professionally successful, couldn’t she just not have met the right person yet? I also hated that our heroine was called Liz. In the original, she’s Elizabeth, Lizzie or Eliza. Ample choices to prevent the use of Liz.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and I think that Jane Austen herself would get a kick out of Eligible. Sittenfeld has managed what many other imitators have not: she has created a comedy of modern manners. In this way she has kept the spirit of the original while creating a truly sharp, clever story all her own.

21

Books and Places: The Tag

Chelsea @ Chels and a Book tagged me to participate in the Books and Places tag. The idea is that you pick ten books and then tell the story behind where you read the book. This tag couldn’t have come at a better time actually, since I knew I needed to post something but had no idea what to post since I’m still reading Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. So thanks Chelsea!

When I was reading Chelsea’s post I was struck by just how well she knew the stories behind when and where she read her books. I wasn’t sure that I could do the same thing for the books sitting on my shelves. But then I went over to pick the books for this post and was surprised by how many books do have a story attached to them for me. Here are the stories of my books.

DSC_0004

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. If you’ve been around here for any length of time you know this is my absolute favourite. I’ve read it I don’t know how many times at this point. But I do remember one time, when I was in the Netherlands for the summer visiting my father. He lives on a farm in a village and he and my stepmother worked all summer. I didn’t really have anything to do and I’d only brought 3 or 4 books. I’d already read whatever chicken soup for the teenaged soul I was reading at the time and I think I also brought Candace Bushnell’s 4 Blondes and something else. Pride and Prejudice was the only book I could read over. I read that book many times that summer. I would sit outside in the (weak Dutch) sun on the picnic table, finish the book, sit and think about it for a minute and turn it over and start again. All summer. When a book is a companion like that, you never get over it.

Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster. A friend messaged me on Facebook to say she had just read this book and she thought I would love it. That the author’s voice kind of reminded her of me. I was intrigued and basically ran right out and got it. I ended up running a bath and reading it in the tub. I was giggling in the tub within minutes and didn’t stop the whole time I was reading this book. It was the first time I’d ever read any non-fiction that was funny and I didn’t know that that was allowed to be a thing! Lancaster’s footnotes in this book are legendary, running the gamut from “fucking loser” and “Yes. She finally ended it last month. Whore.” to See? I’m not a total shrew.” This whole book is a profanity-laced delight and I loved it. Lancaster and I are very different people but I appreciate her so so much.

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi (and Curt Gentry). I credit this book with introducing me to my husband. I was reading this book when I met him and talked to him about the failed police investigation. He’s a police officer and he said later that it was refreshing to talk to a girl who didn’t ask him if he’d ever shot his gun. I went home and spent the whole next day in bed reading this book waiting for a text from a certain red-head. We almost had a table called Helter Skelter at our wedding but didn’t know who to seat at it…

Everyone Worth Knowing by Lauren Weisberger. This is my favourite book of hers, even over The Devil Wears Prada. Possibly because of the reading experience that went along with it. I had just started working at a bank, my first grown up job. And on my lunch breaks, I would walk over to the bakery down the street which was owned by my friend’s parents. I would get lunch and a brownie – they made the most amazing brownies that had walnuts in them (before these brownies, I never ate brownies that had nuts in them) and were iced with the greatest frosting. I would sit in the back of the cafe with my brownie and read about Bette making her way in PR in Manhattan. To date one of my favourite ways to read.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. About two months after I met my now-husband, I was leaving to study abroad in Amsterdam. He came to the airport to see me off and brought me books because he already knew how much I loved to read. The Poisonwood Bible was one of the books (Marley & Me was another – he was intent on making me cry). No one had warned me about this book! I brought it to Spain with me and read poolside in the blazing hot sun. And then cried my damn eyes out because the book was so sad and I missed this lovely, thoughtful guy so much already.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by JK Rowling. When the Harry Potter books first came out, I thought Harry Potter was the author. I vividly remember Christmas shopping when the first three were out and they were in all the bookstore windows everywhere. The summer that the 4th book came out, I had just got a job working in a fairy store. Yeah – they sold fairy merchandise but it was mostly a base at which to hold fairy birthday parties for kids. The owner wanted me to get familiar with everything they sold and told me to read the Harry Potter books if I hadn’t already. The store was always dead (not a huge market for fairy stuff) so one day I decided to actually read them. I picked The Chamber of Secrets because the first book was only in paperback and I didn’t want to warp the spine if they still wanted to sell it. I spent maybe a half hour leaning over the counter reading it before I realized that I couldn’t start with the second book. I needed to buy these books for myself and read them. And that’s how I came to fall in love with JK Rowling.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Bachman is a more recent read than most of the others on this list. I read it late last year. I hadn’t intended to read it at all but it kept popping up in my life. I probably read most of it on the bus (it is where I do most of my reading) but I finished it late at night in bed with my little night light on so as not to disturb my sleeping husband. As I was nearing the end I was crying so hard but trying to cry silently so as not to wake my husband. I finished it and just lay there with tears streaming down my face, completely devastated by this little book.

The Birth House by Ami McKay. I had a day off from work and school and picked this book up, meaning to just casually read a little of it before getting on with whatever I had planned for my day off. I ended up just sitting in the corner of the couch for hours, devouring it. I only moved to get food or go to the bathroom and by the time my then-boyfriend came home, I had finished it and done nothing about maybe getting dinner started.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin. I brought this book with me to Portland last fall. We had a little bit of down time in the hotel room and I cracked it. But I never seemed to get very far with it while we were in Portland. But then we had a 6+ hour drive back home and it was pouring rain. Pouring. I sat happily tucked in the passenger seat and let Toibin tell me the story of Nora Webster trying to find her way after the death of her husband. There’s nothing better than reading on a road trip, especially with such an absorbing book.

Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon. This book is something like 900 pages. Of non-fiction. So there’s no one story of reading it. I toted this beast around with me everywhere while I was reading it and frequently cried on public transportation while I did so. This book can be incredibly difficult to read. It can also be uplifting and hopeful and beautiful. I just remember sitting on the bus, crying all the time when I was reading this. Sometimes they were tears of joy, reading about families who had embraced their children’s differences and other times they were tears of sadness or frustration reading about families that just couldn’t handle them. One of the most powerful books I’ve ever read.

Alright, there you have it. Ten bookish stories. I’m not going to call out anyone specifically, but if you want to do it and you are in need of a post idea, feel free to jump in!

20

Living Up To Bookish Expectations

Last week I wrote a post about a book that I really enjoyed and how I was glad that I hadn’t let previous negative experience reading this author’s work, prevent me from reading her follow up effort. The author shared the post on her Facebook page whereby I was called out by a fan for being crass for having expectations of this book and then not liking the book because it hadn’t lived up to my expectations. (Full disclosure: being called crass was a particularly effective way of riling me up. I am a lady thankyouverymuch.)

Aside from the fact that I was delighted to cause such a strong reaction in someone reading my words, it did get me thinking:

The idea that one should start reading a book without any expectations is insane.

insane

OK fine, you probably don’t want to go into reading all books thinking they should all measure up to your idea of that one perfect book (which is obviously Pride & Prejudice right?), because then you’re going to be disappointed. Again and again and again. And then probably again.

But we all have some expectations of the books we read. They are not one size fits all expectations across the board. But you wouldn’t pick up a book to read in the first place if you had no expectations for it.

You might want it to make you laugh or cry. Maybe you’re in the mood to take a break from this world and spend some time at Hogwarts, in Middle Earth, or Panem. Maybe you want to read something comforting and familiar or you want to read something uplifting.

Maybe the book you’re reading is supposed to teach you something new or challenge a belief system. Maybe it’s supposed to inspire you or spark a discussion. Maybe everyone has been talking about this one book and you want to know what the fuss is about. Maybe it’s being turned into a movie and the movie trailer made you want to read the book.

All of these are expectations, good or bad. The idea that I’m not allowed to say that I was disappointed by a book because it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be is, again, insane. That’s not saying that an author is not a good writer or the story is garbage and no one should read it. I’m saying that I thought it was going to be a certain way and when it wasn’t, I was disappointed. That’s totally allowed.

There are times when a book wasn’t what I was expecting but it was so much better than what I was expecting. Outlander, The Fault in Our Stars, The Hunger Games, and anything by Maeve Binchy were all not what I expected (at all) but I still went in with expectations.

If you’re not going into reading with any expectations, I’m not sure you’re reading properly.

11

When the Book Alone Isn’t Enough: Binging on North and South

I totally binged on North and South last week.

Let me rewind a little bit. I first read a book by Elizabeth Gaskell in university. Mary Barton is a Victorian novel examining the disparities between rich and poor. It also deals with the realities of the working class in an industrial city during the Victorian era. It was grim and sad and difficult to read but it was so great.

Then I read Cranford, another Victorian masterpiece of reality. Mrs. Gaskell doesn’t sugarcoat the future facing unmarried women of a certain age. It’s pretty grim as well.

A few weeks ago, I read Wives and Daughters which I loved. That’s when I realized that actually, I really like books by Elizabeth Gaskell and next time I was in the library, I picked up North and South.

This might be my favourite. I need to own a copy.

Margaret Hale has spent her teenage years living at a fashionable address in London, the playmate of a wealthy cousin. When her cousin gets married, Margaret returns to the parish where her father is the parson. But due to a crisis of conscience, her father leaves the church and moves the family away from their home in Helstone, to the Northern, industrial city of Milton. Here he will tutor the sons of local families while Margaret attempts to overcome her prejudices against Northerners, and especially against self-made men, like Mr. Thornton, who she doesn’t consider gentlemen.

Margaret forms an unlikely friendship with Bessy Higgins and her family. Bessy has lung problems from having worked in the mills for so long. Her father, Nicholas, is a Union man, bent on organizing a mill strike to get better wages.

So much happens in this book. That’s a bare bones assessment. People die, people travel, there’s a strike that boils over, a mutiny at sea, a cast of characters that includes a disapproving mother, an insipid aunt and a potential benefactor.

But can we just take a moment to talk about Margaret and Mr. Thornton? North and South was published in 1855, a full 42 years after Pride and Prejudice (here we go with the Jane Austen again) but while the subject matter, the customs, and definitely the setting, are all completely different, in Margaret and Mr. Thornton we find some semblance of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.

Which is awesome.

Beautiful Margaret Hale is a young woman used to going her own way. Although women of her class didn’t tend to mix with working class men like Nicholas Higgins, Margaret goes out of her way to visit and befriend him, learning a lot about life in Milton. Mr. Thornton is also used to getting his own way and rigidly adheres to the customs and codes of life to which is he is accustomed. He can be quick to make judgements and when his idea of Margaret as pure and noble is challenged, he has a hard time moving past it.

These two spend the whole book clashing until finally realizing that actually, they love each other. A lot.

When I finished (it does end kind of abruptly owing, no doubt, to the fact that North and South was serialized originally and needed to be wrapped up in a certain number of installments) I wasn’t ready to let it go. So I went to Netflix and binged on the 2004 BBC miniseries. If you have four hours, I would recommend you do the same. Here’s a little taste to wet your appetite.

7

Longbourn: Jane Austen’s Novel from a Servant’s Perspective. Sort of.

Jane Austen is my jam. I love her work. I make a point of re-reading at least one of her novels every year. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice so many times now that I’m not sure I’m even reading it anymore as much as I’m turning the pages as I work my way through memorized passages.

But, with a couple of exceptions, I’m not a fan of Jane Austen knock offs or continuations. I did enjoy P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberly and once I was totally into the story as seen from Darcy’s perspective (Darcy’s Passions, catchy title right?). But in general, these aren’t my thing. I know there are whole series based on the continuation of Darcy and Elizabeth’s story but I just can’t. Best not to get me started on the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies thing.

All this to say that the idea of the Pride and Prejudice story as seen from the point of view of the Bennett family domestic staff intrigued me. Jo Baker’s Longbourn sounded like an ideal mix of Pride and Prejudice and Downton Abbey, which we’re all into right now.

I got it for Christmas from my mom and didn’t even pretend like I was going to savour it. I cracked that baby in the car on the way up to our holiday retreat. I was done with it the next day.

longbourn

Longbourn focuses almost exclusively on the domestic staff of the Bennett family. Mrs. Hill, the cook and general housekeeper who has had a secret dalliance with the master of the house; Sarah, the housemaid who desperately wants to be free of a life of service and is determined to marry out of it; Polly, a junior housemaid, taken in from the local orphanage; and James, the handsome and mysterious, (but super helpful) new footman.

We do get a highlights tour of the plot points of Pride and Prejudice, at least the ones where a servant might have been present. But mostly the story focuses on Sarah and her relationship with James, using the Pride and Prejudice story as a kind of anchor. I wasn’t too keen on the characterization of Elizabeth, but from Sarah’s viewpoint she must have been kind of a silly girl who constantly muddied her petticoats.

The story’s point of view changes a few times – we start with Sarah’s life as it is, understanding that this wasn’t the life that she was meant for but things changed, then Mrs. Hill takes us back and clears up some things for us and we end up with James, in his life before Longbourn, before swinging back to Sarah to wrap things up.

This book was clearly meticulously researched. The amount of work that must have gone into looking at the lives of domestics in Regency England, the processes that saw clothes washed, food prepared, clothes made etc – it was insane. Although these passages tended to reinforce the idea that the Bennetts were actually dirty (thanks Keira Knightly Pride and Prejudice), an idea that I abhor (I prefer my Bennetts as they are in the BBC production), it was an interesting look at life as it was.

Overall, I thought the idea was an original one and I enjoyed the story but it didn’t engage me like the original. And I’m not sure I can forgive Jo Baker for keeping Mr. Darcy a hardass.

3

I Changed My Mind: Books I’m Excited About This Season

Remember the other day when I was all “waaaaaa, there are no new books out this fall that I want to read!”?

Turns out I just needed to pull my head out of my a$$ and go to a book store.

I was in the habit of going to bookstores fairly regularly, opening my wallet and my arms to a number of books. But then I got engaged (woot woot!) and started spending more time at the library in the hopes of saving enough pennies to put towards things like flowers and photographers.

The one drawback with going to the library is that the titles on hand aren’t always the freshest.

So imagine my surprise (and delight) when I found myself in a bookstore the other night, surrounded by new books that I want to read!

And the hits keep coming because this week I’ve been hearing about so many other great sounding books I want. I guess the difference this season is that the books aren’t by authors that I already love.

So here’s a rundown of the books that I’m most looking forward to reading soon.

Longbourn by Jo Baker. I’m pretty sure this book combines my love of Pride and Prejudice and Downton Abbey and I cannot think of anything more perfect book-wise right now. The story of Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley, and Lydia from the perspective of gossipy servants? I’m in.

Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower. I have a fascination with Hitler and the Third Reich. I can’t help it – I know it’s twisted. But one thing that’s not often discussed in books about Hitler or the Third Reich is the role of women in the Third Reich. Not the “undesirables” or those women that helped the Nazis to save themselves, but the women that were a part of it all. The ones that actively participated in the solution to the “Jewish Problem.” Wendy Lower finally addresses it and I’m looking forward to reading about them.

The Circle by Dave Eggers. Aside from the fact that this book has a beautiful cover, there’s been a lot of buzz about this one – I’ve even heard it described as our generation’s 1984. Which is saying something. The premise of a young woman working for the world’s biggest internet company (think Facebook or twitter) and coming face to face with the reality of that much information and power in one place, really appeals to that part of me that grew into adulthood with social media dogging every footstep.

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson. Here’s one of my favourite authors that I didn’t know had a new book out. I loved The Devil in the White City and adored In the Garden of Beasts so I’ve unknowingly been waiting for his new book. Guglielmo Marconi’s telegraph changed the way we communicated but evidently he also played an important role in one of the biggest manhunts in history. Larson is an unparalleled story teller. His tales are true, but you always forget that you’re not reading a novel, such is his talent.

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. Last year I found out that Alexandre Dumas was a black man. It had never occurred to me that a famous French author from that time could be black which probably says all the wrong things about me (see why reading is important people? You learn so many things). The Black Count is the story of Dumas’ father who was born in Haiti the son of a black slave, came to Paris and ended up becoming a General commanding armies at the height of the Revolution. How can you not want to read that?

And I did actually walk out of the bookstore with Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath because I cannot ever walk away from new Gladwell.

I feel like my book spirit has revived! Bring on the long (Canadian) weekend – I have some reading to do!