#CBR8 Review #54

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfield

I’m a huge Jane Austen nerd, as most all of you know by now. I’ve read all of Austen’s novels and reviewed several of them for CBR. Two years ago, for CBR6, I embarked upon a Pride and Prejudice project, in which I reviewed several remakes or updates, including Longbourn, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Death Comes to Pemberley, and my second-favorite novelist of manners, Barbara Pym. This year, ElCicco reviewed Eligible while I was waiting impatiently for the library to discover the hold they had misplaced for me, and her review only made me want to read it more. I was not disappointed with the book.

While the overall story arc of Pride and Prejudice remains the same—Mr. Darcy holds prejudices against the Bennets, Elizabeth Bennet is proud about her assumptions, and they learn to come to a better understanding set against a backdrop of barbs and wit—Curtis Sittenfield updates the settings and the relationships. The Bennets live in Cincinnati (and hooray for the Midwest!!! I’m not in Ohio, but I do live in the Midwest and I resent implications that I live in a flyover state). Jane is almost 40 and has decided to become a mother through a sperm donor and insemination, which is not working. Liz is 38 and in a relationship with Jasper Wick, who can’t divorce his wife for Reasons. The younger three sisters live at home: Mary, the permanent scholar, who secretly goes out each Tuesday with nary a hint; Kitty and Lydia are CrossFit fanatics, with vulgar and immature manners. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have their own problems, too. Mr. Bennet has made poor financial choices that endanger the house and family, while Mrs. Bennet is a compulsive shopper and hoarder. Mr. Bennet’s heart attack and broken arm bring the older sisters home from New York, where they come in contact with Chip Bingley, a doctor who was on the reality show Eligible (totally a takedown of The Bachelor) and his best friend Darcy, who is a neurosurgeon recently relocated form the West Coast. The misunderstandings and sparks fly, as they should.

While this occasionally lacks the absolute perfection of Austen’s prose, the story is a delight. Sittenfield updates the cultural contexts to make this a timely and contemporary novel. Some may be horrified or startled that the Bennet sisters are none of them innocent little virgins, but it’s a realistic update. And Sittenfield even addresses LGBT issues in a way that is interesting and compassionate. If you like Pride and Prejudice and are open-minded, I think you will also like Eligible. I’m glad I read it. I’ve requested two other Austen updates from the library—Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, and Val McDiarmid’s Northanger Abbey.

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#CBR8 Review #53

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

I read scootsa 1000’s review of Exit, Pursued by a Bear and instantly thought, Yes, I very much want to read this book. I read Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (categorized as a romance) nine years ago in a Shakespeare seminar taught by one of my favorite undergraduate professors. In her planning of the class, she’d asked several majors if we’d like to do the typical tragedy-comedy dichotomy, and, to her infinite delight, we begged for the obscurer plays: the histories and the romances. Nerd moment: my favorite ever Shakespeare play is I Henry IV. It was my undergraduate honors thesis, and truly one of the more interesting historical explorations of power and heritage. Definitely check out The Hollow Crown, which is BBC’s rendition of the second Henriad (that is, Richard II, I Henry IV, II Henry IV, and Henry V). While some details of The Winter’s Tale are a bit fuzzy, I do remember that Hermione is the wronged queen banished to death, and it is her daughter and her loyal friend Paulina who help the king repent of his accusations and bring her back to life through art.

So to bring a more obscure play to life with a young adult novel, titled with the best-ever stage direction of all time? NERD HEAVEN. [sidenote: do you play the bear funny or scary? This was the everlasting debate when my sister went to see this play at the Stratford Festival of Canada.]

Trigger warning for those who need it: frank, though not graphic, discussion of rape.

 

Hermione Winter is a cheerleader in a small town where there is little else to do. Smart, self-aware, and driven, Hermione and her best friend Polly Olivier are the co-captains on a high-flying team determined to do well in their competitive season. The summer before senior year of high school is the annual Cheer Camp. Right before it’s over, there’s a party. Someone hands Hermione a drink. She blacks out. Twelve hours later, her entire world has shifted and she has to fill in the blanks. This is ultimately not a story of rape but of empowerment. It deals with rape, yes, but it also deals with finding yourself through the mist of unexpected trauma. It deals with slut-shaming and victim-blaming. It also deals with the miraculous power of unconditional love of friends, which is one of the greatest loves of all.

I loved this book, because it was smart, funny, honest, and different from other young adult novels. The discussion of rape is frank without being graphic or gratuitous, which I appreciated. I realize that all rape stories are different, and this one did not veer into maudlin or sentimental territory, which was refreshing and empowering to the protagonist. This book may not be entirely grounded in reality, but it’s okay to have an ideal for which to yearn and strive. If you like Veronica Mars, this is definitely in that same style, though I’d argue, even more openly feminist than Veronica was.

So, will your bear be funny or scary?

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#CBR8 Review #52

Room by Emma Donoghue

I’ve mentioned before that my students have been in the midst of book-and-movie review presentations. The number one choice this year was The Martian, especially with my male engineering students. The number two choice was Room. All of my students who reviewed it gave it a rave, and I finally decided to bump it up my TBR. It was a strong, poignant book that pulled me in and never let me go.

SPOILERS LURK AHEAD. Although, I actually felt that not having many surprises helped my reading and understanding of the book. I think that being in the dark would actually be a disservice to getting invested right away.

 

That said, SPOILERS.

 

Five-year-old Jack lives in Room with his Ma. They have a daily routine and a weekly routine which consists of playtime, bathtime, chores, meals, exercise, and a little TV. At night, Jack is sent to sleep in the wardrobe when Old Nick comes to be with Ma. To Jack, Room is the entire world, and everything on TV is fake and from another planet. But Ma knows differently. She knows that she is a prisoner held captive by a very bad man, and that Jack is the product of her imprisonment. She also knows that Room cannot contain them for much longer, so she begins to dismantle the world she has built for Jack, story by story. She devises an escape plan, and then, when unshackled from Room, she and Jack find themselves in the big, scary, beautiful world.

I don’t often like child-driven narrators, but here, it made sense. Jack filters some of the heaviest aspects of the world in Room, and he still helps more sophisticated readers understand what is happening. And yet there are moments when he is frustrating and selfish and, above all, a child, that you do want Ma’s perspective and focus. That said, I was engaged from the moment I read till the moment I finished the novel.

One last note, as I celebrate my 2016 Cannonball: I finished reading Room this last Sunday morning. I got up early to finish the last few pages, as the day would be spent celebrating my brother’s college graduation. My brother’s story is his own, so I won’t tell it here. But I was delighted to see him come-of-age and march across the stage to receive his Bachelor’s degree. He, like Jack, has grown up to view the beauty and complexity of the world, to take in its infinity one moment at a time. Room is a solidly good book, and reading it when I did made the experience much more meaningful to me.

 

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#CBR8 Review #51

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

My favorite-ever piece published on The Toast (okay, BESIDES Roxanne Gay’s gif-laden recap of Magic Mike XXL, because, Reasons) is the one where they sort 19th Century British authors into the various Hogwarts houses. Hilarity ensues. I posted this on my Facebook feed, and instantly, my Victorian friends ran to Anne Bronte’s defense. How DARE she be Hufflepuff? She’s the best Bronte!!! Etc. I had never read anything by her, but my own sister said, “There’s a reason Anne is the least famous Bronte.” So I had to find out for myself. And so, I spent a good week plus listening to the audiobook on my commute.

To quote Janice from Friends:

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Anne Bronte is so Hufflepuff it hurts. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is peopled with nice characters and mean characters. The nice characters are nice and the mean characters are shallow and mean. Gilbert Markham is the narrator of the frame novel, writing to his brother-in-law about his attraction to Helen Graham, a widow who has taken up residency in the village at Wildfell Hall, an old manor. He grows jealous of the attention she garners from other men, particularly her landlord Mr. Lawrence. A few confrontations ensue, until Mrs. Graham thrusts a journal in his hand and says, “Read it” whilst weeping in front of the fireplace. No, really. So the novel then turns into Mrs. Graham’s Journal of Secrets, in which we find out her true name and past and what she’s run away from. I bet Nicholas Sparks read it and wept in jealousy and rage that Anne Bronte took his carefully-planned tropes and did it better. Like Salieri from Amadeus.

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I’m such a terrible person.

In sum, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an interesting read that posits some real feminist traits and then pairs them with real batshit characterization and plotting. The writing is not great, and the characters are adorably, frustratingly Hufflepuff as f**k, but I would still read this any day over Wuthering Heights.

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#CBR8 Review #50

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

My friend A has already announced our June book club pick, and when I tried to get Me Before You from the library, I was on a superlong waiting list. Thankfully, A was glad to loan The Chancellor and me her copy so we could bypass the waiting period. Now that I’m caught up with Book Club, I can focus on getting back on track with my reviews. And it’s becoming clear that there are certain kinds of character or story-oriented books that just don’t do it for me.

Louisa, or Lou, Clark is a bit adrift at 26. She has lost her job as a waitress at the Buttered Bun, and her family depends on her income. Her father is out of work, and her mother is caring for Lou’s ailing grandfather. Lou’s sister and nephew live in their crowded, squashed house, and her boyfriend Patrick is obsessed with marathoning and running. Her temp agency brings her into contact with Will Traynor, a former business executive and adventurer taken down by an accident that has left him a quadriplegic. Lou’s job is to make sure that Will doesn’t inflict any harm upon himself during the day. She accidentally overhears that he wants to die via assisted suicide, and she determines to show him that life is very much worth living.

The story was interesting, and so were the major characters. I thought it was for the most part an engaging read, but there were definite flaws in the writing that kept me from really enjoying the book. First, the death-with-dignity discussion was fairly shallow and melodramatic. I applaud Moyes for tackling the issue, but I think that the melodrama surrounding the Will-Louisa relationship really clouded a clearer and more honest unpacking of the issue at hand. Also, the point-of-view changes at the oddest junctures, so that we hear points-of-view from both of Will’s parents, his nurse Nathan, and Louisa’s sister Treena. Why? What does that do for the story? I felt disoriented from the narrative groove Moyes had established. Also, most of the minor characters exist as plot points to create conflict, and that’s just a bit lazy for my taste. Ultimately, while I liked the story okay, I thought there was too much manufactured drama and emotion for me to sincerely fall in love with it the way others have. Your own mileage may vary.

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#CBR8 Review #49

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

I’m not much of a memoir reader, so reading someone else’s personal history/confessional/testimony is always a bit of a gamble. I really do appreciate someone else’s voice giving me their story, but unless the writing is truly excellent and the tone is one that catches my attention/empathy, I’m not likely to be too moved by it. And such is the result with Paul Kalanithi’s book, When Breath Becomes Air.

First, a disclaimer: my dad is a physician. He went through the premed coursework, the MCATs, medical school, the match process, residency, and paying off his student loans through government service before landing his job with a family practice and finding a relative degree of comfort while being active member of his family and church. I was born his third year of residency. My mom is also an ER nurse/stay-at-home mom, so I cannot tell you how many dinner table conversations consisted of the most disgusting medical cases/phenomena that did not gel with casseroles and pasta for us. My brother once texted me, “Mom and Dad are currently talking about an infected penis! WHY???” Thus, while I’m not professionally familiar with medicine, it is something I’ve been intimately acquainted with my entire life.

I say this, because When Breath Becomes Air cross-sects two areas with which I have been long acquainted on both a personal and professional level: medicine and literature. Paul Kalanithi is a young scholar seeking to understand death and its philosophical aspects. As an English literature major, he decides that literature is not his calling and that the discipline does not help him understand the philosophy of death or the human body, so he goes into medicine and there discovers his calling. He is a successful neurosurgery resident in his last year, though in a rocky relationship with his wife, when he finds himself in horrible pain all the time. He discovers that he has terminal lung cancer and can only hope that experimental treatments will help him. He and his wife decide to have a baby, and then he shares his perspective of transforming from doctor to patient.

I feel kind of like a bad person for speaking ill of this book, particularly because Kalanithi died before it was finished. At the same time, however, his death and subsequent forward and epilogue by Abraham Verghese and his wife paper over some of the major flaws in the book (in my opinion). The forward is gushy and effusive. There’s no two ways about it. Verghese raves about Kalanithi’s courage and prose as if his writing were some magnificent revelation. Now, Kalanithi is a solidly good writer, but he’s not a Cheryl Strayed or Toni Morrison. And the book itself is awkwardly paced and rushed through towards the end.

The epilogue informs us that it was started during Kalanithi’s initial diagnosis, and as his cancer rapidly progressed, he rushed to finish it. Lucy Kalanithi finished his story with her longer epilogue, and the book was sent to press, without editing. This, I feel, really hampers the quality of the book. There are several turns-of-phrase, when Kalanithi talks about literature and the match process in residency, in which he comes off like an entitled asshole. He actually makes the statement that he saw many of his friends turn away from specialties (like neurosurgery) and denied their calling for the cushy and easy money of general practice. This is definitely true of some people, but let’s get real. You match where you are placed, and that’s the end of it. Not everyone who’s as smart or as gifted as he is gets their top match, and not everyone gets to be a neurosurgeon. Period. We won’t even discuss what he says about literature. The Chancellor tried to convince me that he wasn’t being an asshole, but I’ve got too much baggage from pre-med classmates trying to make me feel stupid for picking an “easy” major.

I realize I’m losing focus of this review quickly, so my ultimate point is this: if this book had been co-written or ghost-written and the prose cleaned up, Kalanithi could have told a really clear and touching story. As it was, the writing craft for me was lacking, and the voice held a pomposity I could not shake.

Read The Chancellor’s review for a different opinion. He really liked it, and you’ll see where our perspectives differ.

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#CBR8 Review #48

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

Back in March, we had an instructor emergency, which led me to take on an extra class mid-semester (and is part of the reason I am SO FAR BEHIND on my Cannonball reviewing). It’s always hard to take on another person’s course, especially when your own classload is fairly full, and doubly especially when their syllabus is frighteningly sparse. We muddled through somehow, and thankfully, the last unit of the course synced up with my other two classes. As a result, I got to hear three sections of Rhetoric and Composition present on book reviews and the movie adaptations students chose to analyze. It was a delight. Students talking about books and movies in thoughtful and scholarly ways is the joy of my heart.

One student from my “new” class chose Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux, which has been on my TBR list for years. When I mentioned wanting to read it, he adorably offered to loan me his copy. And of course, I agreed to read it. I know the trust and hearts of students are won in imperceptibly small ways, and I was not one to turn down even the smallest overture of goodwill.

The Tale of Despereaux, much like this student, is absolutely delightful. It’s the story of a little mouse with an unquenchable spirit, a rat, a princess, a downtrodden servant girl, and soup. Always the soup. Long before Despereaux—the preternaturally tiny mouse—is born, a rat named Chiaroscuro falls into the queen’s soup, sending her into a seizure that ends in her death and causes the king to outlaw soup. Chiaroscuro disappears into the obscure dungeons where his heart is bitter and hard. The princess and Despereaux meet years later, when Miggory Sow—the poor downtrodden young woman—discovers her own desire for greatness. It’s a rich and intricate tale with beautiful illustrations.

This story ends with a beautiful valentine to storytelling, which I think is crucial for young kids to consider. As a child, I grew up with books and to enjoy reading, but it took me much longer to consider the actual power of storytelling in my own life and in society as a whole. I believe if we can help kids think about these things sooner, then maybe they will place more importance on activities like reading and thinking.

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