The Great Library Rundown, Part 2: Beach Reads



I don’t know about you, but my stack of books to take to the beach generally weighs more than my four-year-old. I’ve recently read three library books with beach potential; June approaches, so let’s assess, shall we?

IMG_6537Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes

Yes, I know I might be the last person on the continent to have read this tearjerker (soon to be a feature film), but then again, there was still a waitlist for it at my local library.

Synopsis: Louisa, a quirky young woman from a working-class family, gets a last-ditch job as a companion for Will, a young businessman and adventurer paralyzed in a car accident. When Louisa finds out Will’s plans for physician-assisted suicide, she determines to prove to him that life is still worth living, and in the process, she opens up her own horizons.

The good: I liked that Lou comes from a working-class family, and that the book doesn’t attempt to skate over the difficulties of job loss and living paycheck-to-paycheck. Lou and her sister Treena, a brilliant single mom, have an interesting relationship, combative and loving at the same time.

The not-so-good: I thought the pacing was off and the changes in perspective were annoying. I wish there’d been more balance in the depiction of life as a quadriplegic; Will is pretty damn miserable—despite his enormous financial advantages—but certainly not all quadriplegics feel the same way (there’s an attempt to show this through a fictitious message board, but why not introduce another character?).

Verdict: Depends entirely on your taste for tearjerkers.

Maestra, by L.S. HiltonIMG_6838

Judith Rashleigh is an assistant at a London auction house who becomes embroiled in intrigue after she’s unjustly fired from her job and ends up on the French Riviera, trying to pass as one of the rich and carefree. Sex and murder and art fraud shenanigans ensue.

[Sidebar here: Whoever did the marketing on this book is very good—from the cover to the deliberate comparisons to Fifty Shades of Grey and Gone Girl, they’ve tried very hard to make this a hit. Oh, and the book already has two planned sequels and a movie deal. Le sigh.]

The good: This book had so much potential—there’s one good twist, the bits about art and appraisal are fascinating (I wished the book had stayed more focused on the art world), and somewhere there’s some good material relating to young women’s righteous rage at being undervalued at work and treated like sex objects all the time.

The bad:  Well, let’s see: there’s fat-shaming (lots of it), gratuitous name-dropping of designer labels (this gets worse as the book goes on), unconvincing plot maneuvers, repetitive, humorless sex scenes that try too hard to shock readers . . . I could go on.

The verdict: Leave it at the library.

Eligible, by Curtis SittenfeldIMG_6864

Synopsis: In this modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet sisters are natives of Cincinnati. Liz and Jane, both approaching 40, are home from New York to care for their dad after his heart attack when they meet Chip Bingley (former contestant on a Bachelor-type show) and his haughty neurosurgeon friend, Darcy. You can take it from there, folks.

The good: Part of the fun of reading this was, for me, guessing how Ms. Sittenfeld would update Austen’s plot points for twenty-first-century readers (CrossFit makes an appearance, for example). Liz and Jane are pitch-perfect, I loved the choice of Cincinnati as setting, and I think the Bennets’ socioeconmic status makes sense. And the last chapter is a-mazing.

The not-so-good: I think the attempts to highlight race and LGBTQ issues were a good idea, but not taken far enough. There’s quite a bit of silliness at the end, which I could have done without.

Also, I’m a transplanted Ohioan, and good lord did this make me miss Graeter’s and Skyline.

The verdict: Not destined to be a classic, and not Curtis Sittenfeld’s best (I think the consensus points to American Wife), but 100% beachworthy.

What’s on your beach reading list this summer?

A Non-Review Recommendation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion

persuasionLet us assume, please, that we all agree Jane Austen is a genius and reading her books is an experience equivalent to eating chocolate bon-bons and sipping champagne (or Scotch, if you’re of my inclination) while the sun sets on a perfect late-spring day as a string quartet plays Bach on your mansion’s terrace.

Thus I will spare you discussion of why I love Jane Austen, which is pretty much why everyone else loves Jane Austen, and move on to the particular pleasures of Persuasion, her last completed novel.

Persuasion concerns Anne Elliot, a woman in her late twenties who once had an understanding with a young naval officer, an understanding that was given up under the well-meaning influence of a family friend, Lady Russell. In the intervening years Anne has not married and Captain Wentworth has made a name and fortune for himself; thanks to Anne’s father’s profligacy, the two meet again when Frederick’s sister and brother-in-law rent the Elliott estate. However, Frederick has not forgiven her for what he feels was a grievous error on her part, and as other romantic interests present themselves, it seems as if the two will never reconcile.

Persuasion is my favorite of Austen’s novels, and I limit myself to a reading every three years or so. What struck me on this reading — perhaps because I was reading To the Lighthouse at the same time — was the immense interiority of the novel — so much of the writing focuses on Anne’s emotions and reasoning. Akin more to Elinor Dashwood than Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse, Anne feels deeply but does not permit herself to give vent to those feelings. What distinguishes her from Fanny Price (I’ve never much cared for Fanny) is her sense of duty, her inward nature turned outward to comfort and help those around her, however undeserving they may be. In other words, Fanny comes across as a victim, acted upon by others, while Anne is fully-realized rational agent. Perhaps her age has something to do with her maturity and kindness (she is selfless, but not a martyr); she’s roughly ten years older than Austen’s other heroines.

In addition to Anne’s charms as a heroine, Persuasion also offers delightful bits and pieces of advice and food for thought. Here are a few of my favorites.

Still true of any two readers:

” [. . . ] and they walked together for some time, talking as before of Mr. Scott and Lord Byron, and still as unable, as before, and as unable as any other two readers, to think exactly alike of the merits of either [. . .]” (90)

Good for parents to keep in mind:

“When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other’s ultimate comfort. This may be bad morality conclude with, but I believe it to be the truth.” (199)

To keep in mind during election years: 

“Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished, — but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection. Her early impressions were incurable. She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others. Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still. She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.” (131)

How we book bloggers might describe ourselves:

” ‘Give him a book and he will read all day long.’ [. . . ] ‘He will sit poring over his book, and not know when a person speaks to him, or when one drops one’s scissors, or any thing that happens.'” (108)

And perhaps the greatest fictional love letter ever:

I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in
F. W.” (191)

By the way, my favorite film adaptation of Persuasion is the 1995 film version with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds. It is, I think, the truest film adaptation of Austen I’ve ever seen.

What’s your favorite Austen novel? Have you read Persuasion? What did you think?

A Literary Wedding, or, “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

our rings

Our wedding rings

We were married three years ago this week, back in the olden days before Pinterest provided endless helpful suggestions regarding how to personalize your wedding with monograms and mason jars.

Now, I love a mason jar as much as the next gal, but our last name’s initial looks a heckuva lot like a circle, so I didn’t (and don’t) see much point in monogramming anything. I think it would have confused people. (“Which table are you sitting at?” “Table 0.” “Oh, I thought we were at table O.” “Oh dear.”) Personalizing one’s wedding ought to mean something more than splashing one’s initials all over it in in perfect wildflower hues, right?

Our wedding would never make the pages of Martha Stewart Weddings. We didn’t meticulously handcraft garlands of paper cranes from the pages of vintage books. We didn’t do favors, rice, confetti, a “real” wedding cake (we went with the Heart of Darkness chocolate torte, with mango coulis), or a “normal” ceremony.

What we did do was try very hard to make the wedding our own, an event that expressed not only who we are as a couple but where we came from — the people and words and music that shaped our lives.

The program included the line from “Birches” I’ve used in this post’s title, and Juliet’s immortal lines, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea / My love as deep. The more I give to thee / The more I have, for both are infinite.” The lettering on the front of the program used a font based on Jane Austen’s handwriting; on the last page we reprinted Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 in memory of absent friends.

The processional was “Building the Barn” from Witness, because, well, just watch that part of the movie (bonus: Viggo Mortenson cameo!). And the recessional was “Everyone” by Van Morrison because, well, watch the end of The Royal Tenenbaums. But only if you’ve seen the beginning and the middle.

While guests waited they had the option of tinkering with a crossword we made about us, our friends, and families, or looking out over a little river and falls, or browsing in the bookstore.

Yes, we were married at a bookstore. Well, technically, we were married on a deck that’s part of a restaurant that’s located in an old mill that’s been converted into a used bookstore in a town called, of all things, Montague. But I just tell everyone that we were married at a bookstore. It’s easier that way.

[It’s lovely to be able to return to a place that holds such beautiful memories for us; we try to go back at least once a year. I’ll post pictures from our latest visit tomorrow.  I bet you’ll want to go there too.]

Our ceremony was comprised of the usual wedding bits, retooled to suit our beliefs and preferred wording, and literary readings. Each of us asked a parent, a sibling, a friend, and an aunt or uncle to read during the ceremony, in groups of two.

Which readings, you ask?

  • “In Lands I Never Saw,” by Emily Dickinson
  • “The Owl and the Pussycat,” by Edward Lear
  • Most Like an Arch This Marriage,” by John Ciardi
  • Sonnet 116, by William Shakespeare
  • “The Master Speed,” by Robert Frost
  • a selection from the Song of Songs
  • a selection from Emma, by Jane Austen
  • a selection from The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

I can still hear each one of these people reading, people we love who shared these words that mean so much to us. Because a marriage ceremony is an act of speaking something into being, and it’s important to get the words right.


So, since today is Tuesday, and therefore a poetry day around these parts, I thought today I’d highlight a poem that wasn’t read at our wedding.

You read that right. We both love Robert Frost’s “Birches” — so much so that my husband’s wedding ring is etched to look like birch bark — but it is long, and not really related to marriage, so we chose a different Frost poem for our set of readings. Now, though, after three years and one child together, this poem has taken on even more significance to us. Sometimes I imagine my son as the boy in the poem, confident though solitary. Sometimes I turn to the poem when things get hard, as they are wont to do, when

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.

But above all, we love the poem for its abiding love for the beauty and promise of this world and its often-anonymous inhabitants. After all, “one could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”

Three years later, at the bookmill.

Three years later, at the Bookmill.

Did you incorporate readings into your wedding ceremony? How did you choose your readings?

Recommended Reading: Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James

A few weeks ago, I cracked open a book that a friend gave me years ago, a “continuation” of Pride and Prejudice. It’d been sitting on the shelf for four years, and, in the midst of spring cleaning, I thought I’d give it a try to decide whether or not to keep it.

Turns out, it was fan fiction. Wait. Make that fan erotica.

It was cringe-worthy, awful, with no sense of the characters’ personalities or voices. So bad that I’m withholding the author’s name. Needless to say, we had a dramatic reading, with friends, of some of the funnier bits. And then the book left our house.

[Sidebar: How does stuff like this get published?]

So let’s agree that I have a healthy skepticism when it comes to “continuations,” and I was prepared to abandon P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley at the first sign of nonsense.

Happily, I knew as soon as I read Ms. James’s modest and charming prefatory note that I wouldn’t find nonsense in her novel, which takes place five or six years after the last events in Pride and Prejudice.

While respecting Jane Austen’s signature style and her literary creations, Ms. James crafts a  novel all her own with excellent period detail (negus, anyone?), new but not out-of-place characters, and a more-than-plausible mystery storyline. Readers expecting a great deal of romance between Darcy and Elizabeth will be disappointed (though there are a few instances of hand-pressing), but there’s plenty to enjoy in Ms. James’s astute speculations about familiar figures like Colonel Fitzwilliam and Charlotte Lucas. Furthermore, be on the lookout for delightful “cameos” by characters form other novels in the Austen universe.

Highly recommended for a spring afternoon, especially if consumed with teacup in hand.