Last Week’s Reading: May 28 -June 3

Birdie, by Tracey Lindberg: As usual, I am late to the CanLit party, but let me be the umpteenth person to tell you that Birdie is very, very good. Birdie, a Cree woman, has traveled to British Columbia from her home (that’s simplifying things, I admit) in Alberta, working in a bakery and hoping, maybe, to meet Pat John, an actor from The Beachcombers (had to look that one up). Birdie goes into a dream state in which she processes her memories of abuse; soon, her Aunt Val and cousin Skinny Freda arrive to watch over her. The novel is unabashedly non-linear, and Ms. Lindberg weaves Cree language and stories through the narrative, making this one of the more unusual, affecting reading experiences I’ve had lately. For a better review from a Canadian perspective, check out Laura’s post. Highly recommended.

Sycamore, by Kathy Fagan: I admire Kathy Fagan’s poetry so much, and Sycamore is no exception. In it, Ms. Fagan considers the sycamore tree as a physical object and as a metaphor (for growth, for change, among other things) in poems about the end of a long marriage. Sycamore is the kind of book that I’ll return to again and again, though its complexities and delights make it difficult to express how much I enjoyed it in this brief overview. For a better sense of the collection, please have a look at The Cloudy House Q & A with Kathy Fagan.

Mr. Rochester, by Sarah Shoemaker: Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea will always be the Jane Eyre-inspired novel against which all others are measured, though  Mr. Rochester is a fine addition to the category. If it didn’t, to my ear, quite capture the voice of the elusive and angry Rochester, it nonetheless is a noble effort, and Ms. Shoemaker plausibly fills in the gaps of his history. Subtly, the author shows us that Rochester is not so self-aware as Jane; nor is he particularly invested in righting the many wrongs he encounters in his travels. Recommended for Brontë fans looking for more of the gloomy Mr. R.

Lena, by Cassie Pruyn: This is a beautiful debut collection about the sweet-bitter nature of first love–longer review to come (sooner rather than later, I hope).

Recommended Reading: Claire Harman’s Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart

IMG_6543Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart is an excellent literary biography, and I’m so happy to have read it. The writing is assured and graceful, and the subject couldn’t be more interesting.

First, a caveat:

While Jane Eyre is my favorite novel, before I read Ms. Harman’s biography, I knew only the bare outline of Charlotte Brontë’s life. I knew that she was one of four (surviving) writer siblings, all of whom died very young. I knew that they lived on the moors, in a parsonage, and that at least a few of them died of tuberculosis (more on that in a bit). I knew Charlotte had attended a school she didn’t like (the basis for Lowood in Jane Eyre). I knew that she, Emily, and Anne published their first novels under pseudonyms.

That’s not much to go on, but in general I’m pretty comfortable loving books without knowing much about authors behind them (and in some cases, I imagine that’s a very good thing).

My point is that I came to this book as a beginner, not a Brontë fanatic (I’ve also read Wuthering Heights and Anne Carson’s amazing essay/poem regarding Emily in Glass, Irony, and God), so your mileage may vary if you’re already well versed in Brontëana.

I’d also point out that unlike some literary biographies, this one doesn’t offer a big dose of literary criticism (though the novels are discussed, of course), which I appreciate.

Ms. Harman frames the book with an account of Charlotte’s time as a student in Belgium, where her principal teacher—and the object of her unrequited affection–was the very Mr. Rochester-like Constantin Heger. This turned my perception of Charlotte as always parsonage-bound on its head, and I was intrigued to read Ms. Harman’s demonstration of the ways in which Jane Eyre was shaped by Charlotte’s lonely months in Belgium and the unsatisfying correspondence that followed, and by just how despondent Charlotte was:

But Charlotte was also struggling with the larger issue of how she would ever accommodate her strong feelings—whether of love for Heger, or her intellectual passions, or her anger at circumstances and feelings of thwarted identity—in the life that life seemed to have in store for her, one of patchy, unsatisfying employment, loneliness, and hard work. What was someone like her, a plain, poor, clever, half-educated, dependent spinster daughter, to do with her own spiritual vitality and unfettered imagination?

Aside from this frame, the book’s content appears in chronological order, beginning with background on Charlotte’s parents and then moving forward into her childhood (when she suffered the loss of her mother and two elder sisters, one of whom was a model for Helen Burns), adolescence, and adulthood. The Brontë household was an odd one; after his wife’s death Patrick Brontë dined alone, as did the stern aunt who came to raise Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne, and the children did not make friends in the village. They did create elaborate fictional worlds in secret (this secrecy would carry over into the daughters’ adult ventures) some set down in minuscule books (about two inches high) that still survive (and this may help to explain Charlotte’s woefully bad eyesight).

All four understood that their limited means necessitated that they make plans for useful employment as adults, and so the girls studied hard at various schools, expecting to become teachers or governesses. All of them hated leaving home, Emily most of all, but were all exceedingly bright pupils. (Branwell was similarly intelligent, but conceited, and his sisters ended up supporting him as he made a series of bad choices that culminated in opium addiction.)

The publication of the three sisters’ novels was a source of delight, but their felicity was short lived; Charlotte’s three siblings died, one after the other, in less than a year. The chapter about this terrible season in her life is simply gut-wrenching. I was in tears.

Charlotte herself died just a few years later, less than a month shy of her thirty-ninth birthday—not of tuberculosis, as was long supposed, but of hyperemesis gravidarum (essentially, extreme nausea and vomiting during pregnancy that can lead to dehydration and malnutrition—its most famous sufferer is Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge), as Ms. Harman conclusively proves. Though now treatable, it wasn’t in the 1850s, and so Charlotte essentially starved to death, in near-constant agony for the first and only months of her pregnancy.

This was the end of a lifetime of suffering, which included the loss of five siblings, her mother, and beloved friends. She was ill rather often, for many years had few outlets for her intelligence outside of her home, and loathed her work as a governess and teacher. Charlotte was also tormented by her own lack of beauty, which made socializing very difficult even when her publishing success meant that she was introduced to writers she admired, like Thackeray and Harriet Martineau.

And yet this brilliant, difficult, imaginative woman channeled her ambition, secret passions, and fierce sense of justice into books that have long outlived her—through almost sheer force of will.

Claire Harman’s book, which seamlessly incorporates letters and other archival material is a through portrait of this indomitable author. Reading this biography led me to admire Charlotte Brontë as a person just as much as I have admired her as an author.

Recommended Reading: Jane Steele, by Lindsay Faye

Jane Steele book photo by Carolyn OliverReader, I adored Lindsay Faye’s Jane Steele*, a wickedly delicious riff on Jane Eyre (which is my favorite novel) recommended by Rory and Kay (a few possible spoilers in the latter review).

Having read and enjoyed Charlotte Brontë’s novel (though she does have suggestions for its heroine, like taking the pearl necklace with her so she can afford to feed herself), Jane Steele, self-confessed black-hearted murderess, sets out to write her own autobiography.

It is most enjoyable.

Jane Steele’s story mirrors her antecedent’s, as she’s well aware, quoting liberally from Jane Eyre and commenting on the ways in which her own tale differs (readers who know the novel well will also be amused by Ms. Faye’s deployment of relevant passages as epigraphs before each chapter). Orphaned young and possessed of an unpleasant aunt, this Jane becomes an inmate of an even more unpleasant school, Lowan Bridge (a play on Lowood, Jane Eyre’s school, and Cowan Bridge, which the Brontë sisters attended and became the inspiration for Lowood):

There is no practice more vexing than that of authors describing coach travel for the edification of people who have already traveled in coaches. As I must adhere to form, however, I will simply list a series of phrases for the unlikely reader who has never gone anywhere: think eggshell dawn-soaked curtains stained with materials unknown to science; rattling fit to grind bones to powder; the ripe stench of horse and driver and bog.

Now I have fulfilled my literary duties, I need only add that other girls traveling to school may not have dwelt quite so avidly upon the angular faces of police constables as I.

Though she arrives at school already, she thinks, a hardened murderess, Jane Steele is unprepared for the horrific conditions imposed on the pupils by the malicious headmaster Vesalius Munt.

As you can see from that last example, Ms. Faye has a talent for names, which frequently seem worthy of Dickens. She dedicates the novel to Nicholas Nickleby and Jane Eyre, and I found myself laughing at many of her Dickensian touches. The detail in the book is a pleasure to read, not only in the references to nineteenth-century peculiarities of dress and decor, but also in lines like “The December morning had been frigid, a pristine lace veil draped bridelike over the grounds” (and another nice Jane Eyre reference there).

After leaving a (short) trail of her tormentors’ bodies in her wake, Jane sets out for London with the one friend she’s acquired at school, a girl called Clarke. Together they use the skills they learned at Cowan Bridge (thievery and lying) to survive, and then Clarke’s lovely singing voice and Jane’s talents at writing macabre broadsides win them a roof over their heads and regular suppers.

I thought the London section of the novel—such a departure from Jane Eyre‘s settings—was quite good, and wished only that it had been a bit longer to flesh out more backstory.

Eventually, Jane learns that a governess is wanted at Highgate House, the manor where she grew up, and which she believes may be rightfully hers. She takes a pseudonym and presents herself to Mr. Sardar Singh, the butler, her new protege, Sahjara, and Mr. Charles Thornfield (of course), a wild-maned, glove-wearing, sardonic veteran of the Sikh Wars (a hero in the Byronic vein if ever there were one). Jane finds herself not only attempting to solve the mystery of her own origins, but also determined to learn more about the unusual household and its gruff master she comes to love more and more.

Jane Steele is wildly improbably (like Jane Eyre), ripe with black humor and occasional bouts of gore (unlike Jane Eyre), and a treat to read—“rollicking” is the word that leaps to mind. Jane may be a murderer, but the men she kills all richly deserve their untimely ends, and you may find, as I did, that you rather wish she’d pull her knife one more time before the end of the novel. She’s a plucky, brash, hilarious, and sincere; a worthy successor to Jane Eyre, a heroine for the original’s friends and foes alike. I’m delighted to recommend Jane Steele.

P.S. If you can’t get enough Jane Eyre fare, check out Patricia Park’s Re Jane, a modern retelling. 

P.P.S. If women taking just vengeance on terrible men is your thing, check out Dietland, by Sarai Walker. 

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

On Omnivorous Reading: A Tribute

About two years ago, I sent my 80-year-old grandmother a copy of The Martian, by Andy Weir, having forgotten that the first line of the novel is “I’m pretty much fucked.” That’s how I felt when I remembered it a day later, when the book was already on a truck headed for her house in the suburbs of Buffalo.

Turns out I shouldn’t have worried; as you might suspect, given that I assumed she’d want to read The Martian in the first place, Grammie told me later that she liked the novel “very much,” her highest form of praise for books and movies, even saying, with a laugh, that she appreciated the profanity because “who wouldn’t curse in that kind of situation?” She said The Martian would be one of those books she re-read once a year or so as a treat. I’m not sure she ever did get a chance to re-read it; I forgot to ask about it in our conversations over the last few months.

"I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” This is my grandmother's copy of Jane Eyre.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” This is my grandmother’s copy of Jane Eyre.

Grammie died last week, and I miss her already. I loved her very much, and was always pleased that we shared a favorite color and a favorite novel, Jane Eyre. She had the same patience with me that Helen Burns had for Jane; like Helen, she quietly accepted life’s troubles, her stoicism always a source of curiosity to me (I have the temperament, I should perhaps regret to say, of ten-year-old Jane).

Like Helen, whom Jane meets when she’s reading Johnson’s Rasselas, Grammie was a reader. I’ve written before about my parents’ love of reading and the effort they put into our reading lives, but I’ve never talked much about Grammie, and just how important she was to me, not only in the familiar grandmotherly ways—stroganoff, hamburgers in gravy, perfect chocolate cakes chilled in the fridge, quality time with her skinny hairbrush and Johnson’s no-more-tangles, birthday cards with the most even and lovely penmanship I’ve ever seen, love and support through the very best and worst of times—but also in shaping the way I read. By her example, my grandmother taught me that reading offers not only the pursuit of knowledge or the cultivation of empathy, but also pleasure and enjoyment.

When I was a child I watched my Grammie read from a distance. As Jane Eyre recalls of Helen, “I think her occupation touched a chord of sympathy somewhere; for I too liked reading, though of a frivolous and childish kind; I could not digest or comprehend the serious or substantial.” Grammie  read everything, it seemed—novels about submarines, true tales of disaster and survival (believe me, there was nary a chick flick to be found on her movie shelf), classics like Kristin Lavransdatter.

Grammie's living room bookshelf.

Grammie’s living room bookshelf.

On her living room shelves in Buffalo were handsome 1960s volumes of major authors (Melville, Hugo, Petrarch, Dante, Dickens, Montaigne), while upstairs paperbacks left behind by my uncles (I read all  Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels one summer) jostled with nonfiction history from college courses and late-60s/early-70s bestsellers (thanks to which I can report with confidence that Love Story is truly terrible and The Godfather is way raunchier than the movie). Whenever I happened into Grammie’s room there’d be a book on the nightstand (which now sits in my room) or on the nubbly white bedspread, usually with a sticker around its spine and a dust jacket; Grammie was a devoted patron of her public library. Hers was a house of books; there was always something to read, no matter what mood you were in.

Just as important as her example of omnivorous reading was her refusal to dictate what anyone else read. Grammie (like my other grandmother) was a teacher and then a homemaker, raising a family of readers (and teachers) with tastes as diverse as her own. She lived alone for more than twenty-five years, her solitude interrupted by periods when she helped to care for two separate sets of grandchildren while their mothers studied for graduate degrees. When she lived with us from when I was 7 until I was 10, every Saturday morning brought chores first, then a trip to Blockbuster (Goonies and Meatballs were perennial favorites) and the library.

The fountain at the former SEL library.

The fountain at the former SEL library.

The library in this little Cleveland suburb was like something out of a fairytale—a big Tudor mansion spangled with light (alas, it has been sold and is no longer a library). It featured slate floors, marble fireplaces, indoor plants, a burbling fountain, oddly-shaped rooms, twisty corridors, and nooks for a little reader to hide in. When we arrived at the library those Saturday mornings, Grammie took my younger sister to pick out books (hers and my sister’s), and left my brother and me to find our own. Every week for a long time I took out seven Nancy Drew books, the old editions with golden-yellow spines grayed by many grubby hands and black-edged pages that I now collect. Never once did she tell me I’d taken out too many books, never told me a little girl couldn’t read that many in a week. So I assumed I could, and every Saturday I came back for seven more until I’d read them all, and then I moved on to other authors, from Lois Lowry to Anne Frank to Judy Blume to Madeleine L’Engle. Grammie never once told me that I shouldn’t read a book because it was too mature for me; she let me and my siblings read as we chose, allowing us to develop our own tastes (a trait my parents also shared).

IMG_6163Like Jane Eyre observing Helen Burns in Lowood’s schoolyard and then peppering her with questions about her book, I loved to call up Grammie and chat with her about what she was reading. Usually it was something I hadn’t heard of, since she read quite a bit of nonfiction. One of the last times we talked about books, though, before she got sick enough that we spoke mostly about the weather or what shenanigans her great-grandson was up to, she told me she was re-reading The Country of the Pointed Firs, an oft-neglected nineteenth-century classic by Sarah Orne Jewett that I didn’t encounter until a graduate school seminar nearly ten years ago. I went to my shelf to pull out my copy, flipping through a few dog-eared pages, and read her the passage that had stayed with me, and which I’ve been coming back to over and over again this week:

There was the world, and here was she with eternity well begun. In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong.


“Yes,” she said. “I like that very much.”


Recommended Reading: Re Jane by Patricia Park

Couldn't resist getting a picture of the book with this forsythia.

Couldn’t resist getting a picture of the book with this forsythia.

I love Jane Eyre with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. It was one of my favorite books growing up—my mother read it aloud to me when I was nine or ten—and I’ve read it every few years ever since. I love it for the reasons everyone else does: Jane’s fiery temper and cool intellect, her passionate emotions and unfailing sense of what is right and wrong. I love how much she craves justice. The world is flooded with bildungsroman about boys and men, but Jane Eyre is in my book the best of the genre.

Patricia Park’s Re Jane* (coming May 5, but I just couldn’t resist writing about it now) is a modern reimagining of Jane Eyre that pays homage to its predecessor while carving its own path, one that shines with wit.

[Full disclosure: Patricia Park is the friend of a friend, and we have met once or twice (once at a book swap party, actually, come to think of it), and we’re friendly acquaintances in the world of social media, which is why I’ve been excited about this book for years.]

It’s 2000. Jane Re lives in Queens with her uncle, aunt, and cousins, working in her uncle’s store after a job offer in finance fell through. Adrift, and bereft of her best friend, who’s going off to work at Google (and who needs her own book–she’s delightful), she decides to accept an unconventional offer: to work as a nanny for the Mazer-Farley family in (pre-hipster) Brooklyn.

Jane is smart, organized, hardworking, and flailing under the weight the differences that separate her from her family: she is an orphan, and she is half Korean, half American, treated coldly, if not cruelly, by her traditional-minded Korean uncle.

With the Mazer-Farley’s Jane feels the weight of nunchi (a principle of deference to one’s elders out of obligation that results in a great deal of non-verbal etiquette to follow) lifting, but finds other problems: struggling through the feminist readings assigned by the well-meaning but oblivious Beth Mazer; helping her very bright pupil (adopted from China, she has all of Adele’s mischief with none of her preciousness) negotiate the social complexities of school; and falling for Ed Farley, a gruff but thoughtful English teacher with a knack for midnight snacking.

The novel follows Jane from Flushing to Brooklyn to Seoul and back to Queens again as she charts a difficult course to discovering who she is and what she wants, not only in terms of love and family, but identity and career as well.

Readers who love Jane Eyre will appreciate all the touches that recall the original novel, from names to recurring phrases (and the title of a certain scholarly work that pulled from Jane Eyre itself), and will recognize the structure of the plot. However, Ms. Park does not adhere to strictly to its outcomes and characters do not follow a 1:1 correspondence (though her rendering of St. John Rivers is particularly strong ), which was a wise choice. I couldn’t stop turning pages, wondering what Jane would do or think next.

While the novel is particularly attentive to issues of ethnicity and class, it never takes itself too seriously. I delighted in the wit on display—the book includes a wonderful send-up of academia and, shall we say, the wheatgrass-and-tote-bag type–and references to geek culture that pepper the novel.

And  I loved the fascinating look at Korean culture that Ms. Park provides, which made me want to visit Seoul (she traveled to Korea on a Fulbright some years ago, and her blog about the experience was wonderful, though I don’t think it’s online anymore). If you’d like a brief non-fiction sampling of some cultural differences she encountered, you can read this essay in Brevity.

Re Jane is a compassionate and thoughtful (and feminist!) retelling of a beloved classic that deserves to be read for its own numerous merits. I can’t wait for Patricia Park’s next book.

Boston readers: Patricia Park will be at Harvard Bookstore on May 11 at 7pm, in conversation with Margot Livesey. Get there!

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Bay of Fires, by Poppy Gee

It was this book’s title that led me to pull it off the shelf, as well as the understated cover design. I didn’t realize, at the time, that the Bay of Fires is a real place in Tasmania, a large island off Australia’s southern coast.

Bay of Fires cover

Here’s the setup: Sarah, after some bad decisions, ends up at home for the holidays, unsure what to do next. While she’s thinking it over, she’s one of two people to discover a young woman’s body on the beach, and for the next week, she and a down-on-his-luck reporter try to solve the mystery of the young woman’s disappearance.

Now, before I read Ms. Gee’s novel, I knew nothing about Tasmania, other than that it is an island and the namesake of a small, fierce marsupial creature. But one of this novel’s best features is its strong sense of place; Ms. Gee describes the scrub, the ocean, the rock pools, and the small community on the bay in fresh detail. Often, scenery escapes me, because I’m so focused on characters (with exceptions: Jane Eyre, The Lord of the Rings, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream come to mind). However, I think I was jolted out of my reading habits by the reversed seasons — the novel takes place around Christmas and New Year’s Day, and yet it’s summer.

Equally refreshing is Bay of Fires‘s main character, Sarah Avery. Deeply flawed, she is nonetheless tenacious, strong, and good. You know, a person, not a caricature of womanhood. For awhile, Ms. Gee’s focus on Sarah’s physical strength and fitness annoyed me, until I realized that her fitness is an integral part of her character, and informs many of her decisions over the novel’s course. She’s an original, interesting character, who sometimes reminded me of Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica. If you loved Starbuck, you’ll love Sarah.

Here’s my final recommendation: I thought I had the mystery solved on page 107 (of 371), and I kept reading. I was only half right, and the novel kept me guessing til the very end. I’ll be looking for Poppy Gee’s next book.

What are your favorite first lines?

Yesterday, my friend Kori pointed me to a piece in the Atlantic in which authors choose their favorite opening lines, and write little paragraphs about their reasoning, or, in Margaret Atwood’s case, a tweet:

“Call me Ishmael.” 3 words. Power-packed. Why Ishmael? It’s not his real name. Who’s he speaking to? Eh?

That’s my favorite of the lot. My own favorite first line, however, is a tossup between Hamlet and Jane Eyre.

Hamlet begins with Bernardo’s challenge, “Who’s there?” — and the interpretive possibilities are endless. Is he afraid? Full of bravado? Why is a soldier, on duty in his own kingdom, challenging someone else in uniform? Is it nighttime? Is he speaking to us, the audience? Who’s the “who”? How do we define ourselves? How do we answer?

Shakespeare offers at least as many questions in two words as Melville does in three.

Now, on to Jane Eyre: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” Why not? Who was planning on walking? What’s the significance of “that” day?

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

This line has more meaning as you progress through the novel (and if you haven’t, now’s the time to stop reading this post so I don’t ruin the experience for you. And seriously, go read Jane Eyre!).

Of course, “that” day is the day that John Reed throws a book at Jane’s head and Mrs. Reed sends Jane to the Red Room, which precipitates her move to Lowood, and, eventually, Thornfield Hall. And while Jane and her cousins remain inside on account of the rain, in a few short weeks, she and the other unfortunate girls at Lowood will be exposed to all manner of the elements. Jane often walks when others think she ought not to, or when she has no other choice. For instance, it’s on a long walk alone (despite the protestations of Mrs. Fairfax) that she meets Mr. Rochester, and it’s alone again that she makes her way through the fields to the Riverses’ cottage.

But where would Jane have ended up if she had been able to walk that day?

What are your favorite first lines?