This week I read several works of non-fiction that were thought provoking and informing and a couple of novels that grabbed me and wouldn't let go. It was a pretty great week for books!
- To the Table by Lisa Graham McMinn. I loved this book! You can read a pretty thorough response here.
- Life Without a Recipe: A Memoir of Food and Family by Diana Abu-Jaber. I have read and loved every one of Diana Abu-Jaber's novels. They are always so rich and full of sights, sounds, tastes. She is an excellent writer. This is her first memoir. I enjoyed it but it really wasn't the same kind of feast for the senses that I've come to expect from her work.
- Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld. I was lucky to get an ARC of Curtis Sittenfeld's new book, which is due to be published April 19, 2016. Eligible is the fourth entry in the Austen Project, a series of re-tellings of Jane Austen novels by modern authors. Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid came out April 2015, Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope was released November 2014, and Emma by Alexander McCall Smith was released April 2015. I actually haven't read any other other Austen Project novels, and they haven't been very highly reviewed, but I am both a Curtis Sittenfeld fan and a Pride and Prejudice fan so, obviously, Eligible is right up my alley.
So, I'm sure you just gathered that Eligible is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. It accomplishes that goal very well. The Bennett family, with the exception of Jane and Liz, are just as annoying and unappealing in this version as they are in the original. This version really emphasized, to me, how spineless and imperfect Mr. Bennett is, maybe I haven't paid him close enough attention to notice in the original version. Jane is portrayed as a calm and zen yoga instructor, which is how the kind purity of the original Jane is made modern, I guess. Lizzie, known as Liz in this retelling, is a self-sufficient career woman who doesn't need a husband to be fulfilled. I think there's a lot about this portrayal of Liz that Sittenfeld got right.
There are things that don't ring quite right about Eligible, to me at least. For one, it didn't ring quite true to me that a modern mother of 5 daughters would be so set on her daughters making "advantageous marriages." What, even, does that mean in a modern context? Also, Jane's eventual husband, Mr. Bingley, is written in a really unflattering way in this novel. I remember being very happy when Jane and Mr. Bingley finally resolve everything in the original Pride and Prejudice. In Eligible I feel quite certain that the lovely Jane could do much better! Liz and Darcy work fairly well but, again, it doesn't seem quite the love story that the original is. Over all, I enjoyed the book and feel like it was a fairly faithful modernization. If you can overlook some small faults, I think you'll enjoy it.
- Coming Clean: A Story of Faith by Seth Haines. Coming Clean is a memoir of addiction. It is written as a journal of Seth Haines' first 90 days sober. Obviously, Seth's addiction is to alcohol but so much of this memoir can be applied to other addiction. Haines says addiction isn't so much about whatever thing you are addicted to but more about whatever pain you are trying to numb. For him, addiction was about lack of faith. I feel like there were so many little thought provoking points in the book. One stopping point for me was this question: "In what ways am I most alienated from God?" I think I read that one sentence at least 10 times. I love a book that forces me to stop and process. I really enjoyed this book and definitely recommend it. I will be honest, it took me a little more time than usual to really get in to it. Like any journal, it is not very linear at all and sometimes I had difficulty following the arc of the story (probably because there really is no arc). I'm guessing this wouldn't cause everyone difficulty but I just really like linear thinking. So there you go.
- The Guest Room by Chris Bojalian. The Guest Room was the second novel I read this week. It tells the story Richard Chapman and his family and how they were destroyed by one terrible night of violence. It starts with Richard making the bad decision to host his brother's bachelor party at his home. Richard believes it will be more "wholesome" to have the party at his home rather than at a strip club. So Richard allows his brother's best friend to arrange for strippers to come to his home. This seems like a safe decision to him. Almost immediately Richard has reason to regret his decision. Rather than use a reputable stripper service (is there such a thing?), the friend arranges strippers through some Russian mafia thugs. It turns out, these strippers are actually young women who are sex slaves. Things really spiral downward when the two women murder the thugs who are posing as bodyguards but are really their captors and then run off into the night.
Obviously this series of events causes further problems. Can Richard's marriage survive this terrible event? Will Richard's brother actually get married when the fiance learns of all the things that led to this evening? What will happen to the women who escaped from this situation? How did the women become trapped in this slavery in the first place? This was a very interesting and tense novel and I enjoyed it, as much as a person can enjoy a novel about rape and nasty bachelor parties and slavery. Chris Bohjalian is a writer I always enjoy and this book was no exception.
- When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams. What does it mean when your mother is dying and she leaves you her journals, shelves full of journals, but asks you not to read them until after she is gone? What does it mean when you finally do open them only to discover that they are all empty? What is family? What is womanhood? What does it mean to have a voice? When Women Were Birds grapples with these questions in quiet and moving and haunting ways. I don't have anything to say about this book except that it is beautiful and I loved it and you should read it.
That's it for this week. I'm currently reading Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood by Lisa Damour. I have so many feelings and thoughts about this book, I can't wait to finish and process it more fully. I'm guessing I'll have a lot to say about it next week. After that I'll be reading Lit by Mary Karr, Evicted by Matthew Desmond and, hopefully, some kind of lighter fiction to give me a break from these intense books!