Fat Books & Thin Women

My 11 Days with Emily Giffin

As a reader who’s been known to rail against “chick lit” as a worthy genre (this despite my weakness for the film equivalents of the books), it is with some shame that I admit I spent eleven full days doing little but reading the oeuvre of Emily Giffin. I know, I know; the distanced tone I’m trying to take here doesn’t exactly fit with the fact that I spent a week and a half devouring her books, forgetting to shower until nearly 4 PM every afternoon (this being when my water goes out), and littering my talk of Albania after the fall of Communism* with references to Giffin’s characters.

I gave Something Borrowed and Something Blue their own reviews on the blog. I was surprised, and really pleased, by how much I enjoyed the two books. Reading them, I felt like I was watching TV – but a clever show, one that delved effectively and sometimes movingly into its characters’ psyches. I might have felt a little ill by the time I finished the books, but that was as much due to the speed with which I flipped pages on the Kindle (I never knew you could tire out a thumb…you can) as to the content of the books. Rachel and Darcy weren’t always likeable characters, but I was able to maintain a certain admiration for them because they were both women with a focus on their careers and on bettering themselves, regardless of what dudes might be hanging around them. Rachel may have been the more sympathetic of the two (mainly because it’s so easy to see myself in her; she lives in a crummy studio apartment, hates her job, and for most of her thirty years is a total failure, romantically speaking**), but both women were so carefully drawn by Giffin that it was hard not to be sucked in by their romantic plights.

As I kept reading Giffin’s works – the other three being Baby Proof, Love the One You’re With, and Heart of the Matter – they began to blend together. Also, I began to suspect that my constant queasiness wasn’t only the result of my sore thumb and inability to tear myself away from the novels long enough to head out on milk and cereal and water runs, but of the novels themselves. The freshness that marked Giffin’s first two novels mostly disappears in her later works. The women in them still feel real, and they’re not bad people to spend a few hours with, but the situations Giffin was writing about seemed increasingly contrived.

Love the One You’re With is probably the best of the bunch, following a recently married woman who runs into her first love on the street, then attempts to negotiate her feelings about this man (who suddenly seems to want her, and care about her, in a way he never did while they were together) and about the compromises she has to make as part of a married couple. In Baby Proof there’s the seemingly well-adjusted and committed married couple who fall apart, and push through the quickest divorce on record, after the husband inexplicably decides that after over thirty years of not wanting children, he does, and becomes kind of an asshat when pushing his wife to want a baby as well. Heart of the Matter is unique among Giffin’s novels for alternating chapters between two women, but the event on which the plot hinges – that the six-year-old son of one of these women falls into a campfire while at a sleepover, somehow managing to burn one side of his face and the opposite hand badly enough that he has to stay over a month in the hospital, and return for repeated follow-up surgeries – is shaky and hard to trust.

I think what it was, though, wasn’t so much what was happening in these novels, as what Giffin’s women began to look like. She has the habit of bringing former characters back in minor walk-on roles, presumably to allow her readers the pleasure of seeing where everyone wound up years later. (Not unlike the lame epilogue J.K. Rowling tacked on to the final Harry Potter book.) Rachel, Darcy, Ethan, Dex – all these characters from earlier books appear unreasonably happy and well-adjusted when Giffin reintroduces them, and this in some essential way cheapens their earlier stories by suggesting that after a few emotionally wrenching months, they are able to settle down to uninterrupted happiness. There’s the fact, too, that Giffin seems to take some pleasure in removing her women from the workforce. Miserable as Rachel was at her job in Something Borrowed, it’s unpleasant (at best) to see her reappear as a contented housewife, hanging out with the kids while Dex is at his high-powered job.

When Giffin writes about her later characters, though, they often struggle with these decisions about work that Rachel apparently has made so easily. Ellen of Love the One You’re With attempts to give up her New York home and career (and, yeah, another thing about Giffin – she gushes about New York like nobody’s business – kind of cheap, but also appealing to someone like me who sometimes gets mopey and misses the States on rainy days) to live with her husband Andy in Atlanta, Georgia, but fails miserably as she realizes that she isn’t happy in the life that Andy is happy with, or that Andy’s sister and her best friend is happy with. Tessa, of Heart of the Matter, has given up her job as an English professor to stay home with her children, and the degree to which she feels trapped by her decision is suffocating to the reader as well as the character.

If I read these books for escapism – and what else was I reading them for? – I have to wonder if I preferred Giffin’s earlier books because they were about lives I could better imagine for myself. These were women who were a few years older than me, who were making decisions (about where to work, where to live, who to love and who to settle for) that I can see myself making when I am having my version of Rachel’s thirtieth birthday party. Giffin’s other characters, though, are all a bit too far from me; it’s not that their lives are too good for me to imagine at this stage of my life,*** but that their lives are so far from anything I ever want to imagine for myself. If I was reading Giffin’s novels to escape from the two weeks of rain Tirana saw (seriously. My entire apartment was leaking by the time it let up), the last thing I wanted was to escape to a stifling world of talking with four-year-olds and debating the best way of getting kids into the private preschools that would make their future. Part of me admires and appreciates that Giffin’s characters have changed over time, and that she is not simply writing variations on the same story, told by the same few characters, again and again. But the rest of me – let’s be honest, the bigger part of me – wants exactly that of Giffin. As well-read and culturally advanced as I may claim to be, it turns out that sometimes what I really want is the literary equivalent of Knocked Up**** – a story that I can turn to, again and again, with thanks for its repetitive qualities.*****

* To make myself feel cultured, I allowed forced myself to read Albanian history as a counterpoint to the hundred pages of chick lit I was reading an hour.

** I should here mention that I actually live in a very nice apartment and have a jealousy-inspiring job (to sit around reading about Albania, and sometimes writing about Albania, with regular walking breaks), so what Rachel’s life really reminds me of is when I was 22, living in a poorly placed and tiny apartment in Philly, with a not-exactly-dream-job job.

*** Being a 26-year-old fortunate enough to have lived abroad for coming up on three years, but with no prospects on the husband or baby fronts.

**** Which I have seen, probably, over twenty times by now. It is almost time for me to watch it again! And let me add, here, that one of my dream jobs is to one day be a writer for Judd Apatow’s movies. How to achieve that?

***** With Knocked Up gaining those “repetitive qualities” (I am being so honest today) mostly…okay, entirely…because I’ve seen it so many times.


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What I want out of book blogs – or at least, out of my book blog
May 19, 2011, 12:11 pm
Filed under: On Blogging, Ways of Reading, Ways of Writing | Tags: , , , ,

The Reading Ape has been doing this fantastic post series on book blogging and styles of reviewing*, spurred by his observation that some book bloggers don’t review so much as they react to the books they’re reading. I did a post a while back about why book blogs matter, and mentioned that one of the things I like about book blogs is that the bloggers provide a more personal look at books than do professional reviewers. The Ape raises some good questions about the types of personal reflection and critical reviewing we do on our blogs, though, and if we’re thinking of book blogs as responses to the increasingly slim book pages of our newspapers there’s good reason to aim for a type of review that doesn’t focus so much on the “I” as on the “why.” That is, to write not, “I thought this book was awesome, go read it,” but to focus on what it is about the book that makes you like it so much.

When I started this blog in September, the other book blogs I came across were overwhelmingly focused on the social aspects of book blogging. I saw far more posts on what was showing up in the bloggers’ mailboxes, what they’d checked out at the library, who their ten most hated characters between the ages of 13 and 18 were, than posts actually reviewing books. It wasn’t until I started finding blogs like The Reading Ape, Sasha & the Silverfish, The New Dork Review of Books, that I figured out that there were bloggers out there doing what I was interested in doing, which was – well, reviewing books.

The Ape mentions this briefly in his most recent post, but I also noticed a divide between bloggers who were striving to write about books fully and in sometimes thought-provoking ways, and those who actively resisted this sort of writing. It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at any blogs like this, but I also remember reading a lot of disgusted talk about “English majors” and the ways that “academic writing” ruin reading. Like the Ape, though, I see a splash of that sort of academic writing as adding value to the discussion we have on our book blogs. My blog is here to track what I’m reading, but it’s also here so I can develop my thoughts on my reading in a way I haven’t been able to since college, and to take part in discussions that often change how I view the novels I’m reading. My review of The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, for example, was pretty negative; reading The Picky Girl’s more positive review hasn’t changed my views, but it has helped to develop them and get me thinking about ways the novel could have been better structured than it was. A more self-reflective, less review-y post wouldn’t give me as much to think about.

We all engage with our reading in different ways, of course. There are some bloggers who write fantastic posts that are as much reflection as review, and I’ve done a lot of posts that are as much about why I’m reading a certain book as what I think of that book. All these posts The Reading Ape is doing, though, have started me thinking more about why I started this blog and what I’m trying to get out of it. Part of my interest in book blogging, as I write on my “about me” page, is in the community; I don’t have people around me I can discuss books with, and having this blog has at times felt like a lifeline. It’s made me feel, in some way, a part of a literary culture again, and after two years of living on the linguistic level of a child (a child with bad grammar, no less) I feel like I’ve recovered a part of myself through writing about books. More than that, though, it’s an attempt to write and think about books critically again. I don’t like the feeling of putting a book down, deciding whether I liked or disliked it, and then tossing it in my book bag to return it to the Peace Corps library. I don’t like the feeling of not actively engaging with a book, or of thinking about it but not in much more depth than to decide, “I didn’t like this scene, I liked this character, I didn’t like the last fifty pages.”

Thinking about book blogging, what we’re trying to get out of it, what types of reviewing we usually find on blogs, has gotten me to reassess what I’m doing at this blog. When I started going through old posts I was sometimes disappointed in what I found: not a lot of critical thinking, but more meditations on how I’d been sick/running spelling bees/missed America, then thoughts on how what I was reading at the time tied into this. There’s some value in this, sure, but it’s a largely personal one in that those posts allow me to look back on the past few months and remember where I was. They’re not posts that I see as being of particular interest of other people, or as adding much value to the bookish conversations going on online. What I want to do, what I wanted to do when I started this blog, is to wake my brain back up from its “I don’t have to speak English” stupor, to review in a semi-professional manner (that is, in a manner that will help a lot of high school students as they’re trying to plagiarize their essays on Native Son), and to be part of this book blogger community through actual critical discussions of the books we’re reading rather than by posting a meme a day.

The Ape deserves a good slap on the back for all the posts he’s been doing lately. This may be a discussion for another day, but if book bloggers are to continue receiving review copies from publishers, if they’re going to be a bigger part of the literary conversation, it’s going to have to be on the terms the Ape proposes – to write more analytical reviews without the “I,” to find some place between the professional reviewer in the Times and the “I found this book on a park bench while I was walking my dog who recently ripped off his dewclaw, but it was so good I couldn’t put it down to change his bandages…”-style reflections.

* The Ape’s posts: “The ‘I”s Have It” / “The ‘I”s Have It, Redux” / “An Offshoot of the Buzz” / “The Tyranny of Pleasure” / “Whom Do You Review For?” / “The ‘I”s Have It, Once More With Feeling”

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Is it wrong that I only like my own marginalia?
May 17, 2011, 10:25 am
Filed under: Ways of Reading | Tags: , , , ,

I often work myself into a state over the future of stuff related to books that are actually books – like, you know, loaning books to people, buying used books on the cheap, finding strange things in library books (I still have nightmares about what I found stuck to the pages of a children’s book I checked out when I was about twelve – maybe it’s good if some of these things pass away), dog-earing and marginalia.

Despite Amazon’s attempts to create a “community” around reading by sharing notes and markings created on its kindle reader, the habits of book bloggers when it comes to extensive quoting and philosophizing on what makes a book good, and the fondness of countless twitter and facebook users for posting quotes that “really, really represent their lives”, nothing, in my mind, replaces old-fashioned marginalia, the stuff you scrawl in your book and the sloppy underlining that manages to obscure surrounding passages.

It’s occurred to me, though, that despite my interest in the New York Times’s take on the dismal future of marginalia, I don’t have a whole lot of interest in what other people have to write in the books they’re reading. There’s the occasional exception, like my copy of Of Mice and Men in which every curse has been scribbled over, suggested replacements written in the margins, but I often act more like Rory Gilmore, seeking the used book that either hasn’t been marked up or is the former property of a lazy if enthusiastic highlighter who didn’t make it past the first chapter. Yet when it comes to my own reading, I dog-ear, underline and make notes freely, secure in knowing that my every thought as I read is of interest to future readers.

I picked up a copy of The Best American Short Stories (2001) from the Peace Corps library last Friday, and the markings are so unrelenting and obtrusive that I want to track down the book’s original owner and give her a talking-to. Once I start reading someone else’s notes on a book I can’t stop, in much the same way that I keep reading the facebook status updates of people I haven’t spoken to in years and didn’t like all that much in the first place. But some of this reader’s marginalia isn’t just redundant or stupid; it gets in the way of the story, as when she writes, “foreshadowing of future betrayal,” evidently getting some retrospective marginal notes in there to thumb her nose at the reader who, not having completed the story, has no idea that there is a betrayal on its way.

Sometimes, maybe in this short story case, marginalia is not good at all. Sometimes, as with Of Mice and Men or when a famous author writes something awesome in a book he’s reading, it’s very good. But do any of us have much interest in the marginalia of other people, or is it nothing but an intrusion into our reading? Is my interest in preserving my own marginalia nothing more than another example of my self-centered nature, or is this the way most people feel? And is it wrong that I feel strongly about the need to preserve marginalia, but only when I consider it insightful or when I write it myself (which is saying the same thing, really)?

What are your thoughts on marginalia – do you like it all the time, just when you’re writing it, just when famous people, friends, family (people you have some interest in) are writing it, just when it’s well-done, or never? And why?

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On Rereading
February 17, 2011, 4:46 pm
Filed under: Ways of Reading | Tags: , , , , ,

When I’d been in Macedonia a few months and my parents were figuring out what to send me in a package (reliable standbys, for those taking notes, are Reese’s Cups, magic markers and SillyBandz – don’t ask) I said something about wanting some books and we decided that Nabokov was, really, our only option. My mom couldn’t believe that I hadn’t brought anything by Nabokov, and once she said that I couldn’t believe either. What had I been thinking, coming to Macedonia with The Norton Anthology of Literary Theory & Criticism (I’ve opened it one time) and John Cheever’s complete stories (I’ve read one of them) but nothing by Nabokov?

I can’t at this point remember what informed my packing decisions of September 2009, but probably I didn’t bring any Nabokov because I thought his books would be too “heavy” for the Peace Corps (thus the Norton and Cheever for some light reading?) and because I knew I wouldn’t be able to leave the books behind me in Macedonia. It is one thing to transport books halfway across the globe, another entirely to carry them back. I’ve now got Ada, or Ardor, Pnin and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight here, and except for when I let go of Pnin for a couple months I haven’t even considered loaning the books to other volunteers, for fear they, and all my notes and underlinings, would be forever lost.

I take my rereading most seriously when it comes to Nabokov, in the sense that I regard his books as records of my own history and reading as much as anything. I should buy a fresh copy of Ada because mine is such a disaster, but I doubt I ever will because I enjoy reading my past readings as much as anything else. But when I look over books I’ve read in the past year or so, I have to suspect that I’m more of a rereader than many people, and I want to know why.

About a third of the books I read last year were rereads. I use the term broadly; I don’t just mean that I read a book for a second time, but that I’ve read a book for a second or third or fourth time, exact numbers being hard to come by. Some of these are children’s books, which I see, reading-wise, as the equivalent of watching John Hughes movies, or Forgetting Sarah Marshall for the tenth time, or Gilmore Girls reruns. They’re comforting and remind me of my childhood, when I believed that anything was possible (like that I could grow up to be a grizzly bear scientist despite a generalized fear of large animals, blood and the sciences).

But there are also the other rereads, the Nabokov and Charles Portis, my third (or is it my fourth?) run through of One Hundred Years of Solitude, all the classics I first read in high school and have only recently discovered to be Not Terrible. Or the way how, when I visited the Peace Corps library on Monday, it wasn’t the unexperienced books that I got excited over and decided were worth carrying three hours back to my town, but Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost (this will be my third read?) and Paradise (second). Or how half the books I’ve lined up to read soon (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Tree of Smoke, The Savage Detectives, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Lolita) are rereads. There’s a reason, too, why the first book I want to read when I get back to the states is Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases (for the third time).

Nabokov once said:

… one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do no have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. (from Lectures on Literature)

He isn’t discussing rereading in the way I am, but his general point – that to read a novel is a laborious process and that an understanding of a novel builds slowly because we cannot take in the whole of the work at once – is where I aim when I start to think about rereading. Reading is work in a way that looking at a painting or watching a film or an episode of Gilmore Girls isn’t, and it’s not work that I think can be completed with one go-round. To read Lolita one time isn’t really to read it; it’s to prepare you for the second reading, when you’ll be able to begin understanding the novel, its narrative form and its narrative time.

Maybe my love of rereading is nothing more than a sign that I haven’t outgrown that phase of wanting the same bedtime story every night, just that I’m old enough now to cloak that search for the comforting and familiar in loftier language. Whatever inspires it, I often feel the only reason I read new books is my hope that I’m going to find one that lands on my “to reread” shelf, like Of Mice & Men, which was actually only on there about twenty seconds because I reread it immediately after finishing it.

What’s the point of reading, if not to find the books you’re going to reread?

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Reread: Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring

As I’ve mentioned on here a few times – it being the only thing I have to write about, apart from how cold it is here* – I’ve been rereading The Fellowship of the Ring. This was one of those rare reads that happened not merely because I wanted to reread the book, but because it felt necessary to do so.

Believe it or not, I’m not going to write a whole post about the trials and tribulations of my life and how they drove me to what’s become a comforting book to me, but that’s pretty much what got me rereading Fellowship. That and how I was constantly humming the soundtrack to the film of The Fellowship, driving insane the volunteer who had to crash at my place for two weeks while we ran semi-final spelling bees around my town. It seemed the only way to quit humming the damn soundtrack would be to either stream the film (which would kill about a third of my December bandwidth) or reread the book, which I already had loaded on my kindle.

I didn’t stop humming the soundtrack, but I did get a few awesome dreams prominently featuring Samwise Gamgee out of it. And the big thing I was looking for, to escape from my dreary existence of running a noble Peace Corps project (and six spelling bees a day for two weeks), was there in force. What’s interesting to me now that I’ve finished the book is why I turned to Lord of the Rings in the first place for this sort of “comfort read;” because to face it, the book can be wordy and at times hopeless even though I know how things will end up. Why Lord of the Rings and not Harry Potter, if I was just looking for escapism?

It’s all in what Tolkien does so well. The book may be wordy, there may be more songs in there than I really want to read (and more songs in Elvish than I really want to skip over), the descriptions of the fellowship’s journey may at some points seem overly long for the relative lack of action, but all of these things serve in Tolkien’s world creation. What’s so comforting to me about the books is, I think, how complete the world is that Tolkien writes about. I’m hardly the first to observe this, but the depth of history and detail in his works, the sense that behind even a pair of names briefly mentioned there lies a complete history, makes the world of Middle-earth real enough that I can forget, occasionally, my own world of weekly showers and daily spelling bees.

The way the characters speak, sing, move through their world, all points to this history that Tolkien has mapped out. As when Elrond speaks of the Ring’s history at the Council of Elrond:

Of Númenor he spoke, its glory and its fall, and the return of the Kings of Men to Middle-earth out of the deeps of the Sea, borne upon the wings of storm. Then Elendil the Tall and his mighty sons, Isildur and Anárion, became great lords; and the North-realm they made in Arnor, and the South-realm in Gondor above the mouths of Anduin. But Sauron of Mordor assailed them, and they made the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, and the hosts of Gil-galad and Elendil were mustered in Arnor.

When characters begin to delve into history like this, there’s something almost biblical about the tone; the sense of a history so deep that it’s entered into myth and legend, remembered only by a few who are removed from the time of the world. Or, as Tolkien describes Galadriel, and elves:

Already she seemed to him, as by men of later days Elves still at times are seen: present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time.

It’s this tone that draws me in, my attraction to a world with a history so complete and yet so separate from our own, but also the simplicity that is at the heart of the story. There are characters who falter, who are not at all times good or pleasant: Boromir, Legolas during the early stages of the fellowship’s journey, Galadriel when she confesses how she has long thought of acquiring the Ring of Power, even Bilbo when he nearly fails to give up the Ring at book’s opening. But the story at heart is such a simple one, of the fight against a force that is undeniably bad, that it is comforting to sink into that tale of evil versus a good that is undeniably good for its opposition to Mordor.

As I wrote earlier, that I find the book so comforting is a little curious because it’s not, at heart, a comforting book. I know that Frodo will destroy the Ring with Samwise’s help, that they will return to the Shire, but there is also throughout a sense of the irreparable passing of time, of the way that things will never be the same whatever happens to the Ring, because of the Ring: that Middle-earth will be washed over by Sauron’s forces, or that the Ring will be destroyed and with it the last strength of people such as the elves of Lórien. And that, that is sad; because as we see from Frodo’s first glimpse of Lórien, the world is one that exists nowhere else, and one day soon won’t exist even in Middle-earth:

It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien there was no stain.

I’ll be rereading the other two books of The Lord of the Rings, of course, but I wanted to write about it because my reading of Fellowship is so linked, now, to what’s going on in my life right now – which though nothing bad, is sometimes overwhelming and exhausting.** And reading these books, even though they are (I know, I know) really one book, deserves and requires more than one post, not least because of questions like how the films influence my reading (the book is, I think, more welcoming to me because of the films; Peter Jackson did such a good job pulling lines from the book that I can see and hear Ian McKellan when I read Gandalf), how that almost biblical tone makes the book feel a part of my history, and how Tolkien’s skill at world creation makes it possible for the book to take on that tone of lasting history that I find so comforting.

And then, too, there’s how the book opens, which seems to me as perfect a way as any can: “This book is largely concerned with Hobbits…”

* By way of example: my toothpaste froze; the bananas I had sitting in my “living room” got that funny refrigerated look to them; when I go to bed I do so with my coil heater a few feet from me, a bottle of hot water under the covers, long johns, and sometimes a hat and gloves depending on the night.

** But, hey! The spelling bee final is tomorrow, the library grant is due on Monday, winter break begins in about two weeks…