Classic Women’s Lit Rewritten

I think it’s fun and potentially instructive when authors rewrite or draw inspiration from classic literature. These two books offer new perspectives on two of my favorite 19th-century novels.

Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre edited by Tracy Chevalier

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This collection of short stories is inspired by Jane Eyre, in particular by the triumphant ending line quoted in the title. It’s really interesting to see how this wide variety of writers took that idea and ran with it in so many different directions. There are stories here that retell Jane Eyre from the perspectives of different characters, memorably Grace Poole and Rochester, some concentrating on her boarding school or her time with St. John Rivers, some changing the setting to contemporary or another country or even a sci-fi future. In some of them, the connection to Jane Eyre is small, but it’s fun to look for it. Chevalier’s opening essay is solid and fun, nostalgic in a way that many of us feel about Bronte. If you like short stories, Jane Eyre, and/or the authors included here, including Audrey Niffenegger, Elizabeth McCracken, and Emma Donogue, you’d enjoy this volume too.

Charlotte Collins: A Continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice by Jennifer Becton

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This book is a kind of fan fic sequel to Pride and Prejudice that concentrates on a minor character, Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth Bennett’s friend who marries the obsequious minister Mr. Collins. I was disappointed that the book didn’t tell much about Charlotte’s marriage, instead beginning with her widowhood. Now, no one wants to read about Mr. Collins, one of the most annoying characters ever written, and everyone rejoices at his early demise and Charlotte’s freedom, but in a way this makes achieving happiness seem almost too easy for Charlotte. This book takes for granted that her marriage to Collins was a mistake, but I’m not sure Austen would agree. I was somewhat disappointed that Elizabeth and Darcy didn’t appear in the book much either.

The action of this novel begins when Charlotte’s younger sister Maria joins her in her widow cottage and starts husband-hunting, attracted by a young American. Each sister has two suitors, one good and initially disparaged, one bad and initially pursued. Maria is careless and boy-crazy at least for the first half of the book, while Charlotte is prim and proper in an exaggerated way, so much so that the central problem, when it finally comes up, is one that you can barely believe she would ever get herself into. The sentence-level writing is Austen-inspired and fun. I had mixed feelings about this one. Probably only a serious Austen fan would enjoy it.

Lady Midnight

Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare

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This novel begins a new series in Clare’s Shadowhunter universe. Previous related books were the Mortal Instruments series and the steampunk-inspired Infernal Devices trilogy. With the exception of Clare’s messy first book, City of Bones, her novels are well-written in a way that’s typical of the YA fantasy genre. It’s definitely light reading, but I find this universe fun and rich, imaginative and humorous. I think Clare has been improving with more writing experience. Her characters, especially the male leads, get stronger and less annoying each time she creates a new set of them. And the characters from previous series (yes, even the one set in the 1800s) make cameo appearances, as the universe grows in complexity and population.

This story begins five years after the end of City of Heavenly Fire and concentrates on the Los Angeles institute, where young Shadowhunters are still dealing with the fallout from the Mortal War. Julian has responsibility for his younger siblings since his father’s death. Emma is still dealing with her parents’ murder and nurtures revenge fantasies. These two are parabatai–a ritualized relationship for Shadowhunter best friends that enables them to offer each other extra protection and support. But the problem is that they’re falling in love, and parabatai are supposed to be strictly platonic. That’s the source of the book’s sexual tension and angst. The action starts when some fairies show up at the institute and ask Emma and Julian to solve a series of murders that she thinks might be related to those of her parents.

The sequel, Lord of Shadows, is coming out later this year.

Stoner

Stoner by John Williams

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This novel is set at the University of Missouri in the first half of the twentieth century. William Stoner is a farm boy who goes to the university, falls in love with literature, and stays there for the rest of his life as a professor. His life is pretty sad and pathetic in a lot of ways, and it seems like most of the story is meant to make readers feel sorry for him.

The plot is concerned with Stoner’s love life, and with his academic job and some crazy drama in his department. In both arenas, Stoner is a kind of righteous victim. He refuses to pass an undeserving grad student’s oral exam, and is targeted by the head of his department for the rest of his career (over twenty years). That part of the story is a caricature of the pettiness of academics. In his love life, he has a bad marriage and an affair with a younger woman, which is tragically broken up by his university enemies.

I had a problem with the character of Edith, his wife. I didn’t find her believable at all. She makes no sense as a character. Her choices, especially the choice to marry Stoner and to have a child, come from nowhere and are unexplainable by anything in the text. She’s frigid and vindictive, with no redeeming qualities at all. Their sex life I found especially incomprehensible. Due to extreme sexual repression, Edith is completely unresponsive in bed, to the extent that Stoner is probably a rapist. Since we are meant to empathize so totally with Stoner and find his adulterous affair incredibly romantic, it’s necessary to malign his wife and portray his marriage as essentially dead. But even so, Williams did a poor job creating this character.

Despite the overload of pathos, there are some lovely passages, and Stoner finds his own life worthwhile, which is kind of affirming and optimistic.

Obedience

Obedience by Will Lavender

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This thriller is about a college Logic class given a kind of forensic assignment that turns out to be more than just a game. They are told to solve a crime and find a missing person who is supposed to be murdered at the end of the term. The author attended my alma mater, and I could recognize it clearly as the inspiration for the setting, which was kind of cool for me. The book is a mind-fuck, as you’re constantly wondering what is real and what is only a story. I’d call it the undergraduate version of The Magus, which is much longer, more intense, and complex (but maybe more sexist).

I’m Published on HerStory

An essay I wrote is going up today on HerStory, a blog of women’s writing. It’s kind of a journal entry from almost a year ago. I wrote the meat of it back in March 2016 about how miserable I was at the end of my pregnancy, and returned to in October. That was when I cleaned it up and made sense of it to present to an audience. I hope it helps explain some of my time away from the blog. Here’s a permanent link. Enjoy!

Ready to March

The Women’s March is tomorrow, and I’m excited to attend in Nashville with my baby. When I took him with me to vote in November, I was excited to think that years from now I would be sharing with him that he helped me elect the first woman president. Maybe someday he still will. This protest is a historic moment, one that I’ll be proud to tell my child he was present for. I still would have preferred to tell the other story, but at least we’ll be on the right side of history, as active dissenters rather than passive consenters.

This march will be the fourth protest I’ve attended since the election. I went to the Marcha Contra el Odio de Trump (March Against Trump’s Hate) organized by Dignidad Obrera, among other Nashville organizations, the Sunday after the election. There was a small bilingual discussion beforehand among parents and teachers looking for ways to support children who may be encountering racist bullying triggered by the election. About 300 people marched.

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The other two protests were smaller. There was one on the day of the electoral college vote. It was cold, so I brought hot chocolate to share with the persistent protesters who stayed longer than I did. And then a couple weeks ago, I joined a couple dozen people protesting outside of the offices of our Republican senators, focused on the climate change deniers who are nominated to the Cabinet.

I understand that not everyone can protest–and in fact maybe the size of this weekend’s protests is getting out of hand and borderline unsafe. Protests like this are by their nature a one-time event, when what we need is ongoing commitment. That’s why I wanted to share some of the other things I’ve been doing since the election and hope to continue to do as long as necessary.

I went to a meeting, sent emails, passed out flyers, made phone calls, and talked to coworkers about the vote on collaborative conferencing for a teachers’ contract in our school district. This victory, coming just a week or so after the crushing defeat in the election, has been a definite bright spot. I’m looking forward to watching this process and hope for a contract that will improve teachers’ pay and working conditions, and thus students’ learning conditions as well.

Inspired by the Indivisible guide, I have been calling my two Republican senators at least weekly. I’ve made over 20 calls so far. I receive daily action alert texts that give me ideas about what issues to talk to them about, but usually I already have something I’m mad about. Since education is my pet issue, I’ve been focused on the Betsy DeVos nomination for Department of Education. So far the senators haven’t done much that I wanted them to do, except push back DeVos’s hearing a week and say in the media that they want to replace the ACA. I want to participate in a growing wave of angry calls, so that these senators start to feel like their seats are at risk if they don’t change the way they vote. Senator Bob Corker is up for re-election in 2018, and getting rid of him should be a #1 priority for all Tennesseans.

I’ve done a lot of small things online: signing petitions, tweeting, using an app called Countable, liking, commenting, and using the angry or sad reaction emoji on facebook (Why is there no ‘scared’ or ‘yikes!’ reaction emoji? We need that one now). It’s easy to feel like these are throwaway actions, but they’re also effortless and cost me nothing. Why not spend the miniscule extra energy of a click or two? I like to think that when I click ‘like,’ that means that my facebook friends are more likely to see a story, and that may influence them.

I’m not detailing my activities here in order to brag, and I don’t want to participate in some kind of ally theater. I don’t need to give myself a pat on the back because nothing I do can ever be enough until our world is just and free. But on the other hand, I made a commitment to do these things, and I want to hold myself accountable, and there’s nothing like publicity to do that. My hope is that hearing about what I’m doing can encourage others and give them some ideas about what they might do as well.

These protests are only the beginning of a resistance movement that will have to last for several years. Going forward, my goal is to do about four things every week: a call to each of my senators, one local or state-level action or phone call, and one in-person action, like attending a meeting. I probably won’t reach that goal every week, but it’s a dramatic uptick in my involvement compared to last year, and it’s close to my limit for the amount of time and energy I have to devote to these activities, considering I have a full-time job and two little kids. So far I’m finding these actions very doable and empowering. They’re a great outlet for the frustration and anger that would otherwise build up just from scrolling my newsfeed. Compared to helpless inaction, doing something, anything, is a relief.

Let’s march!

Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

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This is a really, really long book. I picked it up because I liked Middlemarch, and I think most people who liked Middlemarch would like it too. The beginning was a little hard to get into, as a long flashback confused me initially about the order of events. But once I got to know Gwendolyn, especially the cheeky, haughty thing she is in the beginning of the book’s chronology, I was hooked. I’m still not sure what to think of the education she receives in the book. In a way she’s broken down, and there’s surely an argument to be made that she loses the thing that attracted me to her–the fact that she had a mind of her own. According to the book’s strict morality, she is improved, and she and her family are materially more secure, but her spark seems to be gone, and she’s kind of submitted to male authority, even if it’s just Daniel gently speaking as her conscience.

The one part of the book that I found boring and sentimental and annoying was the character of perfect, meek Mirah, her saintly brother, and the Jewish community in general. I’m sure it’s very progressive for the time to portray Jewish characters in a positive way, but I found them sentimentalized, idealized, and unrealistic. But considering the ending, I can see why that material kind of has to be in there, and sentiment is kind of a general hazard of lots of books of this time period.

There’s also an extended gambling metaphor, lots of business with jewelry, paintings, and singing, and a long-lost mother resurfacing near the end (she might have been the most fascinating character in the whole book). This is one story that might actually be improved by adaptation to screen, assuming it’s a lengthy, faithful adaptation like the ones the BBC usually does. I’m going to try to find it and watch it. I love costume dramas.