Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld 9781400068326

publication date: 2016
pages: 488
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6832-6

In Eligible, Sittenfeld deliberately and explicitly created a modern retelling of the Jane Austen classic, Pride & Prejudice. Basically, Sittenfeld took the Bennet family, along with the Lucases, the Collins, Fitzwilliam Darcy (of course!), and everyone else, and plopped them into Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2013.

If you’re not already familiar with the story, Pride & Prejudice centered around the Bennet family – including the five Bennet sisters: beautiful and sweet-tempered Jane, witty Liz, uncaring Mary, complacent Kitty, and Lydia, the baby. Living with the five sisters were their often out-of-touch parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. The main plot complications of the story stemmed from Mrs. Bennet’s attempts to get all five of her girls married off, and moneyed.

Sittenfeld followed this main plot almost exactly, but she included many modern devices, like pre-marital sex and techies from Silicon Valley. Sittenfeld also did a satisfying job of carrying over the personality traits of each of her characters. However, she kept each of the characters modern and not as though they were throwbacks from an older time. For example, Jane was still sweet, but she wasn’t a pushover and she wasn’t just sitting around waiting to get married. Possibly the most effective character was Mr. Bennet. Sittenfeld aptly portrayed his dry, almost mean, humor and approach to life. Here was a perfect example:

[T]he door opened, and there appeared a male nurse in aqua-colored scrubs . . . “Fred!” The nurse said, though they had never met. “How are we today?”

Reading the nurses’ name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, “Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?”

Sittenfeld also perfectly kept intact a major theme of the original: that when we allow our pride and our prejudices to shadow our lives, we do ourselves a disservice.

Along with the modern retelling, Sittenfeld included several current issues, such as race, sexuality, the gender spectrum, and single motherhood. Sometimes Sittenfeld could get a little preachy on these subjects, but generally the book, especially the character of Liz, handled these topics well, in a Liz Lemon white-guilt sort of way.

The book also paid homage to Jane Austen in a subtler way: Sittenfeld captured something true about humanity through her characters, dialogue, and story. Here was a small example:

Liz said, “I guess I’m a Cincinnati opportunist. In New York, I play the wholesome-midwesterner card, but when I’m back here, I consider myself to be a chic outsider.” Even before Willie replied, Liz felt the loneliness of having confided something true in a person who didn’t care. Still, when he spoke, it was more disappointing than she’d expected.

He said, “That chili we had – I liked it okay, but I keep burping up the taste of it.”

I genuinely liked this book. It was cute, fun, and compelling. For those of you who liked Pride & Prejudice, I would recommend this just for the novelty of it. For anyone else, this is a contemporary story with vital characters and plenty of wit.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:

New York Times
The Guardian
Entertainment Weekly

Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine9781555976903

publication date: 2014
pages: 169
ISBN: 978-1-55597-690-3

Citizen was a collection of free form prose poetry and visual imagery that documented the black experience, especially when bounded by the white experience. The book was split into seven parts, which centered on loosely related topics. Generally, these topics were: personal experiences of racism, Serena Williams’s experience as a powerful black female tennis player, and violence against black people in the news.

The most effective parts for me were Rankine’s depictions of the subtle and relentless racism encountered by black Americans in everyday life. The pieces were written in second person and were usually vivid and intimate. Here was an example:

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.

You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.

Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, fly forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.

Here was another very short passage:

And when the woman with the multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer, instinctively you take two steps back though all urgency leaves the possibility of any kind of relationship as you realize nowhere is where you will get from here.

The descriptions of the violence against black people were also effective, although they were more confusing and less striking than the more intimate verses. However, the pieces about Serena Williams really fell flat for me; maybe because they weren’t written from Serena’s perspective but instead from a spectator’s perspective.

The book also contained images of artworks. Some of these were more potent or useful than others. The cover image was probably the most powerful: it was a stark black sweatshirt hood.

The book captured aspects of life that many Americans don’t have cause to confront with very often. Although it was uneven, when it worked it really worked.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New Yorker
The Guardian

Not Easily Broken

Not Easily Broken by T.D. Jakes9780446693844

publication date: 2006
pages: 245
ISBN: 978-0-446-57677-2

In Not Easily Broken, T.D. Jakes used a fictional story to give advice about marriage, love, and relationship problems – all with a Christian foundation.

In the book, Clarice and David’s marital problems were thrown in stark relief when Clarice was in a car accident that left Clarice homebound with a broken leg. Clarice’s incapacitating injury heightened the tension between her and her husband. David often felt unloved and unneeded and Clarice felt pressured to forsake her career to be a wife and mother. Neither took the time to communicate with or understand each other anymore.

Jakes did a great job of showing the little slights and snubs that can accumulate in a relationship and translate into resentment and apathy. For example, when David made dinner after coming home to his wife:

Dave thought about eating on the couch next to his wife, but he decided to sit at the kitchen counter instead. He was tired; he didn’t need the burden of [Clarice’s] silence to go with his supper.

Another example from Clarice’s perspective:

Sometimes, as [Clarice] watched TV on the couch and David rustled around in the kitchen or sat in his recliner and leafed through a magazine, she thought about saying something to him. She thought about stepping onto the shaky ground of her own uncertainties, of opening herself up to him for a discussion of what might be happening to their marriage and what might be done about it.

The book generally presented a picture of two regular people who didn’t know how to save their marriage. Sometimes, however, Jakes fell back on odd clichés or stereotypes. For example, two women who were competing for the same man accidentally ran into each other at a hair salon and proceeded to have a haircut duel, with each woman getting a more and more obnoxious haircut.

Jakes also relied heavily on Christian themes and bible scripture. That’s not really meaningful to me, but I also didn’t find it too obtrusive.

For some people, the bible verses and discussions of God as a pillar and a foundation would alienate and repulse. I personally didn’t find them too bad. And it isn’t often one finds a book about an everyday troubled marriage that isn’t also trying to tell a grandiose story about living in 19th century Russia or the tragedy of the American suburbs. For those and other reasons, I thought the book was:

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:


The Great Santini

The Great Santini by Pat Conroy9780553381559

publication date: 1976
pages: 487
ISBN: 978-0-553-38155-9

The Great Santini was a detailed study of American military life in the early 1960s. The story focused on the Meecham family: patriarch and Marine Bull Meecham; wife Lillian; and kids Ben, Mary Anne, Matthew, and Karen. It started with Bull returning from a tour and moving his family once again from Atlanta to yet another Marine base. As the kids grappled with a new school, Bull was tasked with commanding a notorious squadron. Against this back drop were the major focuses of the book: the impact the Marines had on Bull and his family and the fraught relationship between Bull and his oldest son, Ben. The book was made into an Oscar-nominated movie starring Robert Duvall.

I have to say, there was not much about this book I enjoyed or cared for. Bull Meecham, who called himself the Great Santini, was abhorrent. The book began with him getting blitzed in Spain at the end of his tour. He was destroying a hotel with other Marines – throwing up and breaking glasses – and when the maitre d’ asked him to stop, this happened: “’Beat it, Pedro,’ Bull said. When I want a tortilla I’ll give you a call.’” That was on page three and that about summed up Bull Meecham. He was an inconsiderate racist jerk who didn’t show much respect or affection for anyone. He sporadically beat his wife and kids and expected anyone and everyone to respond to his every whim. He deliberately ran over turtles. The rest of the characters weren’t that great either, although I suppose they were all tainted by Bull Meecham. Additionally, I think we were supposed to find all of this just a little bit funny or endearing. The back of the book described Bull as an “explosive character – a man you should hate, but a man you will love.” Well, sorry, book blurb, but I just thought he was awful.

Also, there was a lot I simply didn’t get. I’m not a father or a son, or a military brat. So all the talk about the pressure put on the Meecham family, especially Ben, was a little lost on me. I thought that lack of connection fell a little bit on me and a lot on the author. There are a lot of books I read that have no semblance to my life, but the author presented them with a universality that meant I could relate to the characters or the situation or at least find meaning in the whole thing.

With all that being said, I thought this book served a purpose. After reading a bit about Pat Conroy, it seemed this book was more a memoir than straight-up fiction. And, as one man’s experience, the book cannot be criticized for not being “universal” enough. Further, it’s probable that a lot of people experienced what Ben and the other Meechams went through: a volatile relationship with an often absent military man that you both loved and hated. The book also recognized and described a subset of American culture: the roving military family.

However, there were some flaws with the book beyond any personal dislike I had for it. All the black people – there weren’t many – either served white people with peace and composure or were criminals. Most of the women were either loving mothers or pretty people who used their looks to hurt and injure. A woman’s body was described this way: “It had rich curves that invited the secret scholarship of men’s eyes.” Most of the characters employed an undifferentiated, too-clever dialogue. Additionally, the tone was sometimes incoherent and rambling.

No matter how much I didn’t enjoy this book, because I found it unfunny and slow and even a little boring, I could really imagine that others would like it. They would read something that reminded them of their own life or find something funny about the South or really empathize with one or all of the Meechams. Because of that, I’m giving the book:

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Sarah’s Book Shelves
Stubborn Things

Nineteen Minutes

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult9781476729718

publication date: 2007
pages: 455
ISBN: 978-0743496735

In this expansive book, Jodi Picoult explored what happens to a community when tragedy strikes. The book’s title came from the amount of time it took a character to go on a shooting rampage through his high school. The book’s focus was not the nineteen minutes of tragedy, however. Instead, Nineteen Minutes focused on the years leading up to the shooting and the far-reaching aftermath. Picoult ably demonstrated that people usually aren’t all bad or all good. And tragedies don’t happen in a vacuum.

The strength of the book was its characters. Picoult created and examined almost every person that a reader could imagine that would be affected by the shooting, the conditions leading up to it, and its consequences. Most characters were interesting and described in detail.

Picoult looked at the young shooter, Peter Houghton, and his childhood, at the bullies who tormented him daily, at the lead investigator, the judge, the defense attorney, and Peter’s childhood best friend. The book was especially effective when it focused on the parents. For example, here’s a passage when Peter’s mom Lacy goes to visit him in jail and witnesses another mother/prisoner reunion:

A man with a shaved head and sleeves of tattoos up and down his arms headed toward Lacy. She shivered – was that a swastika inked onto his forehead? “Hi, Mom,” he murmured, and Lacy watched the woman’s eyes strip away the tattoos and the bare scalp and the orange jumpsuit to see a little boy catching tadpoles in a mudhole behind their house. Everyone, Lacy thought, is somebody’s son.

The book also explored the parents of Peter’s shooting victims and the parents of the kids who survived the tragedy. All of these characters were three-dimensional and intricate.

Another set of compelling characters were the shooter’s childhood friend, Josie, and her boyfriend, Matt, who was killed in the shooting. The book showed the power plays that can exist in a relationship, especially one between immature partners.

There were a few characters that Picoult did not give their due. For example, there was Mr. McCabe, a closeted gay teacher who seemed to exist only to be an odd red herring concerning Peter’s sexuality and to showcase gay stereotypes. There was also a love story that seemed contrived and unnecessary.

Generally, the writing was quite good, although at times it bordered on the cliché. However, there was an exception to the book’s largely effective writing: Picoult seemingly needed to imbue chapter and passage endings with meaning and weight, to the point where the sentences became meaningless. For example, here’s the end of a chapter that showed a day-to-day moment between the shooter and his mother:

She watched him trudge back up the hill to the house, and then she turned her attention back to the deer. Lacy would have to feed them until the snow melted. Once you started taking care of them, you had to follow through, or they just wouldn’t make it.

I assumed the last line was supposed to show a parallelism between Lacy taking care of deer and Lacy mothering her son. But if that’s what the sentence was supposed to show, it didn’t really make sense. There are lots of children who “make it” after their parents don’t “follow through,” and vice versa. And wouldn’t a child be much less likely to “make it,” if a parent hadn’t taken care of them from the beginning – as opposed to the deer? Many chapters and passages ended like this, with sentences that were supposed to be weighty and clever but just seemed more heavy and obtuse.

Overall, this was an interesting, well-paced read that I would recommend.

4/6: worth reading

P.S. The cover of the book was stupid and had nothing to do with the content.

Other reviews of the book:

New York Times
Book Reporter
Washington Post

Queen Sugar

9780670026135Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile

publication date: 2014
pages: 372
ISBN: 978-0-670-02613-5

This engaging read followed Charley Bordelon as she uprooted her family from southern California to rural Louisiana to work on her dead father’s newly-discovered sugar cane farm. Charley left behind her job, her mother, and the trappings of her middle-class life. She took her 11-year-old daughter Micah, and not much else, with her to Louisiana to pursue her father’s unknown and mysterious urge to own and grow sugar cane.

Charley’s life in Louisiana was completely different from anything she knew before. She lived with her aunt who had no internet, no computer, no microwave. She worked in a field dominated by white men who had lived in that region all their lives. She was also reunited with an unfamiliar and volatile half-brother, Ralph Angel.

One of the finest aspects of the books was its creation of a sense of place. Rural Louisiana was not a place I have ever been or know much about. But, because of Baszile’s writing, I felt a little closer to that part of the world. For example, here was Charley’s first glimpse of her farm:

Dust billowed behind the Volvo until the path ended at a bank of trees. Woods stood tall and impassable to the left, but up ahead to the right sprawled open space. Charley’s heart raced as she imagined what was out there: fields so splendidly verdant she’d feel short of breath just looking at them. Her father left the door open and she had stepped through it.

Here’s another passage that highlighted Baszile’s ability to craft lively writing:

At last, Ralph Angel stood up and walked to his car. He laid his head on the wheel. He felt himself falling through the blanket of damp leaves and steamy humus; through the horizons of loam, through clay and bedrock, and finally, through the fire.

I really enjoyed the Ralph Angel storyline. Ralph Angel was a wayward son who just couldn’t seem to do anything right. He couldn’t hold a job, finish school, or acquire much of anything without stealing it. But the book explored Ralph Angel’s past and motivations and made him a sometimes sympathetic character.

In fact, Ralph Angel wasn’t the only character that Baszile cultivated and instilled with life and depth. Most characters, including those who were in only one scene, had names, families, dialects, motivations, and everything else needed to animate them.

There were some problems with the book. The writing could be cliché and unchallenging. This description, for example: “all of it with the spiny silhouette of the Sierra Nevada, like a promise, along the horizon.” Saying something is “like a promise” hardly ever makes sense. And this instance is no exception.

Although Queen Sugar didn’t really break any new ground, it was a captivating read with enough substance to feel worthwhile.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:

Washington Independent Review of Books
Star Tribune

The Managed Heart

The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling by Arlie Russell Hochschild9780520239333

publication date: 1983
pages: 307 (including back matter)
ISBN: 0-520-04800-8

This book coined a term that recently came back into vogue: “emotional labor.” Emotional labor is the emotion work that most people do every day. It is schooling our face and body language to reflect only the emotion we want to reflect or, perhaps, even changing what we feel on the inside to better fit into or accept a situation. It is also the things we do to invoke or change emotions in others. The author, Arlie Hochschild, discussed emotional labor in broad terms, but the bulk of her discussion was focused on emotional labor as it is required or encouraged by our employers.

As Western society shifted from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy and now to a service-related economy, the amount of people who deal with other people at their job has increased. And anyone who deals with people at their job has probably been expected to perform emotional labor. To smile at customers and seem friendly and deferential. To inspire a sense of gratitude and understanding from a customer. These aren’t always things that we want to do for a customer and they are rarely discussed using precise terms like “emotional labor.” Instead, they are either not discussed at all or are couched in terms like “professionalism” and “customer service.” An example that Hochschild used often was the work of flight attendants.

This book had a lot of great points and made me rethink my concept of what an employee is obligated to do on the job. As Hochschild worded it:

Where the customer is king, unequal exchanges are normal, and from the beginning customer and client assume different rights to feeling and display. The ledger is supposedly evened by a wage.

She further stated:

When a flight attendant feels angry at a passenger . . . what does her anger signal? According to the teacher in [Delta Airline’s] Training, it indicates that she is mislocating herself in the world, that she is seeing the man who demands a smile in the wrong sort of way – that she is too oversensitive, too touchy. It does not signal a perception about how emotional display maintains unequal power between women and men, and between employees and employers. It indicates something wrong with the worker, not something wrong with the assumptions of the customer or the company. In this way the company’s purposes insinuate themselves into the way workers are asked to interpret their own feelings.

Do those things seem right? Why should I act and feel differently just because I’m getting paid? I enjoyed most of Hochschild’s discussions and conclusions.

However, her writing could be quite dense and confusing. She would throw out concepts that I hadn’t heard of and pile them on top of each other. A lot of discussions seemed irrelevant; or maybe I just didn’t understand them. Also, some of her endnotes were weird and completely off topic. Or sometimes her conclusions wouldn’t follow logically from her statements or data.

There were also some points she made that I just didn’t buy. For example:

The code of chivalry is said to require protection of the weaker by the stronger. Yet a boss may bring flowers to his secretary or open the door for her only to make up for the fact that he gets openly angry at her more often than he does at a male equal or superior; and more often that she does at him. The flowers symbolize redress, even as they obscure the basic maldistribution of respect and psychic cost.

You can’t just throw out a statement like that without any data, evidence, or explanation.

Overall, though, this book was very enlightening. I would recommend it to anyone who feels like they put on a face at work or anyone who manages those who put on a face at work.

4/6: worth reading

I couldn’t find any reviews for this book online, but here are its Amazon and Powell’s pages: