Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Jane Eyre: A Call To Arms

I was up on the roof with some friends, and friends of friends, and conversation turned to Jane Eyre. Actually, I turned the conversation to Jane Eyre, which I've been trying to read, along with my book club, for the last two months.

Me: (casually) "So, have y'all read Jane Eyre?"

Everyone: (including some really masculine guys with deep voices and ESPN subscriptions): Resounding yes.

Girl named Amanda: "I've read it three times; it's my favorite book of all time!"

Crap. You can't throw a stone without hitting someone whose favorite book of all time is Jane Eyre. I mean, the book must rival the Holy Bible in terms of copies sold. But my book club (which, in all fairness, only consists of three people, including me) hasn't been able to get hooked. Why?

Me: "Yeah, well, I'm having trouble getting into it, because, you know, it's pretty slow, I mean the story doesn't start until page 100 or so, with Mr. Rochester's horse slipping on the ice scene" (murmurs from the crowd; one of the ESPN subscribers stares at me, looks away, and shakes his head sadly; I start to backpedal fast) - "I mean, what's wrong with me? This is obviously a great book, a seminal book, and I can't get into it. I think it might be because I already know the story? You know, I've seen a couple of movie and made-for-TV adaptations, and the story is such a big part of our culture, that maybe I just had expectations that were way too high..."

Everyone: (exchanging meaningful glances with each which clearly question my ability to participate in Western Civilization) "Jane Eyre is a great book... but it's not for everyone..." (like, not for dumbasses)

Me: "Yeah, because I read a lot of genre fiction, so I like stories that are fast paced." (This point is undermined by my participation in a previous discussion about Philip Roth. Damn!)

Amanda: "Well, you should read it in conjuction with The Wide Sargasso Sea, which is the story of the crazy lady in the attic."

God, a Jane Eyre spin off? I struggle to keep my mounting alarm off my face. Please, please don't let my book club find out about this...

Amanda: (beginning to truly feel sorry for me)"And I read Jane Eyre when I was on this whole women's studies kick..."

Yeah, the Brontes were real feminists for their time. "Their time" being a really long time ago. I'm a feminist, I love feminists, I love feminist books (most of them), but I want to read something more contemporary. Maybe if Jane Eyre was embroiled in a fight against her new evil and sexist health insurance company, which charges a minimum of $40.00 for birth control, and only five bucks for generic Viagra...now there's something I can really relate to. There's some feminism I can really get behind.

Me: "Yeah, I can see that, totally. It's just hard for me to read. And I really want to read it. The other night, I read thirty pages, and got this wonderful sense of accomplishment - I felt really fulfilled, in a literary way - like how you might feel after running a marathon, or scoring a goal" (my attempt at sports analogies and "literary stamina" go ignored), "but I still don't feel a strong urge to pick it back up."

Later, back in the apartment with my boyfriend, I can't let it go.

Boyfriend: "The problem is that you're reading it wrong. You can't just read it before bed, or on your lunch break, or when you have free time. You need to make a commitment. You need to read at least a hundred pages at a clip. You need to let yourself get lost in Jane Eyre's world."

My boyfriend is full of surprising and unacknowledged bursts of wisdom. I'm speechless.

But not for long.

Me: "Um, you're right. You're right. But look" (I can't stop myself, even though my arguments are getting thinner and thinner), "I think the real problem is that the two main characters are unattractive, and the narrator does nothing to hide that, and I'm a shallow 21st century bitch. I mean, look at this cover! Who wants to read about this girl?" (I am shaking the book precariously close to his calm and lovely face. Really, couldn't the Jane Eyre art department take a clue from Chick Lit?)

Boyfriend: (Shrugs). "I don't think she's unattractive. By the end, I thought she was attractive."

Great. I'm mildly disturbed by my boyfriend's taste in women, but I soldier on:

Me: "Maybe my problem with Jane Eyre is that I credit it with spawning the romance genre, and you know that I've been irrevocably traumatized by reading too many of my grandmother's romance novels at a young and tender and impressionable age..." (this is true, my Middle School Dating Strategies were formulated soley based on cowboy romances)

Boyfriend: "I don't think you can credit Jane Eyre with creating the whole romance genre. There were a lot of other authors who contributed..." (begins to list authors...I sigh loudly in defeat)

I'm all out of arguments. I must embrace Jane Eyre or alienate myself from all of my friends, to say nothing of Western Culture. All at once, I feel a surge of sympathy for Tall Katie, a friend I had years ago who claimed to dislike Catch 22. Obviously, we knew she was just lying to get attention. How is it possible to feel anything but intense love and admiration for Catch 22?!

This is a call to arms. All who are struggling through Jane Eyre unite! All who have lied about having read this book, and having loved it, tell your story as an anonymous comment! I know I'm not alone! I can't be the only one.

In the meantime, I will keep on trying. Our book club has set a deadline of July 15th: Jane Eyre or bust.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Hands down, the darkest book that I've read since, um, I don't know. This may very well be the darkest book I've ever read. I mean, Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot scared the shit out of me, and I still have the occasional nightmare about my best friends turning into vampires and levitating outside the window of my fourth floor apt. window, but here's the thing: there are no vampires in Sharp Objects. Nothing supernatural. It's real. And really disturbing.

Naturally, being a drawn-to-the-dark-side kind of girl, I absolutely loved this book. It didn't quite give me nightmares, but I had very vivid and creepy dreams while I was reading it. Flynn creates such a strong sense of atmosphere that it's jarring to put the book down and realize that you're wedged in a > 600 square foot apartment, don't have a gorgeous and cruel ice-queen mother or word scars cut all over your skin, and aren't a chronic bourbon drinker.*

The voice is spare and honest, and the characters are shamelessly fucked up. There are no good people in this book. Well, I suppose I should say that there are no good women. Flynn admits to adoring evil stepmothers and wicked queens from the Brothers Grimm, and casually confesses that she was not a nice little girl. She's set out to write a story about female violence, and the uniquely destructive relationships between women - a type of viciousness that is wholly feminine. Here's an excerpt from the novel that doesn't quite make that point, but gives a sharp piece of insight nonetheless:

"Sometimes I think illness sits inside every woman, waiting for the right moment to bloom. I have known so many sick women all my life. Women with chronic pain, with ever-gestating diseases. Women with conditions. Men, sure, they have bone snaps, they have backaches, they have a surgery or two, yank out a tonsil, insert a shiny plastic hip. Women get consumed. Not surprising, considering the sheer amount of traffic a woman's body experiences. Tampons and speculums. Cocks, fingers, vibrators and more, between the legs, from behind, in the mouth. Consumed. Men love to put things inside women, don't they? Cucumbers and bananas and bottles, a string of pearls, a Magic Marker, a fist. Once a guy wanted to wedge a telephone receiver inside of me. I declined."

Flynn's main character, Camille Preaker, is a cutter who cuts words into her skin like cherry, virgin, cunt, yelp. She can feel certain words pulse on her skin depending on circumstance and mood - words like punish, wicked, lipstick. She's been a cutter so long, and with such ferocity, that the only clear spot left on her body (other than her face) is a small unmarked circle in the center of her back where she can't reach with a blade.

At the start, Camille is called back to her small home town of Wind Gap, Missouri, when her boss at a Chicago newspaper asks her to report on the murder of one nine-year-old girl, and the disappearance of another. Shortly after Camille comes to town the second girl is found. Both girls had been strangled, had their teeth pulled out, and then arranged lovingly to be found (lip gloss applied, hair brushed, eyebrows plucked). Camille hasn't been back to Wind Gap in over eight years. Needless to say, her homecoming stirs up a lot of memories (not the least of which is the death of her younger sister when Camille was eighteen) and strains her extremely disfuctional relationship with her mother.

The town of Wind Gap is best summed up on page 74:

"I didn't mind the idea of spilling Wind Gap's stories to Richard [out of town cop character]. I felt no particular allegiance to the town. This was the place my sister died, the place I started cutting myself. A town so suffocating and small, you tripped over people you hated every day. People who knew things about you. It's the kind of place that leaves a mark."

Overall, Stephen King put it best in his blurb: "...Then, after the lights were out, the story just stayed there in my head, coiled and hissing, like a snake in a cave. An admirably nasty piece of work, elevated by sharp writing and sharper insights."

Over two months after I read it, Sharp Objects is still "coiled and hissing" in my head. This is an extremely powerful book that I'd recommend to anyone who likes their fiction dark and thoughtful.** And NASTY.

*Actually, this book played a key role in kicking off my love affair with Woodford Reserve.
**In case you're one of those readers wondering what I mean by Literary Mysteries, this would be one. Not only is the writing great, but Sharp Objects deals with a lot of serious social issues, along with other fascinating issues.

PS - I picked this book up at BEA 2006, and it took me almost a year to realize what's on the cover - an old school razor blade! (No, I have no idea what I thought it was....some Rorschach thing?)

PSS - If reading Nineteen Minutes made you never ever want to have sons, Sharp Objects will make you never want to have daughters.