Bookish Broad Strokes: I Am Malala

malalaI have two Kate Spade journals, and it was really hard not to bring home another one when I came home from City Creek this weekend. Mine are both black, in a shout-out to my love of simplicity and elegance. One says “Leave something to the imagination” in a gold sans serif, and the other is a hand-lettered quote: “With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?” The latter holds a series of terse notes from books I’m reading, perfect fodder for a blog post series. The more you write down what you read, the more you remember. It’s a goal I have, to be able to remember things as keenly as my dad remembers how they moved Abu Simbel when the new dam went in.

Enter my journal, and the things I want to remember about my most recent read, I Am Malala: The Girl who Stood up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.

1. Malala Yousafzai was named after an Afghan heroine—Malalai of Maiwand—who inspired defeat of the British in the Second Anglo-Afghan war. Malala’s father gave her that name to reinforce his teaching that girls are to be praised and valued in society every bit as much as boys. He has worked for all of Malala’s life to ensure that she understands her value and uses her voice to make her world a better place.

2. Pakistan was created as an Islamic state in 1947 after India gained its independence from British rule. Mohammad Ali Jinnah founded the new country as the world’s first Islamic state with a keen sense of religious freedom in the new territory. A series of overthrows gave Pakistan periods of both dictatorship and egalitarian rule, where citizens cycled between brutal and unfeeling leadership and egalitarian legislation.

3. Benazir Bhutto was the first female prime minister in the Islamic world, and she was eventually assassinated for her participation in the public sphere. Malala takes her example as a call for girls everywhere to feel at ease as leaders and educated thinkers. When I looked up women in leadership across the world, it’s interesting to note that many Middle Eastern countries are well ahead of the United States for women’s representation in government. The United States is below Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq but is only slightly ahead of the quite westernized UAE. Bhutto and other Middle Eastern women representing bravely in their governments really gives me pause about how the west views the east as inherently backward and uncivil toward women as authority figures. We are still waiting for our first woman president here in 2015 United States.

4. In Pashtun culture, white is a masculine color.

5. Malala’s father correctly notes that Maryam is named in the Koran when detractors try to say that women are not named there, deliberately, because they do not deserve a public voice. This is Mary, mother of Jesus of Nazareth, who is a prophet in the Koran. Malala and her family have a knack for pointing out how Islam isn’t one big bad omen for women and shouldn’t be enforced that way.

6. Malala notes that thing about Khadijah—the prophet Mohammad’s first wife—being a once-married, older, savvy business owner, whom Mohammad worked for and adored. It goes to show that there are so many examples of strong women in Islam (like Aisha dictating hadith), and how the Taliban’s militancy often overlooks the positive light in favor of patriarchy and control. The piles of money in the book’s glossy picture spread show why this is a thing.

7. Malala’s pen name for her anonymous blog project was Gul Makai, from a Romeo and Juliet–esque Pashtun tale in which the girl, Gul Makai, plays a huge role in convincing the parents that the union is okay. Malala’s girl power and feminist activism comes from a very informed place and bears nuances that mark her as a revolutionary in world discourse on girls.

8. Against all literary elitism, Malala is both a Nobel Prize winner and a Twilight fan.

9. People can talk all they want about Malala only gaining worldwide recognition because she is a girl who was shot. At the end of the day, the fact remains that she engaged in so much brave activism before she became a target that she scared the Taliban into taking action to silence her. They took away her country and (temporarily) the nerve that made her smile, but they haven’t taken her voice or her faith in a better Islam.

10. Malala’s region of Pakistan experiences what it does because too few people speak up.

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Clutter

I have 92 books on my nightstand. To be fair, I’m slowly working my way through, but with required reading for grad school, and work requests pinging my email every eighty seconds, it’s pretty slow going. A few are nonfiction books I’m reading in between novels that make me cry in the tub about what it means to carry on aboard this hostile, unfriendly speck we call Earth. Sometimes—for sanity’s sake and to re-light the pilot in humanity’s boiler room—you just have to pause 60 pages from the end of Jude the Obscure and pick up Where the Girls Are or Unveiling Kate Chopin. But that only accounts for 3 of 92. And that nightstand is just one of the spots in my house that is literally—not figuratively—overrun with the printed word.

My sprawling book collection isn’t all that bad on the face of things, until you fold in a fierce pack-rat streak, disposable income, and at least a half a dozen bookish thrift shops that I could walk to. (I don’t though—instead I waste fuel, in direct opposition to the green ideology of Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring is about four down in the back-corner pile.) Once a month, or whenever I’ve had a day that isn’t awesome, I take out thirty bucks and see what all I can get my hands on. It really is a trip shopping for books at stores usually praised for their gently cigarette-burned ’70s furniture. I feel like I never really know what I’m going to find crammed between copies of What to Expect When You’re Expecting and every James Michener phone book ever. And I’m always surprised by what people have decided to give up.

Nestled, as I am, in the conservative Main Street berg of Provo, I always go to the Mormon-run thrift superstore with a hint of hesitation. “I cleaned out everything moving or remotely incendiary last month,” I moan to myself with unfair intellectual elitism. “If I waste my time, I’m bound to be up to my tits in pregnancy how-to’s and DOS textbooks.” Still, I go. I skip the LDS section (because I’ve promised Neil I’ll stop bringing home laughably outdated homemaking tips and Korean translations of The Book of Mormon), but before I’ve made it to the end of the first four-foot section of shelving, my arms are overloaded and I’m dropping shit everywhere. By the end of the three long rows that I carefully scan for gems, there’s always some guy by the magazines who offers—more concerned than anything—to carry my books, or who cracks wise about how I should get a library card. I then edge through the clusters of meandering shoppers and palpable B.O. (which, as an un-showered, pajama-clad freelancer, I’m certainly contributing to) and head to the registers. I separate my finds into price-specific piles to make it easier for the cashier. “Three for $3, six for $2, seven for $1, three for 50 cents,” she says. It’s almost always under $30, yet I walk away with an armload of stuff that has to be double-bagged to avoid my having to pick up a spilled pile of paper and glue and cardboard halfway to my car. My hands are definitely grimier for the experience, but I feel like Bonny of “and Clyde” fame as I hurry away with all the humanity and life that’s printed on those thousands of pages. For less than what it costs to get my nails did or buy a mildly-fancy toaster, I own the ideas that brilliant people have slaved over, and whenever I feel like it I can dig through my overstuffed bookshelves and find that one I bought forever ago and now feel like crying about in the tub.

On the trip before last I hungrily yanked George Sand’s Indiana and the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay from the shelves. I gasped and almost yanked Neil’s arm out of alignment once when I saw Silent Spring, complete with a retro-patterned 1960s ex-library cover. I’ve seen countless books I already have, and surprisingly lots that go along with my feminist lit bent. Book hunting in the heart of Conservatown has given me things like Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar, Ella Cara Deloria’s anthropological Native American narrative Waterlily, a Chicana poetry anthology, the writings of Aphra Behn and Phyllis Wheatley, feminist literary criticism, Adrienne Rich, and the whole of Virginia Woolf minus The Three Guineas.

This cornucopia of intellectual gender studies and quality women’s literature is fairly opposite from what I expected of a town that is known as the Traditional Gender Roles capital of the reddest of red states. But that’s just another bullet point on my practical gender studies self-lecture tour: stop thinking in stereotypes. Just because the town is full of by-the-book Bible types doesn’t mean that these people aren’t smart. I’m always fighting that stereotype when non-Mormons are surprised that I went to BYU—”But, you’re so smart”—and even though I spend quite a bit of my time defending where I went to school as a scientific and intellectual font of knowledge, with one of the best libraries pretty much ever, I still buy into that crap about how a culture that pushes traditional families and stay-at-home wifery must be entirely backwards with regard to its intellectual habits. True, I have met quite a few Mormons who forget what they learned in BYU lecture halls about evolution being a thing, or bell hooks having a point about feminism belonging to more than just rich white ladies. But for the most part, this town has a remarkable population of people who know what’s out there and make informed decisions. In short, people who read. Which is, after all, what being religious is really all about.

I think my compulsive reading—and need for cheap books that I could write all over—sprang from the Mormon thing, or maybe it was just natural that I started to discover the world around me while I happened to be in college. The idea of religion taught me—if nothing else—that it’s important to engage with a text instead of just dragging your eyes over the pages, with one eye on Road Rules, so you could say that you’d read something. After all, religion is one of those things that we came up with, along with agriculture and government and cave paintings, to help us put some order to things so we could see beyond the cycle of birth, toil, and death. When we started folding those solutions into literature, we captured a unique power to sort things out in ways both more individual and universal, all at once. You can read a good novel the second, fifth, or eleventh time and learn something completely new about life or yourself, and people are literally giving these things away to musty boneyards filled with junk.

The guy by the magazines is definitely right about the library card (though I do have one). But while I can, I’ll be the crazy lady who fills every available surface with second-hand books that smell like cheap paper and someone’s basement. Even though I look at my 92 bedside reads (not to mention the rest of my hoarde, from paperback thrillers to the classics) and confront the impossibility of ever reading everything I want to, I know I’ll keep adding every time I see something promising. There is sure to be a time for everything, even DOS. My to-read list will always get longer, not shorter. But I’ve decided that’s a good thing. Better there be too many thoughts and dreams on paper, infinite like our own star-dust makeup, than too few.

Book Review: Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West

Savage Dreams

In this, her second book, Rebecca Solnit leaves a literary chronicle of her experiences in two stages of western U.S. conflict, the Nevada Test Site and Yosemite. Her prose is part historical and largely memoir, leaving a sterling impression of the battles and consequences on the western landscape and its people. With clarity, Solnit demonstrates a theme of continuity and intersection among the conflicts, land, and people she discusses, from the plight of the “downwinders” living near the test site to the erasure of native culture from the Great Basin region and Yosemite. In her book, Solnit splits her time between the Great Basin and northern California and draws her parallels with fluidity and with purpose.

In the opening section, Solnit sets her landscape with a cruise down Highway 95 and into the maw of the Nevada Test Site. Her style is literary and evocative, and she misses no insight on what it means to be a part of this larger world. She goes on to detail her time spent with the pacifist groups working for disarmament. There, Solnit encounters a striking array of activists who all see unique and personal threats issuing from the bomb. Solnit meets those who preach the ill health effects of fallout as well as environmentalists who seek to protect the rights of the landscape. Many of the players are women, including Janet Gordon, a downwinder who lost more than a few loved ones to radiation poisoning, and three repeat-activists at the site (dubbed the Princesses of Plutonium) who all go by the name Priscilla, after a particularly volatile detonation during the 1950s. Further, Solnit encounters a strong presence from the indigenous Shoshone people, who stand mired in conflict with the federal government over land use rights. All have unique ideologies behind quelling the bomb, yet all causes intersect in a global effort to achieve peace and level the playing field for all people involved in the conflict.

In examining the activists’ varying perspectives, it’s easy to see a range of motivation at play. For the Princesses and for Gordon, Solnit hints how conflict manifests in the form of the patriarchy using the bomb to assume control over the women’s bodies through the bomb’s fallout. There is also a parallel between using the landscape against its will and to its detriment, which places all interconnected systems of earth and humanity in jeopardy. Further, Solnit chronicles how Gordon recalls a 1950s test site propaganda film that sought to mollify a nation by likening a nuclear detonation to a beautiful, God-given sight, akin to a rainbow. Outraged, a now-adult Gordon rejects this manipulative message and sees it as a way of exercising power and privilege to meet terrible ends.

Solnit’s book takes issue most with land-use conflicts between the U.S. federal government and the indigenous people who involuntarily fall within its jurisdiction. The conflicts she describes show a struggle that is fundamentally a racial one but stretches wide to intersect again on the other side with feminist and environmental issues. To illustrate these, Solnit describes at length the decades-long struggle between the Dann sisters and the federal government.

The Dann sisters—Mary and Carrie, hearty Shoshone women—occupied a ranch on their people’s land, situated in the heart of government-controlled testing and mining grounds requisitioned in the latter-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. Solnit describes how one day a federal agent visited the Danns’ ranch and informed them that they were trespassing on federal land that had been purchased from the Shoshone. The ranchers informed the agent that their land, in fact, fell within the Shoshone boundaries dictated in the Treaty of Ruby Valley and had never been up for sale. This event sparked a long and fierce battle between the federal government and the Danns, with the government attempting to run the Danns from their land and with the Danns standing their ground. After decades of fierce battle, another visitor arrives on the Danns’ ranch, a government agent who literally twists the arm of now-fifty-nine-year-old Carrie Dann in an effort to force her to stand down from her land and surrender her livestock to the government. In true feminist fashion, Dann stands firm and fashions an ultimatum for the agent to either produce the bill of sale from the Shoshone to the United States, or stand down and let her people be. Solnit describes Carrie Dann’s fortitude and brings all conflics full circle:

Thus two decades of legal battle came to their culmination. The federal government versus the Western Shoshone boiled down to Joe Leaf twisting Carrie Dann’s arm. I had come to Nevada because of the great apocalyptic end-of-the-world war, a war of great bombs and technologies annihilating cities or continents or species or the weather itself, and it had changed into a man bruising the wrist of a fifty-nine-year-old woman over some cows, but it was still the same war, and in this round, she had won (Solnit, 167).

Solnit goes on to describe the ill treatment of the natives in the late nineteenth century when the treaty was signed, including the rape of Shoshone women and forced cannibalism against the native people. Similar cases arise when the federal government seized control of Yosemite and snuffed out much of the native population of surrounding Mariposa County—a heavy tale discussed at length in the second portion of the book. Through this juxtaposition, Solnit shows how the past atrocities against indigenous peoples are alive and well in modern conflicts that crop up in the same places, as if nothing has been learned at all. In the Great Basin and Yosemite alike, the push is the same at the date of Solnit’s writing as it was a century or more prior: the privileged classes suppress the underprivileged (native peoples, women, and others without a voice) in a power play that transcends a variety of power structures.

In this way, the federal government’s injustice toward the Danns and other indigenous groups represents an intersection of oppression that reaches beyond pacifism and visits heavily upon feminist, environmental, and racial questions (an idea expressed at length in Rosemarie Tong’s chapter on third-wave feminism). Pacifism raises the question of why the bomb must be detonated at all. Feminism asks why a male government worker can feel justified in coercing a Shoshone woman to give up her livelihood against her will, or why the federal government can expect that a native Miwok woman practice her people’s lost crafts as a lookie-loo exhibit for white Yosemite tourists. Environmentalism asks why the Great Basin was long ago depleted of its indigenous plant and animal species in favor of the forced agricultural lifestyle of non-native white settlers, upon which the Danns are now forced to depend. Finally, race explains a keystone in the interplay of all of these ideas: the indigenous peoples, as “fourth-world” citizens, are perceived as having lesser importance than the citizens of the “first world” and must be subjugated to fit the will of the ruling class.

Solnit shows in vivid color how a host of ideas converge to trespass on the basic human rights of the Shoshone, the Miwok, and countless others as well as on the basic natural rights of the landscape. Her wayfaring memoir shines light on the complexities of what seem to be very straightforward conflicts and expose the intricacies with light and courage.

The Flaming Lips of Willa Cather

my-antonia

Walking through a bookshop recently, I did a double-take as I passed a modest grouping of spines boasting a familiar author. I’d heard of Willa Cather before, even tried to read one of her books. But that was back when I was yet too immature to tear myself away from the glow of would-be actresses devouring raw horse rectum or lasting a full minute in a sarcophagus teeming with roaches. Looking back it’s sad that I chose reality TV over a weathered literary classic, but what can I say—there’s no competing with primetime droll when it comes to winning a child’s esteem. So my little-kid mind did the only thing that seemed right in the face of temptation: I dragged my eyes across the pages of my novel without retention, marked on my homework slip that I’d had a book open for a full twenty minutes, and then settled in to watch the future of entertainment unravel.

Back at the bookshop, my maturing hand picked up the copy of My Ántonia—three dollars, used—and brought it home. Since my first try with the novel, I’ve loved, learned, and transplanted myself a world away from my roots. It seemed the perfect mindset to recapture a gem I could have had in youth, this well-penned story to linger in my mind. Love, loss, mobility, and moving on share the leitmotif of the piece. So it’s almost funny now, having read the book clear through, just how much of its clarity and fierce destiny lay in wait for me to come along at twenty-seven, having lived a little and at last eager to see.

The narrative follows Jim, a discerning country boy growing up on the Nebraska prairie shortly before the turn of the twentieth century. His story is interwoven with the novel’s namesake, a rugged and vibrant Bohemian immigrant affectionately called Tony. I hadn’t braced myself for the reality of what I’d assumed would be a fanciful and bumpkinesque book. In the first chunk, Cather deals with the trying themes of immigration, poverty, regret, and suicide. As affection builds between Jim and Tony, the story takes on the nuances of growing up and the resolution that all things, good and bad, are bound to rise and wane as the world spins madly forever.

As with any well-told story, the romance never develops to fruition in time for either of them to get a word in edgewise. Before we know it, Jim is off to Lincoln and then Boston, while Tony meets her own fate on the prairie. Without letting slip a spoiler to those who have not read, the story does not wrap up as you might think. Or at least not as I had thought, knowing that the book is considered a romance and catching on the note of possession in the title. What we get at the end is not the kind of neat wrap-up that satisfies you all the way into a warm bubble bath. The story’s culmination reveals an honesty of living that sends you reminiscing fondly while cursing all your lost opportunities as they pass before your eyes in stark and living color.

Throughout the novel are glimpses, from a variety of perspectives, of human value and its place in the grand drama of progression. On the final page, Jim walks the fields and roads of a youth spent with Ántonia and feels her shadow, nearly forty years distant, egging him on to play.

“The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what little circle man’s experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”

As I scribble my thoughts on My Ántonia, my playlist has circled around twice to “Do You Realize,” by the Flaming Lips. Its fury and simple lyricism make it one of my all-time favorite songs. Along with its opening cadence the second time through I was struck with an aha notion that nothing else could sum up Cather’s novel more concisely or more completely. Did Tony realize all the beauty radiating from her singular face? Did Jim ever let her know, in time, that he realized that the fast clip of life makes it all the more important to make the good things last? Did either of them realize that all things must pass way and be borne forever to the eternities?

Smoothing over the many dog-ears that work assignments and buzzing dryers have laid on the pages these past few days, I set the finished book aside and marvel once again at all the humanity I snubbed when I chose horse rectum over honesty. Some books have nothing to tell us but story, but Cather’s is brimming with a life so universal that its recognition strikes you as lightning even a hundred years later.

Luckily for anyone in my shoes—anyone reading this story in the prime of life—it’s a reassuring marvel that the sun doesn’t really go down. Through it all, it’s just an illusion, caused by our worlds spinning ‘round.

Erin Reads a Trashy Romance, pt. 2

Between December’s gauntlet of holiday festivities and several stubborn bouts of illness, I finally managed to soldier through the second half of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Thoughts . . .

I’ve mentioned before that I rarely get fired up over romance in the “classical literature” sense, and that’s mainly because the books tend to be either neat, little bedtime stories that are best served with the final chapter torn out, or cautionary tales that paint doom and hurt for anyone who tries to cast off convention. In reality, we all know that the relationships we build are complex and run the gamut from despair to sheer bliss, so it hurts my pretty little head to see the romantic ideal forced into one of two extremes without showing the nuance of something so fierce and complicated. Easy storytelling has sent more than a few of the classics back into my donation pile, anyway.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a unique read for me because it is one of the few oldish novels I’ve read that doesn’t fall into either camp—at least not very neatly. The second half takes Connie and Oliver from casual lovers to devoted partners and elaborates on the shortfalls of industry, classism, excess, and the Machine that perpetuates it all. Some dicey stuff happens, and in the end the situation ends up as complicated as any daytime soap. To put a fine point on it, the book calls to question what we live for—what we have built our lives around—and sort of asks us to get back to what makes us human. Are you motivated by progress or by happiness? It’s really a lot of little questions that add up to the bigger picture. And in the end, the plot doesn’t end Jane Austen-style with everyone finding someone and riding off into the sunset. It’s more of a mellifluous cliffhanger—satisfying, but far, far from resolution—just like life.

Written nearly a hundred years ago and an ocean away, this book has a hippie streak that still has a lot to say to a twenty-something career girl with a heap of bills and way too many shoes. Whether you’re looking at the philosophical message or strictly the romantic arc, the book takes the whirlwind of life, love, and progress and kind of snaps it all into perspective. Are you living for what’s important, or are you simply racking up the points?

And now, a purely feel-good line from Oliver’s letter to Connie on the closing page: “Well, so many words, because I can’t touch you. If I could sleep with my arms round you, the ink could stay in the bottle.”

So with that, I finally say good night to this book, a little droopingly, but with a hopeful heart.

Erin Reads a Trashy Romance, pt. 1

So, I swore I’d scribble an update on my most recent read once I ran across the title of the book in line. Lo, on page 150 of the Barnes and Noble 2005 edition: “And this night she was wondering who Lady Chatterley’s lover was.” Blaring horns! Sweeping violins! If this were a movie, my friends and I would be leaning over one another to whisper much too noisily, “They said the name of the movie!

I picked up Lady Chatterley’s Lover in part because I have a thing for banned books. There’s just something enticing about a story that has to be translated into a language that wasn’t the author’s first choice and then marketed only in more permissive foreign lands (Rajaa Alsanea’s The Girls of Riyadh sweeps immediately to mind). It’s hard not to get sucked in by the hype of subversive literature; like anyone else with an Area 51 fetish, I can’t help but die to read about what they didn’t want me to know. I don’t like people choosing my reading material for me or even painting over the ugly parts to shelter me from life—it’s just not my style. Besides, if you rob a book of its humanity by cleaning up what you might consider vulgar, then what do we have but just another tome about the felicity of young marriage followed by a marbled endpaper and nothing more? Totally not my style. So Lady Chatterley’s Lover appealed to me (both the book and the actual hunky lover), and so far I don’t regret the time I’ve spent in its now-uncensored pages.

Of course there’s the other reason I picked up the book: it’s a tad trashy. See, I have never actually finished a romance novel—no, not even Twilight. Books with romance in them are fine (see previous posts), but I find pure romance to be too neat and too unreal. The only time I allow myself to read anything with a horse or a heaving maiden on the cover is to poke fun at the dime-store prose while reading aloud in a bad cowgirl accent. It just doesn’t do it for me if the story isn’t there, so Lady Chatterley’s Lover is the perfect excuse to read something fleshy while asserting my book snob streak. My aversion to sexy romance makes this story relatively virgin seas to me, and it’s kind of cool to see what I’ve been deliberately missing, but in a way that doesn’t force me into titles like Love is a Horseshoe or Enter the Countess. No, thank you.

I already have plenty of guff though—Lawrence can be repetitive in his storytelling and word choice, the woman’s struggle is close to truth but told from a male perspective, and the conflict is a little too easy since the husband is physically unable to perform and mentally detached from his wife. It’s not the novel I would have written, but since there are no glittering spines boasting my name, I’m happy to charge ahead and see what this little book can do. I’m halfway through, and so far what I’m taking from the various characters’ conflicts is a universal thread that tells us it’s okay to be frustrated when you’re in your twenties and thirties and feel like real life has forgotten all about you. It’s revealing to see what people in all times  might do with what we’re experiencing today, in 2012, so I’m eager to see what unravels in the second half.

And now, some passages:

Of Mellors, the roguish keeper and namesake of the book: “What did life offer apart from the care of money? Nothing. Yet he could live alone, in the wan satisfaction of being alone, and raise pheasants to be shot ultimately by fat men after breakfast. It was futility, futility to the nth power. But why care, why bother? And he had not cared nor bothered till now, when this woman had come into his life. . . . The connection between them was growing closer. He could see the day when it would clinch up and they would have to make a life together.”

And an opening passage so brilliant that I’m still kicking myself for not thinking of it first: “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up the new little habits, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”

Pride and Prejudice: An Untimely Review

Pride and prejudiceWas I really the only ultra-prissy, doe-eyed girl to reach adulthood without picking up Jane Austen? It took me twenty-six years to take that plunge. I stalled, partly out of embarrassment for having missed out on a classic, and partly out of embarrassment for being the girl seen in public reading Jane Austen—you know, that girl. It wasn’t until a roommate mistakenly left behind a copy of Pride and Prejudice that it occurred to me to quietly take to the shadows with my new book, read it carefully, and then spend the rest of my life pretending that I’d discovered it as a budding thirteen year old. Then I remembered I have a blog and no discipline for weaving labyrinthian lies about my literary past. So I decided to embrace both my childhood in front of the TV and my sudden, adult desire to see what I’ve been missing. I finished a week ago, and I still have a few months before twenty-seven rolls around. Not altogether shabby. Now, what I think…

If I had access to a Mr. Fusion–based DeLorean time machine, I would set my time circuits to 1820 or so and give this book five stars. The writing is superb, and there’s a reason why Austen’s sparkling language has endured—though it’s surprising that she wasn’t more popular in her day. Lizzy Bennet is a vibrant thinker and independent woman who isn’t afraid of many of the restrictions her society poses. She is quick to bear her opinions loudly, and she gradually becomes the type of person willing to admit when she’s been a colossal idiot. She is juxtaposed against a variety of female archetypes manifest in the other players, and it’s understood that Austen sees value in the heroine being someone apart from Jane Bennet, the angel in the house whose sole purpose is to appease and conform, and Lydia Bennet, the girl with the devil-may-care streak who preys on adventure at the expense of her family’s reputation. Lizzy is something in between, neither demure nor guided by impulse. She is rounded and secure and remains one of my favorite ladies in literature. All of this is saying quite a bit for little, ole Lizzy, a heroine created in an age when women’s suffrage was but a twinkle in John Stuart Mill’s puerile eye.

What’s more, the story is genuine. As I read about Lizzy and these nineteenth-century twentysomethings, I superimposed my friends and foes onto the characters with facility because the personalities and conflicts are so relatable. Take any event from the book, slap on skinny jeans and a hash tag, and you’ve got yourself a pretty modern story. That Bingley bitch could as easily have been a creation of Gossip Girl as old-timey literature.

That said, I regrettably do not have access to that stylish time machine I mentioned—not even one made out of an old alarm clock and a car battery—so I do have to disparage this book by two stars for its predictable marriage plot. Not that I was shocked—we’ve all seen that coming since we first crawled out from under a rock and heard about Bennet v. Darcy. Romance is all well and good, but as a third-waver, I experience a flash of white rage and some mild intestinal discomfort every time I read a story that wraps up conveniently into a silver-and-white package with a wedding cake on the front. I could be reading the most compelling book in the English language, but if you montage through the explosive first kiss ideal to a shot of the wedding, I check out. By the time an author finishes listing all the loose ends that a happy marriage has tied up—usually as an afterthought in a hasty, brief chapter, like a stinger in a Sousa march—I am miles away, plotting my revenge with a dive into Susan Faludi or worse . . . Andrea Dworkin.

So for the early nineteenth century, Pride and Prejudice is a great book with a lovely ending that bestows a sense of fulfillment to readers in a highly matrimonial world. And if you look at it from a literary and historical perspective, I would urge both impressionable tweens and hardscrabble feminists alike to soak in its glory with pleasure. The only thing is that in 2012, or whatever year it is now, it’s hard to swallow such a neat ending. It’s as if we don’t need to know any more about the well sketched characters once they’ve passed through the marriage veil. It’s tempting to imagine a Pride and Prejudice that ends on a cliffhanger, one that sees Lizzy off to a governess post to a pair of sly and inventive children in a faraway part of England, or off to America or India. On the other side, it’s tempting to imagine a good ten more chapters post-marriage that detail the new social horizons that come as Lizzy faces sudden wealth and young domestic love. A lot of ink and pixels have been spilled over Pride and Prejudice fan fiction, sequels, and modern parables that might satisfy my curiosity, but I want to hear from Austen. We have come to admire her characters, maybe more than we do the truly real figures in our own lives, yet they leave us in a puff of glitter at the precise moment when things begin to get interesting.

Does humanity gravitate toward the marriage plot for want of closure and release—as this book provides—or do we go there because after all this time, we still see it as the natural order of things? And even if we want it, should we be satisfied with the implicit jab that nothing beyond that point in a woman’s life is interesting enough to immortalize in literature? Should we expect more? I’m grateful I live in such a diverse literary age, and it’s heartening to understand that the fictions of our deep past are alive and true two centuries later. But there’s something about Happily Ever After that screams “cop out,” and as much as it helps the reader to tie up the story, I much prefer a comparatively modern inventiveness and courage of plot to soft chiffon and a quiet slip out of history.