Dogears: Korean Jane Eyre, Polish Fantasy, and Everyday Barf

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Re JaneRe Jane Patricia Park Pamela Dorman Books, May 5 2015

Patricia Park
Pamela Dorman Books
May 5, 2015

Despite the book’s problems—you know, the colonialism and portrayal of Bertha Mason—I have always loved Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I loved how independent and even snarky she could be for a 19th century heroine. Jane’s return to brooding, jerky Rochester at the end of the novel (spoiler alert, I guess, for a 150 year old book) doesn’t always sit well with me, so Park’s reimagining of the story caught my eye.

Instead of a penniless orphan in 19th century England, we get a Korean American Jane Re, living with her aunt and uncle in Flushing, Queens. She thanklessly works long hours for her uncle after losing a finance job in the World Trade Center. In the lead up to the 9/11 attacks, her friend finds her a live-in nanny position with Beth Mazer and Ed Farley caring for their daughter.

Beth is a caricature of a womens’ studies professor and Ed is the stereotypical frustrated writer stuck working at community college. Beth tries teaching Jane about being a woman by giving her gender studies assigned reading; Ed teaches her how to be a woman by falling in love with her. Jane both wants and doesn’t want to be with Ed, so on September 10, 2001 Jane flies back to Korea to go to her grandfather’s funeral and to escape a very “Affair to Remember” rendezvous with Ed.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 happen and Beth and Ed think Jane is dead, but Ed is heartbroken when he finds out she’s not dead, just gone. She tries to reinvent her life in Korea, becoming an English teacher, learning about makeup, getting a boyfriend, and trying to forget Ed. While she doesn’t quite hear Ed calling out her name over the moors, she feels discontent in Korea and returns to find Ed and Beth divorced. He’s ready for Jane and Jane thinks she’s ready to be with Ed.

From here, the novel takes a bit of an unexpected detour from the plot of Jane Eyre. In the original work, Jane finds her true self and then returns home to Rochester. In Re Jane, she loses her self, comes back to Ed, finds herself, and honestly, realizes she could do much better. I thought I wouldn’t like the way it ended but it’s a refreshing, more modern retelling of the story. It allows for Jane to become a fuller character for today’s setting, giving her more agency and vitality than the original.

They are nods and little in jokes to Jane Eyre along the way that will delight readers familiar with Bronte’s original work: Jane addresses the “Reader” often; the names of the characters are just close enough; Jane goes back to teach English in Korea which echoes the way St. John Rivers wanted Jane Eyre to learn Hindi to go be a missionary in India; and references to Charlotte Bronte’s pen name, Currer Bell. If you like Jane Eyre but are ready for a fresh take on the story, it’s a definite recommendation. Even those not familiar with the classic will enjoy Jane’s late blooming coming-of-age and dry sense of humor.

— Anna Tschetter

The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in ArtThe Importance of Being Iceland Eileen Myles The MIT Press 2009

Eileen Myles
Semiotext(e), distributed by The MIT Press
July 1 2009

Eileen Myles is amazing and everyone should be reading her. Seriously. She has totally changed my ideas of what writing is and what it can do.

This book is a big collection of many of her narrative essays on art and a half dozen other topics, written over her entire career. Narrative meaning that none of them are really about the particular piece of art in question, but more about her particular experience of and around that piece of art. By bringing the art into her own very real, personal experience of it she makes it accessible and down-to-earth. For example, she talks about accidentally tracking mud through Roni Horn’s Water Library, this very heady conceptual art installation in Iceland. It’s all so unpretentious; she’s just telling you about a trip she took. As far as art journalism goes, it’s the most refreshing I’ve ever read. It’s like a conversation with a friend, if that friend were a brilliant and mad poet.

The bits that aren’t essays about artwork are interviews, speeches, transcripts from her blog, and travel essays. But also all of those headings are just for the convenience of categorization, because nothing she writes can fit easily into a genre or a recognizable format. In that way, I guess, everything she writes is poetry.

Under the curious heading “Talks” is a piece that I really love: Everyday Barf. I’ve read and re-read it about a dozen times at this point because it’s in another collection of hers that I’ve had for a while. It’s about writing (what writing isn’t about writing, right?), and about defying expectations of style and format, and about puking. It contains a quote that remains the best thing I’ve ever read about writing: “It simply strikes me that form has a real honest engagement with content and therefore might even need to get a little sleazy with it suggesting it stop early or go too far.”

It’s all so casual and conversational that it’s kind of surprising when she starts name-dropping and working in these complex anthropological and philosophical ideas. She quotes Anton Ehrenzweig’s idea of the scattered versus the buried gods that exist in different cultures, then effortlessly applies the notion to art. Levi Strauss, Walter Benjamin, Frank Gehry—she pulls from all of these canonical artists and writers, flexing her academic muscles while remaining in this very unthreatening tone. You get the feeling that she could explain anything to anyone.

— Robin Babb

UprootedUprooted Naomi Novik  Del Rey 2009

Naomi Novik
Del Ray
May 19, 2015

A friend of mine recommended this book to me, and as a longtime fan of Naomi Novik’s writing, I decided to give it a shot. What I didn’t expect was how deeply personal I would find this story. After the unquestionable success of the Temeraire series, Naomi Novik is not an unknown writer, but Uprooted is in a completely different genre, and completely different kind of fantasy universe. If Temeraire is water and fire, Uprooted is air, and earth. Especially earth.

Uprooted is best described as a fairy tale, although its world draws on the magic of fairy tales, as well as the peasant roots of folklore, and European history. The story takes place in Europe, but not the Europe well-known to Western readers. Novik, of Polish heritage herself, set this story in the fictional kingdom of Polnya, a fantasy Poland, and as a Polish-American girl, I had an emotional reaction as I realized that with the exception of Michener’s Poland, all the other books I’ve read set in Poland were set during the Holocaust. It’s a startling thing, to see your heritage in fiction, legitimized as a magical culture, when you’ve never seen it that way before. But beyond my emotional reaction to seeing my heritage, the story is filled with characters who are, in the best way, flawed and real, ranging across several class and cultural divides, beyond those of “peasant” and “nobility” or “magic person” and “non-magic person.” It might also pleasantly surprise people to find that one of the major characters (and one of my favorites) is an African woman (though not if they’re familiar with medievalpoc).

The second way this book affected me was that, as I mentioned, I’ve been a fan of Novik’s writing for a long time. What I didn’t mention was that prior to Uprooted, I’d only read her fanworks, although I’ve read them, devotedly, for over a decade. Novik is not the only author that I’ve known first as a writer of fanfiction, but she is the only author I’ve read who has written fanfiction and made the successful transition to respected published author to the point where many would not know of her connection to fandom. Sometimes when you read an author’s original work after reading their fanfiction it can feel jarring, or derivative, but in this instance, having already placed my trust in Novik to be an incredible storyteller no matter what universe she chooses to write in, I felt welcomed by her writing, as if it were a much-loved, comfortable blanket.

Uprooted has already been optioned by Warner Bros for development, and I am eagerly awaiting whatever adaptation may be forthcoming.

— Kate Tanski

Binary StarBinary Star, Sarah Gerrard, Two Dollar Radio, 2015

Sarah Gerard
Two Dollar Radio
January 13 2015

Binary Star is a tricky read, that will, at times, make you uncomfortable. In many ways the life of the couple in this novel is a train wreck you can’t look away from. He is an unemployed alcoholic who pops  too many pills. She is a grad student with a very serious eating disorder.

But despite the darkness, this book is also a beautiful read. It’s gritty and honest and poetic, especially when looking at the female narrator. If you want an example of a well-written, complex female character look no further than Binary Star. The inner monologue of someone suffering from anorexia felt so raw and so honest. Her struggle is not a daily one, but a constant one. From the moment she wakes up, to the moment she goes to bed, it dominates her thoughts.

This is a book that can push readers. It can drive them outside their comfort zone and force them to see things from a unique perspective. At times this book can be difficult to read—both because of the subject matter and the style. It’s written stream-of-consciousness and it can be a little unsettling as sometimes as you feel like you’re rooting around in someone else’s head. But that’s exactly what you’re doing and you’ll come through it seeing the world a little bit differently than you did before.

— Christa Seeley

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3 Comments

  1. Al Rosenberg on

    I heard reading Eileen Myles can be dangerous.
    Super interested in reading Barf.

    Kate! I had no idea Novik wrote fanfiction! That’s super interesting. I haven’t read Uprooted, but I love so much of her other work, I’m going to check it out.

    • I promise I’ll write about something besides Eileen Myles someday, guy. I swear. Someday.