Books I read this week: May week 1

Here’s what I read this week:

Greatby Sara Benincasa is an interesting read. It’s a modern update of The Great Gatsby, which is one of my top 3 books of all time, so I was interested to see how an update would fare. One of the tricky things about “covering” a classic is that not only do you have to find modern parallels for the situations in your story, they have to carry the same weight and meaning. And you have to keep the characters’ motivations true to the original, which can get difficult. Great is somewhat successful in both of those. (I realize upon further thought, that obviously, different people concentrate on different things while reading, and maybe part of my issue comes from a different focus- but I don’t think that’s all of it.)

In Great, Nick Carraway (he of the “I’m inclined to reserve all judgements” school) has been transformed into Naomi Rye, a high school student who visits her Martha Stewart type cupcake tycoon mother in the Hamptons each summer. Unlike Nick, she arrives at the Hamptons with a bunch of judgements locked and loaded. Her mother is trying to get in good with the mother of Delilah (in the role of Daisy Buchanan), a devastating blonde aspiring model who is one of the few people in the Hamptons who is ever nice to Naomi. Daisy’s long time boyfriend Teddy (Tom Buchanan) is a former child actor, and his best friend Jeff (Jordan) a budding golf star.  With the attention of Jeff, Naomi finds herself sucked into their circle in a way she hadn’t in previous years, and that proximity draws the attention of Jacinta, mysterious fashion blogger and Naomi’s new next door neighbor. Jacinta is the stand in for Jay Gatsby, and while the gender flip is an interesting tweak to the story, it’s not without its problems. In fact, the whole set up of teens in the Hamptons is an interesting tweak not without its problems.

One of the bigger problems with “casting” teenagers in the roles of this particular story is that some of the important elements of the original aren’t logistically feasible, so they’ve either been jettisoned or changed. Jay Gatsby has created his identity and fortune, and while he wants Daisy to renounce her life with Tom to marry him, he has a fortune and a life to offer her. Jacinta has created a new identity for herself and has some money, but the life she has to offer to Delilah is not remotely the equivalent of what she’d be leaving. There’s also the issue that while Daisy has to choose between her marriage (flawed as it is) and child and her lover, Delilah is choosing between a teenage boyfriend and a teenage girlfriend, neither of which she is legally bound to. While I’m sure the decision could be difficult, there are different emotional and social considerations at play.  But the part that irked me, the part that was changed even though it didn’t have to be, was the part that I feel is central to Jay and Daisy’s story- when Jay requires Daisy to say that she never loved Tom and she can’t do it. There is a huge, nuanced tangle at play there, and Great skips over it entirely. Delilah decides against going with Jacinta for completely other reasons, and the final repercussions of that choice reflect a different character than Jay Gatsby.

Perhaps that’s also part of it, the characters in The Great Gatsby are deeply beautiful and deeply flawed – even Gatsby.  The characters of Great are split into camps of “good” and “bad”, and the good are deeply beautiful, and the bad are deeply flawed. Jacinta is a shiny magical fairy child who loves everyone, Teddy is a brute who mocks his girlfriend and her friends and hits the girl he’s cheating with.

Which isn’t to say that the book isn’t good, the writing is solid and I enjoyed it on the whole. It’s just a gutsy thing to cover one of the most classic novels ever.

 ‘That’s not the truth,’ I said. ‘Yes it is!’ she nearly shouted. ‘That’s what I’ll tell them and they won’t know any different and that makes it the truth!’

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett is a book I’ve heard about forever. Nick and Nora Charles, dashing witty detectives- I’m not sure how I’d gone this long without reading it. And it lived up to my expectations. Nick Charles is an ex-private detective who, with his lovely wife Nora, get pulled into investigating the murder of a young woman who was associated with Nick’s ex-wife’s ex-husband. His ex-wife’s family is full of characters, and it’s one of those stories where you never know who is telling the truth or if anyone even knows the truth. It’s a highly enjoyable ride- an excellent detective story.

 ‘ I’ll give you your Christmas present now if you’ll give me mine.’

I shook my head. ‘At breakfast.’

‘But it’s Christmas now.’

‘Breakfast.’

‘Whatever you’re giving me,’ she said, ‘I hope I don’t like it.’

‘You’ll have to keep them anyway, because the man at the Aquarium said he positively wouldn’t take them back. He said they’d already bitten the tails off the–‘

I came into The Bible Repairman and Other Storiesby Tim Powers knowing very little, and dear goodness, what a voice. Each of the stories exists in a world almost like ours, with little changes that make a big difference. They’re eerie and odd and lovely. They all deal with the concept of souls from different perspectives. The title story is my favorite, a well realized story of a man who performs various services- “repairing” Bibles by scorching out passages that the owners don’t want to be held accountable for, or removing ghosts from cars, or helping ransom kidnapped ghosts. The concept is so well developed, in such a seemingly effortless way. It’s just a gorgeous story. The last story in the book is actually the followup to a different novel he wrote, which I haven’t read, but it worked even without having read it.

I love love love love love this idea:

This was his familiar world, as if all used book stores were actually one enormous magical building that you could enter through different doorways in Long Beach or Portland or Albuquerque.

Sleep Donation: A Novella by Karen Russell is a compelling story about a young woman in the midst of a crazy situation. A sleep illness is spreading around the US, where people find themselves unable to fall asleep. After a while of this chronic insomnia they die, as the body needs sleep to survive. Trish’s sister was one of the first to have the illness and die of it, and now Trish works for a non-profit sleep donation organization. Like donating blood, people can donate hours of sleep, which are then transfused into those suffering from chronic insomnia. Trish’s job is to get donors, which she does by telling her sister’s story over and over and over, and she’s very successful. Then she convinces the parents of a baby to allow the baby to be a donor (which is not a new thing), and they discover that this baby, Baby A, is a universal donor- anyone can receive her sleep. Added to this is the discovery of Donor Y, a donor whose one time donation included a nightmare so intense that those who receive a transfusion of his sleep refuse to sleep again. The combination of all of these things and the unfortunately typical human traits of greed and selfishness create a potent mix of second thoughts for Trish. It’s an interesting premise, and I enjoyed it, I just wished that there was more of it. It kind of suffered from the JJ Abrams issue of focusing the humans within a strange situation while leaving some important questions unanswered, and I wish it had just a few more details, just for me. But it really is very very good and brings up a lot of compelling thoughts

There are bodies that reject sleep transfusions after sleep transfusion. Bodies that come preprogrammed with evolved defenses against all foreign dreams, that respond to even infant sleep-transfusions with a violent immune reaction. And goodness knows, I have worked with many people in this waking life who seem congenitally incapable of accepting any human donation of blood, marrow, sleep, criticism, praise, money, love. Some days, I know, I’m one of them. You find that your’e not a match with the donor. Or you sense that the gift will take some freedom from you. Your body rebels, maybe you don’t even know why. But the donation is rejected.

And now I’m reading Scandal: A Manual by George Rush and Joanna Molloy, a gorgeously trashy memoir about being gossip page writers. I’m halfway through and it’s fascinating.

What are you reading?

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