‘My Essential Books’ is a new feature on the FRVPLD blog, where we talk up our favorite books in the hope that you may give them a chance, or at least appreciate our passion for the titles that have made us who we are.
Photo by Les Chatfield, flickr user.
When I was a teenager, I was absolutely obsessed with Wes Anderson’s films, especially the Royal Tenenbaums which came out when I was 16. I thought Margot Tenenbaum (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) was the absolute coolest, and I still blame Margot for making me feel naked without eyeliner. All this to say, my love of Franny and Zooey is wrapped up in my love of Royal Tenenbaums. Both feature similarly genius families (in Salinger’s case the Glass family) who live in Upper West Side of New York City, chain smoke, have impressive book collections, and are always having intellectual conversations. In short, both were pretty much the sum of everything I wanted to grow up to be (minus the chain smoking) when I was a pretentious teenager from an unglamorous Chicago suburb. Aspirational fiction, even if all the Tenenbaums and Glasses could use a hardy dose of therapy.
Though the settings and characters are similar, I would say that Franny and Zooey is quite thematically different. To me, Tenenbaums is more about Royal’s redemption through attempting to help his dysfunctional family improve their lot. Franny and Zooey seems to be about Franny’s strict adherence to philosophical and religious principles causing her suffering, because she finds herself and everyone around her failing to live up to her ideals. Zooey encourages her to find a sense of her own identity, rather than adhere to dogmatic beliefs. Even though, it sounds heavy, Franny and Zooey is quite a funny novel to read, particularly because of the family dynamics between Franny, Zooey and Mrs. Glass.
I could have picked any of Sittenfeld’s early novels (like Prep or American Wife), but I chose Man of my Dreams because it was my first novel of hers I’ve read. Sittenfeld does a fantastic job of exploring the psyche of a female loner. I struggled with crippling social anxiety in my teens and early twenties, and I could see myself in the novel’s lead character Hannah Gavener. Hannah lives most of her life in her head, always obsessed with what those around her must think of her. Still she often says or does the wrong thing in social situations, especially when it comes to dating. As a third-party observer, Hannah can be a difficult pill to swallow, because she can be petty and self-obsessed. In my early twenties, I was both of those things and it only made me see myself more clearly in her character and her struggles.
The book was released ten years ago, and now it’s much more likely to see unlikeable or socially awkward female protagonists (being a loner is not just for dudes anymore!) However, I read Man of My Dreams when I was 22 and I was thrilled to finally see a female character who more closely reflected my anxious and awkward experiences of new adulthood.
I have no idea I how wound up discovering the quirky and surreal hard-boiled world of Haruki Murakami novels. I was probably drawn in by their stunning cover art. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle isn’t the first Murakami novel I read, but for some reason it stuck the most closely with me. The novel follows Toru Okada, an early 30s something Japanese man who quit his job as a law firm gofer to stay at home full time and take care of the household, while his wife Kumiko worked as a magazine editor. Toru is lost at the beginning of the novel, unsure whether he wants to maintain his routine existence at home. However, things go from boring to weird, as first his cat and then his wife go missing. From there he encounters numerous strange characters and experiences on his quest to get them back.
Toru is an exceptionally blank character, basically acting as straight man for all off the weird people he encounters throughout his search. He doesn’t seem to have any strong preferences or personality, other than his strong dislike of his brother-in-law Nobroru Wataya, and his love of spaghetti, beer, and classical music. However, the strong supporting characters more than make up for Toru’s blankness. Particularly, May Kashara, a morbid and impulsive teenager with whom he hangs out (which is not creepy at all...), and Nutmeg, a mysterious rich lady who takes him as his apprentice.
Rereading the book recently, I like the story most as a meditation on Toru’s grief caused by Kumiko leaving him. From the surface, it basically seems like Kumiko ghosted Toru, which after six years of marriage is seriously uncool (at least send a text, lady!). I wonder if some of the bizarre webs Toru finds himself trapped in are his mind just trying to make sense of her conspicuous and painful absence. Sort of like how if you were badly hurt by a loved one, you might try to justify their behavior using increasingly outlandish excuses, i.e., “My boyfriend still loves me, but his family is trying to tear us apart.” In Toru’s case, he thinks Kumikio still loves him, her crazy evil politician brother just has her kidnapped because she’s politically inconvenient. I’m not sure if this interpretation is what Murakami intended, but I found it an interesting frame for the novel. However, unlike most break-up by ghosting victims, Toru does wind up with affirming closure for the relationship by the finish of the book.
Shocking, I know... A librarian who’s a Jane Austen fan girl. I also wear cardigans and glasses, but my hair’s too short for a bun. When I first read this book, I immensely related to the older sister Elinor Dashwood (the “sense” in the book). Smart, practical and reliable, Elinor always does the sensible thing, even if it’s a great personal cost. I honestly found younger sister Marianne naïve, annoying and bossy on first read. However, upon further reflection, I’m much more like younger sister Marianne- opinionated, impulsive, and motivated by passion.
One of the things I like about the novel is how Austen deflates the Byronic hero with the character of Willoughby. John Willoughby is a charming, dashing fellow who perfectly shares Marianne’s sensibility. He is a Romantic- loves poetry, letters and music. If this where a Bronte novel, he’d probably be the hero over Colonel Brandon. However, Willoughby’s charms aren’t enough to make him a true match for Marianne. Though he mimics her Romantic taste, underneath he is just a coward. He dumps Marianne without so much as a word and marries a wealthy woman, so he can maintain his lavish lifestyle. Unlike fellow cad Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, Willoughby isn’t fully detestable though. Despite his shallowness, he did have strong feelings for Marianne which cause him to suffer in his loveless but prosperous marriage.
It’s impossible for me to pick a favorite among these two short story collections. Partly because they are so similar, both have female protagonists- Sophie Applebaum (in the Wonder Spot) and Jane Rosenal (in Girl’s Guide...)- who have a middle class Jewish upbringing, choose creative careers, and live in NYC. Additionally, both books follow the girls from their early teen years until their late 30s/ early 40s. However, each girl has their own distinct personality and story arcs. I also have trouble choosing between them because I’ve read them both several times and each have stories I adore.
The Wonder Spot is the novel I read first, and for me the real highlight is Sophie’s relationships with her two brothers and her judgmental grandmother. My favorite story from the book is called “20th-Century Typing” which details Sophie getting her first adult job in publishing which allows her to move to New York. However, she must live with her much more religious brother and sister-in-law, whom she doesn’t particularly get along with. During this period, Sophie's grandmother constantly nags her to get married, even though she’s not in a serious relationship (something that I can relate to from my own family). “Dena Blumenthal + Bobby Orr Forever” is another favorite, which details Sophie meeting the man she thinks she’ll marry, but he’s the back-up guy for her best friend.
In the Girls’ Guide..., my favorite stories are “Advance Beginners” and the “You Could Be Anyone.” The former details Jane’s first glimpse at adult relationships through her older brother’s relationship with a woman named Julia. Julia works in publishing and encourages Jane to read books well beyond her age group (she’s in her early teens in this story), which eventually blossoms into Jane’s desire to be an editor. “You Could Be Anyone” details Jane’s struggle with breast cancer and the man who helped her during this time. In the end, she winds up having to let him go, because he loves the idea of her more than her.
Both books are a bittersweet, but funny look at early adulthood, relationships, and finding your way in the world. Sophie and Jane lived privileged lives, but they still struggle to pay the rent and date their fair share of jerks. This is on the higher-brow end of the “chick-lit” genre spectrum.