Read What You Want – A Mini Book Review and Rant

among-the-janeites
http://www.goodreads.com

Ever since I chanced upon it while wandering around a bookstore, Among the Janeites sounded like my kind of book. I don’t naturally tend to gravitate toward nonfiction, but at first glance, this little paperback sounded just like my cup of tea – a tome filled with personal stories of people obsessed with books.  Among the Janeites features the lives of (mostly) women whose lives were changed by Austen’s works. They relate what their day-to-day lives are like, how they prepare for the annual Jane Austen Society of North America gatherings, and exactly how their lives have been altered by their favorite Austen tales. Though not a “Janeite” myself, I am fascinated by books and documentaries about people who love basically anything enough to embrace that thing body, mind, and soul. Fandoms are so interesting to me. Dressing in the appropriate garb, speaking in the customary fashion, living life as if in another world; I find all of it to be so compelling. So, after perusing the back cover, I was excited to delve into Among the Janeites and read about one woman’s foray into the vaguely familiar world of kooky Austen fanatics in their natural habitat, the convention.

I had very romantic notions about this book before I even cracked the cover, to be honest. I think I was expecting some light confection about frilly Austen-lovers, solely informed by my love of the offbeat and woefully underrated movie Austenland, about a superfan who stays at an immersive, 1800s-themed Austen resort (yes, I know there’s a book and no, I’ve never read it). After I grabbed Among the Janeites from my library’s shelves and dove in, I was greeted with a little anecdote involving author Deborah Yaffe and a deck of Jane Austen tarot cards. Not quite as romantic as I’d pictured, but interest piqued! That anecdote was followed by a more personal story about Yaffe’s young life and how she grew up loving literature and the works of Jane Austen. Eventually, she started to make her way to the meat of the story and began discussing the people she had interviewed. She related stories about these Austen fans’ everyday lives and how they came to be obsessed with Jane Austen, and also wrote quite a bit about her unsuccessful attempts at trying to find the right corset and dress for the annual convention. While reading these first few sections of the book, I learned lots of facts, including that the term “Janeite” was coined by some British dude in the late 1800s. All intriguing enough, right? 

Well, yes, it was at first. But that’s where all the fanciful pretense ended. What followed this long and engaging introduction was continual chatter about dress shopping, alternating with strangely analytical biographies.  There was so much talk about finding the perfect gown and corset for the convention, Yaffe sounded as if she was trying to hunt down a wedding dress. She  was so distressed, moaning and lamenting her misfortune, that I actually said out loud, “UGH. I. Don’t. Care.” Perhaps she was attempting to hearken back to times when English gentlewomen had nothing more important to worry about than the gowns they would wear to each ball and the men they intended to marry. But those tropes are best left to Jane Austen, not to a modern woman lamenting the $200 corset she was simply forced to buy. Yikes. No. I could only read about it for so long. 

Yaffe’s personal quest for THE dress (eye roll) might have been tolerable if the stories breaking up her personal anecdotes were appealing. But the way in which she wrote about these everyday women who are so deeply passionate about Jane Austen lacked any, well, passion. The stories, which I’m sure were actually delightful, came off as very factual and clinical. They weren’t presented in a compelling manner, and I felt almost as if I was reading case studies in a scientific journal. To put it bluntly, I could not have been more bored. Over time, I found myself picking this book up and putting it down over and over again, my attempts to read more than a page totally fruitless. I struggled with this book for a long time, desperately wanting to like it, but just frankly not caring for it. After wrestling with myself for a couple of weeks, I finally gave in to my despair and returned it to the library.

The whole process of finally giving up on a book, while not foreign to me, has always been so disheartening. This time especially, I was really disappointed in the book, and in myself. It’s not often that I put any reading material back down after starting it, because I don’t like giving up. But for some reason, this book made me hit my breaking point. I beat myself up about it for a while, thinking that if I had only stuck with it, the story probably would’ve gotten better. However, as disappointed as I was, I got a small but substantial bit of consolation from the fact that I’d only checked the book out and hadn’t bought it. And after all was said and done and I’d started an excellent new book, that feeling of small consolation turned into a flood of relief. I ended up being pretty proud of myself for not wasting my time slogging through something I wasn’t enjoying.

Which leads me to my point/piece of advice, and it’s a simple one: Don’t read stuff you don’t want to read. I know, it’s genius. It took me a long time to get here, but I’ve finally made it. It’s very freeing, not feeling beholden to a burden of a novel. There are simply too many good books out there to waste my time trudging through the dull ones. It was tough to get to this point, because I feel such loyalty to any book I choose to read (not unusual for a book lover, I’m sure). For me, that loyalty owes itself at least in part to the amount of time it takes me to pick out a new book after I’ve finished the last one. So when I do finally make that decision, it’s like the book and I are heading into unknown territory together, and after I’ve spent my hard-earned time and money, I don’t expect to be abandoned by my partner. If that partner ditches me, then I have no choice but to curse the day I ever met him/her and give up the journey. And I have no regrets about this now, either. I know they say you can’t appreciate the good without experiencing the bad, and that is true, but I can definitely read three chapters of a mediocre book and appreciate that I’ve read better. I’m not sticking it out in the muck while my partner wanders off, prattling on about corsets.

It’s important to read what moves you. We’re not going to live forever (probably), so we should spend time doing what we love and actually, I don’t know, enjoying ourselves while doing it. Maybe you’ve been telling yourself that you must read that Proust because all well-read and intelligent people read Proust, but you’re finding it to be long and confusing and boring. Just put it down. It’s okay. Maybe Proust doesn’t speak to your soul. I mean, on my shelf sits Swann’s Way, and I like to think I’m going to read it someday. But if I’m being totally honest with myself, I know that barring some major catastrophe that leaves me with only a flashlight and that behemoth of a book, I’m probably never going to make it all the way through. When I die, I doubt anyone will be impressed or even know that I read some stuff from the Western Canon once. It doesn’t matter. And I’m okay with it. I want you to be okay with it too. What does matter is the pleasure of reading, what we learn from our books, and how we grow from that knowledge. Whether you get that readerly satisfaction from Henry James or Helen Fielding or a bunch of clinical stories about women who dress in period costumes and obsess over Mr. Darcy is inconsequential. You have the right to like whatever you want, others’ opinions be damned.* When it comes to books, we owe no loyalty to anyone, man, book, or beast, dead or alive. We only owe it to our ourselves and our precious time.

So read what you want and tell that negative inner voice to kiss your ass (effing Prudence).

 

* I do, however, reserve the right to judge you harshly if you enjoy Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey. Because I can.

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Book Review – “Love, Loss, and What We Ate” by Padma Lakshmi

love-loss-and-what-we-ate
lovelossandwhatweate.com

Like most of America, I first came to know Padma Lakshmi through a little TV show on Bravo called Top Chef. She is the beautiful, willowy, modelesque host who speaks very deliberately, doesn’t look like she eats food all day long, and escorts some of the country’s best chefs all around the world to compete with one another for prizes. I somehow peripherally knew some bits about her personal life, in the way that we all tend to know too much about celebrities these days – that she was in a relationship with and married to Salman Rushdie for quite some time, and that at some point she had a child with super rich dude Adam Dell – but otherwise I just knew her as the seemingly haughty host of a cooking competition.

When Padma’s book came out earlier this year, I honestly didn’t have any desire to read it. I like her fine, but have never been super interested in knowing her life’s details. But then she visited the studio of my favorite podcast, Buzzfeed’s Another Round – a fantastic podcast, by the way – to speak about her childhood, the book, and her struggle with endometriosis. Hearing her talk about these topics, and then hearing that Heben (one of the two whip-smart hosts) read the book, enjoyed it, and was pleased by Padma’s writing ability, I decided to go ahead and check it out from the library.

The book opens with Padma’s thoughts, just after she has moved out of her marital home and into a hotel. She is struggling to pick herself back up after a heartbreaking divorce, finding solace and her appetite in a forgotten box of kumquats that her mother grew and sent to her. Her discovery of these kumquats launches us into a reminiscence about how Padma met her future husband Salman, and from there she leads us through the events of her life a less chronological, more sensory- and remembrance-driven order. One memory leads to another in this narrative.

The absence of true chronological order in these events was hard for me to deal with at first. There is a small linear thread running through the book, but I wasn’t ever sure where in her life I would end up from chapter to chapter. This isn’t a complaint, though. At first it was confusing and seemed like an amateur writer’s foible, since most of the autobiographies I’ve read generally follow a traditional beginning of life to current/end of life structure, but I realize that this was a stylistic choice. As it goes, what annoyed me at first ended up keeping me interested throughout the rest of the book, and actually set this book apart from most other memoirs I’ve read. 

Padma chronicles her life shuttling back and forth between India and America, her various modeling and television stints in Europe, her relationships and marriage, the birth of her daughter, binding them all together with her love of food. Her deep fondness for and enjoyment of various cuisines is central to the book; her descriptions of the dishes closest to her heart exemplify how important the combination of love, family, and meals are her life. At times she in fact seems overly eager to explain to us that she actually DOES eat, that food is one of the great loves of her life, though she also quietly mentions the pressures of her life in the public eye, and that she is often vain about her figure and doesn’t typically allow herself to eat food in large quantities. Hmmmm….. A little more off-putting are the times when she tells us that her life hasn’t always been easy, that she is actually a smart person and not just a beautiful one, and that she is truly grateful for all of the luck and opportunities she’s had. Not a surprise, but I find it a teensy bit disingenuous when very thin, successful, attractive people present themselves as “just like us.” I found myself rolling my eyes from time to time while reading, unfortunately.

Funnily enough, though, some of the most compelling and real parts of the book were when Padma was talking about things that actually make her just like us – her 30+-year struggle with endometriosis, the dissolution of her marriage, her custody battle, and the incredibly sad death of the man she loved, billionaire Teddy Forstmann. Yes, of course she would be involved with a string of powerful, wealthy, influential men, right? But I was actually fighting back tears during that last one. The touching way she chronicled her love for him and dealt with her grief during his illness and passing moved me. These were the most poignant, raw,and arguably best parts of the story, by far.

If nothing else, Padma’s life has been glamorous and interesting, and for me her stories served as a nice respite during lunch breaks at my recently-started new job. As a nice little bonus, the personal recipes peppered throughout the book are mouth-watering, and I regret not writing them down before I returned the book.

While I can’t say Love, Loss, and What We Ate was the most engaging read from the get-go, I did actually end up liking this book much more than I anticipated. All in all I wouldn’t categorize the book as particularly deep or inspirational, but it was amusing and varied enough to suit anyone who wants a sentimental little read about the life of a famous TV host.

 

Recommended For:

People who love memoirs that include recipes. Top Chef fans, or anyone with a passing interest in Padma Lakshmi.