Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York by Gail Parent

Although I haven’t previously read most of the books we talk about here on the blog, it isn’t like I am exactly unfamiliar with the vast majority of them. Most of them I’d intended to read for quite a while, having heard a great deal about them, but just haven’t gotten around to it (BEFORE I read and talk about them). I mean, I knew about books like Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Mikhail Bulgakov‘s The Master and Margarita, and so on. However, I had never even heard of Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York before checking out The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. This one was a completely new territory for me.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Jennifer Weiner.)

Frankly, I ran across the title and immediately knew I had to read it. The description only further cemented my decision. The subject? A young woman, Sheila Levine, has reached the age of thirty while living in New York and, despite her most desperate efforts, has been unable to get married. As such, she decides to kill herself. Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York is her suicide note.

Now, before you think I’m really dark here, this alone wouldn’t have sparked my interest. But, when you combine the above with the all-important line from the description I read that this is perhaps the funniest suicide note ever written, well…that changes everything. That’s what caught my attention.

But, let’s have Sheila herself speak on the topic:

Yes, I am going to kill myself. When they find my body in my small, overpriced one-room apartment, it will be slumped over this suicide note. My father will read it and nod his head. My mother will take it to bed with her and read a little each night with a glass of warm milk, slowly massaging wrinkle cream on her hands and face. My sister will skim through, and my friends…my friends? No, no real friends. Sorry.

My name is (was?) Sheila Levine. Sheila Levine? People named Sheila Levine don’t go around killing themselves. Suicide is so un-Jewish.

I lived, when I lived, at 211 East Twenty-fourth Street, formerly of East Sixty-fifth Street, formerly of West Thirteenth Street, formerly of Franklin Square, Long Island, formerly of Washington Heights. Which means there are only about a hundred thousand other Jewish girls like me. Exactly like me, all with hair that has to be straightened, noses that have to be straightened, and all looking for husbands. ALL LOOKING FOR HUSBANDS. Well, girls, all you Jewish lovelies out there, good news! The competition will be less. Sheila Levine has given up the fight. She is going to die.

In short, Sheila is sick of it. She was conditioned from an early age to aspire only to getting married and having children. She goes to college and wants to get a ‘creative job,’ but other than dreams from the movies (that involve marriage), she doesn’t even really know what that is. Anyway, all the jobs out there for young women involve typing and nothing creative. So, she does anything she can to land guys and get married. Instead, all she gets is guys she isn’t even interested in. Worse, even they aren’t interested in marrying her. She’s sick of it all and she is going to kill herself.

Looking back at that description, I expect that I would have been bored to tears by this book…but I wasn’t. Sheila herself kept me raptly interested from first page to last. Sure, she’s bitching the whole time, but she’s hilarious:

            “So, Sheila, how was your date?”

            “Boring, awful, disgusting.”

            “Did he ask you out again?”

            “Yes. I really can’t stand him. He’s so repulsive to me. There’s something wrong with him. He’s too Jewish.”

            “He sounds very nice. When are you going to see him again?”

            “A week from Saturday[.]”

Here is another fun one:

            “I don’t know, Mom. I’ll be home the first chance I get. [She must have thought I was Baby Jane Holzer.] Listen, Mom, could I borrow the car on Saturday?”

            “Where are you going?” (Mom, for God’s sake, I’m thirty years old. Can’t I once borrow the car without telling you where I’m going?)

            “I’m going up to Connecticut to Bingo Memorials to pick out my gravestone.” (I didn’t say that.)

            I did say: “I’m going up to Connecticut with this boy I met a few weeks ago. He said he loves Connecticut and I said I love Connecticut, so we’re going up there just for the day.” (I knew by now exactly the right thing to say.)

            “Very nice. Why don’t the two of you come out here first and pick up the car?” (She wanted a look-see at my fictitious beau.)

            “He would love to come, Mom, but he can’t.”

            “Why not?”

            “Because he doesn’t really exist. I made him up.” (I didn’t say that either.)

Now, I do want to consider possible feminist themes in the book. After all, I would assume that they would be there in a book about a girl who is conditioned to want marriage and is going to kill herself when such is impossible. However, and you’ll have to read the book for this, marriage seems to be what Sheila really wants. Sure, she wishes at one point that a girl could be happy AND single, but Sheila never really wants anything but marriage. I just don’t think this book carries an extremely feminist message as whether or not Sheila was programmed on the ‘Mrs’ track, that’s all she really and most deeply desires.

All in all, for me, Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York is about Sheila. Sheila is bizarre, fun, and going to kill herself. Perhaps it makes me look a bit morbid, but all that fascinated me. I didn’t want Sheila to die, but I was thrilled to listen to her go on and on about it. I have a feeling other people will be as interested in Sheila as I was. There just aren’t a whole lot of books like Sheila Levine is dead and living in New York.

 

Merry Christmas! And why I don’t think God follows human laws.

Hi!

First, I do want to get the chance to say Merry Christmas!  I truly mean that, and truly hope that everyone has a peaceful holiday filled with love.

Now, my original intent was to read all of one of the Gospels, to dovetail with Christmas and to end my string on Bible books for the moment (after my previous run on Genesis over the last few weeks).  Then last Friday happened.  On Saturday, I had the thought of putting up an extra blog about it all.  Then I talked to Dave.  Then I changed my mind.  Then I changed my mind again.  And then again.

Then earlier, I went to go and re-read one of the Gospels (the Gospels comprising Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), specifically either Matthew or Luke, which are the two that deal with the birth of Christ.  Mark starts after Jesus is a grown man.  I started reading and my brain started going.

In the days after last Friday’s shootings and 28 deaths, 20 of them small children, many people automatically went to a battle position on one of three things, I believe strongly in order to not have to really focus on the fact that TWENTY SIX YEAR OLDS DIED.  Those issues?  Gun control.  Mental illness.  And God in schools.  I have an opinion on the first, very strong feelings on the second.  However, I won’t be sharing those things.  I wanted to address the last thing.  Anyone with a facebook account, unless you don’t have many friends at all and they are all atheists, probably saw a meme in the last week.  It showed a tshirt with something like “Dear God.  Why did you let this happen?  God:  Because I’m not allowed in schools”.  It amazed me how many people I saw putting it up.  And it, quite frankly, pissed me off.

To me, there are two different interpretations that I could see for this “slogan”, both of which are ridiculous.

1.  God can’t help anyone in schools, since prayer is no longer allowed.  Therefore, once kids are through the doors, God can’t protect any of them.

Uh.  Hm.  Well, apparently people that are going to church are snoozing during the scripture readings and the sermons.

Just in Genesis, there are so many examples of God being all powerful.  Would the deity that kicked His creation out of the Garden of Eden, barring the way with angels with blazing swords wait at a school’s door for people to come out so He could be in their lives for after school?  Would the deity that drowned the whole word except for Noah and his family stand outside a school door because He’s been told His name can’t be spoken stand at the door?  Would He, who destroyed whole cities really stand at the door waiting for school to let out?  Are you kidding me?

I also think that the 150,000 or so Christians losing their lives each year (and the thousands of others being persecuted and jailed)  in Communist and Islam countries might be a little surprised at that concept of God.  Go here.

“If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You” (Psalm 139:8,12a).

See, direct Biblical support that no matter WHERE you are, God is with you.

And for those that prefer New Testament proof:

Romans 8:35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

God is everywhere, even in the depths of hell.  Therefore, the argument that the Connecticut murders happened because God wasn’t allowed in the school falls.

For this to go even further, I’d have to start assuming that people believe that schools can now mind control their students and teachers who are Christian.  I can guarantee that anyone in that school on Friday with a belief in God was praying.  I’m sure that in that school, or any school for that matter, on normal days God probably receives all sorts of prayers ranging from:

“Please let me pass this test.” to “Please help me to not scream like a madwoman at my class today”.

The second interpretation I can see from this is that because we no longer allow prayer in school and stories about God/Jesus, people are being leeched of all sense of right and wrong, thereby creating atmospheres where people start thinking it’s ok to shoot and KILL people.

Again, anyone that believes along these lines, apparently has never been very interested in any sort of history about other cultures, any sort of information on other religions, or actually any sort of interest in any part of humanity.

C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity even addresses this as part of his proof that the Christian God does exist.  I’m quoting one small part of it, but am linking it to the chapter online that I pulled it from:

I know that some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behaviour known to all men is unsound, because different civilisations and different ages have had quite different moralities.

“But this is not true. There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own.”

In case you want to read it.

I can hear the protestation now, “But Kim, what about the Nazis?  Hitler was godless”.

Yes.  Hitler was godless.  However, the country of Germany was _not_ Godless, in fact there was a very strong faith there, with Lutheranism being almost required of all.  Now church attendance or membership doesn’t necessarily guarantee godliness…however!  There are sooo many factors that went into how Hitler came into power, how Hitler stayed in power, and how what happened to the Jews began and escalated, that it’s a little simplistic to just say “oh he didn’t allow prayer in school”.

So, to me, that interpretation is wrong as well.  People, no matter what belief structure they have, KNOW right from wrong.  I know plenty of atheists, agnostics and pagans (meaning they actually do worship other gods, not just are hippies), and I strongly believe that I don’t know a single one who would willingly take a human life.  There have been plenty acting under the guise of the Church throughout history who _have_ willingly taken a human life.

The whole God not allowed in school thing is just so asinine.  It makes me want to cry, actually all of the little debates here and there do.  I strongly believe that it allows us to remove ourselves from the tragedy enough that we just don’t have to _really_ think about the fact that TWENTY school children died and EIGHT adults died, murdered, shot down.

Take a moment.  Take a moment and send a thought or a prayer or just a wish towards the survivors of Friday’s murders, forget about the debates swirling around right now and focus on THEM.  At this moment, I doubt they care about gun control laws.  I doubt they care about the state of mental health in this country.  I doubt they care about whether God’s name was allowed to be said that morning before school began.

No.  I’m pretty sure they care about getting through a Christmas without the excitement that they were expecting from their child.  I’m pretty sure they care about how to keep the holiday good for their remaining children.  I’m pretty sure they care about the fact that their child is being put in a six foot hole.  That’s what they care about.  And for just a moment, we should care about that right along with them.

Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools

Loving “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” as much as I do, I’ve been waiting anxiously for years to read Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools. Nothing was stopping me, mind you. I just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. I guess I hoped it was a novel-length work with the same kind of magic as “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” That probably wasn’t fair. In any event, though I liked the book and found it extremely well written, I just didn’t find that magic I was looking.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Patrick McGrath and 4th for Annie Proulx.)

Ship of Fools details the voyage of a motley assortment of people who are citizens different countries and members of different socioeconomic classes from Mexico to Germany shortly before the beginnings of the Second World War. However, for me, it seemed to mainly be a scathing indictment of humanity and our hopes.

I mean, everybody thinks they are better than everyone else. Of course, they aren’t. For example, an American artist named David Scott looks down on just about everyone:

He glanced at Mrs. Treadwell, whose attention had wandered. They were coming into the crowd entering the dining room, and she nodded lightly in several directions – to Freytag, who nodded back without smiling; to the young Cuban pair with their two children; to the bride and groom, who did smile; to the purser, who beamed at her with his broadest smirk; to anybody and everybody, David noticed, without appearing really to see anyone. She behaved in fact like Jenny, except that Jenny was looking for something, a response of some kind, almost any kind at all, always either a little too hard or too soft, with no standards that he could understand or believe in. An intense resentment against Jenny rose in him when he saw her at work trying to undermine him, to break down by any means his whole life of resistance to life itself – to whatever environment or human society he found himself in.

But, he’s just a grumpy and empty young man. He picks apart others, even the girl he supposedly loves (Jenny), but has no reason to feel superior beyond being able to intellectually negate whatever good qualities those people might have.

Really, though this novel is packed with an amazing amount of different characters of all kinds of different classes (German divorcees and widows, Swiss hotel keeper, Spanish dancers, a Jewish merchant of Catholic religious paraphernalia, deported laborers, Cuban medical students, a Swedish communist, and so on), they all come off pretty bad. They all look on everyone else as inferior to them, and then promptly display some horrifying trait.

For example, a number of the German passengers actually advocate getting rid of the Jews and the handicapped, even by extermination and sterilization, foreshadowing the horrors coming in the Second World War:

 

            “Every day I learn new things about him. Just to think he is a publisher. I had not known that!”

            “How fascinating,” murmured Mrs. Treadwell, from the depths of her pillow.

            “Yes, in Berlin. It is a new weekly devoted to the garment trade, but it has literary and intellectual features besides. One of these is called the New World of Tomorrow, and he engages the very best writers to contribute, all on one topic, to be examined from every point of view. The idea is this: if we can find some means to drive all Jews out of Germany, our national greatness will then assert itself and tomorrow we shall have a free world. Is that not marvelous?”

            Mrs. Treadwell deliberately kept silence.

And, though the Jewish merchant of Catholic paraphernalia is not so extreme in suggesting avenues for his hate, mostly trying to avoid people, he doesn’t seem to regard all these ‘goys’ as even people. He may not be as bad, but I don’t think that necessarily makes him better.

No, Porter seems to treat all of the people on the boat equally. They all have some nice features here and there, but they all are rotten. Every human is a wretched little thing that thinks it is better than everyone else.

To take this further than just the inherently flawed nature of humanity, Porter also has this voyage represent a hope for salvation for each of these flawed characters. The Swiss hotel keeper hopes to go back to Europe to open a hotel where business won’t be as corrupt as Mexico. A German oil company man hopes to retrieve his Jewish wife from the growing danger to Jews in Germany and take her somewhere where she (and thereby he) won’t be persecuted. Everyone hopes for something life-changing out of this voyage. However, we can guess from Porter’s treatment of her characters that these hopes aren’t going to be realized.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not denigrating Ship of Fools in any way. Though depressing, the indictment presented certainly seems accurate. Further, I cannot deny that this is an amazing book in the vast number of different characters that are all vividly and individually portrayed, the intricacy of the political situation represented, and the emotion connection the prose forms with the reader. It is really a marvelously and skillfully executed novel. However, it just didn’t have the same magic for me as “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” I didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped I would.

Genesis–Part 3

So.  I finished Genesis.  There is a _lot_ to Genesis, which is why it took me 3 blogs to get it all the way done.  Imagine like 5 of your favorite novels condensed into a few paragraphs and mushed together and that’s what makes Genesis so hard.  There are all these different stories, but all of them go under the larger story arc.

In the final part of Genesis, Joseph is chronicled.  His father is that liar Jacob, he of the smooth skin and brother blessing stealing.  Jacob loves Joseph most of all and gives him a finely brocaded coat to prove it.  He then sends him out to check on his older brothers, whom Joseph has tormented with two dreams he had where it appeared they were bowing to him.  They see him and decide to throw him into an empty cistern.  The eldest, Reuben, in the hopes of saving him tells them to throw him in but to do nothing else.  (Reuben previously laid with his father’s concubine, costing him the elder’s rights of inheritance, so maybe he was hoping to get back into dad’s graces).  Reuben then leaves.  A traveling band of slavers passes by, and the 11 other brothers, led by Judah (who, oddly, contributes to the line of David, that contributes to the line that Jesus comes from, thereby disproving the whole “sins of the fathers” thing 😀 ), sell Joseph as a slave.  Joseph is taken to Egypt and finds favor in his master’s house.  But apparently Joseph is good looking, so the wife wants him.  Bad.  He tells her no, that it would be a sin against God to take her, as she is the one thing his master has not given him control or use of.  The wife attempts kissing him anyway.  He runs off, leaving his robe in her hand.  She then cries “Rape!”.  His master has him thrown in jail for no reason.  But he is kind enough to throw him into the prison that the high ranking prisoners are held in.   Joseph quickly gets in good with the jailer, always because of God’s favor.  He ends up interpreting two dreams, one for the Pharaoh’s cup bearer and one for the Pharaoh’s baker.  He asks the cup bearer to remember him and help him out of prison where he is unjustly held.   The cupbearer forgot him.  The baker might have remembered him, but as he lost his head about 24 hours later, it probably did Joseph no good.  Years pass, where Joseph still remains in prison.  Then the Pharaoh has two very strange dreams that he consults with a variety of supposed soothsayers, and dream interpreters, none of whom can interpret the dream.  The cup bearer FINALLY remembers Joseph and the Pharaoh calls him.  Asks him if he can interpret his dreams.  Joseph says he cannot, but that God can.  He then interprets the dreams as meaning 7 years of bounty were to be followed by 7 years of famine and that Pharaoh should start storing wheat etc against the eventual 7 years.  He listens and elevates Joseph up into the high position, the one in charge of doing all this.  Joseph does his job and does it well.  When the famine hits, Egypt is good, in fact Egypt is better, because Egypt is able to sell grain to other countries.  Suddenly, who at Joseph’s door should appear?  Why Reuben and 10 other brothers a-begging.   They don’t recognize Joseph.  He forces them into leaving one of the brothers behind and says to not return until they bring Jacob with them.  They end up coming back, Joseph reveals himself, after fighting with his anger for awhile and realizing that he needed to treat his family well.

I didn’t read the Count of Monte Cristo yet, Dave read it.  However, I did recently see the adaptation with Guy Pierce.  And all through reading this story in Genesis again, all I could think of was the Count of Monte Cristo.  Man gets framed and sold by brothers.  (Genesis).  Man gets framed and imprisoned by best friend he grew up with (Count).  Man spends years in servitude and jail (Genesis).  Man spends years in prison.  (Count).  Man becomes powerful and wealthy (Genesis).  Man finds treasure and becomes powerful and wealthy (Count).  Man is bitter and wants revenge against brothers (Genesis).  Man is bitter and wants revenge against friends and others who wrongly treated him.  (Count).  The movie ended differently than the book I think, so my comparison stops there.  However, as you can see, my original section holds true.  We keep hearing some of the same stories retold and retold in different ways.  How many stories depend on a woman wronged accusing a man of violating her?  (I know, I know, it adds to the whole “she asked for it” mindset, which is not my intention here as I think that’s disgusting.  But, it is a common literary device).

Genesis is definitely worth a read, as there were side stories in here included in the larger stories that I didn’t really go into.  Give it a read 🙂  It is worth it, whether you believe in God/Christ or are just interested in the literary side of things.  My one recommendation?  Read it in a study bible.  It gives all sorts of historical notes and cross references that, for me, enhance the story a TON.

Happy Reading!!

In two weeks, we shall discuss Luke.  Or possibly Matthew.  Whichever Gospel I decide I feel like talking about as we go into the Christmas holiday 🙂