Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Not really. Actually Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith)

Me (Dave) again. Kim is taking the next two weeks.

Today I’m going to talk about Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Well, okay, not really. I’m actually going to talk about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith.

Why not? Pride and Prejudice may be my favorite Jane Austen novel so far (having read that one, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey thus far), but what would I really have to say about it that hasn’t been said already? Pride and Prejudice was on our list, but we’d already done two Austen novels. Though I think it is a moving story of how imperfect humans (in other words, all) fall in love fully of sparkling wit, manners comedy, and a wonderful depiction of English society at that time, that’s all been said.

So why not let that all stand and look at Pride and Prejudice and Zombies instead?

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen was 3rd for Kate Atkinson, 5th for Michael Chabon, 6th for Robb Forman Dew, 4th for Alice Hoffmann, 5th for Norman Mailer, 1st for Claire Messud, 6th for Iain Pears, 9th for Ian Rankin, and 8th for Adriana Trigiani.)

After all, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies pretty much takes the original text and morphs it as it goes along, adding in zombies and such. It isn’t exactly a complete retelling, since so much of the framework is there. It’s more of a recasting, where it’s the background that has been recast as the English countryside overrun with zombies.

To give an example, let us compare the original Austen 3:16 (little wrestling joke there) from Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

with that from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a zombie in possession of brains, must be in want of more brains.

Little differences.

I enjoyed reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies more than I expected. Grahame-Smith manages to keep enough of Austen’s work alive in this while still creating an interesting new imagining. The framework is pretty much intact, but still creatively done with the addition of zombies.

The zombies can get a bit gimmicky, but then there is the Austen framework to fall back on. Admittedly, it doesn’t quite hit the heights of the heart or wit of Austen’s original, but I don’t think that would have been possible and this certainly wasn’t intended to be that kind of book.

The references to China and kung fu are a bit repetitive and overdone, and Grahame-Smith tries to stick in some sexual humor that seems horribly out of place for the characters. Still, overall I enjoyed myself. I think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies‘s interest is somewhat limited to those who know Austen, as there’s no joke otherwise, but who doesn’t to at least some degree?

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies manages to hold a conversation with Austen, and most decent literature is a really conversation with the world in one way or another…particularly with the rest of the world of literature. Grahame-Smith manages in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to do something both interesting and fun.

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

I’ve talked before about books famous enough that I was familiar with what was inside even if I hadn’t read them. Sometimes they are just as I imagined from all I’ve heard, but sometimes they are completely different. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren was somewhere in between, both same and different. There was a lot I knew would be there, but there was something harder to hold exactly, harder to summarize precisely, that made it a better book than I expected.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Judy Budnitz, 4th for James Lee Burke, 7th for Robb Forman Dew, 5th for Donald Harington, and 1st for George Pelacanos.)

I knew that All the King’s Men was about the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a politician based on the historical figure of Huey “Kingfish” Long, as seen through the eyes of a man who works with Stark (Jack Burden). Stark becomes corrupt in his zeal against corruption, and Burden has his own issues with this…both with Stark and apart.

I heard at one point that the basis for some of this book in the career of Huey Long got in the way a tiny bit of considering this work purely as a novel. It’s good then that the only awareness I have with Long is through All the King’s Men. He no longer overshadows and I can just see the book for what it is. If anything, Long for me is only defined by what I can imagine from this book.

It isn’t just a simple tale of good intentions getting corrupted. After all, Burden does get corrupted some by his work with Stark…but he was also one of the ones to help corrupt Stark to begin with. When it came down to it, Burden he seemed to still be around for the good that Stark wanted to do.

However, though Stark believes that there is only bad around from which to make good, this can result in a rot that ends up with no good having been done. It’s complicated, but perhaps inescapable. After all, what else is there to work with? Still, that’s the political side of the novel. There’s more there, much more.

You was the eyes bulge suddenly like that, as though something had happened inside him, and there was that glitter. You knew something had happened inside him, and thought: It’s coming. It was always that way. There was the bulge and the glitter, and there was the cold grip way down in the stomach as though somebody had laid hold of something in there, in the dark which is you, with a cold hand in a cold rubber glove. It was like the second when you come home late at night and see the yellow envelope of the telegram sticking out from under your door and you lean and pick it up, but don’t open it yet, not for a second. While you stand there in the hall, with the envelope in your hand, you feel there’s an eye on you, a great big eye looking straight at you from miles and dark and through walls and houses and through your coat and vest and hide and sees you huddled up way inside, in the dark which is you, inside yourself, like a clammy, sad little foetus you carry around inside yourself. The eye knows what’s in the envelope, and it is watching you to see when you open it and know too. But the clammy, sad little foetus which is you way down in the dark which is you too lifts up its sad little face and its eyes are blind, and it shivers cold inside you for it doesn’t want to know what is in that envelope. It wasn’t to lie in the dark and not know, and be warm in its not-knowing. The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can’t know. He can’t know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can’t know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he got or because of the knowledge which he hasn’t got and which if he had it, would save him. There’s the cold in your stomach, but you open the envelope, you have to open the envelope, for the end of man is to know.

You might not think the above quote really shows what I’ve been discussing above, and maybe it really doesn’t. The support for what I’ve been talking about above is all in the facts of the book, as opposed to the truth…and I’m more interested in the truth (though that isn’t something I can precisely state). The facts are all there in All the King’s Men for you to find if that’s the important part for you. The important part for me is something more ethereal, of which the above is a wonderful example.

That’s kind of weird, I know. Still, this is how I felt like reviewing All the King’s Men, the part that interested me more…the less familiar part despite everything I’d already heard.

The prose in All the King’s Men is earthy and gratifying at the same time that it grapples with higher soaring themes inescapably bound up with the muck of filth. It’s melancholy and sad in a way, and softly triumphant in others. At the end it lives up to a truth that is satisfying, even if it admits things we don’t necessarily want to hear. I don’t know about all time favorite, but All the King’s Men is very good.

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

At the start, those unfamiliar with The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead should get any “To Catch a Predator” type associations with the title out of their head. It isn’t meant in that kind of way at all. No one else may have been thinking that, but I kept thinking it any time I picked the book up, so I thought we’d start out by curing that potential misconception. The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead is about a father who loves his children and the doom that is inherent within the dysfunction of his family.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Robb Forman Dew, 9th for Jonathan Franzen, and 3rd for Jonathan Lethem.)

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead stars Sam and his wife Henny, as well as an entirely too large brood of children. Sam is optimistic and intelligent, but he’s a goof…particularly with his kids (whom he loves and can’t get enough of):

“Loobyloo! Loo-oobyloo! Loozy! Tea!”

Although Louisa did not answer she was at that moment crawling soundlessly out of bed. She heard him urging Evie, “Go on, Womey, call her Loozy.”

“No, Taddy, she doesn’t like it.”

“Go on, when I tahzoo [tells you].”

“No Taddy, she can hear.”

“Loo-hoozy! Loozy! Tea-heehee!”

Out of the tail of her eye Evelyn saw Louisa flash across the landing to the stairs. “She went,” she chanted soothingly, “she went.”

“This Sunday-Funday has come a long way,” said Sam softly: “it’s been coming to us, all day yesterday, all night from the mid-Pacific, from Peking, the Himalayas, from the fishing grounds of the old Leni Lenapes and the deeps of the drowned Susquehanna, over the pond pine ragged in the peat and the lily swamps of Anacostia, by scaffolded marbles and time-bloodied weatherboard, northeast, northwest, Washington Circle, Truxton Circle, Sheridan Circle to Rock Creek and the blunt shoulders of our Georgetown. And what does he find there this morning as every morning, in the midst of the slops, but Tohoga House, the little shanty of Gulliver Sam’s Lilliputian Pollitry­–Gulliver Sam, Mrs. Gulliver Henny, Lugubrious Louisa, whose head is bloody but unbowed, Ernest the calculator, Little-Womey–” Evie laughed. “–Saul and Sam the boy-twins and Thomas-snowshoe-eye, all suntropes that he come galloping to see.”

Sam has all his ideas and his enthusiasm, but he just can’t see when it doesn’t all work. He’s an eternal child trying to raise children, and doing it badly.

His wife, Henny, on the other hand, is a bitter realist. Formerly from money, she runs up debts everywhere but is afraid to let Sam know. She hates him, hates her life, hates everything. She constantly threatens to kill all of her children and herself. Sam too.

“You ought to have had a man to make you wash floors and kick you in the belly when you didn’t hurry up for him,” said Henny with all the hate of a dozen years. “I’m as rotten as she is–I’ve had men too–I’ve gone trailing my draggletail in all sorts of low dives–I’ve taken money from a man to keep his children–I’m a cheat and a liar and a dupe and a weak idiot and there’s nothing too low for me, but I’m still ‘mountains high’ above you and your sickly fawning brother who never grew up–I’m better than you who go to church and him who is too good to go to church, because I’ve done everything. I’ve been dirty and low and done things you’re both too stupid and too cowardly to do, but however low I am, I’m not so filthy crawling in the stench of the butter, I haven’t got a heart of stone, I don’t sniff, sniff, sniff when I see a streetwalker with a ragged blouse, too good to know what she is: I Hate her but I hate myself. I’m sick of the good ones; I’m sick of that stupid staring idiot standing goggling at me who’s going to be as good as you are; nothing’s too good for you, nothing’s too bad for me; I’ll go and walk the streets with that poor miserable brat sister of yours–we’ll both get something to eat and some men to be decent to us, instead of loudmouthed husbands and sisters who want to strangle us–that’s what you said, that’s what you said, you can never go back on that, and in that your whole black cruel cold heart came out of you and you tried to strike her down with it, like a stone as he’d like to strike me down when he gets all he can out of me–and I know you both, I know you all–she’s the only decent one and that’s because she’s like me–no good–good because she’s no good–take your eyes off me, you staring idiot, get out of here, you filthy child–tell your daughter to get out of here–I can’t stand it–” Henny could say no more but began to scream and then fell to the floor, bumping her head hard.

Sam lives his life as he wants to see it, regardless of how it is. He has too many children and is too big on ideals to worry about providing enough for them. Henny is full of hatred and they fight constantly, putting the children in between. Sam browbeats Henny, Henny browbeats Sam, and they both crush their children. It’s a mess.

The Man Who Loved Childrenis a delightfully rich novel, jammed with weird characters set against each other as much as possibly can be. You know it’s all going to go wrong, you just aren’t sure which way until the end. At that point, it’s the only way it could have gone.

I love the vigor and originality in some of the dialogue too, particularly Sam the father. He’s a great one to follow in a book, but I’m sure I’d hate him in real life.

I’m surprised I’d never heard of The Man Who Loved Children before. It’s quite good and I think more people should read it. I don’t know about putting it on my all-time best list, but I’m definitely glad I finally got a chance to read it.