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.

 

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Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

I know that writing the summary for the back of a book can be an extremely difficult job. An attempt must be made to distill an entire book into a simple, cursory paragraph. Still, the reading public relies on these summaries. Sometimes, some success is achieved. Other times, I wonder whether or not I read the same book as the person who wrote the summary. Some books are surely harder than others, and surely there can be debate as to what a book is really about, but sometimes the summary just seems to cover only a portion of the book with no real comprehension of the book as a whole. I reflected upon this in particular after finishing Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was for 9th for Kathryn Harrison.)

Considering Midnight’s Children, I suppose I should discuss a little of what the back of the book says. Most of the back details how the main character, Saleem Sinai, is born at the exact moment that the modern nation of India is born (i.e., freed from imperial British control). Because of this coincidence, Saleem develops telepathic powers and a connection to the 1000 other ‘midnight’s children’ (the other children born on this day). This is the bulk of the summary, only the last sentence discussing how Saleem is linked to the nation and how his story mirrors the “disasters and triumphs” of modern India.

Really, this made me think I was in for a much different story than I ended up reading. I suppose I should have known better after reading The Satanic Verses, but (like so often happens when I should know better) I didn’t.

Mind you, the above does describe an aspect of the book. It is true that this accident of birth, these powers, and the 1001 midnight’s children are focal aspects of Saleem’s identity. Indeed, Rushdie and Saleem spend a good amount of time talking about the children:

Midnight’s children!…From Kerala, a boy who had the ability of stepping into mirrors and re-emerging through any reflective surface in the land–through lakes and (with greater difficulty) the polished metal of automobiles…and a Goanese girl with the gift of multiplying fish…and children with powers of transformation: a werewolf from the Nilgiri Hills, and from the great watershed of the Vindhyas, a boy who could increase or reduce his size at will, and had already (mischievously) been the cause of wild panic and rumors of the return of Giants…from Kashmir, there was a blue-eyed child of whose original sex I was never certain, since by immersing herself in water he (or she) could alter it as she (or he) pleased.

All these children with magical abilities, with Saleem as the oldest and purportedly most powerful, telepathically connected to the rest.

However, Saleem’s powers (and indeed the midnight’s children themselves) are only a portion of Saleem’s life, and thereby his story. Saleem also talks about his family:

One Kashmiri morning in the early spring of 1915, my grandfather Aadam Aziz hit his nose against a frost-hardened tussock of earth while attempting to pray. Three drops of blood plopped out of his left nostril, hardened instantly in the brittle air and lay before his eyes on his prayer-mat, transformed into rubies. Lurching back until he knelt with his head once more upright, he found that the tears which had sprung to his eyes had solidified, too; and at that moment, as he brushed diamonds contemptuously from his lashes, he resolved never again to kiss earth for any god or man.

and India (not to mention Pakistan and Bangladesh, as there is no way to discuss the birth of modern India without discussing Pakistan and Bangladesh):

The day of November 20th was a terrible day; the night was a terrible night…six days earlier, on Nehru’s seventy-third birthday, the great confrontation with the Chinese forces had begun; the Indian army–JAWANS SWING INTO ACTION! –had attached the Chinese at Walong. News of the disaster of Walong, and the rout of General Kaul and four battalions, reached Nehru on Saturday 18th; on Monday 20th, it flooded through radio and press and arrived at Methwold’s Estate. ULTIMATE PANIC IN NEW DELHI! INDIAN FORCES IN TATTERS! That day–the last day of my old life–I sat huddled with my sister and parents around our Telefunken radiogram, while telecommunications struck the feat of God and China into our hearts. And my father now said a fateful thing: “Wife,” he intoned gravely, while Jamila and I shook with fear, “Begum Sahiba, this country is finished. Bankrupt. Funtoosh.” The evening paper proclaimed the end of the optimism disease: PUBLIC MORALE DRAINS AWAY. And after that end, there were others to come; other things would also drain away.

In fact, though Saleem narrates the whole book as he supposedly writes it, he isn’t even born until about a fifth of the way through. Really, there is much more than supernatural powers, more than the midnight’s children, more than even Saleem.

In particular, I don’t think the magical powers are at the center of this book because Saleem and the other children never really get together and DO anything significant with their powers. The use them on an individual scale, but the same kinds of problems that face the entire region at this time manifest in the children. They affect their world, but their world also affects them.

If there is any accuracy in the summary, I would find it in that last sentence. Saleem leads a blessed life yet disasters occur with frightening regularity, just like the modern course of the entire region. There is an amazing amount of intelligence and incredible ability, but the complexity and history in which it is mired confuses everything to the point of chaos. Frankly, though, life goes on regardless.

Now, I really probably shouldn’t have spent this entire review bashing the summary. In reality, even though I don’t think it encapsulates the book too well, it isn’t bad. I certainly couldn’t have done any better. This book has thousands of narrative lines, just like India/Pakistan/Bangladesh. There just may not be a way of turning it all into a single cloth.

Truth be told, I just thought this discussion of the summary was a really good way of talking about the complexity and multifaceted nature of the book. Bashing the summary was just a vehicle and I mean no real malice against it.

In the end, I did enjoy this book a great deal. The story is rich and compelling, though difficult to hold in your fist at any particular moment. I did find it easier to understand than The Satanic Verses, but that isn’t necessarily saying that much. Regardless, whether or not it is one of the best books of all time, Midnight’s Children is certainly a good one. Thankfully, I don’t have to summarize it in a paragraph.