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.

 

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Devil went down to Moscow…he was looking for a soul to steal. He was in a bind ’cause he was way behind and he was looking to make a deal. Okay, maybe not, but I decided to check out The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov for my first actual review here on Eleven and a Half Years of Books (in case you didn’t pick up on that from the title of the post).

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Kathryn Harrison, 5th for David Mitchell, and 5th for Annie Proulx.)

This one is an interestingly layered story. Seemingly at the core is a story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Supposedly, the story is written by a man who calls himself the Master (see the title) and is intensely loved by a woman named Margarita (also see the title). However, his literary efforts were lambasted by the literary establishment and he was even hounded by the Moscow police. All that is in the past though, as the Devil descends upon an unprepared Moscow that has rejected religion.

Of course, Bulgakov’s Jesus isn’t exactly the Jesus you might be thinking of. Consider this portion from the interrogation of Yeshua Ha-Notsri by Pontius Pilate:

            “Well, all right. If you wish to keep it secret, you may do so. It has no direct beating on the case. So you maintain that you did not incite them to tear down…or burn, or in any other manner destroy the temple?”

            “I repeat, Hegemon, I did not incite them to any such actions. Do I look like an imbecile?”

            “Oh, no, you do not look like an imbecile,” replied the procurator softly, breaking out in a fearsome smile. “So swear that you did nothing of the kind.”

            “What would you have me swear by?” asked the unbound prisoner excitedly.

            “Well, by your life,” answered the procurator. “It is most timely that you swear by your life since it is hanging by a thread, understand that.”

Though this reminds me a little of Jesus’s trial before Pilot, it is certainly not how I remember the story.

Also, Bulgakov’s Devil, named Woland, is nothing like any Devil I’ve ever seen before. His antics in Moscow may have a serious edge for a few unlucky people, but he seems more interested in making the arrogant and money-grubbing residents of Moscow look foolish than in endangering their souls or taking their lives:

            “Do I note a touch of surprise, my dearest Stepan Bogdanovich?” Woland inquired of Styopa whose teeth were chattering, “But there is nothing to be surprised about. This is my retinue.”

            At this point the cat drank down the vodka, and Styopa’s hand began to slip down the door frame.

            “Any my retinue needs space,” Woland continued, “which means that one of us in this apartment is superfluous. And I think that someone is—you!”

*****

            And then the bedroom began to spin around Styopa, he hit his head on the door frame, and as he was losing consciousness, he thought, “I’m dying…”

            But he did not die. He opened his eyes slightly and saw that he was sitting on something made of stone. A sound could be heard nearby. When he opened his eyes properly, he realized that it was the sound of the sea and that a wave was, in fact, breaking at his very feet, that, to be brief, he was sitting at the end of a jetty, and that a blue sky was sparkling above him, and behind him was a white city nestled in the hills.

*****

            Then Styopa resorted to the following maneuver: he dropped on his knees in front of the unknown smoker and said, “Please tell me, what city is this?”

            “Are you kidding?!” said the heartless smoker.

            “I’m not drunk,” Styopa replied hoarsely, “Something’s happened to me…I’m sick…Where am I’ What city is this?”

            “Well, Yalta…”

            Styopa sighed softly, fell over on his side and struck his head against the warm stone of the jetty.

Regardless of Jesus or the Devil, or the Master or Margarita (who don’t really seem to be in a lot of danger for being in a novel with the Devil), Bulgakov has to be the strangest Russian writer of his time. I mean, he was only a generation after Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev. This book is set in Moscow in the thirties, if you can believe it from the small chunks I’ve shared. Yet, if I didn’t know better, I’d really think he was writing just a few years ago. There is just something remarkably similar to contemporary prose in the way that Bulgakov wrote. It really makes the book interesting, considering its actual age.

And, all in all, the whole novel is a great deal of fun. Bulgakov may have been an anomaly in his own time, but today I found him delightful. The book is definitely weird, don’t get me wrong on that, but it was a good kind of weird. The Master and Margarita is a strange thing, living and breathing in its own little world.

– David S. Atkinson