Po­ets Jef­frey Har­ri­son and Nick DePas­cal and nov­el­ist Stan­ley Craw­ford read at Col­lected Works

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Grace La­batt

Or, What I’ve Learned From Read­ing Too Much by Sa­man­tha El­lis, Vin­tage Books/ Ran­dom House, 272 pages

What would hap­pen at a cock­tail party at­tended by lit­er­a­ture’s great heroines? Gone With the Wind ’s Scar­lett O’Hara would try to teach Lizzy Bennett ( Pride and Prej­u­dice ) to flirt, Franny Glass ( Franny and Zooey ) would do a soft shoe, and Mil­dred Lath­bury ( Ex­cel­lent Women ) would accidentally gets tipsy on sherry. Lizzy would laugh at Scar­lett, who wouldn’t seem to mind.

Sa­man­tha El­lis’ vi­sion of the most fab­u­lous imag­i­nary bash ever fol­lows her close study of each hero­ine above, along with many oth­ers. In How to Be a Hero­ine , which is part lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, part mem­oir, she re­vis­its char­ac­ters from her life as a reader in or­der to re­assess her ini­tial read­ings (or, she spec­u­lates, mis­read­ings) and to re­flect upon her own arc — her mo­ments as some sort of a hero­ine.

El­lis, a play­wright, was born in Lon­don, the daugh­ter of Jewish Iraqis forced to leave Bagh­dad amid vi­o­lent per­se­cu­tion. For her, the story of the Lit­tle Mer­maid doesn’t in­volve en­chant­ment or the open sea but “dis­place­ment and sep­a­ra­tion and loss” — a sense that you can’t go home again. El­lis’ fam­ily can­not re­turn to Iraq; the Lit­tle Mer­maid can­not re­turn to the sea be­cause she has sold her beau­ti­ful voice for legs. How El­lis breaks down the prob­lem­atic as­pects of this and other nar­ra­tives is one of the book’s top plea­sures. The mer­maid “gives up her voice for legs to get a man,” she writes, later adding, “You don’t have to be Naomi Wolf to have is­sues with this.”

As El­lis grows up, her imag­i­na­tion, au­ton­omy, ex­pec­ta­tions, and am­bi­tions evolve, right along­side those of the lead­ing ladies in her well­worn stack of books. She con­tends with choices and chal­lenges — whether to leave home to at­tend a uni­ver­sity, how to live with her sud­den “ro­coco” seizures, who to be and who to be­come — while she reads about the brav­ery of Lucy Hon­ey­church ( A Room With a View ) and the suf­fer­ing of Esther Green­wood ( The Bell Jar ), and the many other qual­i­ties that give the best heroines their nu­ance and strength.

Ro­mance of course plays a key role, prompt­ing quips that would de­light Dorothy Parker: “Tor­nado love,” El­lis writes, re­fer­ring to Wuther­ing Heights , “is more ap­peal­ing than post­mod­ern love.” The au­thor as­serts that “un­re­quited love is delu­sional, thank­less, and bor­ing,” and is there­fore in­clined to strip fe­male char­ac­ters of their hero­ine sta­tus if they waste any time and en­ergy on it.

She gives par­tic­u­lar heed to the age-old mar­riage plot, in which mis­un­der­stand­ings and com­pli­ca­tions arise, get re­solved, and are for­given and forgotten in time for a walk down the aisle. El­lis’ own mar­riage plot was all but writ­ten for her be­fore she could have read it: She was to marry a Jewish boy her par­ents had ap­proved. As her sense of self de­vel­ops, she starts to seek heroines who “strug­gled to evade the same fate I was strug­gling to evade.” Nora ( A Doll’s House ), Lily Briscoe ( To the Light­house ), Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple: Th­ese are women who find — through ac­tion rather than in day­dreams — ful­fill­ment out­side of ro­man­tic love and courtship. Not ev­ery­thing must end in a wed­ding.

Or with a death. El­lis will prob­a­bly never for­give Charles Dick­ens for what hap­pens to Nancy Sykes. She spent one sum­mer rewrit­ing Oliver Twist “so that girls came out [on] top” — in­clud­ing its new pro­tag­o­nist, Olivia Twist.

Books about read­ing, and per­sonal dis­cov­er­ies achieved through read­ing, seem to have pro­lif­er­ated in the past few years, of­ten sprin­kled with “my” or “I” or “me” in the ti­tle or sub­ti­tle. This can get risky when the au­thor is less dy­namic than the char­ac­ters about whom he or she writes, or when the “I” starts to get in the way. Hap­pily, nei­ther is the case in How to Be a Hero­ine , whose au­thor is witty, can­did, and (most im­por­tant) a thought­ful, ea­gle-eyed reader. It is a tes­ta­ment to her tal­ent that she would hold her own at that cock­tail party. She might even ex­tem­po­rize, to a rapt au­di­ence, on the glo­ries of writ­ing, se­cretly hop­ing to get Jo March ( Lit­tle Women ) and Anne Shirley ( Anne of Green Gables ) to pick up their pens again.

El­lis’ tex­tual per­cep­tions of­fer her own read­ers much to con­sider, re­gard­less of their fa­mil­iar­ity with the spe­cific books she re­vis­its. You need not have read the nov­els El­lis parses, although you may have to bud­get for a visit to Col­lected Works once you reach the end. The bib­li­og­ra­phy might as well be a shop­ping list. One caveat: Not all of the works are canon­i­cal. Some have been pi­geon­holed as fluff for as long as they’ve been around, and their re­con­sid­er­a­tion and new­found ap­pre­ci­a­tion are wel­come. Nonethe­less, read­ers who pre­fer their lit crit with­out ref­er­ences to Meg Ryan movies — who pre­fer to keep their high­brow high and their “low­brow” in­vis­i­ble — may wish to seek schol­ar­ship else­where.

Of the many ways to judge a book, the phys­i­cal state of a reader’s copy is al­most as su­per­fi­cial as it gets. It ranks just above cover art. Yet worn pages, scrib­bles in the mar­gins, and food stains at­test to the joy of re­peat vis­its, to the ur­gency of shar­ing in the thoughts and ac­tions of seem­ingly kin­dred spir­its. El­lis notes this as she pores over her “fren­ziedly an­no­tated” copy of Sylvia Plath’s col­lected jour­nals and her wine- and bath­wa­ter-tinted copy of Wuther­ing Heights . For this reader, by that mea­sure and oth­ers, How to Be a Hero­ine is a smash.

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