Saturday, April 5, 2014

Book Drunk Confessions: Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

**Let the record show that I really haven't slept in about two nights, and this is probably slightly more like a blog I've accidentally drunk-dialed than anything of coherent thought**

I am incredibly poorly read. On all those meme lists of the hundreds of books everyone is supposed to read, I’ve usually only read about five percent of them, and of that five percent, ninety percent of that list are books I was forced to read under the duress of a grade.

I wish this wasn’t true. Part of me has always aspired to be an academic, or at least be respected as one. I mean, I do have an English degree and I was a high school literature teacher (which I realize that in light of the confession in the first paragraph of this blog, makes me seem like a hack), so I am at least good at existing on the periphery of academia even though I’ll likely not ever have residence there.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading—I absolutely do. And when I find a book I’m interested in, I binge read, forsaking food, sleep, and hygiene to free up  the time it requires to devour an entire story in one sitting. Since having children, this has become a problem since there are now little people who require me to not have my nose in a book so that I can provide for them the food, sleep, and hygiene they need to survive, so I’m even further behind on that list of must-reads than I was before babies.

Earlier this week I was in need of a book to kill the endless hours of free-reading time I was promised that jury duty would turn out to be (see my previous post), when it suddenly occurred to me that I don’t really own any books anymore. I’m an anti-clutter freak, and I get rid of everything all the time. If it’s possible, I think I get high from the sight of a cleared-off table or organized closet, and I’m equally excited by a book shelf with room to spare.  So all the books I used to have, unless they are attached with some nostalgia I can’t convince myself is ridiculous, have long since been donated to Goodwill and are likely sitting on some a shelf belonging to another struggling writer who just happens to have a little less self-control about hoarding than I do.

One exception that I was happy to discover while frantically pulling books from the basement’s inconspicuous and well-organized bookshelf was Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. I remembered reading this book a few weeks before becoming pregnant for the first time (thus ending my leisure reading and beginning my study of the required textbook for moms-to-be, What to Expect When You’re Expecting), and feeling both blown away and paranoid by it. Typically, I’ve got a fairly accurate photographic memory. Occasionally though I’ve noticed that my mind will Photoshop  certain things I see so that I remember them better than they actually looked (like, for instance, my senior prom photo and James Van Der Beek’s hair in Season 1 of Dawson’s Creek). It would be extremely rare that I wouldn’t remember anything at all about something I’d spent any real amount of time looking at or studying (with the exception of all math passed the geometry level), especially—ESPECIALLY—a book.  This is why I never read things twice, I rarely watch movies more than once, and if I’m repeating a Netflix binge of a tv show, I need to wait at least a few years in-between ending the series and beginning it again (except for Sherlock; Benedict Cumberbatch is always the exception to every rule). But since because I’m not currently pregnant, I had nothing in the house to read except for Prep, I decided that I would pick it up again, just skip what was too familiar and reminisce the second time through about how much I enjoyed reading it the first time.

Because jury duty was not the vacation it appeared to be in the brochure, I didn’t much time to read while I was serving, but after an almost five hour bender ending at 3:00 this morning, I have now finished Prep for the second time… though it felt like the first.

I’m not sure if it’s because the book is not action-packed that I didn’t remember it (the book is 10% stuff that happens, 90% the neurosis of a high school girl interpreting the 10% that happened), but it was all new to me. Well, everything felt new except the last chapter because there’s something about Cross Sugarman and the surprising and very graphic sex scenes (I’ll admit it, I’m completely a prude when it comes to sex in books and I blush continuously and shift if my seat while reading them. I more at ease when the scene cuts away, or everything is implied, but that’s probably way more indicative of me as a person than anything else, which suddenly makes me feel naked) that tends to leave an impression eight years away from the story did not erase. That’s not a judgment about that section of writing—it was so painstakingly honest that it made me uncomfortable, and by that account was actually a very GOOD section. It’s just that I have different convictions about the inclusion of that topic in my own personal writing that… Well, I’m getting off topic, and I’m also blushing and shifting, so I digress….

This book was amazing, and it was even more amazing because it amazed me the second time through it. I’m not sure there has ever been a character I have related to more—including any of my own creation—than Lee Fiora, the narrator of Prep. This book is her coming-of-age story—a girl from small town (actually, MY small town) Indiana who gets a scholarship to attend a boarding school in New England for high school. Now, I didn’t go to boarding school (otherwise, I’d probably be better read), but apart from that difference, Lee’s perspectives, her neurosis, her constant over-analyzing of everyone and everything is exactly me—both at fifteen years old, and still, somewhat today.

There were moments when I was reading where Lee’s words were so familiar to me—her confessions living on the periphery of existence—that they felt almost extracted from me. Like my identity had been stolen and decoded tangibly into words and sentences and paragraphs and their subsequent emotions.

It was a bit jarring to discover this again. But it was also very freeing to feel like somewhere out there, there was an author who understood Lee well enough to write her (either because she identified with her herself or because she intimately observed someone like her). And strangely, this became comforting to me, because it meant that there was someone out there—though I’ll never meet her or know her personally—who understood me. Who had written me, fictionally. Lee is only complex because, I think, she chooses to be. And she’s not completely likable. I don’t even completely like her, and I feel like we’re the same person. But I think most people are able to recognize their flaws when they’re explained to them through stories. Like parables.

In light of all this, I’ve begun to wonder if anyone who has read Songs has felt this way—about any of the characters. Like, maybe there’s a Cosette out there or a Micah (they are the two more self-aware in the fictional cast of the book). I wonder who knows a Bronwyn or a Westley, and if the story has changed any relationships…

Those are my dreams as a writer. As much as I’d like to compose “the next big thing”, I would receive more satisfaction knowing that what I have written has meant something. That it’s bridged a connection between two unknown points on the planet. That somehow, my story has helped to solve for x, like Prep has done for me. 

Jury Duty

This week was one of those unexpected time-sucks that you don’t prepare for when you loftily plan a writing spree.

I knew that I was summoned for jury duty for—what could be more appropriate?—April 1st. This was a first for me since the only other time I’d been called was sometime shortly after my first daughter was born, and I was graciously not forced to go. From the time the letter arrived in the mail, whenever I mentioned casually to people that I had been summoned, I received many of the same responses: You’ll spend half-a-day in a room and never get called up. Bring a book! or If you get called into the courtroom they’ll never take you because 1.) you work in ministry 2.) you father/uncle/aunt/cousin is/was on the police force. or If you end up on a case,  it will probably be something ridiculous like some homeowner suing a contractor for shoddy workmanship. I received so much of this encouragement, that I was SURE I wouldn’t even have to show up at the courthouse, or at worst, I’d go and be sent home a few hours later, the better part of the day left to sip a non-fat Butter Bear Latte at Biggby and march Cosette ever forward through the sequel (which by the way, I think, has a title… to be continued).

What I did not expect was to be called up after 10 minutes of waiting into a courtroom where someone would hand me a sheet of paper with the word MURDER written at the top and a list of charges beneath it that filled the entire page. I also did not expect to start crying in the jury box when I learned that because of the nature of the case, the accepted jurors would be subjected to graphic photographs of the MURDER victim. And I definitely did not expect a judge to have mercy on my squeamishness, and excuse me from the case.

I should clarify here that I did not cry to get out of jury duty. That was not my intention. Had I thought it was a viable option, perhaps it would have crossed my mind (as did such excuses as “I’m prejudiced against all religions” and “I think that all people that police officers arrest are guilty”). My tears—as are my hands-over-the-eyes and finger-in-the-ears reactions to blood/death/violence/suspenseful music on television/movies/real-life—were legitimate. I’m not sure why or how it happened, but at some point near the time I became a parent, my sensitivity button was reset, and my tolerance to such things became non-existent.

As I exited the courtroom, I knew that my service was not finished for the day. I would have to report back to the juror room with all the others rejected during the voir dire portion of selection to await reassignment. And, I also knew somehow, that I was not going to leave that day without being assigned to another trial. I’m not sure how I knew this, but I did. The next time I was called up into a courtroom, I wasn’t going to get excused.

And I didn’t.

Perhaps it was because I was schlepping  a To Kill a Mockingbird tote bag (Okay, seriously, WHAT was I thinking?) or perhaps it was because I was carrying a purse made from a hardcover collection of Sherlock Holmes stories (Maybe I should have just worn a giant neon sign that said PICK ME!) but for whatever reason, after asking for my profession and answering “I work in the ministry field and as a writer”, no one asked for further verification that I was fit to serve as a juror on this new, non-murder, criminal case.

Jury duty is a pretty unique concept for a lot of reasons, but one of the most intriguing to me is that it’s the only situation I can think of where I might find myself in a room with people with whom I have no common ground. Think about it—people don’t put themselves in situations with strangers very naturally. We might find ourselves sitting next to people we don’t know at a baseball game or a concert, but then if you’re forced to talk, you at least already have something built-in to chat about: “So, do you think the Tigers are gonna make it until October this year?” “This is my fourth Dave show in two years, what about you?” But, with jury duty, the only things you’re guaranteed to have in common with everyone in the room are 1.) the county you live in 2.) that you have a driver’s license and 3.) you have been inconvenienced by being called to jury duty.

In normal situations of awkward people-juxtapositioning, like a bus ride or standing in line for the bathroom (which only really happens to women, let’s be real… I mean, c’mon, this isn’t a new problem; just build the ladies rooms twice the size of the men’s and let’s be done with it), most of the population find is not only socially acceptable but almost a REQUIREMENT that these moments are spent with all parties eyes’ fixed upon a smartphone or other electronic device and not in the throes of idle chit-chat about weather or how long the wait is. Jury duty, however, removes this crutch of the introvert by banning such devices from the premises of a court house thereby leaving very large groups of people alone in very strange silences or on their own to remember what it took back in kindergarten to make a friend.

“Hi—my name is Lisabeth. What’s yours?”

But, I actually did make a friend. She was walking around the parking lot waving her jury summons and searching for someone to show her the place we were to report. Having made my husband drive with me the 20 miles to the courthouse the previous Sunday for practice in the slight chance I would actually have to serve my summons, I already knew the answer this her question, and I decided that I would share this knowledge with her.

She was pretty and older than me, but she absolutely looked way too young to have been fifty—which, over the course of the two hours we spent together in between being rejected by our respective juries and waiting to be called to another courtroom, she confided to me was her age (you really wouldn’t have believed her either, trust me).

Her name wasn’t Marie, but to you—that’s what I’m calling her.

I instantly liked Marie, and perhaps it was because she felt I had saved her from the anxiety of not-knowing-where-the-heck-to-go, but she instantly liked me, too. I feel like most people don’t instantly like me often because I’m not overly-friendly to people over the age of eight (it’s insecurity more than anything, but I think that I come across as snobbish sometimes—I blame my ski-jump nose and lack of knowledge on how to appropriately shape my eyebrows), so I had my own reason to feel grateful to Marie.

For awhile, Marie and I were the only ones in the entire jury room (there were well over 150 of us there) who were speaking. In the quiet, it almost felt like we were breaking the rules of study hall, but then I remembered that I was a grown-up (I have to actually remind myself of this a lot, in many different situations ) and the jury room had no posted signs of etiquette requiring our silence. People around us had to have thought we knew each other—that maybe we were co-workers or neighbors, and it was a coincidence that we both had been called for the same day of jury service. Because surely, no two complete strangers could have hit it off so well to be talking like old friends in the time it takes to walk in from the parking lot.

But, we had. And I think that such an opportunity for something as unique as meeting Marie is my favorite thing about jury duty.

I’d forgotten about the beauty of the stranger. That there are people and stories and life experiences out there beyond what I have and better than I can create in my mind when scripting a character. Writing can become redundant when you reuse the same recipes to concoct interesting fictional people. And it’s not like Marie had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro or was related to Benedict Cumberbatch or anything… she was just new. Sometimes the way someone is new—the way you would describe them differently than you could have anyone else (Marie was motherly and youthful, hip and concerting, with very white teeth and the wit and smile of a middle-school teacher)—compose an authenticity you can’t just invent. If I were to place a character modeled after Marie in my next novel, she would be effortlessly believable.

An hour after the lunch break, Marie and I were both called up to the same courtroom, and I was immediately (as I had predicted) been called into the penalty box (I’m pretty sure that’s not what it’s called, but it is what it felt like).  Thanks to Atticus Finch and Dr. Watson, that’s where I remained while both the prosecutor and the defense were satisfied with our 13 member jury without Marie on it. She remained in the gallery, never to be called up to be interviewed. Instead, when the jury was named, she and I exchanged glances—mine to her saying, “Luck you” and hers to me sincerely saying, “Sorry about your luck.”

As far as criminal cases go, the one I sat on turned out to be pretty open-and-shut. Eleven of my fellow citizens (we lost one who was excused as an alternate right before we went into deliberation so that we would only have 12 deciding guilt or innocence—he waited in the courtroom until we’d reached our verdict rather than taking off because after having spent the past four days engrossed in the judicial system, he didn’t want to not see the case conclude) came to a unanimous decision within ten minutes. Though it was a clear decision, it wasn’t an easy one. After all, we were chosen to decide someone’s fate, and that’s heavy weight no matter the consequence. I appreciated the decorum and patience and respect all of us—a very diverse group of strangers—gave to each other as we discussed our reasons for our position. I imagine the same 12 of us together at the Secretary of State or waiting for our numbers to be called at the deli might not have been so cooperative, but there’s something about the duty part of jury service that made us all act like professionals. And I think that’s why I felt a little sad when we were released from our jury-bondage to one another. We’d been teammates for a little while. Crime fighters. Super heroes, in a way. We were important together, if only for a few days, and then we were saying goodbye before we’d known one another long enough to remember names. I’m sure they all think I’m Elizabeth, or maybe something equally generic as Jennifer or Caroline.

It sort of seemed a waste of our collective potential, to tell you the truth. Though I was as outwardly excited to have finished the trial before the weekend as everyone else, I wanted to linger together as a group. I longed for a few more hours of downtime to learn about these people. To listen to their stories, observe the unspoken, and tuck them away in mind. To write new recipe cards.

I’m aware that this is a strange re-introduction into my “author blog” after I’ve been silent here since—November? Really?—but it was either take the time to write all this down now, or spend the next few weeks with it fighting its way into the lives of Cosette and Micah and the garden.  And who knows? Maybe Marie will make it in there, or maybe one of the other lessons I learned this week, but sometimes it’s better to just listen to what your mind is telling you when it’s talking.

I promise that I won’t ignore your sequel for much longer. I’m still making progress.