Classic novels do not need modern retellings!

Maybe I feel this way because I’m over 40 and not down with what makes the younger generation tick, but I just don’t get the appeal of the retellings craze of the last decade or so. Fairytales, folktales, and myths adapt themselves well to a wide variety of settings, since the stories are so universal and frequently found across multiple diverse cultures. Shakespeare’s plays have also been well-adapted to different eras and settings; e.g., Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (King Lear) and Throne of Blood (MacBeth), the original West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet), 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew).

But now we have a whole industry of writers point-blank retelling and “rebooting” not just fairytales, folktales, and plays, but novels written by other people. I roll my eyes so hard when a 35-year-old woman who’s going on 16 squees, “ZOMG, give me all the Pride and Prejudice retellings!” or “A modern-day Anne of Green Gables in Philadelphia? YES YES YES!” I hate to stereotype my own sex, but I only see women fawning over and writing these books.

Here’s a groundbreaking idea: If you like the general concept of a book, just make your own original story with a similar premise. Don’t steal someone else’s hard work and just change a few details. E.g., you can easily craft a good story about four sisters coming of age in any era and city, and give them whatever ethnic or religious background you’d like. You don’t need to name them Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy and do a close play-by-play of the events in Little Women! I guarantee people will love your book if you write that story well instead of lazily copying Louisa May Alcott’s classic story.

I absolutely hated Anne with an E, because it forces 21st century views onto late 19th century characters. So many of these old novels simply don’t work with modern settings because the characters and storylines are the product of the era they were created in. Values, expectations, duties, education, politics, religion, beliefs, etc., were entirely different. E.g., I hate when an old film or book ends with a happy couple being forced to break up and marry other people for the sake of duty, but most people in the past accepted that as something they just had to do and couldn’t fight against, no matter how heartbreaking it was.

One of the recent graphic novel adaptations of Little Women features a freaking pronoun circle in Jo’s eighth grade journalism club. The one time I was at an event where this creepy woke ritual was forced on us, I felt so dirty and trapped for going along with it. I felt like snapping, “Do I look like a man or someone of indeterminate sex to you?” Louisa May Alcott would whirl in her grave if she knew someone did that to her characters!

So many of these retellings shoehorn in wokeness, like they think they’re “correcting” “problematic” aspects of the original. Like it or not, most books written 100+ years ago aren’t populated by Rainbow Tribes. People lived what they knew, which meant not associating with different socioeconomic classes, religions, or ethnicities, unless they were servants. Gays and lesbians were deep in the closet. Even white people tended to live in their own ethnic enclaves; e.g., Irish, German, Norwegian, Italian, Greek, Polish, Scottish. It wasn’t until the rise of postwar suburbia that all these boxes and walls started to fade away.

Guess what, if you write a story about four sisters named Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy in a multiracial stepfamily in Queens in 2005 with the dad serving in Iraq, make Jo a lesbian, and have the sisters look at porn on the Internet, that’s NOT Little Women. That’s a story of your own creation with the flimsiest of relations. And did I mention this woke graphic novel has a Jewish landlord depicted in a very antisemitic way?

A shallow soap opera in the late 1940s

Not Our Kind by Kitty Zeldis

This book was recommended to me by a library computer while I was searching for Dara Horn’s recent essay collection, the provocatively-titled People Love Dead Jews, as a similar book. Since it was in that very library, and the blurb made it sound right up my alley, I went to look for it and assumed I’d love it.

In 1947, while running late to a job interview, 25-year-old Eleanor Moskowitz’s taxi is rear-ended by another taxi in bottleneck traffic, caused by Pres. Truman’s visit to the city. Because Eleanor suffers an injury to her face, and because cops get involved after the cabbies start arguing, she’s unable to go to the interview.

However, the woman in the other taxi, Patricia Bellamy, invites Eleanor to her glamourous Park Avenue apartment to calm down. Patricia does have some belated misgivings after she hears Eleanor’s obviously Jewish surname, but feels it would be poor manners to rescind the invitation.

When Eleanor arrives at the apartment, she meets Patricia’s only child, 13-year-old Margaux, a polio survivor. Margaux is very understandably bitter, angry, and surly on account of her long illness and being left with a withered leg. But for some reason, she’s instantly drawn to Eleanor, and begs for Eleanor to become her tutor. Eleanor previously worked as a teacher, but resigned when the principal refused to punish a girl for plagiarism. She was also romantically involved with another teacher, and found it awkward to be around him after he started going out with the school’s third Jewish teacher.

Eleanor isn’t too sure about the prospect of being Margaux’s tutor, but ultimately agrees to do it. Prior to accepting the offer, she went to an unemployment agency and was advised by the woman who saw her, Rita Burns, to change her surname to something less obviously Jewish, like Moss or Morse, so her résumé wouldn’t be automatically thrown away. Miss Burns says she knows what she’s talking about, since her real name is Rachel Bernstein.

Because the Bellamys’ building is restricted, Eleanor indeed ends up pretending to have the surname Moss when she announces herself to the doorman. This charade continues when she joins the Bellamys at their summer home in Argyle, Connecticut.

And it’s in Argyle where all the trouble begins.

Patricia’s Bohemian playboy brother Tom arrives for a visit, and he and Eleanor feel an immediate attraction. For many compelling reasons, Patricia is quite alarmed to discover their romantic feelings, and even more upset when she discovers Eleanor was in Tom’s bed. Not only is Eleanor her employee and expected to set a good example for Margaux, but she’s also a good thirteen years younger than Tom and of a different religion and social class. Tom is also notorious for his string of broken hearts and endless affairs, one of which ended with the woman having an abortion.

Also angry is Patricia’s husband Wynn, whose many terrible qualities include antisemitism, sexual predation, drunkenness, classism, poor anger management, lack of success in his law firm, and hatred of modern art. He blames Eleanor for the increasing strain in his marriage, and will stop at nothing to let her know who’s boss and what he really thinks of her.

And when Wynn crosses that line, everyone’s lives are sent into even more of a tailspin.

Overall, I was really disappointed in this book. While Ms. Zeldis does a superb job of describing things like interior decoration, architecture, clothes, and Manhattan streetscapes of the era, the characters all seemed kind of flat and shallow. I never truly felt in anyone’s head, and the narration is rather telly instead of trusting readers to discern things for themselves.

This book also follows the annoying trend of alternating POV characters every other chapter, except for one time where two chapters in a row are in Patricia’s POV. Thus, many times the revelation or cliffhanger than ends a chapter isn’t followed up at all, or the resulting reactions and events are relayed later instead of shown as they actually happen. God forbid you use third-person omniscient in a book with more than one main character!

I also wished there’d been more development of Eleanor’s relationship with Margaux and their lessons. And without giving anything away, there’s a really convenient deus ex machina plot development for one of the storylines. I agree with reviewers who feel this is a YA book that just happens to have adult characters.

I was hoping for a more thorough, engrossing exploration of the institutionalized, systemic antisemitism which continued even after the Shoah, not just alternatingly heavy-handed and minor mentions every so often. Eleanor is very secular and assimilated, with almost no connection to either religious or cultural aspects of Judaism. It feels so out of character when she visits a mikvah, not to mention contrary to norms of halacha (Jewish law).

Obviously, antisemites don’t care how religious or secular someone is, but Eleanor never demonstrates a strong or believable Jewish identity. The distinction between her and the Bellamys feels more believably based on class instead of religion.

Also, her relationship with Tom and their supposed chemistry never felt believable to me, coupled with how rare and scandalous interdating and intermarriage were in that era. Eleanor only thinks about how she’ll be excluded from Tom’s Gentile world, not about things like how they’d raise potential kids.

The treatment of premarital sex also felt a bit unrealistic and ahistorical. Outside of really Bohemian types, which Eleanor isn’t depicted as, it was generally only done by couples planning to marry anyway in this era. Not couples only thinking of a good time and unsure of their relationship’s future.

And did I mention the book just kind of ends in media res?

How not to translate Dante

I first heard of Mary Jo Bang while researching my post on translations of The Divine Comedy, but didn’t include her among my list of best-known editions since I’d never run across her name before. While I’ve not read or dipped in and out of most of the translations I listed, I at least was familiar with their existence.

And as I mentioned in that post, I personally prefer a translation done by someone with a scholarly background in a field like Dante studies, Medieval history, or Italian literature, not a mere English professor or poet. Ms. Bang falls into the latter category. Of course I’ve nothing against such people, but there’s an inevitable, very noticeable difference in how they approach translation and supplemental material.

To use another comparison, wouldn’t you more trust a Bible translation by a Biblical historian or religious scholar instead of someone with only surface interest in Hebrew, Greek, or the ancient world? Or a translation of The Iliad by someone who’s been immersed in all things Ancient Greece for 20+ years over a poet who studied the language for a few years and nothing more?

I’m not a pedantic nitpicker who demands a translation be one million percent true to the absolute letter of the original. While I prefer it be as accurate and literal as possible, I have nothing against gentle creative liberties within reason. After all, that’s often necessitated if the translator is using a style like blank verse in iambic pentameter or a certain kind of rhyme scheme. And oftentimes, it can enhance the beauty or emotional impact of a passage, or just make the meaning clearer than a literal word-by-word rendering.

But what I’m absolutely NOT okay with? Inserting words, phrases, and entire passages not even indirectly suggested by anything in the original, esp. when you do that over and over again.

I was beyond gobsmacked to learn Ms. Bang’s translations of Inferno and Purgatorio (the latter of which was just recently released) are full of anachronistic references and allusions to modern politics, pop culture, artists, and writers. Donald Rumsfeld, Andy Warhol, Usain Bolt, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Amy Winehouse, Gertrude Stein, South Park, Pink Floyd, Star Trek, Tootsie Fruit Chews, MGM’s Leo the Lion, Shakespeare, Freud, you name it.

Oh, and she describes something as a lemon meringue mountain, says the winds of Hell are like “a massive crimson camera flash,” and takes extreme liberties with many other lines. The famous first tercet alone is rendered as:

Stopped mid-motion in the middle
Of what we call our life, I looked up and saw no sky—
Only a dense cage of leaf, tree, and twig. I was lost.

WHAT?!

The bulk of that tercet is entirely her own imagination! Find me one other translation that strays THAT far from the original Italian!

I also read a really weird 2011 op-ed by Ms. Bang claiming if you only read Inferno, you’ll falsely think of Beatrice as a damsel in distress from the story Virgil tells in Canto II. Because she’s tearfully pleading with him to save her friend, despite the fact that Beatrice is the one who rescues Dante. She also sets out to summon Virgil after a conference with two other women, the Virgin Mary and St. Lucia.

You haven’t read the text thoughtfully at all, nor done any real outside study, if you truly believe Beatrice only wants Virgil to rescue Dante from the three beasts impeding him. Are you so jaded after years of English teachers’ overanalysis that you now refuse to consider any deeper meanings for anything?

I’d have zero problems with her approach if she were doing a 21st century retelling. That would give her the perfect opportunity to play around with the general concept while keeping core elements of the original material. But she presents this as merely a fresh translation, not a reimagining.

And to make it even more shocking, the Dante Society of America, which I’m a member of, endorses this nonsense!

Beautiful prose, lacklustre storytelling

Yet again, I’ve been most sorely disappointed by a book with massive amounts of hype. In fact, I was so turned off by this book, I removed a reference to it during my second edition edits of Journey Through a Dark Forest. The first book Katya reads on her way back to UC-Berkeley in 1946 is now If He Hollers Let Him Go. I couldn’t stand by my former description of it as complex and nonconformist. More like dull and pointless!

I expected a story about a 12-year-old girl who doesn’t quite fit in as she comes of age, with her only friends her much-younger male cousin and the family cook. Instead I got a story which has beautiful prose and technically proficient writing but sleep-inducing, detached storytelling.

The book immediately starts off on the wrong foot with a heaping helping of telly infodump and backstory. While I understand people in the 1940s didn’t operate under modern writing standards like “Show, don’t tell,” that doesn’t preclude an engrossing story. Just look at A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which has quite a few passages heavy on telling. Betty Smith managed to make these events come alive despite not actively depicting them.

Why did this book annoy me so much, and why was it such a chore to slog through?

1. No one likes a story that’s little more than summaries of events. “This happened. Then that happened. Name did this. Name said that. Infodumpy, ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue. These things happened last year. This happened three months ago.” Impossible to be emotionally drawn in.

2. Confusing nonlinear format. It was often hard to discern whether Ms. McCullers were writing about something happening in real time or in the past, since she shifts around so much.

3. Not nearly enough chapters. There are deliberately long chapters, and then there are chapters that just stretch on and on without any sense of unifying theme or plot. Even deliberately long chapters should be divided into sections, not just roll on and on with no distinguishing breaks.

4. The breaks into Parts I, II, and III didn’t seem coherent either. The only thing marking them as distinct parts is that the protagonist goes by a different name in each—Frankie, F. Jasmine (so freaking pretentious), Francis.

5. Where’s the plot? Even an episodic, slower-paced, character-based story needs to be hung on a narrative arc and plot trajectory!

6. We’re supposed to believe Frankie HAD SEX (at twelve years old!), yet is childish and naïve enough to think her brother and his bride will be totally cool with her tagging along on their honeymoon?

7. The title bears almost no relation to the story. The wedding takes up a paragraph at the end, all that buildup (as it were) to a whole lot of nothing.

8. Frankie is extremely annoying, childish, and psychotic. I’ve no problem with deliberately imperfect and/or difficult to like characters, but this takes it to a whole new level!

9. Frankie does little more than wander around town putting herself in potentially dangerous situations and starting conversations with people who couldn’t care less about her. Most of the rest of the time is spent around the kitchen table. BORING!

10. So freaking rambling!

11. Where’s the evidence this is a coming-of-age story? All Frankie does is change her name! She’s the same insufferable, mean-spirited brat at the end as she was at the beginning.

12. Non-existent character development.

13. It takes a special talent to make a book under 200 pages drag on this much!

14. Emotionally detached prose. I never felt in Frankie’s head.

15. A lot of disturbing content that’s just brushed over as normal or not a big deal.

Ms. McCullers had an interesting idea which was executed very poorly. This is a long, slow road to nowhere. Not only is there no real plot, Frankie shows absolutely no growth from start to finish. If all that dull telling had been fleshed out into active scenes, this book might’ve been better.

How not to write a parody

Egads, what an absolutely terrible book! Little wonder Ms. Randall was sued for copyright infringement. As a result of that settled lawsuit, all copies now have to bear a label marking it as unauthorised parody. Publishing house Houghton Mifflin also had to make a contribution to Morehouse College, a historically Black college supported by Margaret Mitchell’s estate.

I love the idea of GWTW from the slaves’ POV. In fact, Ms. Mitchell’s estate did too, seeing as they gave Donald McCaig permission to write Ruth’s Journey about Mammy. But Ms. Randall’s book falls flat for so many reasons, not just because she wrote it without permission.

And why might that be?

1. Way too short! While GWTW is over 1,000 pages, TWDG is all of 208 pages, slightly under 6×9, and with rather wide margins on all sides. Unless a story is set over a very short timeframe, hist-fic is not a genre that lends itself well to brevity. That leads to underdeveloped, shallow, rushed stories.

2. Too much rambling on the way to getting to an actual plot.

3. Diary format is a really bad gimmick that doesn’t work here. While I love epistolary novels, this wasn’t a story crying out for such a style. It doesn’t even read like a real diary!

4. Impossible to make heads or tails of anything unless you’ve read GWTW. Characters are dumped on the page with the presumption the reader knows who they are. There’s a huge happy medium between the infamous Chapter Two of The Babysitters’ Club and dumping characters on the page with no context!

5. Speaking of, everyone but Mammy has a stupid alternative name. E.g., Scarlett is Other, Ashley is Dreamy Gentleman, Pork is Garlic, Mr. O’Hara is Planter, Belle is Beauty, Melanie is Mealy Mouth, Rhett is R, Mrs. O’Hara is Lady. Even the plantations have new names. Tara is Cotton Farm and Tata; Twelve Oaks is Twelve Slaves Strong as Trees.

6. Radically changing established characters. Ashley is gay and had an affair with Prissy’s brother (whom Melanie had whipped to death); Mammy and Prissy are murderers; Belle is a lesbian; the O’Haras had a loveless marriage; Pork is a criminal mastermind and murderer; Rhett is absolutely nothing like his alpha male self and has a breastfeeding fetish.

7. Killing off both Mammy and Scarlett. Yeah, those are convenient plot developments! As awful as when Mammy was killed off very early in Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett.

8. Awful, juvenile, embarrassing prose. The sex scenes were also very cringey.

9. A lot of inconsistency in language. Either your narrator speaks vernacular or proper English. She can’t do both at once.

10. Inconsistency in tense. I feel very strongly writers need a LOT of practice writing the classic default of past tense before trying present. It’s very hard to pull off well if you don’t know what you’re doing and haven’t a feel for whether it’s a natural fit for a particular story.

11. Cynara has no personality. She blandly recounts events in a very stream-of-consciousness, nonlinear style. Third-person is the default POV for a reason, particularly with a large ensemble cast. Not nearly as many stories need to be in first-person as their authors believe.

12. Way too much telling! I can’t be emotionally pulled into a story that’s little more than “This happened. Then that happened. Name said this. Name did that. This happened twenty years ago.” Give us active scenes, not dull summaries of events!

13. Chapters are so short and underdeveloped! This ain’t the kind of story where fragments work well.

14. Cynara is a total Mary Sue. Enough said.

Again, I love the idea of a GWTW spinoff told from the slaves’ POV, esp. with the twist of the protagonist being Scarlett’s secret halfsister. However, this story would’ve been so much better if it were told concurrently to GWTW, not after the fact. I also would’ve preferred Cynara to have her own character arc, not just be a Black version of Scarlett, right down to having an affair with Rhett since age fifteen.

A good retelling, parody, fanfiction, or spinoff should put the author’s unique spin on that world, not radically alter established characters. TWDG does absolutely none of that. This is pure garbage, little more than a poorly-written, huge middle finger to fans of the original novel. All the characters come across as terrible people, and the paper-thin plot is unrealistic soap opera-esque garbage.

I recommend avoiding this steaming pile of disjointed garbage.

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