Archive for the ‘Jane Austen’ Category

I am sorry to say that I never got around to reading any of Anne Brontë’s work. Of course, I knew of her, but her books were not on the family bookshelf, as was Jane Eyre, which I read with avidity, yet some slight distaste (I can’t explain it, but there is a lingering disaffection with the work, a sense of something lurid and overwrought. That said, I admit its greatness and liked Villette quite a bit.) Wuthering Heights I read later and still appreciate for its wild strangeness and bursting of literary bonds.  Yet, I am an Austen fan, and prefer the comic subtleties of human behavior in which Austen excels, and perhaps I resent a bit Charlotte’s belittlement of Austen, likening her writing to a “carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden.” My awareness of Anne grew with the screening on PBS of “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” and then by a cartoon by Kate Beaton wherein the two older sisters are admiring brooding, rude men whom Anne calls out as arrogant dirt bags (paraphrasing here). They say to her “no wonder no one buys your books.” I guess I fell for the tall, dark and scornful type through literature (and, it must be said, trashy romances), but was saved by Austen’s real men – kind, generous, humorous and dutiful. Even Darcy who appears to be the former turns out to be the latter. Now, upon reading Agnes Grey, I find it delightfully Austenesque in the well-drawn character studies, amusing interchanges, the earnest schooling of self-interest and inclinations to the demands of duty by the main character, and the sardonic observations of the socially elevated circles with whom Agnes comes in contact while working as a governess. That said, all of the Brontës share with Austen a striking intellectual and moral rigor that seems old-fashioned, but painfully relevant to any person who aspires to a well-lived life. Austen and Anne have a touch that is lighter than that of the older Brontë sisters, but at the same time more steely (more age-of-reason than romantic). I think the morality of Anne Brontë and Austen is more brave and beautiful precisely because it exists among the humdrum of daily cares, of petty slights, of dullness and loneliness– like that of Anne Eliot or Elinor Dashwood.


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Peter Pan

Short-story Thursdays recently supplied a pair of short stories by J. M. Barrie (“A Powerful Drug” and “The Inconsiderate Waiter”). I enjoyed both, especially the latter, which is funny and charming and ultimately heart-warming.

Barrie’s whimsical writing, buoyant and sly, both cynical and not (this last insight borrowed from another SST reader), is a delight. He lets his characters show themselves, which is a writerly gift (exemplified by Jane Austen) that cannot be over-praised. So many authors pound away at their material, deadening the senses with their heavy-handed pronouncements and creaking plot machinery (sadly I’m thinking of the book I am currently reading, or enduring, “The Emperor of Ocean Park.”) In any case, thinking of Barrie got me thinking of Peter Pan and my favorite quote therein:

“What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘Wendy Moira Angela Darling,’ she replied with some satisfaction. ‘What is your name?’
‘Peter Pan.’
She was already sure that he must be Peter, but it did seem a comparatively short name.
‘Is that all?’
‘Yes,’ he said rather sharply. He felt for the first time that it was a shortish name.
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Wendy Moira Angela.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Peter gulped.
She asked where he lived.
‘Second to the right,’ said Peter, ‘and then straight on till morning.’
‘What a funny address!’
Peter had a sinking feeling. For the first time he felt that perhaps it was a funny address.

It makes me sad that children don’t read Peter Pan anymore, thanks to Disney, I guess.

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I was hoping to like Allegra Goodman’s latest, The Cookbook Collector.  After all, I enjoyed Kaatterskill Falls a few years back.  As with many recent reads, this one sacrifices the true story for a lot of fluff and tortuous tie-ins.  Probably the publisher thought cookbook collecting would not be so compelling, and encouraged a whole plotline about the dot.com bust in the late nineties, dragging in coast-to-coast business intrique and love triangles, as well as a whacky Jewish sect of mystics, and, of course, 9/11 (better books that touch on this topic are out there – Netherland, for one, and The Emperor’s Children). The best parts of this book are centered around the mysterious collector, his secret love (rather unimaginatively revealed) and the bookstore owner, George, who happens to be 16 years older than his love-interest, the not quite believable waif, Jess. I rather resent the unearned reference to Emma and the blurb on the back that awards “the mantle of Jane Austen” to Goodman. Sorry, but no. And, if the two sisters plotline is an attempt at recreating Sense and Sensibility, it didn’t work.

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Project book-a-day

Well, the quest to read a book a day in August met it’s untimely end on August 12th. I had read 11 books, so I suppose I could have continued on for another 20 days; however, the timing was off – between vacation, company, long sunny days (not a day of rain which is so unusual in NH) of swimming, canoeing, hiking and biking, it was difficult to find the time to read…If I try this again, it will be in January! Still, here’s the round-up of the final four:

August 8:  The Samurai’s Garden, by Gail Tsukiyama – didn’t really care for this. While interesting historical episodes in Japan and Shanghai were touched upon, nothing was developed, and the characters didn’t really earn my interest.

August 9: At Freddie’s, by Penelope Fitzgerald.  I love this author.  The Blue Flower is one of my favorite books, but I’m not sure why. This book also is somewhat odd, but the character of Freddie is priceless.  There is so much humor and wry observation and offbeat situations in all of her novels, she is always worth reading. That said, I barely finished this short book because of, once again, having too much fun!

August 10:  Abelard and Heloise, by Etienne Gilson.  Hmmm.  More a scholarly round-up of what has been written about them, then the famous story itself.  Still, the way Heloise has been portrayed and information about her life made her the most compelling of the two.  Pretty interesting, but more a guide for what to read then a book one would choose to read.

August 11:  Jane and the Man of the Cloth, by Stephanie Barron.  I have fantasized about a murder mystery where the authors who have co-opted, twisted, tortured and bastardized Jane Austen’s creations would keep turning up dead.  The mystery would be solved at the AGM of JASNA where all the members would confess, thus leading the detective to a deadend.  All would then toast to never reveal the identity of the murderer.  The first to go would be Emma Tennant, whose execrable writing turned Elizabeth and Darcy into a Harlequin romance couple.  That said, these somewhat light mysteries are enjoyable. They are respectful for the most part and historically accurate, carefully documented (with footnotes!) and fun to read.  I really liked the portrayal of Lyme in this one and finally got an accurate picture of the Cobb where Louisa Musgrove had her fall. The Heathcliff-like anti-hero is somewhat hard to take, but all in all, a good effort.

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Lately, I’ve been disturbed by the lightness of many contemporary novels.  I am thinking of excellent, able writers, writers who take a philosophical view of life, and can turn a phrase or sketch a character or illustrate a situation in a charming way; however, the books leave behind a vague dissatisfaction, as from watching too many sitcoms in a row or eating dessert first; they are, in a word, insubstantial

The latest disappointing book by a good writer is The New Yorkers, by Cathleen Schine (I’ve not read her other works, but she seems well-regarded).  I was looking forward to this book described in a review as ‘people living in New York who interact through their dogs.’  It’s a likeable enough story, but, again, there’s not much substance and in the end I was impatient with hearing a little bit about a lot of people and following some of the less believable plot elements and even the more believable ones grew a bit tiresome.  For instance, a tree just falls down in Central Park; the gay restaurateur has five children; there is a puppy abandoned in the closet of man who commits suicide.  Any of these could be amplified, could add mood or shading to the action, instead of just being baldly stated and left there or used to push the plot along, or even worse, just to amuse the author.  I know that life is like that; things happen, often we don’t know why. But that’s not art, that’s not why we read novels.  Instead, we are treated to the author’s vision of community as redemption (a trend among postmodern writers) and readers seeking such comfort may nestle down quite happily in the idea of strangers connecting and finding love and friendship, however far-fetched, but it just doesn’t work, because nothing is earned as it must be in life.    The tone of the author is always there controlling the action, assuring us that this world is safe, that we will be safe and that all will come out well in the end.  It’s a comedy, so we know going in that it’s all going to be okay; however, there’s barely a frisson of uncertainty, even when a blackout hits the city and people fear a repeat terrorist attack.  Even sorrows and joys are muffled. The book is light and muffled.  If it weren’t for her engaging style, I would not have continued on, as it is, I think she could do better.  

I’m reminded of two other, similarly disappointing books, A Long Way Down, by Nick Hornby and all of Eleanor Lipman’s books (well, I’ve only read two of hers – The Inn at Lake Devine and The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, but I was disappointed).   You may know of Hornby, several of his books were made into excellent movies:  Fever Pitch, High Fidelity and one of my favorites, About a Boy.  I loved his journal of reading, The Polysyllabic Spree, and both he and Lipman, who has been compared to Jane Austen, are very funny writers (much more so than Schine); however, A long Way Down doesn’t ring true in the same way that The New Yorkers doesn’t.  The writers have good intentions, they are good writers, but none of these novels really amounts to much; they are mere bagatelles.  The reader feels cheated and underfed as the writers go along playing with the little people they have made, moving them around, making everyone more or less happy.  This type of writing seems unforgivably self-indulgent, especially by authors who could do so much better.  My point, finally, is that comedy doesn’t have to be light; in fact, the best comedy has a dark side, an underbelly, and using suicide as a plot point as Schine does or a way of framing a story as Hornby does, for some reason, doesn’t disturb the essential blandness of the stories.  Pride and Prejudice was “light, bright and sparkling,” but it had essential truths, consequences and downsides, and the author was clear-eyed about human nature.  Of course, no reader ever went hungry at Jane Austen’s table.   



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