Thursday, December 27, 2012

Join me for a Re-read of Persuasion!

Whether you've shied away from Austen or read every one of her works, whether you love her wit or despise her topics, whether she's on one of your To Be Read lists or not, you'll fit in splendidly with the group reading Persuasion at Unputdownables.  There's quite a diverse crowd ready to begin 2013 with my favorite Austen novel, so discussion should prove interesting and lively.  Do join!

Making this read along even more exciting is the most recent addition to my library: the annotated edition of Persuasion.  (swoon)   I am SO looking forward to bugging you all with that extra information you never knew you wanted to know.

Title Page of first edition
(via Wikipedia)
Why do I adore Persuasion?  Pride and Prejudice is witty and romantic, Sense and Sensibility is an All Star novel, Northanger Abbey is hilarious (we'll be reading that later in the year!) and the others are...good too.  But Persuasion is far more mature and introspective, more honest I think, without foregoing any of the humor that graces her earlier novels.  In this book I think we see more of Jane as she really was, reflected in the characters and circumstances, as opposed to the stories and shows she loved to entertain others with.  The great reward is not the ultra-rich, but love; which shows a maturity in Jane's worldview.  Also, some editions conclude in a Choose Your Own Ending fashion*—what's not to love?

This book contains some of my closest literary friends (Admiral and Mrs. Croft) and some of those Love to Hate characters (namely Anne's sisters) but for all that, I cannot pretend that the book is perfect. Austen has a propensity for abrupt and tidy endings, and there is a bit of the plot that isn't nearly as clear nor as engaging as the rest of the book.  Still, I adore it—idiosyncrasies and all— as I do any old friend that makes me feel so well understood.

Next week I shall post on the first quarter of the book, which means that now is the time to discuss the introductory material (with much credit due to Robert Morrison, editor of my edition).  One thing I've come to find in reading the classics is that they improve greatly upon learning some of the background.

  • Charlotte Bronte thought Austen completely ignored passion, choosing to focus on propriety.  Wit, no substance?  I've always felt the opposite--Austen might not flagrantly describe passion (not proper and all that) but that doesn't mean she isn't acknowledging its presence.  On the contrary, it makes the story that much more layered.  As readers, we feel confined by the Regency Era propriety that Austen describes, and yet we know that her heroines were human, passions and all.  It leaves something to the imagination, and provides a basis for sympathy and something for your mind to ponder.  That notwithstanding, Persuasion is the most openly passionate book she wrote.
  • Necessary background to this story is the  French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars with which Britain was involved.  While everything was purported to be in order and status quo in the upper echelons of society, the political climate was an ever present reality. As Persuasion has vital characters that are very much involved in the Royal Navy, it is even more vital to the story than in Austen's other books.  Jane began writing Persuasion on the same day the Times announced that Napoleon was to be sent into exile to St. Helena, and the story takes place during the time that Napoleon was confined on Elba.
  • The romantic poets (Austen's contemporaries) play a large role in Persuasion.  Not only in form, strategy, and descriptions, but most notably when Anne and Benwick discuss Walter Scott and Lord Byron.  I'm not much of a poetry connoisseur, so I can't comment much on that, but I find it interesting that in the novel Anne admonishes Benwick to refrain from reading so much impassioned poetry—not because they lack in truth or that vital connection—but because they will not help him heal from his broken heart.  How do you think this might relate to my first bullet-point above?
  • Austen is the Regency Era's version of a feminist, absurd though it may seem.  True, she writes of love and 'good matches' but (especially in Persuasion) she doesn't let the system off easily.  The social structure that requires women to marry well (or be a burden) is one issue, but the other issue Austen addresses here is the common view of female behaviour, and how women do nothing to help the situation.  Throughout the book women do themselves a disservice by displaying performative, affected, and sentimental behaviour when they should rightly be showing their intelligence and truth of feeling instead.  In an age when female conduct was expected to be simpering and frail, Austen made quite the statement by her derision of strict male/female boundaries in daily duties (including her assertion that women were perfectly capable of managing life at sea.) Somehow, this also makes me think of the first point made above.
"Persuasion is Austen's saddest and most impassioned novel, and in its blend of the public and the personal it explores both the anguish of silence and the value of hope."  —Robert Morrison, Introduction to Persuasion: An Annotated Edition

*The above edition notes that "Jane Austen completed Persuasion in July 1816, but within three weeks she had rejected her final two chapters and replaced them with three new ones."  It was published in December 1817, five months after Austen's death.  If she had lived, it is likely that the title would have been "The Elliots."

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

"Her husband had archaic ideas about jewels; a man bought them for his wife in acknowledgement of things he could not gracefully utter."

One thing that seems to be fairly universal in Willa Cather's writing is that her strengths lie in transporting you to a certain time and place.  I am of the opinion that one major reason she is easily able to do this is because she has a gift for drawing vivid, realistic characters that fully inhabit their locale.

In A Lost Lady, as in her previous stories, we meet a character that uniquely represents the emerging American West.  Cather again looks at how the frontier came of age, (which—as a side note—Fannie Flagg also does beautifully in Standing in the Rainbow regarding the 1950s,) showing the contrast between gaining modern conveniences and the loss of innocence.

Marian Forrester hails from California, which shines as an exotic and mysterious detail of her past against the backdrop of the sedate railroad town of Sweet Water that she has come to live in with her well-off husband.  I didn't sympathize much with any of the characters, though I'm not convinced the reader is meant to.  It was apparent to me that much of Cather's personal experience (not fitting into the small town ideal) was wrapped up in this story.  Certainly it is sad to see how easily Marian was looked down upon for needing more than Sweet Water had to offer, not to mention the disdain and disappointment when she decided to follow her dream after her duty was done.

By no means Cather's best, (my vote still goes to O Pioneers!) A Lost Lady still provides a deceptively simple look into human nature and the contrast of change.

(Next up on my journey to read Willa Cather's works chronologically is The Professor's House, which I've heard many good things about.  Look for that in 2013!)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Don't Miss These Books

Do you ever read a book that you love to pieces but end up having a difficult time writing about them?  That has happened to me on more than one occasion this year.  Time passes, and before I know it what had been a hard task soon feels impossible.  In 2012 I've read some remarkable books that somehow got left behind.  Have you read any of them? I'd love to read your thoughts/review!

Night, Elie Weisel

Where to even start with this one?  The simplicity and humility of the writing makes the horrifying reality that much more impacting by contrast.  The images and people will forever be a part of my picture of the Holocaust.  It's impossible to read and not empathize.  Short, but big...and a necessary, vital addition to society as a whole and individually.  Even now I have a hard time discussing it, but if you haven't read it, do.

So Big, Edna Ferber

This 1925 Pulitzer Prize winner felt rather light and fun when I read it, in that special vintage-y sort of way.  I wasn't expecting it to stick with me like it has.  I wasn't expecting my mind to jump to the characters and scenes unbidden for months on end.  I wasn't expecting it to so fully encompass an era for me.  It's a charming book, but more than that it addresses hopes and dreams in an honest, heartbreaking manner.  Thanks to the Pulitzer I've discovered an author to cherish.
Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese

I was just reminiscing with my book club about how wonderful this book was.  Not only did it grab my attention at the beginning and hold it tight throughout, but it spoke to my mind with beautiful writing and to my heart with complex themes of family, communication, love, and honesty.  In those ways (the depth and complexity of the plot, characters, writing, themes, etc) it felt much like a classic to me.  It's always such a treat to read a book that is so well-rounded, especially in modern fiction, as I typically have to go to those time-tested classics to fill that need.

The Hand That First Held Mine, Maggie O'Farrell

Maggie O'Farrell is a surprising author to me.  In any other hands her characters would not be so real, nor her stories so poignant.  Based on the synopsis alone I expected to find simple writing and straightforward storytelling—something too saccharine to be meaningful.  Instead, I find words that wend their way through the story in the same way that the characters wend their way through life, creating a dreamy reality.  I'm a fan.

How Green Was My Valley, Richard Llewellyn

Even now I have no idea how to begin talking about this book.  Like Francie's family in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Huw's family becomes your own.  His heartaches become your own, as do his passions.  And the writing! Sigh.  Taking place in a coal mining town in Wales, the longing for times long past and the regret for mistakes made is universal.  This is a classic that deserves to be remembered.  Here's a taste:

"I wonder is happiness only an essence of good living, that you shall taste only once or twice while you live, and then go on living with the taste in your mouth, and wishing you had the fullness of it solid between your teeth like a good meal that you have tasted and cherished, and look back in your mind to eat again."

"O, there is lovely to feel a book, a good book, firm in the hand, for its fatness holds rich promise, and you are hot inside to think of good hours to come."

Thursday, December 13, 2012

What to Read Next?

After realizing that I didn't have any books lined up to read next, I raided my book trees to come up with some that I'm in the mood for (or need to read for book club etc) and thought it was time for some first lines.  Like usual, I've gathered more books than I will feasibly be able to read in the near future, but hey—sometimes a girl has to keep her options open.

"Elsa was the youngest Emerson by ten years: the blondest, happiest accident."

Sounds like it will be light reading, which could be a good thing (I'll get through it faster, right?) or a bad thing (it could be lower quality writing and end up torturing me and drag on forever) depending on how I look at it.  But it is a book I need to read (review commitment) so it will be up sooner or later regardless. (304pp)

"this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand."

A distinct voice from the get-go awakens my interest, and the lovely cover art and compact size make it pleasant to hold.  Pair that with Crowe's review and I find myself eager to dive into this one. (172pp)

"After dark the rain began to fall again, but he had already made up his mind to go and anyway it had been raining for weeks."

The writing sounds promising, but based on the fact that the last book I read that was based on a Shakespeare play (A Thousand Acres) didn't work so well for me, I'm a bit skeptical. Plus, it's an Oprah book selection which means the content is likely to be a little rough at parts. It's a book club pick though, so I can only procrastinate so long! (562pp)

"We had been wandering for so long I forgot what it was like to live within walls or sleep through the night."

I've never read Alice Hoffman, and this one looks like it will pack an emotional punch. Looks pretty captivating to me though.  The biggest selling point is how much you all enjoyed it—looking forward to it! (501pp)

"Mariam was five years old the first time she heard the word harami."

Embarrassingly enough, I've never read this (or The Kite Runner—don't shoot me) and feel the need to rectify the situation.  I am, admittedly, a little put off by its extreme popularity, but I just need to get over it already. This is on loan from a book club friend.  (415pp)

"Maisie Dobbs shuffled the papers om her desk into a neat pile and placed them in a plain manila folder."

Ah, Maisie!  I've missed you!  This is only #2 in the series, but I enjoyed the first so thoroughly that the thought of returning to Maisie's world is a promise of comfort and delight. Here's to the hope that this promise will be fulfilled. (309pp)

"Dear Steve,
Do you know what an angioplasty is?"

I've had my eye on this for a little while, because out of all the books to have emerged from the latest wave of Austen-admiration, this one looks the most promising.  I'm hoping that I'm in for some laughs and smiles, and an all around enjoyable experience. (126pp)

"In his great novel Moby Dick, written during the Famine era, Herman Melville described Ireland as a "fast fish," that is to say a harpooned whale lashed helplessly to the side of a ship waiting to be cut up by its predators."

It is difficult to describe my love of Ireland, it's in my blood, but I'm thrilled to have received this book from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers, and can't wait to dive in, pencil in hand.  I've yet to read a non-fiction account of the Famine that was written for adults (although I highly recommend Black Potatoes for a wonderful overview or for the younger set) so I'm quite eager to learn new things...even though I love England too and am not too sure what I'll end up thinking about the blame game.  (235pp)

"Jean Patrick was already awake, listening to the storm, when Papa opened the door and stood by the side of the bed."

Last but not least, a book that I received from Indiespensable which also received accolades from some of my favorite bibliophiles (you!) Honestly, the biggest selling point for me right now with this book is that I've heard that it was fairly quick to read, which I'm hoping will win out over my fear that it will be too agenda-y.  Opinions? (360pp)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

My Bookish Christmas Trees

Up until it was time to decorate for Christmas, very few of my books had made it into the house after having moved at the beginning of October.  Decorating needs changed all that.  Here are some ways that my books are keeping me company this Christmas:

If you have any paperbacks (or magazines) lying around that you've been thinking of donating, it's easy to turn it into a Christmas tree instead.  This particular one is super easy—no cutting, no gluing...only simple paper-airplane type folds and a lot of spine-breaking/bending.  Fold each individual page, starting with the top corner...bring it down to align with the inside of the spine, crease, and repeat.  Then fold the bottom flap up to align with the lower edge of the page, making the bottom flat.

My 12-year old helped me make this tree.  She had a wonderful time stacking books by height, and needed to make sure that the cover of her favorite book was peeking out (A Monster Calls, bright blue cover near the bottom.)

We hosted a large party this last weekend with the theme of White.  Never before had I realized how little white I own...I surround myself with a lot of earth tones and some bright pops of green and orange for the most part, so trying to make my house seem white was a challenge.  It spurred the idea of turning my books backwards so the pages were showing.  Although it's terribly trying to not be able to see which books are on my shelves, it's a nice effect.  I couldn't leave them all that way though—books with green spines allowed me to make another bookish tree whose presence eludes most visitors.  That, somehow, makes it all the better.  It's like my little secret.  Except that now I've proclaimed it to the world.  But still.

This is actually the first year that I've incorporated any book trees into my Christmas, but it has been such a warm, wonderful addition that I think I must do it every year now.  There are so many more great ideas out there, it would be a pity not to enjoy them all!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Bye-Bye November!

I can hardly believe that it's December.  After a year that has seemed to drag on, the fall has sped by at an incredible rate.  While my Dreadful Autumn Reading Slump means that I'm unlikely to break 100 books read this year, I find myself rather unconcerned about the goals and stats right now, and am just enjoying reading whatever I happen to be in the mood for.  It's a rather unusual experience for me!

5 Books Read in November: (90 year-to-date)
1 for Book Club:
  - The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie (4) (so much fun!)
1 from Indiespensable:
  - Familiar, J. Robert Lennon (4) (surprisingly impressive, for being sci-fi[ish] and all)
3 Just Because:
  - Last Night at the Lobster, Stewart O'Nan (4) (may have found a new favorite author here!)
  - The Children's Blizzard, David Laskin (3.5) (incredibly interesting but not so well done)
  - A Lost Lady, Willa Cather (3.5) (have yet to dislike something by Willa Cather)


2 Current Reads:
  - The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce.  I actually finished reading (listening) to this book mid-blogging because I just needed to hear the rest.  It was wonderful! I love books.
  - The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien.  Okay, this is a huge step for me.  I read about 1/3 of this in high school and was bored to high heaven, the movie bored me (though not quite so much,) and now here I am reading it (for reals this time).  It all has to do with a promise to a 12 year old, but thankfully I'm enjoying it much more this time around.


On My Nightstand:
This is a little scary folks, but I don't think I have anything on my nightstand.  I was just realizing that.  Not only that, but all of my books are currently quite difficult to browse due to Christmas decorating (pictures soon!) so I have no idea what I'm going to read once Fellowship of the Ring is done!  Admittedly, I do have a huge Christmas party to host this weekend, so I'll not be doing a terrific amount of reading in the next few days.  On the other hand, I like to know what is next in line, and I need to plan out the rest of my year!  2012 reading time is running out.  :)