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Book Review : Emma by Jane Austen + What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Critical Puzzles Solved by John Mullan

I had a hard time getting into Emma. As in, every time I listened I would become physically upset. All my hackles would raise. A main character that knew everything and who shoved her opinions onto everyone else: gross. So imagine my horror when I discovered that she was me.

You see, I had told myself that I had to read Emma before I could dive into What Matters in Jane Austen? {heretofore referred to as WMIJA}. I had heard about WMIJA on Heather Ordover's CraftLit and it promised to give me the same things that Heather's podcast gave me: the historical and cultural context that so often hung me up when attempting to read classics. 

In fact, CraftLit was how I listened to my first three Jane Austen novels. Heather's former life as a theatre and literature teacher gave her the base knowledge, accompanied by what I assume to be curiousity and research skills, to help me, and the rest of her listeners, distinguish the difference in 3 and 30 pounds sterling*. 

*I just made up that reference but I think you get my drift.

It's the details like that which matter. Putting things into a modern day perspective helps a current reader understand a work more fully. It's the difference between thinking, "I guess that means that character is wealthy," and thinking, "What a horrible human being!!! With money like that and he's basically leaving his three younger sisters to care for themselves! Ridiculous!" 

Yes, that was a lot of exclamation marks. But that's what true knowledge does: it incites true feelings. 

All that to say, I wanted to read WMIJA because I thought it would be interesting to supplement my Jane Austen knowledge. "But," I told myself, "before you read WMIJA you should read at least one more of her books." {I had started listening to a bit of WMIJA and quickly realized that it was full of spoilers. It's a book about books, that's how it works. But I wanted at least one more where I went through the story all the way before WMIJA ruined the surprise.}

But for Emma, I didn't have the CraftLit podcast to hold my hand. I had to use my previous knowledge I had gleaned from three other novels. And sure enough, that knowledge was enough to get me started. The difference in language wasn't a terrible barrier and the references to whist didn't throw me like they would have before. 

No. The thing that most bothered me was the main character. A well brought up young lady who shepherds a young naive woman away from her true feelings because of her own prejudices. I didn't want to spend time in the presence of this chick.

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I eventually realized that I had stopped listening all together. As a voracious reader this isn't something that happens terribly often soni went to the closest thing I could find to a support group for a book lover who's having a hard time getting through a book: The CraftLit Facebook group. 

It was there that I found a bit of solace. 

"Yes! I know exactly what you mean. I dislike Emma too!!" 
"I can't even finish the book. And I've tried." 

But in the midst of my fellow haters {because hating on poor Emma we were} there were a couple supporters.  

"Keep going." 
"Yes, she's annoying there at the beginning but push through."  

And the encouragement that most propelled me was one that, at first, I didn't think would effect me. "Did you know that the movie Clueless was based on Emma?" As soon as I read that, my 16 year old circa 2000's era self who wore belly shirts while listening to Brittany Spears and The Backstreet Boys, decided to read on. If it was good enough for Alicia Silverstone it was good enough for me, gosh darnnit. 

And, sure enough, that 16 year old wisp of a memory was the one who needed to read it. And the 33 year old that she's a part of. 

The quote I plucked from WMIJA sums up both Emma and my teenage self perfectly: The truth is hard. Especially when one's had an exceedingly amazing life and people shield hard things from you. It is much easier to displace a partial truth with a full blown fairy tale. With just a touch of imagination one adds missing details to an mysterious woman who soon becomes a witch {with an inappropriate love affair in her past} and a young man with an easy smile becomes a shiny knight surely in love with you. 

The full story of Emma fully explains to me, in the non-preachy way that Jane Austen excels at, that we who prefer fairy tales to truth are missing out. Life, real life, is much more varied than the black and white of a children's story, but that variation makes it that much more rich and wonderful. 


Emma

Highly recommended for:

  • Dreamers who get stuck in the worlds they create in their own minds. Belly shirt optional. 

Drawbacks:  

  • As noted, the beginning is tough. Push through.  

Best Bits:

  • I viewed this as love story second. In the fore front it was about the comings and goings of the privileged few of a particular small town. {Which is actually a pretty accurate description of my high school.}
  • The ending. It was long and satisfying in a way that very few stories I have read are. Because the focus of the book isn't romance forward it's makes sense that Jane Austen gets to take a long leisurely stroll "around town", tying up loose ends and explaining pieces and parts that had been dangling out of sight. 

What Matters in Jane Austen

Recommended for: 

  • True Austen-philes who will automatically understand every reference the author mentions before he has finished the description.
  • OR someone, like me, who is simply curious about gleaning more context about the time period. 

Drawbacks:

  • While the author keeps it flowing nicely, like any non-fiction part history part literature based book it gets a bit dry at times.  

Best Bits:  

  • The knowledge of context as explained above. Stuff like this makes you a more interesting dinner guest.  

Read either of these? Let me know what you though. 

Book Review: A Natural History of Dragons, The Memoirs of Lady Trent Series.

The cover illustration was the thing that originally caught my eye. Yes, even though I'm an admitted audiophile, I get caught up in the romance of good book design.

I had just coming off a binge listening to the entire Harry Potter series {thanks LASEK} and I needed more. More of the fantastic and more of the otherworldliness tinted with an English accent.  It was winter and I needed an escape.

This book is about dragons, yes. And it's set in a alternate reality {more about that below}. And it's set in an era that mirrors Victorian times. And it's got loads of travel and adventure: mountains and tropical rainforests and piercing deserts and the volcanic islands. But...

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Peel back the layers of science fiction {because I would argue this is science fiction, not fantasy} and, at its core, this is a book about growing up as a curious child and becoming an intelligent woman. This book is about the hard work that happens alongside curiosity. This is a book that addresses race and class and socioeconomic differences. This book is about science and the good and bad that often comes about because of scientific discoveries. This is a book about {as trite as it sounds} reaching big goals through failure and strife and embarrassment and ridicule and not knowing if the work one is pursuing will make a difference in the end. Spoiler alert: It does.

As a psych major, I am not terribly educated in the difference between fantasy and science fiction {though I welcome to any helpful links and/ or discussion in the comments}, but this book didn't "feel like" the Harry Potter that drew me to it. Harry Potter lives on Earth that has magic. Isabella {Lady Trent} lives on a different planet. This is never explicitly explained but a quick reading will clue you into the fact that it is the same as Earth in that the continents are arranged the same and the climates are the same and most of the animals are the same and the natives of all the disparate countries have accents that one would expect to have on Earth.

But this planet has dragons. And they are fantastic dragons. But they're not magical dragons. There not things that are only seen in the "magic world"; they are natural occurrences that occur alongside the lions and tigers and bears and butterflies of this  particular world.

I explain all this to say that, to me, the entire series was more real and vivid to because of this subtle difference.

The memoir style is particularly effective to me. It has the benefit of letting the reader know what she was thinking when she was a 7 year old wondering what the purpose of a wishbone grounded by the experienced tone of a much older woman. It is, I think, because of this device that I developed a sort of relationship with Isabella. A relationship which, to those of us who have an appreciation of a conversation that takes place via the written word, was immediate and initiate despite the differences between the reader and the "memoirist".


A Natural History of Dragons
{and the entirety of The Memoirs of Lady Trent series}

Recommended for:

  • Smart girls {and by that I mean teenagers who are looking to step out of YA and explore while still being safe context-wise}.
  • Anyone who likes a heavy helping of science with his or her adventure {surely I'm not the only one who didn't previously know the meaning of "crepuscular"}.
  • Someone looking for beautiful escapist fiction.

Drawbacks:

  • I can't think of any. I tore through these books so fast, the only thing I can find to dislike was that the series only contained five installments instead of twenty-five.

Best Bits:

  • I appreciated the authenticity of a woman talking about the drudgery of the baby years... and the resulting mix of guilt and resentment that go with that. On the other side of that issue, it was a delight to see how the main character and her son's relationship evolved into something beautiful.

I would love to hear your take on this series if you've read it.

Did book 3 have you holding your breath as much as someone who is supposed to be doing housework can hold one's breath? Did the description of the sandstorm in book 4 make you itch all afternoon as it did me? Did book 5 shock you as throughly as it shocked me?  {I had to stop listening for a bit to process guys. Which is a delightful feeling : pleasant creative shock doesn't happen much for adults does it?}

Book Review : Anna and the King of Siam {Part 1}

The saying goes "The book is always better than the movie," but what about the play?

When the local performing arts center, Walton Arts Center announced that they would be having a book club attached to their 2017-2018 Broadway season I knew I wanted to take part to answer that question. I hope {fingers crossed} to read the book and then watch the performance of at least four shows when they come to town. 

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The first book is Anna and the King of Siam with the play being Rogers and Hammerstein's The King and I.

First thoughts:

Good gracious was I intimiadated.  Call me shallow but I get frustrated ridiculously easy when there are too many "thous" and "therefores" and the author starts referencing world events that may have been common knowledge at some point but isn't at this point. Fortunately for me, this wasn't the case. Though the events of the book take place in 1860 this compilation / rendition of Anna's story was written in the mid 1940's. This makes it immensely easier to digest and the author does a wonderful job of giving context and backstory. Within the first five chapters I was hooked and ready to hear about the adventures this smart but stubborn woman was about to undertake. 

Synopsis:

Anna is a newly widowed mother of two who takes a job teaching the King of Siam's children (and many wives) the English language and European customs. In the process she learns the intricacies of Siamese court life and the people within. 

Reading thoughts : 

Reading, to me, is always an inexpensive ticket to a faraway land. But this particular ticket in book-form had a special time traveler aspect to it as well. Not only did I get to felt the oppressive humidity of a Bangkok summer but I got to experience it while wearing all the layers of clothing {think hoop skirts} of a proper English lady.

I felt that there were three main parts of the story: the description of place and people, the explanation of Siamese custom, and the individual stories that ran throughout. Other than a particularly dry section that explained French aggression, I really found that each of those three parts interlocked and depended on the other. Without the detailed explanation of the Siamese custom of harems one would not be able to fully comprehend a city of 9,000 women that lived solely within the walls of the palace. And without the lush details given of the scenes and streets within that city, the individual intrigues would not not been so personal.  

Personal, that's what these stories truly were. I would find myself wondering,

"What would I do if I were suddenly the disgraced wife of the king? Would I throw myself into study or would I try to escape?"

"What would I do if I were the favored wife and saw a young concubine misbehaving? Would I try to help her or would I leave her to her own undoing?"

"What would I do if I were a young single {poor} English school teacher and the most powerful man in the country (tyrannical despot though he may be) wanted to marry me?"  

Perhaps it was this sense of the personal that gave it such an immediacy to me. This wasn't the story of women almost two hundred years ago. This is a story about women.

Poor women and rich women. Kind women and evil women. Brave women and otherwise. Loyal slaves. Despicable mothers. Rowdy teenagers. Women who loved and married and miscarried and sent their children to better circumstance however possible.

Women of all sorts who were simply trying to do the best with what that had been given. 

The end of the book has the main character speaking to a minor character years after the story takes place, where the main character is lauded for the having achieved her goal of influencing the direction of an entire country through the education of one young prince. And, though it sounds trite, isn't that what we all want? "It was hard but it was worth it. I changed the world for the better."

After reading / Before the play:

I'm excited to see the visuals the theatre makes happen with this story. "Lush" and "decadent" are two descriptors I would immediately associate with the setting of the book. Another is "expansive". A city within a palace that holds 9,000 women?!? How is that even possible to put forth on a stage?

This makes me think this will be more about the relationship between the main character and the King. I understand that. I mean, it is the title of the book. But the truth is, the wasn't the thing that most interested me.

Yes, it was the string that connected all the other events. If she wasn't having a {mostly disagreeable} relationship with the King none of the other things would have happened in her presence or sphere of influence. However, to me, her relationship with him wasn't the transformative thing that generally moves a story forward. So I will be interested to see how they make that happen on stage as well. 

Logistics note:

I'm publishing this on Friday September 29. I will be attending the play on Tuesday, October 3 and the associated book club on the 9th. I will write a follow up post after I've both seen the show and attended the book club so that you get to enjoy the breadth of this experience with me.