Reading · The Classics Club

Completed: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Cover: Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon by Jane AustenLady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
Jane Austen
(England, c. 1794-1818)

It is a pity that Austen didn’t live to complete her final novel.

Although I picked Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon off my shelves intending just to read Lady Susan, which was completed, though unpublished in Austen’s lifetime, in the end I decided to reread the two unfinished novels as well.

The first time I read this collection, I was disappointed primarily that The Watsons was left hanging–Emma’s story held so much interest to me. But coming at it years later, I realized that there are so many elements of The Watsons in her other novels that the plot seems anticipatable by inference, while on the other hand Sanditon appears to have just enough variation from Austen’s “norm” that it tantalizes with a world of possibilities of what might have been. While I would assume the marriage plot elements of her complete novels would be present, there’s little enough of the novel (though ever so much more than The Watsons) that I can’t say for sure who would end with who, though I may make some guesses. Nor, perhaps more importantly, can I be sure of which characters will see growth–for there are plenty of silly, or perhaps in the case of Sir Edward, dangerous, characters. Will Arthur Parker remain indolent or will a pretty girl prompt him to action? Will Sir Edward remain on his path of intrigue, or will rejection strike sense into him? (Doesn’t seem likely.) And perhaps the biggest question of all: Will Sanditon see success as a holiday town, or was part of Austen’s satire to be its failure, or even just indifference? All such questions must remain only in speculation, alas (though there seems to be no shortage of continuations by other authors).

Lady Susan, on the other hand, is very much finished. According to the introduction in my copy, Austen had even written it out in a fair copy, but did not submit it for publication, perhaps because she was unsatisfied with the epistolary style. While the style leads to a quick read, it does place limitations on how much of the story we can see –for only that which can be told in a letter can be portrayed.

There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority. (Letter 7, Lady Susan to Mrs. Johnson)

Lady Susan herself is a frequent contributor to these letters. A widow with a teenage daughter, it seems plain that her ambitions are to get her daughter out of the way–by way of a wealthy husband, if at all possible–and to perhaps make a new match for herself, or at least to divert herself a while until she can, perhaps, resume her affair with a married man. She is clearly a clever woman, and one with much spirit, who seeks her own amusement and entertainment, feeling little true sympathy for others. Although at times one may wonder if she is not unfairly treated by her times and society, limiting as it is with its expectations of “proper” female behavior and the limited opportunities for female advancement or even survival, Lady Susan’s own letters give her away as unfeeling towards her own daughter and cavalierly toying with the emotions of men in pursuit of her own motives. She cares not if she breaks hearts or tempts a man away from his relationship with another woman (though perhaps, in at least one case, this will be better in the long term for the young woman in question). Despite the limitations of the form, there is still enough here to form quite an entire picture of the Lady.

Lady Susan is by no means Austen at her finest, but it is an early example of her keen observation of society around her and remains entertaining for all its brevity. It formed the basis for the 2016 film Love & Friendship, a film I have yet to see but which I eagerly look forward to watching.

I read Lady Susan as part of the 2018 TBR Challenge, for “A Classic by a Woman Author” for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge, and for my Classics Club list.

Reading

Completed: Longbourn by Jo Baker

Cover: Longbourn by Jo BakerLongbourn
Jo Baker
(2013, England)

Some years ago I reread Pride and Prejudice for the third or fourth time, and so enjoyed my time in the world of the novel, that I thought I should like to spend some more time there, specifically by way of Longbourn by Jo Baker. The “upstairs-downstairs” premise intrigued me, especially in light of my enjoyment of the 1910s-20s-set Downton Abbey. I was well aware that Austen’s world only represented a small slice of all the possible experiences of Regency England, and very curious to read a novel representing the lives of the “downstairs” staff at the Bennet’s home, Longbourn. (And yes, it did take me well over a year before I returned to Longbourn. I make plans, but the follow-through…)

In that particular goal I was not disappointed. The novel opens with wash day, and the detail which Baker incorporates quite naturally into the scene both speaks to the level of research she must have completed as well as informing the reading just how physically difficult life could be for the poor and working classes of the pre-electrified era. The novel was also a compelling read, tying in cleverly to the source material. Baker knows Pride and Prejudice quite well; she picks up on (and quotes, at the start of each chapter) little details from Austen that I had not fully noticed before. In one particular scene, as the young ladies of the house are greatly anticipating the Netherfield Ball, the weather prevents them going into Meryton themselves, and so, Austen tells us, the “very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.” Baker fills in the rest–it may be too wet for refined young ladies, but not so for the housemaid; she it is who must make the muddy, soaking trek, for new decorations for ladies’ dancing shoes must be had. This may strip the “romance” from the “world of Austen,” but it fleshes out an era that many of us may only know via period film or novels.

However, I am reminded again–or maybe just finally forced to admit–that commercial historical fiction just isn’t for me. (I qualify because I have found some more “literary” historical fiction, such as The Bluest Eye, more compelling.) No matter how well researched, there always seems something just a bit “off,” a hint of the social mores or biases of the writer’s own time period that ultimately takes away from my enjoyment of the story. I can’t point to anything particular here (the way I can with Year of Wonders), but there’s just this niggling feeling that the 21st century has crept into the plot. And perhaps I bring that in as the reader as much as the author has. So while I feel I could recommend it to a fan of the genre, I think I can safely leave my reading time for other literary horizons. Maybe Austenesque satires? I do have a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on my shelves…

Misc

Slipping into Summer

It’s the last day of a long weekend, Memorial Day here in the US, the unofficial but traditional start of summer. And it truly feels like a summer day: hot, muggy, oppressive sunshine (90F/32C, currently 40% humidity, which is actually an improvement from the 80% humidity earlier). But it’s perfect weather for lemonade and a book. Summer always seems to be when my reading (though maybe not my blogging–hoping to do better this year!) picks up. It’s simply too hot to do anything else.

Actually, the reading’s been going very well this year–I’ve started and finished twelve books already, and am partway through another six. (Very unusual for me to be reading so many at once…) The current/soon to be current book pile:

Summer book stack

True some of these are for/related to work. (But that dosen’t mean I’m not enjoying them anyways!) We’ve actually decided to try a work book club, so I read the intro and first chapter of Blink on Saturday. It’s fascinating so far, and I’m excited to read the rest.

But even before entering the hot, lazy summer months, it’s been reading season. I’ve been crazy busy this spring (last week, for instance, I didn’t get home from work until after 8:00 on Monday and had another really fun work-adjacent event Tuesday evening that had me home even later), but if there’s been a moment to squeeze in some reading, I have. Last winter (2017), I listened to the audiobook of 168 Hours: You Have More Time than You Think, and it really changed the way I think about time. I’ve been willing to add more to my schedule because I’ve seen that I can, and following author Laura Vanderkam’s blog and seeing how many books she’s managed to squeeze into her busy schedule provided the needed inspiration to kick-start my 2018 reading. I’m on pace for the best reading year since I started the blog. Now…to just catch up on the blog writing. Especially for the 2018 TBR challenge; I’ve read four books for it, but only blogged one so far. I guess it’s just easier to find a few minutes here and there for reading (five minutes at lunch, ten before bed), but I always feel like I need a chunk of time to get my thoughts down in a coherent form. Maybe something to work on?

I’ve been thinking about what I’m looking forward to this summer–since it’s not the hot weather–and besides reading, there’s always a few things I enjoy. Fireworks. Lemonade. Ice cream–so much ice cream! (There’s a wonderful little shop about a 7 minute walk from the office that we love to go to on a mid-afternoon for a treat.) Watching the fireflies dance around the yards after dark. Summer holidays. Bike rides. Rain storms. There’s also a major art event planned for the Cleveland-Akron area this summer that I am tentatively planning to visit (at least parts).

And all the reading.

I’ve decided not to do any summer-long events, though if any interesting single-month event crops up, I might opt in. But mostly I want to make it through the current reads, and my pre-order of Off the Clock (Laura Vanderkam) arrives tomorrow, plus I’d like to keep plugging away at my Harry Potter rereads (so much fun!) and my TBR list. I’m toying with the idea of adding some detective fiction, although that might make better autumn reading. Definitely saving The Woman in White for fall. But with all the non-fiction in the stack, I definitely need some more “fun” reads for summer. Maybe another fantasy…

Any exciting summer (or winter) reading/other plans for you?

Happy reading!

Classic Children's Literature · Reading

Completed: The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle

Cover: The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L'Engle The Arm of the Starfish
Madeleine L’Engle
US, 1965

In terms of the order of events in L’Engle’s wider story universe, The Arm of the Starfish is not the next book after A Wrinkle in Time. That would be A Wind in the Door (1973). But in terms of publication, The Arm of the Starfish was the second, and on a whim I decided that I would read all of the books, not just in the Time Quintet but in the Poly O’Keefe stories as well, in the order of publication. (This does have the negative consequence of delaying my return to my TBR list by a bit, but only a bit. I’ll be back in TBR-land shortly!)

Despite only three years between publication, The Arm of the Starfish seems a world away from A Wrinkle in Time. Not only is this because the two returning characters–Meg O’Keefe (née Murray) and Calvin O’Keefe are now married adults with seven children, but because unlike A Wrinkle in Time, The Arm of the Starfish seems much more grounded in the world we the readers know–there are no fantastic beings, no otherworldly travels, no giant evil IT to defeat. Indeed, the evil in this book is only too human–but surely as destructive and enticing for all that. The only element that really sets this novel in the realm of science-fiction is the depiction of Dr. O’Keefe’s science experiments involving starfish regeneration.

Our protagonist in The Arm of the Starfish is Adam Eddington, a young, but clearly intelligent and destined-to-be successful, man who is spending his last summer before college working for Dr. O’Keefe in his Portuguese island-based lab. However, things start to go awry before Adam even lands in Portugal, from the fog-delay at the airport to his mysterious encounter with the young beauty, Kali, to the airplane’s diversion to Madrid and Adam’s first encounters with Canon Tallis and Poly O’Keefe (the oldest of the O’Keefe children). Entrusted with seeing Poly safely to Lisbon and her father’s arms, Adam finds himself trapped in a larger conspiracy when Poly disappears from the plane and no one on board seems inclined to believe Adam’s story of her very existence.

While the Time Quintet books are more firmly in the realm of science-fiction, exploring cosmic concepts and universe-wide battles of good and evil, The Arm of the Starfish sits closer to the thriller genre, always steering towards a final, dangerous, confrontation. Its themes are of the darkness that lust for power or money or prestige can drive one to and of the small battles of individuals, both within themselves and against others.

Although a very different reading experience, diverging as it does in both style and story from its predecessor, The Arm of the Starfish, like Wrinkle, centers around a young protagonist with faults and self-doubt, whose failings sometimes may frustrate the reader, but who learns from his mistakes and grows over the course of the novel. In turn, the reader learns from Adam, and from his struggles.

My one piece of discomfort with The Arm of the Starfish was its portrayal of a native village on the fictional island of Gaea. L’Engle’s native characters feel as if they venture a little too close to stereotype (along the lines of “noble native”) for comfort, although they are only ever seen in a positive light. Also—and I admit here, I don’t know anything about actual Portuguese islands—the village, and its inhabitants, seemed more like something I would expect to read of in the South Pacific or Latin America than off the coast of Portugal. Stereotype or not, it threw me off mentally, every time it was described. In contrast, L’Engle’s depictions of Lisbon felt (and again, I can’t speak to personal experience) as if they were written by someone who has seen Lisbon in person.

All-in-all, a fast-paced enjoyable book, though perhaps not as enchanting as the better-known A Wrinkle in Time.

 

Reading

Completed: Murder on the Orient Express

Cover: Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha ChristieMurder on the Orient Express
Agatha Christie
(1934, England)

I don’t usually reread mysteries. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever reread a mystery before this. But last November, when I saw the Kenneth Branagh adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express in the theater (which I rather enjoyed, although David Suchet will always be my favorite Hercule Poirot—and that mustache! I almost didn’t watch this version just because of Branagh’s mustache!), I realized that I didn’t really remember the original novel all that well and was curious how closely the film aligned to its source. (Answer: rather closely, actually. There were some nationalities of characters changed, I assume to accommodate the actors in the roles, and the film added some material, especially after the final reveal. But on the whole, faithful.)

I must not have been the only one with the idea in mind, as it took a few months before a library copy was available. (And then a couple more to write this. Sigh. Must really get better at prompt blogging.) But then I found myself very happily ensconced in Christie’s world. Although I already knew the “who” of this “who-done-it,” this proved no detriment to enjoying the story. It was a delight to watch Poirot work, to see how the pieces fit together, to watch the lies spun—knowing they were lies, and why—, to simply sit a spectator in this particular setting so foreign from myself. For as dark as murder mysteries can be—even the “cozy” mysteries, when one thinks about it, are stories of the dark side of human nature—there is something about the world of Christie, whether visited via Poirot or Miss Marple, that I find akin to my favorite comfort food. I think it is in part a visit to an era past (here, I may be accused of romanticizing, perhaps) and rules and manners that are so far removed from those of today—or at least, from my experience—that is is a sort of time-travel, as well as a mystery. And there is also, of course, the reassurance that the criminal party will get their just due in the end. So unlike the messiness of reality, where there is so often little assurance that justice will be served. It has been many years since I really spent much time with the “golden era of detective fiction,” but really, between this one and Crooked House, I find myself thinking that it’s past time to continue my re-acquaintance with Christie and to finally meet some of her contemporaries. After all, it’s not like I don’t have a list to start from

The Classics Club

Classics Spin 16: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cover: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (Penguin Classics ed)Cold Comfort Farm
Stella Gibbons
(1932, England)

The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living. (Ch 1)

The problem with satire: if you haven’t read the books that a novel is satirizing it is difficult to get the joke. Not that a novel mayn’t be enjoyable on its own, but there’s certainly an added depth when the source material, if you will, is known. Herein lies my challenge with Cold Comfort Farm. I don’t know that I have read any of the novels Gibbons pokes fun of. Indeed, other than the obvious references to DH Laurence (character Mr. Mybug is a fan), I don’t know that I could even point to what novels she satirizes. Clearly, rural romances, but what and by whom I don’t know. Granted, I’m not terribly familiar with the literature of the 1920s, but I wonder if perhaps, much the way many of the “horrid novels” Austen gently pokes fun of in Northanger Abbey have vanished from common knowledge (save by way of Austen), the books Gibbons gently attacks are also mostly forgotten?

Regardless, my lack of knowledge only means a lack of depth of appreciation for Cold Comfort Farm. Indeed, I do not believe a foreknowledge of rural romances essential to enjoyment of the story at hand–nor even to laugh aloud at times at the absurdities there-in. The overarching plot is easily summarized: Flora Poste finds herself orphaned and with insufficient funds to live on her own in the city, so she decides to descend (with their permission, of course, form must be followed) upon rural relatives she has never met and “tidy” their lives–lives which, it turns out, are very much in need of tidying.

I found I rather like Flora. There is something so no-nonsense about her that is appealing. True, the accusation made to her by one of her city friends that she is a “busy-body” is not wrong, but she is so charming about the whole proceedings that no one seems to mind.

Each of the characters in the novel–from Flora to farmer Ruben to nature-child Elfine to preacher Amos to mad Aunt Ada Doom, among many others–is  clearly a type. It is here that I begin to see the edges of the satire. I don’t need to have read the other novels to recognize the types, nor to see Gibbons begin to subvert them, as we watch Flora’s interactions with–and meddling with–the others begin to bring out (or create) additional facets of their personalities. Between this and the absurdities of the storyline, Cold Comfort Farm turned out to be not only very diverting, but by the end of the novel, absolutely page-turning as I just had to know how it would all turn out–despite being very sure, given the genre, that all would be well! Perhaps at some point I will have to return to Gibbons’s work–either one of her later novels or perhaps, after searching out and reading some of her targets, a reread of this one.

Read from my Classics Club list as part of the 16th Spin. Hey! I both read AND posted on it by the deadline for a change…!

Reading

Completed: Crooked House by Agatha Christie

This is the front cover art for the book Crooked House written by Agatha Christie (First Edition)Crooked House
Agatha Christie
(England, 1949)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read an Agatha Christie. High school, in fact. But when I chanced upon a trailer for Crooked House, I couldn’t help but be intrigued—it referred to Crooked House as Christie’s most “twisted tale.” Having now read it, I’m more inclined to continue to think And Then There Were None as the more “twisted” of her novels. However, the mystery itself does indeed prove that the titular setting of much of the action is well named, and not merely for its physical appearance.

The victim is family patriarch, Aristide Leonides, and the cast of suspects his household: largely family, both by blood and marriage, but also including a former nanny and a tutor. Over the course of the novel, it appears at any given time that all occupants may have quite a suitable motive to wish Aristide dead—but which is the real killer?

This is the question that narrator Charles Hayward sincerely wishes to know the answer to, for Aristides’ granddaughter Sophia will not consent to marry Charles unless the mystery is solved, so concerned is she by who might actually be the responsible party, and that a dark cloud might hang permanently over the family.

I confess that, although Christie laced Crooked House with plenty of clues as to the identity of the killer, I never did stop to think about it long enough—or perhaps pay close enough attention!—to discern it for myself. But that did not prevent my thorough enjoyment of the fast-paced mystery, or my appreciation for the clever way in which Christie lays it all out both for Charles and for us while also hiding just enough that we can choose to stay surprised if we wish.

Read as a classic crime story for Back to the Classics.