Why I love libraries

I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, but I’d like to point out what can happen in a library that can’t happen anywhere else: discovering old books you never even knew had been written. I’d gone to my college libe to borrow one book for the 2015 Reading Challenge (it’ll get its own post during Banned Books Week in September), and, only because I was on the wrong floor of the stacks, I discovered a couple of bonus books. Here’s one, *written by a woman*:


If you’re a Janeite, the title is all you need. (If you’re not a Janeite, I pity you. But you can start your apprenticeship here.)

I liked how Ashton based Jane’s relatives, friends and acquaintances on characters from her novels. This ploy creates a spot-the-character game for Janeites: a sister-in-law could be the source of Mary Crawford’s sprightly disdain for propriety; a proud great aunt may have been the model for Lady Catherine de Bourgh; two of Jane’s brothers see themselves in Mr. Knightly and Henry Crawford. Even Jane’s visits reminded me of locations and scenes in her novels — for these, Ashton may be hitting close to the truth, for we know much about where Jane spent time, as visitor or inhabitant, and Ashton made excellent use of this knowledge. (Note to self: read this book: Jane Austen: Her Homes and Friends, by Constance Hill.)

Lord Nelson

Lord Nelson

Ashton based Parson Austen’s Daughter on family documents and on letters by and about Jane (the few not destroyed after Jane’s death by her sister Cassandra — Cassy’s kindness to her beloved sister was cruelty to the world of her fans). More importantly, Ashton situates Jane in a critical period of English history, when armies led by Nelson and Wellington, not to mention three of Jane’s brothers, battled Napoleon for decades. Those soldiers quartered in Meryton, Captain Wentworth in Persuasion, Fanny Price’s brother — what may seem like plot devices is actually Jane showing the effects of world events on her “little bits of ivory” (Nathan Albright’s thoughtful analysis of Jane’s use of military history can be found here). Having a little more historical context will help me with future readings of these novels.

Jane gave her heroines much happier lives than the one fate had provided her. Although two of her brothers inherited large estates, and two others rose to high ranks in the British Navy, Jane and her family lived lives restricted by lack of money. Ashton shows us Jane, Cassandra and their mother, after Parson Austen dies, struggling for ways and means — where should they live, what can they hope for the future, who will marry either daughter now? It turns out, neither Cassandra nor Jane wanted to marry — the death of Cassandra’s fiancé is well known; Ashton posits a similar experience for Jane. We know about Jane and Tom Lefroy, and we know that some years later Jane accepted another man and then a day later changed her mind (much as Fanny Price does with Henry Crawford). But Ashton provides a third suitor, one who dies mysteriously before the family can learn of an understanding between the two.

Cassy’s and Jane’s disappointments are so like Jane’s temporary loss of Bingley, and Elinor’s temporary loss of Edward Ferrars. Except that Bingley and Ferrars don’t die — they come back, and everyone lives happily ever after. (The joys of being a novelist including being able to right the wrongs of the world.)

It takes a certain nerve to novelize the life of a beloved author. Janeites can be prickly arbiters of fact — see reactions to Becoming Jane (here and here) for instance. Ashton may play with Jane’s inspirations, but she’s true to the flavor of Jane’s life. The genteel poverty, the fears for brothers in the armed services and other relatives facing financial ruin, the reliance on letters for news, the walking, the heat of summer and cold of winter, the pain of illness — these all are in Ashton’s novel and make me admire Jane even more for her ability to create worlds in which behaving well despite adversity is the greatest achievement.

Happy discoveries like this one keep me returning to libraries. May your own library visits be frequent and equally fruitful!

Posted in Biography, Historical fiction | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

This and that

stack-of-booksAs NYC swelters through the dog days of summer, I find myself wishing for an early start to fall. This summer, what with work projects and reading projects and writing projects, has been busy. It’s also passed quickly — in ten days I’ll be back in the classroom, for my antepenultimate semester of teaching. Yes, it’s official. Retirement is close enough to seem real.

Meanwhile. I’ve just finished my 43rd book for the 2015 Reading Challenge. Here’s the next installment of highlights:

9781619634329Jessica Day George’s Silver in the Blood, *published this year* is a YA/New Adult gothic romance novel set for the most part in Rumania. Another take on Stoker’s *supernatural* Dracula, it follows two 17-year-old American debutantes as they learn dark family secrets in Bucharest and beyond. With lines like “He smelled like money and masculinity” and scenes where the heroines find themselves in various stages of undress, I found myself laughing at parts I suspect the author didn’t intend to be funny. Too many eyebrows climbed to hairlines, too many hysterics and vapors simmered under the surface. I dismissed it as “popular fiction”, but at p. 170 I turned to my daughter and said, “It just got good.” It got good because the author surprised me. George doesn’t need you to buy this book, so just look for it at a library. It helps if you’ve read Dracula, but that isn’t completely necessary.

The_Crossover_book_coverurlI can highly recommend two books in verse, deserving the several awards they’ve garnered. Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, with a scene *set at Christmas*, tells of a young basketball player dealing with jealousy of his twin brother. The photos in Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, brought me close to *tears*. These books portray black lives at a time when it’s crucial for all to understand how these lives are different from, but also so similar to, the lives of non-black people.

RevisedChapter4PanelsAnother memoir, this one in graphic form and chosen on the basis of *its cover*, deserves a lengthy commentary. In Cece Bell’s El Deafo, the young Cece, after a bout with meningitis, loses her hearing. This is back in the 1970s, when the solution was to hang a canteen-sized machine around her neck with wires leading to her ears. With her teacher hooked up to a microphone, Cece could hear everything the teacher said. Even when the teacher left the room. Thus Cece could effectively accompany her teacher to the teachers’ lounge, the cafeteria, even to the bathroom. Cece, at first embarrassed by the hearing aid, hides it and hopes no one notices.

Cece chooses not to learn sign language, feeling naked without the huge hearing aid box dangling from her neck. She makes and loses friends, seeing insult where only care was intended. El Deafo is her imagined alter ego, with superpowers to defeat the ignorance, stupidity and unintended cruelty Cece faces when people react to her deafness.

Having a sister who has been deaf for 30 years, and who will soon have a cochlear implant, I could recognize my sister’s experiences in everything Bell describes — the inability to participate in multi-participant discussions, the impossibility of playing team sports, the loneliness of a silent world. Cece gets glasses and sees individual leaves on trees for the first time — I had the exact same experience.

It’s dismaying to recognize oneself in Bell’s characters, who are all too realistic in their fears, errors — and then reassuring to see their humor, strengths, and loyalties. Cece copes with “difference” by hating the term “special” until she realizes that El Deafo is, in fact, very special — someone unlike anyone else, who can help both deaf and hearing people learn how to be more inclusive. I loved this book.

Posted in Adventure, Gothic, Graphic Novel, Newbery Award, Poetry, Supernatural | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

In Brief

220px-Holbrook_Jackson_1913Recent discovery: Holbrook Jackson, English bibliophile (1874-1948).

Just to give you a taste, he writes, in “The Uses of Books,” about discovering, while visiting an acquaintance, a false bookcase that was actually a door to a cupboard packed with cigars.

… I am not sure that he was not making as worthy a use of books as many whose pretensions approach more nearly to reality. But, at the same time, it would have been less gracious, but more strictly in keeping with the tradition of honesty, if he had kept real books on his shelves and consumed them as cigar lighters. The latter method of dealing with books would confer a double blessing upon men, in the first instance by getting rid of a lot of unnecessary old books, and in the second by providing additional royalties for the authors of new ones. And the Goddess of Nicotine, one might imagine, would be more readily propitiated by the gift of fire: as the Muses, with their traditional incense.

Posted in Bibliiomania | Tagged | 1 Comment

When you run out of Jane Austen and the Brontës, try Mrs. Gaskell

Three more books to discuss for the 2015 Reading Challenge.

I have to start with three quotes:

[Mrs. Forrester explained] … in her day the only use people made of four-syllabled words was to teach how they should be spelt.

… Miss Pole began a long congratulation to Miss Matty that so far they had escaped marriage, which she noticed always made people credulous to the last degree; indeed, she thought it argued great natural credulity in a woman if she could not keep herself from being married…

[Miss Matty’s response to Mary Smith, after Miss Pole has left] … don’t be frightened by Miss Pole from being married. I can fancy it may be a very happy state, and a little credulity helps one on through life very smoothly…

Elizabeth_GaskellThese are from Cranford, perhaps Elizabeth Gaskell’s best known novel, thanks to a 2007 BBC series based on this and two novellas. Given the popularity of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and Charles Dickens as sources for television series, it’s no surprise to find screenwriters drawing on Gaskell’s stories. In them can be found great historical issues — industrialization, labor unions, religious dissension, the decline of the aristocracy — as well as romance (both successful and failed) and strong female characters.

220px-North_and_SouthI started with North and South (Challenge category: Traditional Romance), an exploration of what happens when a pastor uproots his family from the idyllic countryside of southern England to relocate in the industrial midlands of the “North”. Milton, their new town in the county of Darkshire, contains several cotton mills. Milton is based on Gaskell’s experiences living in Manchester. According to Wikipedia, in 1860 three midland English counties had almost 2200 mills, with a about 360,000 workers in total; the number of power looms increased from about 2400 in 1803 to 100,000 just thirty years later.

Once settled in Milton, Margaret Hale finds herself clashing with one of the mill owners, John Thornton. Class is the first area of conflict — there are no ladies or gentlemen of equal rank in Milton, and Margaret fumbles her way into friendships she would never have considered in the South. She becomes acquainted with a mill worker and his daughter, and learns their point of view as a strike looms. What’s admirable about Margaret is that she never hesitates to speak up against Thornton’s views, but she also is willing to listen. She truly wants to understand what people believe, and her interest, although considered by some to be “unwomanly”, is what eventually draws admiration from those she meets.

North and South is considered a social novel, but it’s also a romance: not just between Margaret and her eventual husband, but between this young woman and an area of England she never expected to love. Her appreciative memories of her home in the south remain strong, but given the opportunity to resettle there, she declines. Milton and Darkshire, mills and unions, industry and action — these are what she learns to prefer.

cranfordCranford (Challenge category: Author with my initials) is a different kind of book altogether. Funny, yet with hints of romance gone awry, it features widows, spinsters, and young women. Men haven’t altogether disappeared — there are farmers and carpenters and other laborers — but it’s the world of these women that Gaskell wants to reveal to us: genteel women of diminished means, who must scrimp but manage to be cheerful about it. They meet for tea and card games, share gossip (but never scandal), express shock at any Cranfordite who misbehaves, and support each other throughout. Gaskell gives us a world something like what we find in Austen — paintings on “a little bit of ivory two inches wide”.

Equally detailed, while expanding to a few more inches of ivory, is My Lady Ludlow (Challenge category: Book more than 100 years old). A portrait of an aging woman who wants her world to remain unchanged, this novella is more a social novel than is Cranford. The Lady of the title, a widow maintaining a standard of living despite financial strain, firmly believes despite the evidence around her that old money is better than new money, and that character is set by family background. Thus, she does not want the poor to be educated (she believes that, without equal instruction in how to use education with honor, educating the masses would result only in something too much like the French Revolution), she must pretend that illegitimate children do not exist, and her inferiors must, by virtue of their position in relation to hers, feel honored to be able to serve her.

This description makes Lady Ludlow sound like a tyrant, but she isn’t. She’s kind, generous, and notices what’s happening even when she shouldn’t. She eventually begins to bend: recognizing that a “Baptist baker from Birmingham” might be someone worth knowing and admitting that educating the masses might not result in chaos.

In each of these novels, women play crucial roles in forcing changes that improve people’s lives. Margaret Hale makes John Thornton see his workers as people and not just “hands”; Miss Matty grows to understand that her maid might actually want to get married, and is the first in her circle to allow her maid to have “followers”; the young narrator of My Lady Ludlow helps the older woman accept and make use of the changing world around her.

It’s always a pleasure to discover a new author, and Gaskell — most of whose works are available on the internet — has much to offer.

Janeite Deb’s excellent overview of Gaskell, including a comparison with Austen, can be found here. A lovely discussion from The Guardian of Cranford and related novels used for the BBC series can be found here.

Posted in 2015 Reading Challenge, Classic, Historical fiction, Romance | Tagged | Leave a comment

Falling behind


Long Island Sound, low tide.

It’s no surprise, but I find it difficult to get anything done in the summer. The vast expanse of seemingly free time ahead of me lulls me into inaction — that is, the kind of quiet action that many see as a waste of time — that is, reading.

So, although I’m falling behind with my work and Camp NaNo projects (more on these in a separate post), I’m way ahead on my reading.

Remember that 2015 Reading Challenge — a book a week, meeting various criteria? Well, it’s week 27, and I’ve read 32 books, with number 33 about to hit the “done” list. Here are some of the highlights:

Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet satisfies 2 *categories*. The first novel in this 2000-page volume, The Jewel in the Crown involves *a love triangle*, and the final three ought to do for a *trilogy*. You need strength to commit to a story that starts small — that love triangle in 1942 British India — then spirals out to cover the history of the Raj, race, class, World War II in eastern Asia, and the appalling violence in 1947 as British India partitioned into India and Pakistan. You also need patience, as Scott’s Rashomon-like story retells, from different points of view, basic plotlines: a rape, a vendetta, a suicide. The retelling rarely adds insight. What it does add, however, is weight to each act of violence, making each stand for the larger violence resulting from centuries of British rule in the Indian sub-continent.

Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, by *an author I’ve never read before*. Put this along side Lord of the Flies, and you’ll never think of “innocent” children again.

Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, which *became a movie* in 1941. Lovely, sad, and, since I’ve seen the film, impossible to read without hearing the actors’ voices.

Pioneer Girl, by *favorite author* Laura Ingalls Wilder, is the first version of the Little House books. She and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, tried repeatedly to publish it, but only now has it come out, with annotations, photographs, and letters to supplement Wilder’s text. I had to wait a while for my copy to arrive — the publisher didn’t expect the demand to be so high.

Enough with the time-wasting. I hope to write a few words today on my WIP, so I better get going.

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Bits of info

220px-Common_snipe_fencepostSo, those birds that I thought were plovers are actually snipes, looking very much like the little fellow on the left. When I walk down the road that borders their nesting grounds, one or two will land in front of me and peep with distressed desperation to lead me away from their chicks.

searchI was right about the ospreys. Yesterday I saw a couple diving for fish. One was successful but not the other. When they fly back with their catch, it’s always facing forward, looking like it has hitched a ride.

700+ words written yesterday. My tent mates and I all made a slow start, but today we’re determined to do better. For this project, my chapters are short — brief scenes presented in 2-4 pages. This makes the writing a bit like doing power laps: a spurt of effort, and then a short breather before the next one.

Protagonist’s name is Calvin Callaghan Calhoun. Too much?

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Camp NaNo begins

tent-06.jpgI’m in, my bunk is organized, my wash kit stored in the showers.

My tent is just a few feet from a beach on Long Island Sound, where a sail boat’s mooring light marks its position. Further out, buoys and a lighthouse point to the safest route for vessels heading east or west.

A storm just blew through, thunder and lightning punctuating each tent-mate’s arrival. Thunder still rumbles above, but the rain has stopped and the sky gradually clears. Plovers cheep and pipe, and three sets of osprey parents have begun the day’s fishing to feed their hatchlings. My binoculars have never seen so much use.

Today’s goal is small, just a couple of pages, but enough to make me feel I can ignore the fascinating campgrounds and discover the plot that’s lurking at the back of my mind.

Posted in writing | Tagged | 3 Comments