Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (CBR8 #72)

I’ve been pretty open about the idea that comics are still a reading stumbling block for me. My friend Alison loves comics so whenever she comes across something she thinks might do the trick for me, she makes sure to get it into my hands. I sometimes decline her suggestions due to time limitations, but I always try to see what she’s offering. A couple weeks ago she handed me Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey in comic form, and there was no way I wasn’t going to give this one a go – Jane Austen is my jam.

I struggled a bit with Northanger Abbey when I read it for the first time a few years ago, and its one of very few books I have read in my CBR years that I did not review. I struggled to sink into the book on that round, but I think its because I read the academic introduction which preceded it. This time I let myself just float along with the loving adaption of Jane Austen’s most humorous work.

Matching Austen’s satire of Gothic Literature, we follow Catherine Morland’s quest to be the leading lady of her own great romance. Catherine is determined to find the correlations between real life and  the Gothic novels she finds so enchanting. Austen upturns Catherine’s expectations at each turn, and Nancy Butler and illustrator Janet Lee capture the original while making it their own as well. While not my favorite reading experience, I can suggest this to anyone looking for a quick revisit of Austen.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

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Persuasion (CBR7 #49)

I finally finished my reread of Persuasion as part of the Go Fug Yourself Bookclub on Goodreads. It wasn’t my first choice, but it was nice to visit a known favorite and bring some new understandings to why this book works for me.

As expected, I loved it. It’s probably unfair really since Persuasion has such a particular place in my literary heart. It’s the first Austen that I read of my own choosing and reminds me of a specific place and time. We read both Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility in high school and I fell a little in love with Austen from the get go (I’ve chronicled my love of Austen elsewhere).  So, on a study abroad trip to Oxford I picked up copies of all the Austen works I could find. Persuasion became the first I read of that collection and the one I love the most as a complete work.

Jane Austen has stronger heroines, and more overtly or dashing romantic heroes, but there is something so honest, real, and relatable about the tale of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. There are bigger, more grand moments in other novels, and Austen plays with literary devices and satirizes the novels of her day in her other works. But in Persuasion I’ve always felt that she is telling the most honest story she embarks on. We all know these characters – we have our own Marys, our own Sir Walters, our own Lady Russells, and our own Crofts. While Wentworth is the sort of romantic lead who works for me, and that letter, and his revelations of the last couple of chapters make me feel for him even more, I am more invested in this novel for the slice of life it offers on display than for the romance (even though I would list this in my top 50 romance reads if I ever get around to making such a list).

And in approaching this novel at this time in my life, no longer the young girl who pines artfully, but as the woman who still hopes and struggles to find her place, I have even more affection for Anne. She is both an injured party and the injurer. Yet, she takes no offense and shirks no blame. She doesn’t expect others to be more than they are capable of being, and owns the errors she has made and expects only what life has to bring her. Austen uses her narrator to skewer the rest of Anne’s family, but never Anne. Not because she is without sin, but because she is a fully actualized human aware of the foibles of the world.  We should all be so lucky to be an Anne Elliot and loved by a Captain Wentworth.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Real Jane Austen (CBR7 #35)

Last year I reviewed Jane’s Fame and was quite pleased with it. That book chronicled the evolution of the popularity of Austen’s books over the course of the past two hundred years. Over on the Cannonball Read our very own Time Lord, Bonnie suggested to me this book: The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things after that review. I put it on the list for CBR7 and here we are.

The Real Jane Austen tackles the mystery of the well-known author.  Following Austen’s death her family published the ‘official’ biographies which were tinged with a certain view of the author. In many ways they were very conservative and demur in their account of her life and abilities. In this work author Paula Byrne works to take the existent writings, both published and personal of Austen as well as objects known to have been in possession or use by her, and place the author into a more accurate picture culturally and historically – in that way providing a ‘real’ look at a slightly mysterious figure.

For the most part I felt that Byrne does a great job of giving us the author in context. By chronicling the various objects and how they are reflected in her writings a clearer picture of both the time period and the person doing the writing. The idea that Austen was writing about ‘three or four families in a country village’ is upended as Byrne works to show how Austen was exposed to the greater world both by her own travels, but by those of her large and extended family.

This is an interesting, but not perfect book. Each of the 18 chapters could easily have been shortened by five pages. The author writes from the perspective of a historian, which is good and practical in a work which means to be research based, but can often read dryly. This alone prevents me from moving up my ranking from 3 stars to 4. However, if you are interested in the history of the era or a more in depth look at Jane Austen, this would be a good choice.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

For Darkness Shows the Stars (CBR6 #49)

Whenever a writer takes on a retelling of a classic, I get nervous. I probably shouldn’t, since so much of the media we enjoy these days’ takes it roots in just this type of storytelling. Regardless, when I originally heard the description of For Darkness Shows the Stars as a post-apocalyptic retelling of Austen’s Persuasion I was not immediately sold.

Nevertheless, this book made a believer out of me. So much so that I’ve already downloaded the accompanying short story to my Nook and I’ll be reading it soon.

I don’t know how I got confused considering what lovely reviews were written about this book as part of the Cannonball Read by Malin, Bonnie and Scootsa1000 but I thought this book was set in space (in my feeble defense the cover art is gorgeous and totally looks like it could be a space opera cover) so I had some reticence in getting started. Fear not, it isn’t in space (or conversely, I’m sorry, it’s not in space) it’s set in out distant future when things have gone to shit. Once I got into this plot, I was in.

There were some things that kept me on the fence through the first 50 pages or so of this post-apocalyptic dystopia. A lot of the details about just what kind of apocalypse we’re dealing with were difficult for me to parse in the beginning, and the terminology the reader needs to learn in the beginning seemed daunting. However once I got comfortable with the idea that advanced genetic manipulation had led to a large portion of humanity being born in a ‘reduced’ state – with limited speech and understanding, and thought to be unable to care for them selves and were now gathered on estates run by families of those unaffected by the reduction I was intrigued.

The small portion of society which had shunned the genetic manipulation, known as Luddites, have for generation been the only typical humans who have shunned nearly all of our modern technology in an attempt to make amends for the perceived overstepping of bounds that led to the reduction. That is, until the Reduced starting having children of normal capabilities and intellect, known as Posts. Diana Peterfruend’s story places the bones of Persuasion over this period of turmoil, not unlike Austen’s own early 1800s. Our protagonist is the younger daughter of one estate, who is doing her best to keep her people alive while her father and sister seem to be doing their best to run everything into the ground.

Is this a perfect novel? No. There are details that are thrown in and then not properly explored. I understand that Peterfreund’s attempts to clarify just how terrifying the Reduction would have been, but the ensuing wars, and their description, did not land for me. And when Kai, the male lead, makes his reappearance his secrets are telegraphed for at least a hundred pages before the big reveal. But the main thrust of the book, Kai as a Post going out to live a life of his choosing and attaining success, and Elliot’s struggle with her very identity as a Luddite throughout are fascinatingly good reads.

The world Peterfreund has built to play around in is full of unexpected possibilities and I’m looking forward to what else she is able to do in this sand box.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the Cannonball Read.

Longbourn (CBR6 #40)

I love Jane Austen. I know she’s not for everyone, but I definitely have a soft spot for the author. Due to this soft spot I limit what I partake of in the Austen companion materials, no matter how long they’ve been a part of the Austen experience. The one that seems to have the most is Pride and Prejudice.  I read Mr. Darcy’s Diary for Cannonball Read IV, but that experience and reading less than stellar reviews has kept me from reading Death Comes to Pemberley(read bonnie’s review though, it’s AWESOME), and I have not, as of yet, had anything to do with The Lizzie Bennett Diaries. But, after coming across a couple reviews of Longbourn by Jo Baker which claimed that it was good story on its own, I decided to take the plunge. This was a splendidly good choice.

Longbourn is centered on the staff hiding in the margins of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In her author’s note Ms. Baker highlights the characters which appear on Ms. Austen’s pages by name and which ones she has given names to. She also points out which characters appear frequently, and which are fleeting. From this sketch provided by Austen, and then a reasonably good amount of research about life below stairs (there are a handful of factual errors or anachronisms but nothing that took me completely out of the narrative and I’m pretty well informed) Ms. Baker sketches a story that interacts with the known narrative while simultaneously fleshing out the historical context.

But the best part, to me, is that Jo Baker took her wondering about the characters ‘off-page’ in Pride and Prejudice and crafted a story which simultaneously supports the previous work while standing alone. It has been a number of years since I have either read or watched a Pride and Prejudice adaptation. I’ve been spending my time with other Austen indulgences. I was not hindered in my understanding of Longbourn because this is not a Pride and Prejudice retelling. I didn’t need to remember details about Jane, or Elizabeth, or any of the other Bennetts, I was able to sink in and enjoy the story of Sarah, Polly, Mr. and Mrs. Hill, and James.

And that is the linchpin to making this a book that I was happy to return to over and over again. While Ms. Baker’s style echoes Ms. Austen’s and while the characters we’ve grown to love from Pride and Prejudice flit in and out of the narrative, it’s this new story told across a setting we well know that makes for an enjoyable read. And, on top of that it’s an interesting story at that. Sure, there’s some of the usual basking in the drudgery of the servant’s daily lives, but once the author establishes what daily life was like, and how there was such little time for happiness or joy, and certainly no idea of upward mobility for the servant class. So what happens to a staff when the family they serve will not be the one’s inheriting the property, and then what happens when the daughters of said family start to marry off and the staff is not needed at the same levels? Throw in a love story between Sarah and James, and the reveal of James’ backstory (which I’m sure has plenty of Austen purists getting their pitchforks ready) and I was all in, giving this book one of only my fourth five star rating out of forty books thus far.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Jane’s Fame (CBR6 #9)

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I fell in love with Jane Austen sometime around 1996. I think the first time I read one of her books was when it was assigned to me my sophomore year of high school, and I’m pretty sure it was Pride and Prejudice but it may have been Sense and Sensibility. I’m just not sure anymore. In the intervening years I have consumed all six of her major novels, getting the final one read last year, and have partaken in many, but certainly not all, of the various movies and miniseries that have been produced in the same time period. And this is how I came to my own personal love of Austen. In Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World Claire Harmon explains through a detailed study how the works of Jane Austen, relatively little noticed at the time of their publication, have become such powerhouses in the world market and how legions of readers have fallen in love with them across two centuries.

The first two chapters focus in on Austen during her lifetime, and what we are able to know of her from her professional writings and her personal ones which were published after her death. It was fun to revisit some of the personal history I had picked up along the way, and some things which were new. The time period I knew the least about her growing fame and that was unfamiliar to me was that surrounding the two world wars and specifically her pervasiveness in the trenches of WWI. These are highlighted in the third and fourth chapters which highlight the impact of Austen’s great grand nieces and nephews in the later part of the 1800s and how their decisions lead to a new round of popularity for Austen which carried into the war period. The final chapters focus on the modern popularity of all things Austen.

The majority of Harmon’s work is focusing on why Austen’s work has not only remained but grown more popular over time. She tracks the critical appraisal of Austen’s work and explores what was being said about the works. One of the earliest critiques of Austen’s work is its narrowness that it only speaks of “three or four families in a country village.” Harmon argues that this is actually what makes it accessible the world over. The plots of money and marriage are as relatable to someone living in Asia in 2014 and they were to Austen’s original British audience in 1814. Harman goes on to say that “the most empathetic readers of Austen may well be in modern-day Africa, where the Church of England is at its most traditional, and where family structures still resemble those familiar to the author” (199).

The flexibility of the text in the hands of its readers lends itself to continued attention and conversation. By a certain point in the twentieth century Austen’s work was being used by all sides of any given argument, used to support the patriarchy as well as supporting feminism. Oh, and Marxism. And Feminist Marxism. For example the critical understandings of Mansfield Park moved from the topics of transgressing boundaries and metaphors for improvement (the aborted production of Lover’s Vows and the trip to Sotherton respectively) and into colonial studies and exploitation of slaves in more recent works and studies.

Spin off publications, another popular Austen experience (Death at Pemberly, anyone?) start as early as 1913 with Sybil G. Brinton’s Old Friends and New Fancies which has major characters from each of the six novels by Austen interacting with one another. It’s another avenue of Austen popularity. But most of the popularity comes directly from the unique writing habits of Austen. Austen worked on her novels for nearly two decades, refining them over many drafts, and then publishing those means that she appears to have worked to keep them without defining timeliness. While she is writing during years of war and social upheaval, they are generally out of view. And descriptions are vague enough to have the reader put in their own idea of what a house “suitable to the fortune of the proprietor” is as Pemberly is described.

The most modern round of popularity started in the mid-1990s. The surge was associated with the famous BBC Pride and Prejudice mini-series and that wet shirt. There were five Austen productions in 18 months between 1995-1996, including my favorite, Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson. The problem with movie adaptations, that Harmon points out dates back to the 1930s, is that they are the least likely to have a strict interpretation. For example, another favorite of mine, for various reasons, 1999’s Mansfield Park abandons Austen’s characterization of its heroine Fanny Price and replaces it with a version of the historical Austen, a spirited would-be writer.

I know I’ve summarized the book at seeming length, but there is so much that I haven’t touched upon. If this review is of interest to you, then so will the book.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.