Emma by Jane Austen

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…and it really was too much to hope even of Harriet, that she could be in love with more than three men in one year.

I probably consider Emma my second favorite Jane Austen novel next to Pride and Prejudice but I have to read Northanger Abbey to make a definitive statement and that novel is on my list to read this month.

With Emma, I got that familiar “twinkle” in Austen’s eye as the novel unfolds – that twinkle that I didn’t see as much in Mansfield Park or Persuasion. Emma Woodhouse is not necessarily as likeable a character as some of Austen’s other heroines; however, Emma’s snobbery comes across like a character from Seinfeld. Yes, we know about her selfishness but she’s going to make us laugh, anyway.

Then there’s all the carrying on about minutiae: how to have the best ball and who writes the best letters – more reminders of Seinfeld. Whoever said Jane was ahead of her time wasn’t kidding.

For me, though, the funniest aspect of the novel was the long-running “gag” about Harriet Smith. Harriet goes from an Emma-protege to an Emma-annoyance all because of Emma’s own doing.

It made me laugh out loud.

I read Emma for the Jane Austen Read-All-Along hosted by James over at James Reads Books.

Jane Austen Read All

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Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park

All went well – she did not dislike her own looks; and when she came to the necklaces again, her good fortune seemed complete…

I finally finished Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park or as I’ve affectionately come to call it “A Tale of Two Necklaces”. Of course, it’s not really about necklaces; however, in the middle of the novel when the heroine Fanny Price receives necklaces as gifts before going to a ball in her honor – the gifts being from two critical characters in the story – I couldn’t help but put this small detail in a category of what I would call “a nice touch”.

Before reading this novel, I had heard plenty of general thoughts about it not the least of which were from members of my family. Most of the thoughts (family and otherwise), were not positive. While I understand some of the negativity surrounding it, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. I realize that Fanny Price, all meek and mild and timid, can be considered different from other Austen heroines. She doesn’t initially come across as very strong of mind and will.

The reader tends to get most of their understanding of Fanny from the numerous characters around her. They rarely get into Fanny’s thoughts. It seems to always be what others think of her. The reader doesn’t necessarily get Fanny’s own opinion until she shows significant resolve in the face of everyone around her when she refuses the marriage proposal of Henry Crawford. Her rationale proves everyone else wrong even if this part of the story may be a little over the top. I thought it still worked.

Then there is the puzzling aspect of the play that the family and visitors of Mansfield Park decide to perform. As I read this part of the novel, I feel as though most of the characters are wanting to live vicariously through the play – a sort of ‘lets set aside all of the social norms of our day without actually setting them aside.” I wonder if Jane lived vicariously through the characters she created.

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In the end, things work out for Fanny as they have in the other of Jane’s novels I’ve read. I still consider Pride and Prejudice my favorite but I have a high appreciation for Mansfield Park. I read this for the Jane Austen Read All Along over at James Reads Books. Up next for October is Emma. I just started it but I think I will enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed Jane’s other novels.

Even though I refer to other authors by their last name, it just seems right to refer to Jane Austen as Jane.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

To Pemberley, therefore, they were to go.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has so many great lines but as I re-read it, I couldn’t help but enjoy the visit Elizabeth Bennett makes to Pemberley. Her nervousness that the wealthy owner Mr. Darcy, to whom she had refused a marriage proposal, might be there makes her endearing; however, her “this could all be mine” moment makes her even more endearing.

Pride and Prejudice

I find it very humorous that after Elizabeth’s awe-inspiring view of the estate she does meet Mr. Darcy unexpectedly – but now he is so much more kind and gentlemanly. I do realize that Austen develops Miss Bennett and Mr. Darcy beautifully and as readers, we know that they are on an introspective journey of personal growth as they learn about each other and get past first impressions. But the fact that the turning point comes for Elizabeth as she takes in all of the wealth around her at Pemberley puts so much depth (and I’ll say it again, humor) into the characters, it makes the story nothing short of delightful.

I’ve often half-joked with my family that, fictionally, I prefer romances in which the couple doesn’t end up together. If one or both die, even better. And I can make a case that some of the great love stories of all time follow this pattern. But I make a gigantic exception with Pride and Prejudice. In the case of this novel, wondering if they get together is half of the fun. The other half is when they actually do.

Jane Austen Read All

I’ve now read three Jane Austen novels: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. So far, Pride and Prejudice is by far my favorite. Following James over at James Reads Books with his Jane Austen Read-All-Along, in September, I can look forward to Mansfield Park, a novel for which I’ve heard mixed reviews. But I’m looking forward to it anyway.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

It took me longer than I anticipated to finish F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night, but I finally did and maybe now I can get the Jackson Browne song of the same name out of my head.

Tender is the Night

Tender is the Night is Fitzgerald’s fourth and final completed novel and according to Maureen Corrigan in her book So We Read On, it has a passionate but small following of fans that consider it to be his best even though it typically gets overshadowed by The Great Gatsby. 

The novel’s central couple consist of psychiatrist Dick Diver and his wife, Nicole, who suffers from mental illness. Knowing the types of couples Fitzgerald tends to include in his novels, in addition to the fact that Nicole had once been Dick’s patient, it’s not surprising that this relationship is troubled.

It’s been said that this novel is considered “feminist” so, while reading, I was looking out for what might make one think that. There is gut-wrenching abuse suffered by Nicole as a child and then, her husband, fully aware of this abuse, occasionally wanders off to follow much younger girls. Does this make the novel feminist? I don’t know but it makes it depressing – until the end. And while the end may not be happy in the traditional sense, it was a breath of fresh air for Nicole. Maybe this is the feminist aspect of the novel? In fact, here is what I would consider one of the more hopeful endings from one of these post-World War I, American authors that suffers from disillusionment. I found myself very happy for Nicole.

And of course, we have Fitzgerald’s beautiful and ornate writing which doesn’t get much better than in this novel. I could choose from any number of paragraphs but here are two that give one a feel for the Divers:

She smiled at him, making sure that the smile gathered up everything inside her and directed it toward him, making him a profound promise of herself for so little, for the beat of a response, the assurance of a complimentary vibration in him. Minute by minute the sweetness drained down into her out of the willow trees, out of the dark world.

Many times he had tried unsuccessfully to let go his hold on her. They had many fine times together, fine talks between the loves of the white nights, but always when he turned away from her into himself he left her holding Nothing in her hands and staring at it, calling it many names, but knowing it was only the hope that he would come back soon.

Fitzgerald

Which is better? Tender is the Night or The Great Gatsby? From a literary perspective, I am sure that many could make a claim for either one. From my personal taste, I’ll go with Gatsby. While Tender may have the complex characters and an actual happy ending for one of them, I think the simplicity of Gatsby’s story makes it more universal.

 

 

 

 

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.

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As I’ve read the numerous reviews about Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad, I’ve been struck by a word many of them use – “adventure”.

To me, the word “adventure” conjures up an image of a journey, a quest for something, a continuous battle against something, and a never-give-up attitude. All of these hold true for Whitehead’s runaway slave protagonist, Cora. I also consider an adventure story to include hope, a light at the end of a tunnel. In Cora’s story, there are several literal lights at the end of literal tunnels, but as far as hope goes, that light is very dim. In the end, I guess even a small glimmer of hope is better than none at all. In the end, a hope of survival is all Cora might be able to muster. The hope of a world without the evils she encounters could be too much to ask.

The relationship between Cora and slave catcher, Ridgeway, proves intriguing. While there is no doubt about the mutual hatred between the two, a hatred that would have either of them killing the other given the opportunity, their conversations betray an odd and bizarre sense of respect. Whitehead makes each of them worthy adversaries in a sinister game that puts survival above morals and politics.

Then there’s the snakebite – the unforeseen answer to a small nagging side question that I couldn’t get out of my mind while reading the story. This book is a true marvel.

 

 

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

“Dear, dear Norland,” said Elinor, “probably looks much as it always does at this time of year. The woods and walks thickly covered with dead leaves.”

“Oh,” cried Marianne, “with what transporting sensation have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted, as I walked, to see them driven in showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired! Now there is no one to regard them. They are seen only as a nuisance, swept hastily off, and driven as much as possible from the sight.”

“It is not everyone,” said Elinor, “who has your passion for dead leaves.”

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My favorite scene in Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility comes when Marianne Dashwood bemoans her problems with a specific man to all those within hearing distance. In an effort to calm Marianne’s nerves, the gossipy (and hilarious) Mrs. Jennings prepares a glass of wine for her; however, Marianne’s sister Elinor Dashwood, who is having very similar problems with another man but who characteristically keeps it a secret, interrupts Mrs. Jennings and offers to take the glass of wine to her sister. But instead of taking the wine to its intended recipient, she goes off in secret and drinks it herself.

I envision Elinor perhaps quickly chugging a large goblet of wine or maybe throwing back a small glass like a shot, but maybe she just sits by herself and sips it – slowly. In any case, I found the whole scene very funny and a microcosm of the Dashwood sisters’ larger story.  Their inwardness and outwardness project the confinements placed on them by their society. Given that Jane Austen has achieved rock star status some 200 years after her death, it’s not surprising that those same confinements (gender, lack of money) can still be recognized in society, today.

While Sense and Sensibility’s focus is on the Dashwood sisters with Elinor being the main contributor to the narration, it’s actually the story of these two women in addition to three men. The dashing Willoughby is the man who is the most “passionate” and outwardly seems to be the most rebellious – the man one might think would be the most likely to brush off those societal chains. But that’s not the case. His counterparts, Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, both very straight-laced and what one could consider shy, become the rule breakers.

The more I think about this novel, the more I like it.

Jane Austen Read All

Sense and Sensibility is the first of Jane Austen’s novels to be published and the first in the Jane Austen Read-All-Along sponsored by James at James Reads Books, the goal of which is to read all of Jane Austen’s novels in the order of publication by the end of the year – one each month starting in July. In August, I’ll be re-reading Pride and Prejudice.

The Birds of Opulence

Imagine a tree, a bird in the tree, the hills, the creek, a possum, the dog chasing the possum. Imagine yourself a woman who gathers stories in her apron.

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Crystal Wilkinson’s novel The Birds of Opulence visits familiar themes I’ve encountered in her short stories. There are familiar names and places, also. She weaves them all into a story of four generations of women who live in Opulence, Kentucky along with a friendship between the youngest of those four generations and a girl who has difficulty feeling she belongs in Opulence even though she grows up there.

Wilkinson scatters the novel with the joy of the mountain landscape, the pleasantry of singing birds and the celebratory nature of the community’s church picnic known as Dinner on the Grounds. These happy details are not a facade. They are real and alive.

At the same time, the joy melds with the haunting presence of mental illness and the dark spectre of racial, social and cultural prejudice. These aspects of the story are very real, also.

Wilkinson’s brilliance is her ability to bring both together without one dismissing the other. The tragic ending doesn’t displace the laughter, but the laughter doesn’t cover up the tragedy.

I’ll sum everything up by saying “Go and read this novel!”