Miss Austen

Just as an unedited email or fast tweet might came back to bite you today, letters in the nineteenth century (snail mail) could be documents of dread for the writer.  Famously protective of her sister, Cassandra Austen burned all of Jane Austen’s correspondence after her death, spinning her own legacy for future Janeites, without contradictory proof available in writing.  In Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen, the author offers a fictional spin on how those letters might have changed future generations’ perspective on a beloved author.

Cleverly combining well known facts of Jane Austen’s life with imagined secrets and opinions conveyed through private letters, the author offers an undocumented but very possible view of Jane Austen’s personal life.  Alternating between Cassandra and Jane’s lives as young adults, secure in the family parsonage, and their later trials after their father dies, as unmarried women dependent on their brothers’ goodwill to house and support them, Hornby reveals women’s dependence on marriage to sustain them in that era. Jane, of course, became the exception, bringing in her own income as a writer and dying in her forties, but what fears and insecurities really haunted her?

Cassandra lost her opportunity for the good life when her fiancée Tom Fowles died before they could be married.  Unlike her sister, she lives on into her sixties and in this story, she is visiting Tom’s family, in search of Jane’s old letters.  She knows the letters reveal private details of both their lives as well as her sister’s moodiness; she remembers how scathingly critical of others Jane could be.  In the wrong hands, Cassandra is convinced the letters will change the legacy of Jane Austen, and not for the better.  Eventually, she finds the letters tied in blue ribbon.  As Cassandra rereads the letters, she relives past moments of both their lives, wondering if she made the right choices, and finally revealing Jane behind the public facade.

The imagined lives are entertaining and charming, and Horby writes in the Jane Austen style of Regency era literary England, carefully giving the dialogue intelligence as well as wit.  Fans of Jane Austen novels will appreciate the slow-moving narrative, with references to her novels as she wrote them.

Austen’s Persuasion has a special place in Hornby’s story, motivating me to reread this tale of renewed love after all seemed lost.  In Miss Austen, Isabella finally finds happiness with a Doctor, only after her father, who thought him socially inferior, dies.  Isabella is the niece of Cassandra’s late fiancé Tom Fowle. Isabella’s brother, a local clergyman has recently died, and she has to vacate the home she shared with him. Suddenly, Isabella seems without prospects or a place to live, and the correspondence hidden away for years will be unearthed with packing for the move out of the parsonage. Cassandra is visiting supposedly to help with the packing, but her real motivation is to find those letters.  All ends well with Isabella marrying her secret love, and Cassandra finding the letters.

If rereading Jane Austen’s novels gives you some comfort these days, you might try Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen.  The story can gently carry you back to Jane Austen’s time with a realistic twist and a few bon mots to sustain you.

And if you cannot get enough of speculating about Jane Austen, try:

Rodham

What if Hillary Rodham had not married Bill Clinton?  Could she have been more successful?  And what would have become of Bill?

In her fictionalized rewrite of history, Curtis Sittenfeld creates her own version of lives and politics in Rodham.   While the author clearly admires Bill Clinton’s intelligence and charisma, she finds his philandering unacceptable, sometimes bordering on criminal.  Hillary, on the other hand, while lacking in essential glad-handing and manipulation skills helpful to aspiring candidates, comes across as the true, clear-eyed, brilliant leader, if only someone would recognize her talents.   In Sittenfeld’s version, Hillary does not excuse or condone Bill’s sexual predatoriness, and breaks off their engagement to escape back to a respectable career as a law professor – for a while, anyway.

Although the details can seem pedantic and slow moving, they follow the author’s tangential history, with enough references to actual happenings to make the reader nostalgic.  The actions and the quotes may be real but they are attributed to different players, depending on how well they serve the storyline.  At times, the ingredients get mixed up, and you may find yourself googling to check the facts, for example to reaffirm Carol Moseley Braun was indeed the first Black woman Senator, but Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, even Joe Biden stand out clearly.

Sittenfeld changes just enough history to make it palatable to those who still cringe at the current state of American politics, and offers her own surprising slate of American Presidents from 1988 to 2012, ending with the election in 2016.  She does tell you who wins in 2016, but how may be more surprising.  No spoilers here.

I remember colleagues commenting on the scandal of Monica and the blue dress before Clinton was impeached.  Some said his political prowess cancelled out anything he did personally; other countries would be more accepting of dalliances as long as he was doing a good job.  But others said character was integral in fostering trust in a leader, and without trust, a leader was ineffective.  Sittenfeld would agree with the latter.

I wondered how lives and careers would have changed if history had followed Sittenfeld’s progression.  Many may owe their careers to the real Hillary, who did not leave, and helped her husband get elected President.  In the book, one of the characters comments:

“…there are other lives out there we could have led, if circumstances were only sightly different…”

Don’t we all wonder at times what if – what if you had taken that job on the West Coast, what if you had attended a different school, what if you had dated another person…there are many alternate lives you can imagine some days.  Sittenfeld’s imagined alternative history does not have the page turning expectations of a thriller, but it is fun, and maybe a little enlightening.

Related Review:

You Think It, I’ll Say It

 

A Running List of Books Read

My reading has been sporadic, and old New Yorkers are more likely to keep my attention these days than books, especially when the issues are before the coronavirus was a staple of society.   The covers offer some solace too when they picture a Sunday morning outing from September, 2019 – not that long ago, or Anna Parini’s “A New Leaf’ from January, 2019.  Short essays by David Sedaris and  Adam Gopnick are refreshing.  And then there are the cartoons…

 

 

 

 

But now and then a book appears, sometimes preordered in the mail or iBooks.  A few I’ve read:

The Starlet and the Spy by J-Min Lee

A profoundly poignant tale of the effects of the Korean War on a young woman who survives the horrors on her country, only to recap the trauma in her mind as she tries to return to a normal life after the armistice.  Alice J. Kim is a Korean translator and typist for the American forces, having abandoned her career as an illustrator and artist.  When movie star Marilyn Monroe is scheduled to visit the American troops still in Korea, Alice is assigned as her translator.  An unexpected friendship develops between the two women as Alice is forced to confront her past.  Although Marilyn Monroe’s appearance in this short novel is small, her role triggers an unexpected note of women’s strength in dealing with their lives.

The Secret Guests by Benjamin Black

Black is the pen name of Man Booker Prize winning novelist John Banville.  As Benjamin Black he uses mystery and crime in easy-to-read novels.  In The Secret Guests, he creates a fiction about the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret being evacuated to Ireland during the war.  If you are a devoted viewer of The Crown and a fan of Susan Elia MacNeal, this story will feed your curiosity about imagined conversations and feelings of the future Queen and her sister.  Short and fun.

The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian

Having read Bohjalian before, I was expecting a page-turning thriller, and I was not disappointed.  Maybe a little too close to current events, The Red Lotus reveals a story about a virus released globally – this time through rats.  From a bike tour in Vietnam to a New York City emergency room, the story is fast-paced with just enough romance and horrors to keep you reading. Alexis, the emergency room doctor discovers her new lover has been lying about his background and his family.  The energy packets he left behind where he was found dead lead to harrowing consequences, trailing with deceit and murder.  Although the idea of  reading about a global pandemic when we are all in one may not seem appealing, Bohjalian creates a solvable mystery with a happy ending.

 

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

Tempted by the possibility of hearing the author via crowdnet and motivated to support a local independent bookstore, I bought the book, read the story, and watched the interview broadcast.  Although the author confirms he is not native Hawaiian, he weaves a tale about a poor Hawaiian family beset by the demise of the sugar cane plantations.  The three children in the family follow a typical route by eventually leaving the island for college on the mainland – one with a basketball scholarship, another for an engineering degree, and the youngest and brightest to Stanford for pre-med – and all predictably find difficulty in adjusting to non-island life.

The youngest is also the fulcrum of the story; as a young boy he was rescued from drowning in the ocean by a shark.  Suddenly, he becomes the Hawaiian Messiah, with real or imagined healing powers.  Later, when his “powers” fail him as a paramedic, he returns despondent to his hometown; he dies accidentally or suicidally – it is up to the reader to decide. His brother replaces basketball with drug dealing and jail time, exiting to a life as a drug lord sending money back home.  His sister leaves college to help her destitute parents, and works on a local farm in exchange for food.  She, ultimately, becomes the savior, using her engineering skills to reconstruct and modernize the farm into a profitable business.

Sprinkled with Hawaiian local language and lore, the story may be more interesting to those looking to understand the plight of the Hawaiian family and the magical reasoning used to explain incidents and drive opportunities.

The Splendid and the Vile

I am reading Eric Larson’s brilliant book – The Splendid and the Vile – in small doses; Larsen’s writing makes it easy with short chapters and a conversational style to this nonfiction.   I am turning to Churchill to get me through the increasing count of the infected and the anxiety of sheltering in place.  I need Churchill to calm me and reassure me with his mastery of words and ideals, when the leadership of my own country fails to do so.  I hope if I read through the book slowly, the crisis would be over by the time I finish.  It is not working; I may have to read the book again.

I haven’t felt much like reading, writing, thinking – getting out of bed? – lately, but Churchill is an inspiration.  As Larsen documents the year before the Americans finally joined the war, he includes Churchill’s daily routine as well as his preparation for his decisions and his motivational speeches.  Churchill’s life and personality are so well intertwined with his decision-making, the whole picture of the man creates confidence and admiration – no wonder Goebel banned Churchill’s speeches from German radio.

Susan MacNeil, author of one of my favorite fictionalized Churchill books – Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, the first book in the Maggie Hope mystery series, notes from her research;

“Despite the alcohol, despite the naps, despite the baths, Winston Churchill was a work horse.   All accounts have him rising at eight, reading newspapers and attending to paperwork all morning from bed, taking the first bath of the day, then meetings and dictation, then luncheon. After lunch, a nap, then writing, second bath, dinner, and work often long, long past midnight. It was in this way that he was able to “… press a day and a half’s work into one,” as he’s quoted saying…a tenacious attitude…{with} an interesting balance — long hours of work, true, but balanced by rest and meals.”

In Larsen’s accounting, he notes famous decisions as well as behind the scenes dramas:   Larson draws from the diaries of Churchill’s wife, Clementine, and notes from their daughter to fill out private conversations at dinner meetings and with his staff; he notes the radio address with Churchill refusing to remove his cigar from his mouth as he speaks.  His close advisors’ personalities show through as Larson references their anxieties in letters and notes.  

I am still reading and I am still sheltering in place.  The book is a comfort in a strange way – if the world could come together before, surely it could do it again.  

As a regular subscriber to Robin Sloan’s (author of Sourdough) newsletter, I appreciated his sign off on his most recent email:

As you might have heard, the Federal Reserve recently released one (1) emergency Churchill quote to every American writer, a significant injection of liquidity and bombast.  I will use mine immediately:

Now, this is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Here is my Churchill quote or rather a famous phrase attributed to Churchill:   “KPOKeep Plodding On.”   Churchill modeled how important it is to take care of yourself; then, back at it – every single day until it’s over.

So, KPO, everyone, and hopefully when this war is over, as Queen Elizabeth promised, …”we will meet again.”
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Lingering Library Books When You Are Not Sure How Long the Library Will Remain Closed

Library books don’t always make my cut. Lately, I had been discarding some after a few pages, but since the reopening of the library here is an unknown, I’ve given the books I checked out before the library closed a second look and determinedly read them. Here are three books I probably would not have finished if I were not sheltering in place, but they did pass the time.

 

All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

A slow slog through a dysfunctional family whose patriarch is dying did not, at first, capture my interest; however, as I forced myself to continue into the saga, I found a strange connection to current repulsive men who are celebrated for their egregious lives. Vincent is a power-hungry real estate developer who cheats on his wife and sexually abuses her and others, including his daughter-in-law. As he gets richer, the misery he causes gets worse.  The author calls him a “bad man,” an understatement, whose wife has stuck by him through it all.

Through a day as he lay dying in the hospital, Atttenberg explores Victor’s influence on the lives of his wife and now grown children.  Each has a story increasingly miserable, and the book ends with Vincent’s body unceremoniously thrown into a common grave, as the others move on, their lives forever marked by him.  Not a happy story, and probably not one I would have read, but it does give insight into how the abused cope, sometimes surviving and sometimes even thriving.

 

Little by Edward Carey

As I read this book, published in 2018, I was sure I had read it before. Although  I had  no evidence, the story kept being familiar. I finally found the title in a list of library books I published in December, 2018, but no review.

The opening introduces the narrator, Anne Marie Grosholtz — known as Little for her small stature.  The book includes black and white illustrations throughout and the first is of Marie’s mother’s strong nose and her father’s upturned chin, combined not as attractively into their young daughter.  Both die when she is six years old, and little Marie is sent to live as an apprentice to Curtius, a gruff sculpturor who creates Marie’s face in wax.

Carey continues with the narrator’s description of their lives in Paris, creating wax heads of famous nobleman and dressing them in the period attire to display in the window.  Marie continues her story as she grows into Madame Tussaud during the French Revolution.

I skipped through some of the more vivid descriptions of the war; Carey mingles history with the growth and popularity of Tussaud as she uses decapitated heads for her models.  She eventually lands in prison awaiting the dreaded guillotine but regains her freedom and the story ends with an eighty-nine year Marie in business in London.

The historical facts are grim and Tussaud’s life is a sad one.  I probably returned this book to the library the first time unfinished.

 

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald

When the book was described in a review as a coming of age novel about Zelda, born with fetal alcohol syndrome, I decided to research exactly what the term means.  Zelda had alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, causing learning and behavior problems, including difficulties with memory or attention, and impulse control and judgment – the reason she could not be responsible for herself at twenty-one, and lived with her brother. Although I did not read the extensive research available, I understood the premise and started to read this young adult novel, written in the voice of a girl whose life and mind at first seem limited and juvenile.

I stopped not long after, not because I’m a prude, but sex started to pervade the story; the foul language and double entendres were irritating and distracting from Zelda’s quest for independence. I made it through to the end as Zelda conquers her fears, becomes self-assured and independent, despite her difficult beginning.

The title refers to Zelda’s obsession with Vikings and her need to have structure and rules  to cope.  Her bible is a book by a retired professor outlining the history and culture of the Vikings, and she uses it to organize her life and to make life-altering decisions. Sadly, the insertion of sexual language and actions, many of which Zelda did not always seem to understand, seemed exploitive and did not add to the story.

 

Only one library book left before I delve into my own stash.   I have high expectations for Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea.  Have you read it yet?