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:

My Favorite Books of 2019

What did you read this year?  Did you keep a list?  Do you remember the good ones?

It’s almost Christmas Eve, and I have a few books on my shelf I may finish before the end of the year, but I decided to stop to look back on the books I read in 2019, I found a few with stories still resonating with me, and others with plots I could not remember.

When this Sunday’s New York Times ran an article on the front page on Where the Crawdads Sing, i was reminded how much I liked that book.  Although I read the book in 2018, it is still at the top of the best seller list, and worth mentioning this year.  Alexandra Alter in her New York Times article details the book’s unlikely success, selling more print copies “than any other adult title this year – fiction or nonfiction…blowing away the combined print sales of new novels by John Grisham, Margaret Atwood, and Stephen King.”

The book has it all – a murder mystery, a survival story, romance, a little useful information, and a recommendation from a famous movie star – but it also has a page-turning compelling narrative mixed with beautiful explanations of nature.  The author, after all, spent years in the wild herself studying lions and tigers and elephants.  Like many writers, Delia Owens is a loner and an observer.  She wrote this – her first work of fiction – approaching seventy years old and after divorcing her husband of forty years.  It’s never too late.

I reviewed the book when it was first published and immediately starting recommending it.  Here is my review:

https://nochargebookbunch.com/2018/08/22/book-club-bait-compare-a-novel-and-a-nonfiction-study-by-the-same-author/

If you haven’t read the book, it’s never too late.

Favorite books from 2019 I remember:

January:   The Overstory by Richard Power – I read this twice to not embarrass myself in a new book club, but I could probably read it again and find more I missed.  I hesitated to recommend the book because it was dense and difficult, but if you want a challenge on a cold winter night, give it a try.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/01/12/the-overstory/

February:  The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash – If you are a fan of John Lennon, you will enjoy this and possibly find it a good book club pick. Here is my review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/02/28/the-dakota-winters/

March:  The Friend by Sigrid Nunez – A Story for dog lovers.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/03/09/early-spring-fever/

April:  Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley – It’s complicated, but the characters are finely drawn with unexpected consequences in the Tessa Hadley style.  My review:https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/04/18/late-in-the-day/

In May and June, life got in the way, and I did not feel like reading or writing, but finally books lured me back.

July:   The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware – a friend gave me a preview copy of this thriller and it was just what I needed to get me back into reading. My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/07/28/the-turn-of-the-key-by-ruth-ware/

August:    Lady in the Lake by Laura Lipman – a thriller with a surprise ending. My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/08/22/lady-in-the-lake-by-laura-lippman/

September:   The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – Patchett says she writes the same story each time she writes a book, but this one resonated with me because I grew up in her setting.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/09/25/the-dutch-girl/

October:  This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger – I agree with my friend about Krueger’s style being close to Kent Haruf.  An easy book and a promising book club pick.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/10/15/this-tender-land/

November: The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett – An old peaceful treasure set in Maine.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/11/08/historical-diversions-chevalier-and-orne/

December: The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper and Carlson Ellis – A picture book with a perennial message.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/12/21/the-shortest-day/

 

Please share your favorite books.  I am always looking for another good book to read.  

Happy Holidays – here’s hoping Santa brings lots of good books under your tree.

The Secrets We Kept

Dr. Zhivago is at the heart of Lara Prescott’s debut novel – The Secrets We Kept, as the action flips back and forth from Boris Pasternak and his lover Olga Ivinskaya in Russia to secretaries who are really American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives in Washington, D.C.  How could a romantic epic raise the ire of the Russian government, especially Kruschev, and tempt the CIA to smuggle copies into Russia to prompt its citizens to question their government?

Although Pasternak’s novel is a love story, but with political undertones, Prescott uses historical research to reveal the constraints the Russian author and others in the country endured.  When the book is banned in Russia but published in Italy, and eventually everywhere in the world but in Russia, Olga, who is not only Pasternak’s muse and mistress but also his literary agent is sent to a Russian prison and he is under constant surveillance. Although I knew the story drawn from Pasternak’s life experience – the main character who does not leave his wife, while passionately connected to his beautiful mistress, I did not know the intrigue behind publishing the book in Italy and smuggling it back into Russia for “soft propaganda warfare – using art, music, and literature . . . to emphasize how the Soviet system did not allow free thought.”   The Secrets We Kept proved educational as well as informative.

I found the East section of the book describing the lives and loves in Russia more compelling than the West with its secret missions and nebulous relationships, but the idea “that literature could change the course of history” was enticing and prompted me to find the book once banned in Russia – not that long ago.  Like many famous Russian novels, Dr. Zhivago has been adapted to film, and I vaguely remember watching the snowy scenes with beautiful Julie Christie and handsome Omar Sheriff, but I had never read the book. In fact, I may have only experienced great Russian novels late at night through the classic movie channel – War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Sea Gull. Pasternak was a poet first and his words were acclaimed as powerful as well as expressive when the Nobel Prize Committee cited him “for his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.” This book is available for free from the Gutenberg Press, and it seems a good place to initiate my reading of Russian literature.

As the book flips back and forth from East (Russia) and West (CIA), the narrator shifts to different characters and it’s not always clear who is talking.  The Western section focuses on two secretary/agents and their intersecting personal lives, leading to an ambiguous ending, but the historical facts shine in the Eastern section.  Of course, like its Russian counterpart – the Secrets We Kept has been optioned for a movie but the book would make for an interesting book club discussion.

Historical Diversions: Chevalier and Jewett

  A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier has the talent to inform while entertaining, and her latest historical novel – A Single Thread – is a well researched testament to the “surplus women” of the nineteen thirties, caught between two major wars.

With Winchester Cathedral as the backdrop, Chevalier uses the broderers, women who created the embroidered kneeling cushions, and the cathedral bellringers, usually consisting of men only, to tell her story with a little romance, some drama, and a wealth of enlightening information. Based on the work of Louisa Peel and Winchester Cathedral embroidery, Chevalier creates a lovely story full of history few readers will know.

As an ardent embroiderer, I relished some of the intricacies of her descriptions, but I also appreciated the revelations, and will be looking for fylfots among the flowers.

Read the NPR review for more details:  https://www.npr.org/2019/09/21/762825554/a-stitch-in-time-saves-a-life-in-a-single-thread

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

I found this old treasure on a list of recommended classics. The only copy in my library system was in large print – all 150 pages – and I was curious about the Thoreau of Maine and the precursor of Elizabeth Strout (“Olive Kitteridge”).

The novella is a series of vignettes describing the narrator’s summer in a fictional coastal town in Maine at the turn of the twentieth century. Each short chapter builds on a sense of peace and quiet, as she describes open fields, dark woods, and rocky shores. She booked rooms in the house of an old herbalist, expecting to shut her self away in solitude but Mrs. Todd and the villagers tempt her out.  She spends most of her time in the village with its elderly citizens, carefully cataloguing their mannerisms and stories. With wit and astute observation, Jewett brings old Maine to life.  She leaves at the end of the summer with a refreshed mind and a sense of nostalgia. 

“…there are paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over -the world cannot forget them, try as it may; the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old bring hearts full of remembrance…”

Jewett’s writing has been described as realism, but sometimes it seems like poetry. 

 

 

Off the Library Shelf

Although I tried linking to another writer’s “Library Lust” list, I was not successful, but here are a few books from my library I read in a sitting, so I could get back to the library for more books waiting for me:  The books all seem to come at once sometimes.  Have you ready any of them?

Never Have I Ever by Joshlyn Jackson

A complicated murder mystery drama, reminding me of Finn’s The Woman in the Window, with unreliable characters and a twisting plot.  A page turner full of betrayal, romance, and deception.  Amy Whey has started a new life but is soon battling to keep her past a secret when the devilish Angelica Roux shows up at book club. The two match wits as the drama continues into a surprising ending.

 

The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess

When Eve leaves her job with a publishing company to become an assistant to a prominent and prolific New Yorker writer, summering in Cape Cod, secrets, sex, and the New England literary vibe emerge to create a quickly readable and entertaining story.  Aside from her coming of age journey and her romps in bed, Eve meets a number of literary stars.  She also references a number of books; I had to stop to jot a few down I plan to find: George Eliot’s Middlemarch (with the suggestion to read beyond the first 150 pages to be hooked), Zaleika Dobson by Max Beerbaum, and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

 

The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis

After a slow start, Davis transitions the story of two young women who met on a USO tour during World War II into a dramatic exploration of the McCarthy hearings targeting stage actors, directors, and producers in the nineteen fifties in the United States.  The Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan is the fulcrum of the story, where the women lodge with an assortment of artistic hopefuls.

The story follows Maxine Mead, the beautiful diva, and Hazel Ripley, the talented writer, as their lives change from their wartime friendship into a competitive challenge of spies and deceit.  In the end, both get their due, but along the way Davis offers a look into how McCarthyism overpowered democracy and ruined lives.

 

Reading Now:  The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

I may take a little longer to read this story of the artist Harriet Burden.  Hustvedt had me believing it was based on a true person in her clever “Editor’s Introduction,” and I stopped to find reviews about this 2014 work of fiction, doubting  the library’s FIC designation.

Using journals and interviews, the author presents the life of Burden, a talented artist ignored in her time, who decides to conduct an experiment she calls “Maskings” in which she presents her own art behind the names of three prominent male artists, masking her female identity.  Of course, the three shows are successful, but when Burden reveals herself to be the artist, critics doubt her.  The novel promises to not only be ambitious in its revelation of prejudice against women in art, but also a clever exploration of a complicated character, who seems real to me.  I plan to savor it.

 

Books Waiting for Me at the Library:

  • Chances Are by Richard Russo
  • The Darwin Affair by Timothy Mason
  • The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal
  • Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe
  • The Reckless Oath We Made by Bryn Greenwood
  • This Tender Land by William Kent
  • Why You Like It by Nolan Gasser