Why I Picked It: Jane Austen plus Latin America
Quick Take: English professor Amy Elizabeth Smith takes a sabbatical to spend the year traveling to six countries in Latin America, holding a book group (in Spanish) to discuss one of Jane Austen’s novels in each country.
Makes Me Want To: Take Spanish classes in Guatemala and go to Buenos Aires, learn more Latin American history, and read Latin American authors.
Favorite quote: Thank god for feisty women, rich or poor. Thank god for anyone who’ll fight for the right to sit down with a good book—and then, the right to sit down with some good friends and that good book (164).
My Thoughts: I read this in a couple of days, mostly while riding on the metro in D.C. during a business trip. It’s an interesting premise, though I would have appreciated a bit more depth from Smith and her book groups. In her preface, she says Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, a personal favorite of mine, inspired her to write this book. The discussions she chronicles lack the insight and meat of Nafisi’s work, and the reference increased my expectations. Smith, a self-described feminist, touches upon gender relations in some of her book groups, and I would have liked to have heard more of those discussions. For example, while discussing Pride and Prejudice in Ecuador, one of the participants says, “If you don’t fight for space in your life for art and conversation, so much will pass you by—for anybody, but especially for women, since we’re always taking care of others” (164). Smith noted that her couples in Mexico and women participants in Guatemala have stronger demands on their time, which makes it difficult to read and participate in a book group. I wanted to hear more.
In each country, Smith followed the same basic blueprint: settle in, get recommendations for books written by native authors, buy lots of books, provide a little history of country and chronicle major tourist excursions, hold book discussion. In short, if my Spanish were better, she’s living a dream of mine.
Smith further enhanced my desire to visit Buenos Aires. I’ve heard it called the Paris of Latin America, and I love the Argentine Tango. Buenos Aires is also a literary capital and one of the stereotypes about Argentineans is that they love to read. Clearly, I must visit.
One pet peeve and one delight I have to mention: Smith is fond of writing “I couldn’t help but wonder.” By Mexico (the second country), I was already tired of this phrase and wished she’d had an editor to remove it. I was literally wincing when it appeared again and again. Am I overly sensitive to this? Does anyone else find that wording as annoying as I do?
Each chapter opens with a beautiful illustration. I adored these! Smith references some of the Jane Austen merchandise now available, and I would love to have these drawings as bookplates. See the image for Guatemala below.