Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen’

Excluding rereads, I read 61 books in 2014, exceeding my goal of 40. It was a fiction-heavy year: 51 pieces of fiction and only 10 nonfiction, biography/memoirs, and essay collections. In this year of #readwomen2014, 44 of my reads were written by women, three were co-written by women, and one was an essay collection edited by a woman. #readwomen? Yes, I do.

However, I realized most of the women writers I read are British or American white women, so I sought out some non-white women writers. I finally read Americanah and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, loved Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, and adored Mambo in Chinatown. I’m adding more Jean Kwok and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to my to-read list for 2015.

Though they aren’t on my favorites list, my 2014 year of reading belongs to Kerry Greenwood and Phryne Fisher. After falling in love with Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (thank you Netflix), I started reading Kerry Greenwood’s stories of the fashionable and incomparable 1920’s Australian detective. Twelve of my 60 reads are Phryne Fisher mysteries, and I have another 8 to go.

2014 Favorite Reads

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai is amazing and inspiring. She has a remarkable spirit and an incredible outlook. Her (first?) memoir should be added to school curriculums across the country.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I finally read Americanah and adored it. This wonderful engaging novel makes me want to read more of Adichie’s work and makes me wish Ifemelu’s Raceteenth blog was real. As I was running out of pages, I worried the story would abruptly end. In a way it does; I’m not ready to leave Ifemelu and Obinze. But the ending is satisfying and it makes me happy. I don’t rank my favorite reads, but if I did, Americanah would be in the top three.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

I switched jobs and was driving for nearly two hours every day that first month. The Outlander audiobook saved me. (Yes, I was in love with Jamie fairly quickly.) To call this a romance doesn’t do it justice as there is much more meat and plot than a typical romance story, although there is a fabulous romance. Call it romance, call it historical fiction, call it fantasy, call it whatever you like, but no matter what you call it, add it your to-read list.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

I heard Ms. Kline speak at my local library and quickly borrowed a copy of her book. When I finished it in May, I knew it would be one of my favorite reads of the year. The two protagonists, Vivian and Molly, are compelling, empathetic, inspiring heroines and I loved both their stories. If you enjoy historical fiction, contemporary fiction, strong female characters, happy endings, good writing, or moving novels, I highly recommend Orphan Train.

The American Mission by Matthew Palmer

I like a good spy novel and while the CIA agents are minor characters in Palmer’s tale of a foreign affairs officer in the Congo, The American Mission is fast paced and meaty, weaving mining, diplomacy, K&R, the US Foreign Service, and the politics of developing countries like the DRC into an engrossing and entertaining novel. Half way through, I added Palmer’s next book to my to-read list.

First Impressions by Charlie Lovett

Subtitled “a novel of old books, unexpected love, and Jane Austen,” this is clearly a novel for me. Part historical fiction, part literary thriller, part romance, part Jane Austen adoration, Lovett’s novel is magnificent. And it spurred me to finally read Persuasion.

Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

Ballroom dancing! A young woman coming into her own! A little romance! I adored it. And I started taking dance lessons again. Charlie, our heroine, is a protagonist you immediately root for. My one critique is the subplot of Lisa, Charlie’s sister, and her illness; it seemed obvious to me and other readers.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

I picked this up at my local library after I recognized the cover, likely from NPR’s book concierge, and was intrigued by the jacket copy. A retelling of the twelve dancing princesses fairy tale, I started reading this one evening and just kept reading and reading and reading–until nearly 2 a.m. when I finished. I’m drawn to books set in the 1920’s and this one has dancing, happy endings (yes, plural–there are 12 sisters), and women taking control of their own lives. Valentine did a fantastic job creating the atmosphere of 1920’s dancing spots and the personalities of the sisters. I already want to reread it.


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by Tina Fey

How I read it: Audiobook

Quick Take: I’ve been “reading” this audiobook since I believe April of 2012. Fey is funny and witty, and overall I enjoyed the book. Ironically, I was reluctant to listen to the sections about the 2008 election, especially during another presidential election there, yet those were my favorite. Fey includes the original skit she did as Palin with Amy Poehler’s Hillary Clinton about sexism in the media. Fey narrates her own book, and I especially loved the final third. B+

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler

How I read it: Audiobook downloaded to my iPad

Quick Take: I love Jane Austen, and Orlagh Cassidy was narrating this novel, which was why I chose to borrow it. I listened to it at night as I was falling asleep. I’m not entirely sure what happened at the end, or all the ins and outs of the plot, but overall it was an enjoyable listen. I was surprised that a supposed Jane Austen addict who finds herself somehow in Georgian England wouldn’t have more knowledge of the customs and mores. Ah well. If my library gets future audiobooks in this series, and they are still narrated by the divine Ms. Cassidy, I’ll probably listen to them, but I won’t seek out the sequels to Rigler’s novel. C

Princess Elizabeth’s Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal

How I read it: Paperback from my library

Quick Take: I fell in love with Maggie Hope in MacNeal’s first mystery, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. It was one of my favorite reads of 2012. I enjoyed PES, though not as much as MCS. In this adventure, Maggie is sent to Windsor Castle, ostensibly as a maths tutor for 14 year old Princess Elizabeth, but really to protect her from suspected threats. I didn’t find Windsor Castle as interesting as the Cabinet War Rooms of MCS, and it seemed strange to read a novel about the girlhood of Queen Elizabeth, when her majesty is still with us and, to my knowledge, did not experience the escapades of detailed in this novel.

There were further plot developments in Maggie’s life that I also found cliched. Highlight the next paragraph to be spoiled.

WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS! In this novel, Maggie finds code hidden in one of her father’s old books. She believes he was a double agent during WWI, and that he killed the father of her current handler and love interest at MI-5. The big reveal at the end is that her mother was the German spy, and her mother faked her own death in a car accident. This is straight out of Alias, which was one of my favorite shows. We then learn that John, Maggie’s RAF pilot beau who was shot down and presumed dead, is actually alive and hiding in Germany. The missing-presumed-dead-lover-is-really-alive seems terribly trite. B-

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The Grade: B+

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.

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The Grade: B

Why I Picked It: My adoration of Jane Austen, and the good reviews for this novel

Quick Take: Six years after Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy’s familial bliss is disturbed when Elizabeth’s wayward sister Lydia shows up at Pemberley screaming that her husband, Wickham, has been murdered.

My Thoughts: First, this novel is definitely more P.D. James than Jane Austen. That said, if you enjoy a good murder mystery/historical fiction mystery, this is an enjoyable read. Austen created wonderful characters and it’s only natural others seek to employ them in their own tales.

James is a renowned mystery writer, and she’s written a decent yarn. There are suitable twists and turns, villainous rogues and well-intentioned bystanders. I would have done better to read this novel as a mystery novel that happens to feature people with the same names as the beloved characters of one of my favorite books, Pride and Prejudice, than as a further adventure of Darcy and Elizabeth. This my approach to the 1999 film version of Mansfield Park, and viewed from that perspective, a nice period piece.

Jane Austen’s novels are about women, and  their lives. Her novels depict interesting, fully realized women worthy of their own stories. Death Comes to Pemberley is Darcy’s story; Elizabeth is a minor character who fulfills the traditional role of supportive woman to her protagonist husband. I was disappointed. The Lizzie I know and love would not have dutifully waited at Pemberley and functioned primarily as a comfort to Darcy. She had her own thoughts and opinions, and while she may have jumped to conclusions, been prejudiced, her flaws make her human and lovable. My Lizzie has spirit and spunk. James’ Mrs. Darcy is none of these things.


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The Grade: A-

Quick Take: Kirkham places Austen and her novels in the context of Enlightenment Feminism and argues for Austen’s feminist credentials.

My Thoughts: I found this searching the library catalogue for The Jane Austen Handbook. From the title alone, I needed to request the book and read it. It’s definitely academic analysis, though not overly dry, and since the subjects are Jane Austen and feminism (with some Mary Wollstonecraft context), I totally dug it.

Enlightenment feminism argues that women haven’t been denied the powers of reason, so they ought to have the same moral status appropriate to rational beings (i.e. men). Austen exemplified this in her novels by giving her heroines brains and hearts, and discerning taste in novels (a frequent criticism of women).

An amusing note: male clergy were responsible for many of the restrictions imposed upon women, hence the male clergy as buffoons in Austen’s novels, like Mr. Elton in Emma and Mr. Collins and Pride and Prejudice.

Kirkham also notes that in the late 1700’s, being an author was itself a feminist act. Rock on, Jane!

There’s more detail in the book about Mary Wollstonecraft and A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which makes me want to reread A Vindication, and the Gordon biography of Wollstonecraft I read, and perhaps find the Tomalin biography Kirkham references.

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The Grade: B+

Quick Take: English Lit grad student William has made a mess of his life. Fortunately he has the wisdom of the Jane Austen’s six novels to set him straight. He chronicles his time reading each novel and the lesson he takes from them.

Makes Me Want To: Rewatch The Jane Austen Book Club (I did!); reread the novels, particularly Pride & Prejudice, Northanger Abbey and Emma; and read more Austen inspired books

My Thoughts: I started skimming this in the library. I thought, “oh, I’ve read Jane Austen, this book is probably better for someone who hasn’t.” But as I flipped through the first chapter, I really wanted to keep reading. Aside from a lull in the Mansfield Park chapter (I’m still not a fan), I eagerly and quickly read it. One of the things I love about timeless books is that as you grow and change, you can read the same book and take something new from it. Additionally, if you read a book for a class, the professor may emphasize certain aspects of the book while a different teacher would play up different elements. For example, while we didn’t get to it, my British Writers professor assigned Northanger Abbey to show the mockery of gothic literature. Deresiewicz read it as a lesson in learning and growing. A Jane Austen Education has given me another perspective from which to read Austen. Herewith are Deresiewicz’s Austen Lessons:

  • Emma–Life is in the details, not the grand events. “To pay attention to the ‘minute particulars’ is to notice your life as it passes, before it passes” (31).
  • Pride & Prejudice–Growing up means making mistakes, and feeling those mistakes, “for it is never enough to know that you have done wrong: you also have to feel it” (60).
  • Northanger Abbey–Ask questions not for the answer, but for the sake of asking questions. Discard certainty and cynicism for “by waking up to the world…she turned her life into an adventure that would never end” (116).
  • Mansfield Park—Being entertained is not the same as being happy. In fact, those who are most entertaining may be least likely to make us happy.
  • Persuasion—Being happy and feeling good about yourself are not the same things. A true friend wants you to be happy, and will point out your mistakes, even if it doesn’t feel good.
  • Sense & Sensibility—Love is about growing up. We should seek to grow into love, not fall in love. “If your lover is already just like you, then neither of you has anywhere to go” (237).

If you are an Austen fan, or are at all intrigued by this brief list, I urge you to read A Jane Austen Education. As noted from Emma, life is in the details, so please immerse yourself in the details of the book. I downgraded from an A- because I didn’t always relate to Deresiewicz, so his approach and his lessons from the novels didn’t always resonate as strongly as I think he intended. It’s still a good read, especially for Austen fans, and it has inspired me to do a further exploration of my own Jane Austen education.

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I’ve become a great fan of the Unabridged Chick, which is where I learned of the reading challenges. Far more ambitious than I, said chick seems to be participating in at least a half dozen reading challenges for 2011. I’m going to start small with The Heroine’s Bookshelf Reading Challenge.

It’s a simple concept: read at least one book from The Heroine’s Bookshelf, or sister books. Rereads don’t count, so if you’ve already read Pride and Prejudice (:::raises hand::::), read another of Jane Austen’s novels. The challenge started January 1, 2011 and ends December 31, 2011.

Here are my picks:

1. Persuasion by Jane Austen (it’s the only Austen I haven’t read)

2. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (it’s been on my to-read list since I read The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton)

If I have time, I will also read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. It’s been on my bookshelf, untouched for at least a decade.

Update: Failure. I did not read any of the books; they remain on my reading list to 2012.

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