Emma by Jane Austen – Volume II

Reading Volume II, I was, yet again, amazed at how adeptly Ms. Austen juggles her numerous plots and sub-plots.  She sure knows how to seamlessly weave together an entire town’s worth of story lines:  marriages, gossip, deceptions, schemes, secrets – really, Austen’s awesome.  For a novel to work (at least for me) all the characters must be well developed, interesting, and meaningful to the plot.  Volume II accomplishes this wonderfully – not just in advancing our initial townsfolk, but brilliantly adding several new characters into the mix – most notably, Mrs. Elton and Mr. Frank Churchill.

Two of my favorite scenes occur – Mr. Churchill’s escape to London for a mere haircut (or perhaps some super secret mission to be uncovered later!) and the anonymous gifting of Jane Fairfax’s pianoforte.  Frank’s haircut (I feel improper calling him his Christian name – does anyone else ever feel this way when reading classic literature?) with its silliness is worthy of several genuine chuckles (who knew classic literature could be so amusing!).  And the mysteriously appearing pianoforte much discussed at the dinner party hosted by the Coles adds intrigue worthy of any well constructed detective novel, but also begins to reveal Emma’s true feelings towards Mr. Knightley she’s still very much unaware of.  I love how Austen does that – revealing truths while creating secrets.

I think my biggest revelation so far in this re-read is how much I’m enjoying knowing everything that happens in advance.  Being spoiled allows me to pay attention to the intricacies cleverly woven by Ms. Austen so much earlier on than a first reading would allow.  I particularly love this in respect to Miss Fairfax and Mr. Churchill.

Another striking matter is how little Mr. Knightley has actually been in the story thus far.  He’s far too often holed up in Donwell Abbey seeing to his farming and whatnot.  I find myself pining for his attendance at Emma’s little social dalliances because I am a fangirl.  And fangirls should never be denied.  Despite his solitary nature, Mr. Knightley does fulfill his social engagements, keeping him from hermit status, and his presence is always pivotal to the story and never needlessly wasted.  He may not say much, but what he does say can not be ignored.

Excited to embark upon Volume III where our hero and heroine will finally find their way to one another and all will be well in Highbury!

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Book View: The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

So…once upon a time I was an English major.  During my stint as an English major, I learned about many literary movements – Victorian, Romantic, Modernism, and so forth.  Then we covered Post-Modernism and I suddenly wanted to switch my major to Physics, build a time machine, and brain-wash all the great post-modern writers against writing their crazy, rambling nonsense.  Alas, this dream never came to light and so, several years later, I’m still trying to make some sort of coherent-ness out of Thomas Pynchon’s novels.  If you have found this elusive enlightenment, please share your wisdom in the comments.

You’re probably thinking, what’s this lady going on about already?  See, I’m determined to read all the books on TIME magazine’s 100 best English language novels since 1923 (see full list here).  And of course, Pynchon makes an appearance.  Actually, I think he makes two appearances (I’m afraid to check) and so I decided to get him out of the way early.  Bravely, this week I read (stumbled through) The Crying of Lot 49 and still haven’t recovered.

I don’t even know how to write a synopsis for this tiny little novella, but here goes:  Oedipa Maas (yes, that’s her name) receives a letter informing her that an ex-boyfriend has passed and named her as executor of his estate.  During her executor duties, she uncovers a long-lived feud between rival postal companies and what appears to be a global conspiracy represented by the following symbol:

Oedipa spends the rest of the novel as amateur detective trying to discover the truth behind the mail mystery and how her ex was involved.

Sounds logical, even mildly interesting, no?  Well, the thing you have to know is that Pynchon’s novel is a satire of life, of writing, of story – of everything.  So what appears to matter doesn’t matter, and that’s the point.  A main theme is breakdown in communication symbolized by the difficulty the reader has in following Pynchon’s narrative.  This book is a hot mess and a hot mess on purpose.  Without Sparknotes, I would never have been able to follow along.

As an example of post-modern literature, Pynchon’s novels (all of them) excel.  Where Modernism tries desperately to make sense out of chaos (think Virginia Woolf), Post-Modernism accepts the chaos, embraces the chaos, and then spits the chaos back into your face.  If this sounds exciting to you, then give it a go, but just know these novels are far more challenging that Shakespeare or Dickens.  I’d suggest starting with DeLillo’s White Noise, which is infinitely more readable than Pynchon.

If you must read The Crying of Lot 49, I’ll admit that it’s not all bad.  Of the six chapters, I enjoyed three – especially the scene where Metzger seduces Oedipa.  Oedipa’s night of endless roaming the streets of San Fran, spotting the muted post horn symbol everywhere was also fun to read and very well done.  Pynchon’s talent lies in language and imagery – he can also be quite humorous at times.

After finishing this book, I immediately picked up mind-trash (a.k.a. The Vampire Diaries 1&2) to give my brain a rest.  Look for that review this week as well as my first Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men!

Book View: The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar

Thrity Umrigar’s newest novel is set to be released tomorrow, but I won an ARC from Goodreads a couple of weeks ago.  My first experience with Umrigar has been such a pleasant surprise – so much so, in fact, that I intend to read everything she’s ever written.

Armaiti, Kavita, Laleh, and Nishta become the best of friends during the late 1970s.  They all attend college in Bombay (currently Mumbai), India and quickly develop a bond as deep as sisterhood.  The four friends are rebels, revolutionaries, political activists, and idealistic believers in the equality of all people – and then they graduate.  Armaiti heads to America, Kavita battles loneliness and hidden secrets despite major successes,  Laleh struggles to align her ideology to the rich, comfortable life she finds herself in, and Nishta disappears.  Thirty years later, Armaiti is diagnosed with a brain tumor and given six months to live.  Faced with her past, present, and ever-shrinking future, she once again calls on her three dearest friends in an attempt to make some sense out of the world in which they now find themselves.

I read The World We Found in the course of one 24 hour period which is a rarity for me.  Umrigar excels at character development.  Very quickly Armaiti, Nishta, Laleh, and Kavita became my own friends – the girls I was so close to once upon a time.  They were so very real, honest, and captivating; I cared deeply about what happened to each and every one of them and couldn’t stop turning the pages until a resolution had been obtained.  I say resolution, not ending, because I believe one of the ideas Umrigar wants to get across to her readers is that nothing is ever over or complete – that time may pass, but the story can always pick up, change, and dreams can always be fulfilled – even in the face of death.

I was also so pleased to learn so much about India, as I admit to knowing next to nothing.  Umrigar does a fantastic job of portraying the class struggles, the religious prejudices, and the beauty of a country that has always seemed so foreign and far away.  She manages to show instead of preach – always refreshing.  She creates a vivid picture of India – not so much its buildings, monuments, and tangible treasures, but rather the people and culture that live within these physical spaces.

So please go get yourself a copy tomorrow!  You’ll love the beautifully drawn female friendships, the armchair travel to India, the pleasant memories of your own past, and a new author that you will want to cherish for many years to come!  I’d love to hear what everyone thinks – especially in regards to Nishta’s story!

Next up:  The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht – my first read of 2012 and holding steady at 5 stars unless the ending ruins it!  Stay tuned to find out!

Book View: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

My first audio book ever!  Sarah Drew’s narration of Delirium by Lauren Oliver was a great place to start.  Her voice could be slightly whiny at times, but I just chalked this up to proper character treatment as Lena was often whiny.

Delirium is a young adult dystopia set in a world where love has become a deadly disease.  The government has put the US in lockdown mode and requires all citizens to receive the ‘cure’ once they turn 18.  So instead of a world driven by love, hate, and passion, Lena (our heroine) now lives in a world filled with fear and indifference.  She’s perfectly content until she meets Alex, a boy from the outside wilds, who helps her uncover the truth the government has so desperately hidden beyond the city’s electrified fence.  Insert cliffhanger and anxious waiting for second book in series here.

A world without love definitely qualifies as an interesting premise and Oliver does a masterful job at creating a backlist of literature, government propaganda, and medical pamphlets to convince readers that there is something to fear in loving freely.  As a reader, you can almost become convinced that a world without passion, without hate born from passion might be better – until the incident with the dog (no spoilers beyond that!).  Then you realize indifference doesn’t solve our world’s problems, only creates new issues.  Issues with no hope of resolution because no one cares enough to change anything anymore.

Delirium began quite slowly – which can be understandable when you’re building a new world.  A lot of exposition takes place, but I kept waiting for the pacing to pick up – for the action to overtake the languid plotting and that just never happened – until the final few pages.  And by then I was so frustrated that the cliffhanger wasn’t even that exciting and was completely predictable.  I was also frustrated with character development – Lena’s character changes and grows a bit (somewhat reluctantly), but Alex is rather flat and Hannah, in my opinion, regresses.  For this reason, the love story between Lena and Alex didn’t ring true.

What did work for me was the thoroughness of the world.  Oliver’s strength definitely lies in her imagery and description.  The evil government and their incredible lies juxtaposed against a Portland, Maine backdrop of endless sea and the freedom of flying seagulls.  Seeing the citizens completely under the charm and control of representation they’ve put their blind faith in is so scary.  Not only is the US separate from the world now, but each individual city is locked down from each other.  You never leave your little fishbowl – you never know what exists outside that fence.  Terrifying.  The Wilds was also done so well (the world outside the fence where the uncureds and sympathizers live).  The broken streets, abandoned houses, and bombing remnants are visceral and haunting.  I could picture my own street in the aftermath of a civil war.  These were the images that made Delirium soar.

I’ll get around to reading the second in the series, Pandemonium, once it’s released.  I hope the pacing picks up and that Oliver convinces me these characters are worth following for a third book.  If not, I’ve enjoyed the world she’s built and believe she’ll only grow as a writer over time.  Can’t wait to see what she has in store for us next!

I hope everyone has a Happy New Year!  I’m excited for 2012 and many books ahead.

Book View: Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell is fantastic.  I cannot imagine a world where someone would read this chunky novel and hate it – so please do not shatter my illusions.  Besides, Henry James loved it and he knows all.

On with the story!  Molly Gibson is a young girl of 17, raised by her father after her mother dies, who must navigate the English countryside during the 1830s.  Her father remarries and the new Mrs. Gibson is certainly a less-than-perfect stepmother for Molly, but Molly does gain a beloved stepsister (but really a romantic rival).  How will Molly survive her new family structure and will dear Cynthia steal away all the eligible bachelors?

In short, I would love to teach this novel if I ever manage to become a teacher of such things.  Gaskell, while appearing to write a rather light-hearted romantic sort of story, has actually crafted an intelligent and decisive work of social commentary.  She goes beyond writing about manners and class structure (though these themes are present) and journeys into deep questions of marriage’s necessity, nature vs. nurture, and what makes family family.  At the end of the novel, even Molly’s often clueless stepmother stops to wonder that “people talk a good deal about natural affinities” and what concepts beyond mere blood or familial title make us bound to each other.

For these reasons, I think Wives and Daughters was way ahead of its time.  You have women shunning marriage and enjoying being in middle age with no husband or prospects.  You have fathers that can’t get on with sons and mothers who are clueless about their daughters.  Then you have the charming relationship between Molly and her father that puts all other parent/child bonds to shame.  There are social scandals in the name of good and people crossing class lines with a nonchalant shrug of their shoulders.  With this novel, you get a front row seat to a cultural evolution of sorts and it’s a tremendous ride.

I loved Molly dearly as a vehicle of honesty – she’ll show you the truth behind every other character’s motives.  Cynthia is such a complex female and sister to Molly – a perfect FOIL really.  You’ll root for Molly while booing Cynthia only to end loving them both.  Don’t be dismayed when you learn Gaskell died before finishing the novel.  At 650 pages, the story is fairly complete in its final written chapter.  There are no doubts left as to who marries whom and besides – the BBC miniseries will give you a proper ending.  And do watch the mini-series because it is amazing and so loyal to the book.

So make plans to include Wives and Daughters in your 2012 reading.  You won’t be disappointed!  I cannot wait to read something else by her as this was my first Gaskell.  The writing is so clean and easy to read, yet sucks you in and keeps you turning the pages.  She doesn’t go in for major cliffhangers, but there’s always some secret you’re waiting to be divulged that keeps you intrigued.  This novel was emotionally cathartic over Christmastime as I was dealing with my own family dilemmas and estrangement from my father.  Perhaps not as bitingly witty as Austen, but a pleasure all the same.

Tomorrow I’ll be posting on Delirium by Lauren Oliver so stay tuned!

Book View: Austenland by Shannon Hale

Title: Austenland
Author: Shannon Hale
Pages: 208 (paperback edition)
Genre: Chick Lit/Austen spin-off
Original Publication Date:  May 29, 2007
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Source: Kindle

You might have noticed the slight change in post title – I’ve decided to rename my ‘reviews’ to ‘views’.  A sort of blogging nickname, if you will.  Why?  One of my main goals of 2012 is to stop taking things so seriously (including myself) and just try to have more fun.  So why not start here?  So long uptight Reviews and hello whimsical Views!  Feel free to mock me in the comments.  Basically, just hoping to keep things conversational in the 2012 because reading is meant to be fun – at least outside of school!

Ok…enough already and on with the view!  Austenland is one of those Pride and Prejudice spin-offs (or professional fanfiction) that I so dutifully avoid.  You see, I’m an Austen purist.  Elizabeth Bennet is so close to my idea of a perfect character that I cringe when anyone tries to rework her.  FOR SHAME!  Earlier this year I gave Pride and Prejudice and Zombies a little read (I mean, who doesn’t like zombies right?) and came away seething in anger.  So what convinced me to give Ms. Hale a shot?  Very simple:  Kindle Daily Deal for which I’m a complete sucker.  Also, I’ve dedicated December to reading whatever floats my boats since I’m way past my reading goals for the year.

Austenland follows Jane (shocker!), a thirty-something New Yorker, on a trip to England bequeathed to her by a dearly departed insanely rich Aunt.  She’s been booked as a guest at an English resort of sorts that caters to women obsessed with all things Austen – think of it as a huge role playing game for the Darcy obsessed upper class.  And for a woman who has sworn off men because no one could ever possibly live up to the incredibly sexy Fitzwilliam Darcy (as portrayed by Colin Firth in the 1993 BBC miniseries), Jane is the perfect nut…er…vacationer.

Essentially, Hale has written chick lit for Austen fans.  As with all chick lit, the entertainment lies in the journey, not the ending (since they all tend to end the same way).  And Austenland’s journey begins on rocky footing.  I had a hard time relating to Jane on any plane existent on planet Earth.  Who is ashamed to love Pride and Prejudice – so much so that they hide their dvds in a potted plant?  Also, who can’t have a normal relationship because of a fictional turn-of- the-19th-century man?  Crazy people who should be committed come to mind.  So Jane and I did not get off to a good start, but rather surprisingly, we finally hit it off once she reaches Pembroke Park and recognizes the cray-cray that lives inside, coming to her senses and learning to enjoy her life as it exists in actuality.

I do applaud Ms. Hale for remembering that fans of Austen are often intelligent women who can enjoy the entertainment value of good chick lit without wholly abandoning their literary tastes.  She writes a really brilliant moment in Austenland where Jane discovers her behaviors often mimic those of Darcy more than Elizabeth Bennet’s.  A great gender switch and blending of gender identity – highly ironic in a genre so tooled towards women.  If only there had been more of these brilliant little revelations.

All in all, there’s nothing award winning or knock your socks off about Austenland.  Jane suffers as a relatable protagonist and often comes off as a caricature of Austen fans. But if you love the BBC’s P&P, you’ll probably find something to enjoy here – if not, go ahead and skip it.  The story is filled with cliches down to the quintessential airport chase scene at the end.  You’d be much better off finding a few hours to settle down with the P&P dvds, as long as you promise not to hide them in any household greenery!

I would like to add that many people seem to enjoy Hale’s middle grade and young adult fiction.  So perhaps those of you interested in her writing should begin there!

Up next:  I’ve just begun Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell.  A huge chunkster novel that I have no hope of finishing before the new year.  However, I’ve also just begun my first audiobook from audible.com – Delirium by Lauren Oliver that I’m quite enjoying thus far.  For the January book club discussion, I finished reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern last night and can’t wait to discuss it with everyone (a little hint…I adored it!).

Happy Monday!

Book Review: Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Title: Motherless Brooklynn
Author: Jonathan Lethem
Pages: 311
Genre: Fiction/Detective/Crime Novel
Original Publication Year:  1999
Publisher: Vintage
Source: Personal Copy

Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn was a book I purchased several years ago that has sat on my TBR shelf collecting dust.  Thank goodness that is no longer the case because this little book was thrilling, captivating, and tenderly subtle.  Published in 1999, it won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, an entirely deserving recommendation.

Lionel Essrog is a “carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster” – in short, he has Tourette’s.  He’s also one of a gang of orphans – called Minna Men – who have found a family and pseudo-father figure in Frank Minna, small-time Brooklyn mobster.  When Minna is killed, Lionel – the Human Freakshow – begins to question his fellow Men and decides to strike out on his own in a gritty detective story that plays homage to Ray Chandler and other ‘hard-boiled’ crime novelists.

Lethem’s novel is the best love story I’ve read all year.  Perhaps because the love he writes isn’t between fictional man and fictional woman, but rather between a novelist and wordplay, a writer and his heroes, a man and his home.  Lionel’s Tourette’s allows Lethem the ability to turn phrases and create word mash-ups that would make “Glee” weep – ‘spread by means it finds, fed in springs by mimes, bled by mingy spies’.  This wordplay also ensures that Lionel transcends beyond gimmicky plot device and becomes someone we respect and trust – he’s the only reader of the bunch having spent most of his solitary hours in boyhood hiding in the orphanage’s library reading every single book.  Quoting directly from Ray Chandler’s novels, Lionel offers the perfect vehicle for Lethem to show readers his affinity for those novelists who came before without coming off as a second-rate imitation hiding behind the tenuous at best pronouncements of adaptation, retelling, or sequel.

What Motherless Brooklyn accomplishes most successfully is sense of place.  Appropriate since our backdrop is pronounced boldly on the cover.  So many authors have written beautiful prose and lyrical imagery devoted to Manhattan, but so often forget the boroughs that are much more the heart of NYC.  Lethem puts you on the streets of Brooklyn from the ‘70s through the ‘90s – the corner shops and deli sandwiches, the ethnic neighborhoods, the crime, the dirt, and eventually the gentrification.  You’ll want to walk the very same streets and meet the people who make Manhattan run everyday but can’t afford to live in the astronomically high rents of Soho or the Upper East Side.  You’ll walk away with the same Us vs. Them attitude the denizens of the outer boroughs feel on a daily basis – or so says my Queens-raised husband.

A word of warning – the big mystery of who killed Frank takes a back seat for me.  The whodunit is predictable and all the characteristic clichés of this sort of detective novel are present – shady mobsters, lady bombshell, underhanded deals, and huge scary men with no names.  Motherless Brooklyn isn’t trying to create a new mystery, only trying to tell the mystery in a different way so that we see the people, the places, and periphery around the central mystery that so often lingers in the background lost in the need to develop page-turning plot.  These elements, though always essential, hardly ever get to share the limelight in much the same way that writers are overlooked as we sit glued to the explosions and salacious scandals produced by film and television directors, actors, and producers.  Highly recommended.

Now that I’ve recommended this novel to all of you, I’d like to challenge those of you who’ve only visited the Manhattan idea of NYC to walk, drive, or take a ferry to each of the outer boroughs.  Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and enjoy strolling through the picturesque streets and the beautiful brownstones of Brooklyn; head over to Flushing, Queens and enjoy some of the tastiest Asian food you can get in this country; take in a Yankees game, visit the zoo, or tour of some NY’s highest rated college campuses in The Bronx; and the Staten Island Ferry is one of the top experiences you can have in NYC – the best photo opportunity for the Statue of Liberty – and once you reach the island you’ll discover the finest Italian food and some of the friendliest NYC natives.  Plus, the prices are cheaper!

Share some of your favorite things to do outside of Manhattan in the comments!