Friday, August 30, 2013

Reviewing Jane Austen's "Persuasion"

It’s the same old story.  Boy meets girl, they fall in love, boy proposes, and girl turns him down on the advice of a surrogate mother because the boy is a lowly naval officer* with few prospects and logically their marriage would end in disaster.  Then ten years later the boy comes into the girl’s life again and is rich, prestigious, and bent on not being in love with her again.

Such is the gist of Persuasion, Austen’s last complete novel before her death and often called her most mature and polished work. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Reviewing Jane Austen's "Emma"

Jane Austen called the character of Emma Wodehouse “a heroine whom no one but myself will much  like.” And I agree with her.  Emma is arrogant, catty, a gossip and a busybody.  But then, she is only twenty-one. 

Perhaps it is because the heroine is so very flawed that Emma is the most humorous of Austen’s works. It’s about a young, beautiful, rich socialite who has it all…and so amuses herself by trying to make it so everyone else has it all in the way of matrimony. A self-styled matchmaker, Emma starts her novel out on a high note, having successfully engineered the marriage between her governess and a neighboring country gentleman. 

Much to the chagrin of her neurotic old father and sarcastic family friend Mr. Knightley, Emma embarks on her next projects: finding a wife for their local clergyman Mr. Elton and adopting a protégé in the form of parentless and silly Harriet Smith. But Emma is only twenty-one and really does not understand anything about relationships.  She misinterprets the characters, motives, desires and feelings of pretty much everyone she encounters. She doesn’t even understand her own heart, which is probably the root of all the misinterpretations she makes of those around her. Like Catherine Morland, Emma is consumed by her own preconceptions of the world, and that’s where most of her mistakes originate.

While Emma is one of my least favorite Austen characters, the hero, Mr. Knightley, is my favorite, mostly because he is so snarky. Where Emma is over-the-top, Mr. Knightley is an average guy aside from being excessively rich.  Despite knowing that Emma is set in the same time period as the rest of Austen’s work, and therefore the costumes would be mostly top hats and frock-coats, I can’t help but always picture Mr. Knightley in a sweater. 

But that’s beside the point.

But now I have a mental image and I can’t remember what my point was.

Recommended Reading Age: 13+
Parental Notes: None.
Availability: Do not ask me why this hardcover copy has a chairs motif. Because I don’t know, and will be sorely tempted to just make up something to cover my ignorance. 

Adaptations: There are four adaptations, three of which I’d recommend. Two were made in 1996: the Kate Beckinsale/Mark Strong version (in which Emma has flights of fancy and Mark Strong shows that he has made some sort of Faustian deal in order to never age because HE LOOKS EXACTLY THE SAME THEN AS HE DOES NOW) and the Gwyneth Paltrow/Jeremy Northam version which was my favorite for quite some time.  The newest adaptation stars Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller, and is my favorite not only because Garai is one of my favorite actresses (and makes Emma hilariously manic), but also because it sports The. Best. Mr. Elton. Ever. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Reviewing Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey"

More than any other Jane Austen novel, Northanger Abbey chases the reader around with a morality hammer until it finally hits you over the head with “DO NOT LET YOUR IMAGINATION GET THE BETTER OF YOU!”

This is the first full novel Austen completed, so we have to be forgiving that her usual nuance is a bit clumsy and uneven. The gist of the storyline is simple: naïve clergyman’s daughter Catherine Morland is plucked from her idyllic country life and taken to The Big City of Bath to be introduced to society by a family friend. She makes several friends, but in her naïveté she tends to make them indiscriminately: some are quality and good-hearted, others have ulterior motives. But like Austen’s inexperienced writing, we forgive Catherine for being ignorant, because she’s too ignorant to know any better. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Reviewing Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility"

I’ve already discussed a lot about Sense and Sensibility at length, so I’ll try not to retread familiar ground. Instead of the overall plot or characters, then, I’d like to talk about why this novel is relevant now.

When I suggest Jane Austen to teens (mostly girls, but I think the books could be profitable reads for guys too), I usually have S&S in mind. While Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s best, most famous, and most influential work, Sense and Sensibility has the most relevance for adolescents. Why?  Because it’s about walking the minefield of romantic relationships, a perilous journey that all too many teens embark upon unprepared.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

"Pride and Prejudice:" A Review

I’m going to start with the Jane Austen novel that is the most famous and the most loved.  It’s so commonly known (and its plot is so often copied in today’s romcom movies) that I will forego the story synopsis and get right down to talking about the characters.

Pride and Prejudice was the reason I bought the complete Jane Austen novel collection; I had seen the Wishbone episode on “P&P” (as we Austenites affectionately call it) and wanted to read it myself.  Some of my fondest reading memories are of lying on the carpet behind our couch, head propped up on my wrists over the tiny lettering. 

It was from P&P I learned what “amiable” meant.  (Jane Austen loves the word “amiable.”  Just read all her stuff and you’ll see I’m right.)  It is also from P&P that my mom and sister and I gleaned the phrase “her lace slipped” as a euphemism for a low-cut blouse.

Unlike most Austenites, I don’t really care for Mr. Darcy, at least in comparison with other literary gentlemen.  And I don’t even see what’s so particularly spectacular about our heroine, Elizabeth.  But put them in a room together, and sparks fly.  The fact is, this novel has two flawed, normal characters who share the same shortcomings (pride and prejudice) as well as the same virtues (discretion, honor, common sense).  Austen wrote with a wit that makes this book easily read as a romantic comedy, but make no mistake: there is real heart underneath the humor. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Time to Cave In and Talk About Jane Austen

First a note to the gentlemen: Jane Austen is an author. Jane Eyre is a book. Your significant other may pretend it’s charming the first few times you mix up the two, but after a while it becomes tedious. Austenian novels are the ladies’ version of football, and just as it irks when a lady asks “When will they hit a home run?” it also annoys when you go off on your tirade about how these movies are just for girls. Sure, these novels are centered on female characters and have a distinct lack of explosions and sword fighting, but I always recommend gentlemen read at least Pride and Prejudice, if only because they’re going to be compared to Mr. Darcy by all their girlfriends whether they know who Mr. Darcy is or not, and they might as well know what preconceptions they’re up against.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Phantom Narrator: Ishmael of "Moby Dick"

Before I start this entry I feel it only fair to point out that Melville was an amateur novelist,* so perhaps it is the inexpert hand of the writer that causes me to question his narrator along the following lines:  Is this Ishmael guy even reliable?

Ishmael’s friendship with Queequeg, which has been hailed as a biracial bosom-friendship before its time, doesn’t seem as deep once they get on the Pequod, where Queequeg seems to blend into the rest of the ship’s crew…or rather, Ishmael ceases to be an active character and therefore can’t interact with Queequeg as a best friend any longer.  He narrates the ongoing thoughts of Ahab and Starbuck among others, while he as a character is entirely passive, almost completely fading from the activity of the Pequod. 

So, barring Melville’s awkward use of the novel genre, either Ishmael has some mental telepathy thing going on, or maybe he doesn’t really exist at all—that is, at least in the same way the other characters exist.  Maybe he exists in a way that allows him to know everyone’s thoughts, like a phantom. 
The Mat-Maker scene could be interpreted along this line.  While weaving a sword-mat, Ishmael says that he "kept passing and repassing" as Queequeg among others remained stationary in their tasks.  Thus, like the shuttle of a loom, Ishmael is moving among the crew members of the Pequod, who act as the fixed threads.  The fixedness could mean that everyone's fate is sealed, except Ishmael. Which would explain how "he alone survived"...he wasn't alive to begin with.

*But then, aren't we all?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Phantom Narrator: The Gentleman of "The Old Curiosity Shop"

I am a fan of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain.  Both are authors whose works I have collected in hardcover at used book-sales at libraries and flea markets or asked for as Christmas or birthday gifts.  Not that I see much similarity with their writing styles, I just find it an odd coincidence that both of my favorite authors are victims of the Phantom Narrator Syndrome.

Like Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Charles Dickens disappointed me with The Old Curiosity Shop.  Granted, there is a vast difference between these books, but both deal with saintly* young women who are destroyed due to the evil around them, and both are narrated by Phantoms. 


Twain’s novel is narrated by the loyal but uncomplicated character of Louis, and Dickens starts off his novel with an unnamed Gentleman walking the streets of London and meeting the main heroine, Little Nell.  He follows her home to her poor grandfather’s curiosity shop (an action I found a bit creepy, frankly) to make sure she gets home safely.  After this first encounter he can’t stop worrying about the impoverished, perfect child, and so goes to visit her again. 

Unfortunately the Gentleman’s fears are well-founded: Little Nell’s grandfather is a weak, foolish, greedy man addicted to gambling.  Little Nell’s brother is pretty much the same (though a bit younger, I’d assume).  The Grandfather owes money to the wicked money-lender Daniel Quilp** who sets his sights on being Evil For Pretty Much No Reason and taking over the curiosity shop and turning Nell and her grandfather into prisoners/servants.  Little Nell gets her grandfather to run away, and they become hobos…except without the nifty symbol-language or bindles hung over their shoulders.

At this point Dickens forgets that he was narrating in the first person (and pretty much forgets the Gentleman altogether) and switches to third person to finish this tale of inevitable woe and regret.  This is one of the cases where the story should have been in third person for its entirety, though knowing how Dickens’ novels were published in installments and he probably didn’t anticipate the perspective shift until it was necessary.  In writer’s lingo, Dickens was a pantser.*** 


*Though in Joan of Arc’s case, she is a saint.

**Seriously?  Where DOES Dickens get all these awesome and weird names?

***Though whether he actually went around pulling people’s pants down around their ankles is subject to speculation among literary critics.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Phantom Narrator: Louis from "The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc"

This novel is my least favorite of the works I’ve read of Mark Twain thus far (and I’ve read more than a few!).  My reasons are as follows:

-          It lacked the characteristic humor (or at least dark satire) that makes a Mark Twain book a Mark Twain book.

-          Although it recorded a lot of events from Joan of Arc’s life, I felt Twain didn’t really add anything of his own to the story.  It was more like reading a biography or history book than a historical fiction novel.

-          The narrator, Louis, was a Phantom Narrator

In fact, most of the characters in this novel are phantoms.  I never got attached or related to any of them.  Even the title heroine Joan of Arc was a phantom: Louis goes on and on about how perfect she is, and yet her perfection cost her any depth of personality or psychological complexity. 

Louis is not completely passive, I’ll give him that.  He and his friends follow Joan into battle of their own free will with a loyalty and friendship that stems from…well, apparently just because Joan is awesome.  Sadly Louis’ motivations are never given more foundation than Joan being the charismatic leader of a noble cause. 

One gets the feeling throughout the novel that Twain was so entranced by the life of Joan of Arc and the person that she was, that he couldn’t bear to humanize the girl saint or commit the sacrilege of peppering his plot with bits of dark humor.  As a result, the book is flat.

I would recommend this book to read, not for enjoyment of literature, but actually for a history class.  It would make a good essay or research paper, comparing Twain’s interpretation with the historical facts.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Phantom Narrator: Introduction

This character analysis series is not, unfortunately, about the comic book character The Phantom.  Instead it is about the poor habit that many authors have fallen into: writing passive narrators.  These narrators do only what their title requires: they narrate.  They look on as the other characters in the book leap into action.  They describe as tumult and change swirl around them, but don’t seem all that affected by it. 

Is this true to life?  In a way, yes.  There have been many times when I have watched from afar as things occurred, or listened to a conversation without contributing much to it.  If I were in the midst of a battle—well, to be honest I’d run helter-skelter out of there!  But I certainly wouldn’t be very good in a classic action scene. 

The problem with passive narrators—I call them “phantoms”—is not that they are inactive, but that they don’t have much (if any) impact on the plot or other characters.  After awhile you start to wonder how they even are still caught up in the action, when they make hardly any effort to keep up with the flow of the plot.  The story would usually work just as well written from the third-person perspective. 

As is probably evident already, I’m not a fan of this method of writing, and I find that I dislike many of the books narrated this way.  Even if I like the overall plot, I invariably loathe the narrator.   

By way of introduction to this series, let’s use a well-known book as an example.  The Great Gatsby is a book that is lauded as a Great American Novel.  (In many ways I agree it’s superbly written.)  It is narrated by the character Nick Carraway.  (In this instance, I’ll even take back what I said about the book being better written from third-person, because I don’t think it would have worked here.)  Nick Carraway finds himself “going with the flow” of parties, wealthy socialites, and the enigmatic Jay Gatsby.  He sees all the events (and to be honest there isn’t much in the way of plot until the end of this book) from beginning to end. 

If you haven’t read the book, you probably haven’t finished high school yet because it’s still pretty generic High School Required Reading.  But in case you still haven’t read it, I won’t ruin the surprise ending where it turns out that Jay Gatsby is Nick Carraway’s father who wants  him to join the Dark Side of West Egg. 

Oops I think that is another overly-known spoiler.  Sorry for the confusion.

My point is Nick Carraway leaves the story disillusioned with the American Dream, frustrated with the corruption of wealth and the idle superficiality of society.  Is this a good (if kinda downer) theme for a Great American Novel?  Yes.  But then I also must remind you that Nick has done nothing to try to change the depressing outcome of the novel.  He knows EVERYTHING that happens.  He even has the outsider perspective to see how things are going to go downhill.  He’s supposedly the COUSIN of one of the main characters, supposedly romantically involved with another girl, supposedly a friend* to Gatsby, supposedly a good “middle-class” upstanding moral guy.  And he does NILTCH.  He sits there and listens to conversations without interfering/interceding.  There’s even a point (which is spoilerish) where he knows information that he SHOULD give to the police, but he stays out of it, with tragic consequences.  If he leaves the novel with a dour outlook on life, it’s his own fault if you ask me.

So, how’d you like my little rant?  Fancy some more?  Cool because you have no choice.  

*Or SON…?  Duh duh DUH!  Sorry, just wishful thinking.