My brother gave me the 19th century to love

I graduated from high school believing I hated English Literature. And wasn’t that fond of the Americans, in terms of what was considered classics. I was mainly stuck on Sinclair Lewis, and everyone else except Harper Lee came up short (or very, very long,) and dull. It was disappointing for someone who likes to read pretty much all the time. My brother, who was about 24 just then, told me I’d just been reading all the wrong books. He suggested, among others, Jane Austen.

I realized it’s customary on the internet to wax on about having begun reading at three, to have read Jane Eyre at age eight, and Pride and Prejudice at eleven, and therefore having been absorbed in it all from the beginning, but I didn’t begin reading until six, at eight I was reading Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, and at eleven, Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, and Judy Blume. I read all the 1970s YA there was, and all the murder mysteries, and quite a lot of horror about child ghosts haunting old houses and wells and things.

People are just as shocked to learn I began in such a paltry way as they are to learn I have no college degree. But for me, it was not paltry. It was a young life steeped in reading what I found around me. I can assure you that in the 1970s and early 80s, no child was reading classic Regency and Victorian literature unless they had a fairly unusual set of books on their shelves at home, or a rather enlightened relative to show them the path. It was not ordinary at that particular time to stumble over Wuthering Heights, which is a book I still loathe, but that’s another topic.

Those girls read Frances Hodgson Burnett, I read Ian Fleming, in a set of cheap hard cover books Mom kept in the little bookcase with the sliding doors at the bottom. I did love Louisa May Alcott, and if I’d known how much more sickly sweet prose on the order of Eight Cousins had been written in the late 19th century, I’m sure I’d have covered it all. But I did not, until much later on.

So my brother told me to read Jane Austen. I didn’t know quite where to begin, but where I ended up first was in a tree in Loose Park in Kansas City, with a bag of almond croissants and a new copy of Emma, bought at an overpriced bookstore on the Plaza. I was captivated. And then by Pride and Prejudice, as well. I just read Emma first because I liked the cover better.

When I learned I could see a film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring the divine Greer Garson, I sought it out eagerly, and was subsequently deeply disappointed. It was all wrong, strange and anachronistic and parodical. Of course Miss Garson was good in it, as was Laurence Olivier, an actor I’ve always only uncomfortably liked, but then, that too is another topic.

Later on, I learned to appreciate that 1940 adaptation as a Thing of Its Own. I learned the action was deliberately pushed forward thirty years, which explains the sets, costumes, and dances. I knew more about how movies were made in that era, and that this one was meant to follow on the heels of the hugely successful Gone With the Wind. Realizing all this, it stands well on its own terms, and even the story changes mostly make sense. There’s a long, long absurd scene near the end that keeps the movie from being a great, though highly adapted story. But I’ve made my peace with it in a way I have yet to make peace with the 2005 adaptation or any adaptation of Mansfield Park, another Jane Austen novel.

At first I loved only Emma and Pride and Prejudice. I liked, but did not love Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. I wanted to like but struggled with Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Persuasion just needed me to grow up a bit more before it became one of my favorite novels of all. And Emma Thompson taught me to love Sense and Sensibility by writing a perfectly edited version of it for her 1995 adaptation. Turns out there’s nothing wrong with Austen’s original version that a confident red pen couldn’t fix.  

I learned to appreciate Mansfield Park by championing Fanny Price as a worthy heroine, against people, even Jane Austen herself, who found her too good to be liked. I kept rereading it so I could defend my position, and found much more to appreciate in it.

I understand Northanger Abbey for what it is; a very well done pastiche of the gothic novels that were so popular in Austen’s own youth, but I’ll never really like it.

Eventually I read all the Brontes, but see only sister Charlotte as a literary friend. I’ve read Gaskell, Dickens, James, Trollope, who is my 19th century Sinclair Lewis—more able to be satisfied with how it all goes along, though—and quite a lot more from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. I still like morality plays only when they are accompanied by a strong dose of humor. I’ll never appreciate Nathaniel Hawthorne or Herman Melville, but I learned that when a Russian wrote the same sort of story set in the same general period of time, I usually enjoyed it. 

I like the concept of Sherlock Holmes far more than the execution.

My shelves are filled largely with Golden Age detectives and with Wodehouse, and many favorites from my youth, but there’s one set aside for Austen and Trollope. That love began with a fairly earnest recommendation from my brother, and was birthed in a big old tree in one of my favorite spots in the whole world, over thirty years ago. I’d have still discovered Louise Penny, my favorite current author, without the benefit of first reading Austen, but it’s less certain I’d have found appreciation for Joanne Harris and Margaret Atwood and a few others.

Even still, in looking over the lists of what other people consider quite important to have read, there are whole swaths I could never put checkmarks to, because I was never assigned them in 300 level literature classes or introduced to them in ways that induce my interest. There are so many people floating about loftily proclaiming a person cannot be well-read without having delved into them all. But I get the sense these are still the same people who talk of having begun reading at three and quit Mensa at nineteen, and they make my head tired. Maybe if they could convince me they also loved The Clue in the Jewel Box, Ellen Tebbits, The Summer Jenny Fell in Love, and anything by Ellen Conford or M.E. Kerr, then they could convince me my life is incomplete without having finished The Epic of Gilgamesh, but for sheer volume of books consumed they’ll never touch me, and I feel fine about that. Plus, old favorites need annual attention between discoveries of new ones. Today is a good day to read Emma again.

and very good lists they were—Very well chosen, and very neatly arranged...

Yesterday at Google Plus, +Murphy Jacobs made a very good post about the composing of book lists, setting the parameters at 30 physical books you'd bring with you on a trip through time and space. "Because you are a smart person, and it's going to be a very long trip, you decide to take 15 books you know and love, and 15 books you've wanted to read but just haven't read yet."

The lists I saw from other people were all very good and interesting, so I thought a lot about it, then spent three hours last night composing my own. I wrote them on paper, because I think better that way, then took phone pix of the pages.

If you'll recall my last blog post, I mentioned wanting to make some goals for edification. One goal is to reread some books I didn't get enough out of the first time long ago. Another is to work in a more dedicated fashion on my French, which I've been doing, then take up Italian in the fall. I'm learning the Habanera aria, just for kicks, and working very hard on eating better. But last night, I got back to my book list making. I ended up with only 12 new books to read. However, one of them is actually 7 volumes, and so I imagine that's all right.

I take book lists as seriously as Emma Woodhouse always means to. 20140422_211401
So now I'm going to read these books. It might take the rest of the year since I won't do it all at once and have always other books to reread, and various series to follow. Probably I'll save the Proust for autumn. But I am commiting myself to posting something about each one in its turn.

Yes, I think a personal record was broken for use of the word "very." But this isn't to be edited; it's time to move on to folia, and life.

Oh, books, you know

2014 book series release dates to look forward to. There should be links but there are not. I will (no, really) add some in soon.

Flavia De Luce—Alan Bradley January 16
Sebastian St Cyr—C. S. Harris March 4
Molly Murphy—Rhys Bowen March 4
Charlotte and Thomas Pitt—Anne Perry March 25
Gaslight mysteries—Victoria Thompson May 6
Her Royal Spyness—Rhys Bowen August 5

I'm also looking forward to more from Louise Penny, my favorite current writer; head and shoulders above most of the rest (one exception is Alan Bradley, who is also a big fan of hers,) Deanna Raybourn's Lady Julia series, and Tasha Alexander's Lady Emily series. Raybourn has been writing stand-alone stories; I'll probably get to checking those out when they're discounted a bit. I hope there is another Captain Lacey book by Ashley Gardner (Jennifer Ashley) in the offing.

I keep meaning to have a look at Charles Finch's Charles Lenox series. He's terribly young to have written so many books, and I'm slightly jealous.  

I'm sure I've left some out. I wish Diana Gabaldon would write another Lord John Grey book, but she tends to be busy with her 1100 page Outlander cliffhangers. Oh, and Cara Black's Aimée Leduc, only up to 2010 with her.

I'm working through Phryne Fisher by Kerry Greenwood right now. Uneven, but kinda fun. Only today I suddenly had that "must read at least back half of Gaudy Night" sensation that comes around regularly.

Tu m'enivres...

I thought I'd muse a bit about a book I read fairly often which I was enjoying last night before sleep: Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers. It's the final book she wrote about the adventures of Lord Peter Wimsey, though there are a couple later short stories, and this is both good and bad. 

People say she was too in love with Lord Peter. Or they did at the time; I seem to remember Margery Allingham, who wrote Albert Campion stories, criticizing her of this. The thing is, you just can't not be in love with Lord Peter. If you like to love men, that is. (And perhaps are of a somewhat intellectual bent...) So this book, besides being a very clever story, is a summation of his mystifying and ever-so-slightly awkward glory. The first section of the book is a prologue (Prothalamion) told in epistolic (letters and diary entries) form, and just to read that without ever reading the story itself is like having really exquisite foreplay, knowing that whatever follows will supremely consummate the long time longed-for love. But then...that's it. Where else could the tale go? Yet I always wish it would just carry on and give me more.

But Dorothy L. couldn't have him, of course. She'd made him up. So she gave him to Harriet Vane, which was as close as she could get, and then began focusing on theology instead of mystery stories. 

I've done the same thing in my own stories, but I want to rework it. Initially, I wrote Jack D'Abruzzo like a brother I wished for, and when I realized I was wishing in the wrong direction, I gave him to my rather absurd fictional twin, Violet. Because you can't draw down the moon and conjur reality just by writing it all down. But it's nice to think you can come pretty close.

Il arrive toujours le moment où l'on apprend à distinguer entre embrasser et baiser...

more stuff that needs relinking

September 12, 2003

i forgot to mention the really great way Jim Kerr pronounces 'r.' it's the Scottish thing, i imagine. it makes me happy.

here are some book characters i've fallen in love with at various points in my life, and what's so special about them:

Calvin O'Keefe from A Wrinkle in Time and subsequent stories by Madeline L'Engle. he was a poor kid with a talent for basketball and math. and i loved him from the first time i read his description, when i was eight years old.

Archie Goodwin from Nero Wolfe stories by Rex Stout. i first read Nero Wolfe stories at about age ten, and Archie is still dreamy to me. he's Wolfe's right-hand man, a man-about-town, and has a way with words that could melt any smart girl's heart. the descriptions of him in the early books are not of my dream man, but that's okay, because Archie's inner qualities transcend the faults of light-colored hair and not-enough nose. plus, now that there's been a TV show of the stories, i can just picture him looking like Timothy Hutton, and that's a happy thing.

Mr. Knightley from Emma, by Jane Austen. he's just perfect. really. i first read Emma at the age of seventeen, and i thought how perfect the world would be if only Mr. Knightley would appear when i jumped down from the tree i was reading in at Loose Park in Kansas City. he'd be, interestingly enough, about the age i am now, but that would have done my precocious heart good then, i think. he owned land but was kind to those who worked it for him, and he was well-educated and refined, yet down-to-earth. when i learned he was going to be portrayed by Jeremy Northam i probably fainted. The Gwyneth Paltrow Emma is not perfect otherwise, but that's okay.

Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. this love followed on the heels of the previous one. he's not quite as perfect as Mr. Knightley, but he comes close. he has an inner passion that speaks to my soul, and a quiet spirit that belies the fire burning beneath the gentlemanly surface. Colin Firth was as nearly perfect to play Mr. Darcy as Mr. Darcy is for me. poor guy, i guess he's never lived that part down.

Harry Dresden from Storm Front and others in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. Harry is my latest book love, as i only discovered him this summer, but i'm sure we're soul mates. Harry is a tall, lanky wizard who uses his magic for good, yet finds himself in trouble with dark forces on a regular basis. he lives in Chicago and has trouble making ends meet. if i lived in the fictional world of the Dresden Files i would sell articles, run a catering business or manage a bar if i had to, so that Harry could go on fighting the forces of darkness with no financial woes, and whenever we both had time off we'd spend it cuddled up before the fire in his basement apartment.

finally, i should put in a word for Lord Peter Wimsey, of stories by Dorothy L. Sayers. i'm not really in love with him, but holodeck possibilities definitely come to mind.