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Archive for July, 2018

As I wrote earlier this month, my church has started a 19th century British fiction book club. Our first book was Adam BedeIn August we’ll be discussing Pride and Prejudice. 

I’ve read Pride and Prejudice at least twice before, and have seen an adaptation. But I still throughly enjoyed re-reading it this weekend. I find Austen’s biting wit entertaining, but more than that, I enjoy knowing she was unafraid to assert her views at a time when women were often meant to be, like Elizabeth and Jane Bennet’s younger sisters Lydia and Kitty in Pride and Prejudice, more interested in bonnets and balls than in independent thought. Austen approves of sensibility and goodness and doesn’t shy away from showing how silly it is to live a life of vanity and vacuousness. Eliot does this to some extent as well, for example showing Hetty in Adam Bede to be vain and foolish in believing that the young Captain Donnithorne, heir to the local squire, will marry her.

But Austen does it with humor, and allows the brooding but ultimately honorable Mr. Darcy to quietly come to the aid of the Bennet family when Lydia goes astray, while Eliot makes Hetty an object lesson, has her sentenced to death, and shows the good rector, Mr. Irwine, and the man guilty of causing Hetty’s disgrace, Captain Donnithorne, only able to spare her life, but not to rescue her. Hetty has to serve a sentence, Donnithorne goes away to do his own sort of penance. Both stories make for good reading, but I personally have a soft spot for Austen’s wit. In fact, regular readers of bookconscious will know that I often invoke Austen when praising contemporary books that employ witty social criticism as part of the story.

And she just has such a way with words. Take this line, describing the moments after Mr. Bennet has spoken with his cousin, the bumptious clergyman Mr. Collins, who due to entailment will inherit Longbourn, the Bennet’s home. Austen writes, “Mr. Bennet’s expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure.” In one sentence, we can see understand how Mr. Bennet feels and how he is behaving, down to his expression.

And she doesn’t spare even her heroines or heroes from her sharp pen. Both Elizabeth and Darcy act with pride or prejudice or both, and it is only as the novel progresses that the two of them, independent of but in relation to each other, realize their errors and learn from them. It’s a credit to Austen’s keen observation of human nature that in her books there are often three types of character — those whose folly or unkindness never improves (mainly because they are unaware of their own faults), those who like Elizabeth and Darcy grow, often in order to be better people to those in they care about, and those who like Elizabeth’s older sister Jane are simply good people, able to maintain their equilibrium and to treat others with dignity even when they are silly or mean.

If you look around, we’re much the same today, and that’s the final reason I think Austen’s work holds up and continues to resonate with readers today. The things she observed were often “a universal truth” and still apply to our world even though so many social norms are different. For example, we still “make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn” — you only have to turn on a reality TV show to see that. If you haven’t re-read Austen lately, I recommend you spend a sunny summer Sunday afternoon with her soon!

 

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I’ve written before about my admiration for Exterminating Angel Press, including Snotty Saves the Daythe first book in the History of Arcadia series. Report to Megalopolis is the fourth. Tod Davies runs the press and wrote this series, and full disclosure: I really enjoy her work and she knows it, and sent me a copy of this book.

You can read Report to Megalopolis without having read the other books in the History of Arcadia (although why wouldn’t you?). It’s meant to be the writings of Aspern Grayling, a sort of combination mad scientist politician. Aspern is reporting to Livia, a witch who rules Megalopolis behind the scenes, via a council. Aspern grew up in Arcadia and had a love hate relationship with his brilliant colleague Devindra Vale. When he hatches a plan to take over Arcadia, he uses cloning and genetic engineering to impregnate Devindra’s daughter Merope with triplets, but only one survives — Pavo, Aspern’s “son” and creation, his “god,” “made through the chemical manipulation of the human genome.”

Aspern’s story reflects back on this history and tells also of Pavo’s attempted conquest of Arcadia and his desire to rule the whole world. But his report is also the story of Aspern’s reckoning with all that he has done. It’s not a pleasant tale — there is incest, rape, war, maiming and killing, and a great deal of misogyny. The people of Arcadia, ruled by queens who value scholarship and fairy tales, art and nature, peace and justice, offer some hope that the kind of lust for power Pavo represents cannot dominate goodness. But some Arcadians are swayed by Aspern’s calculated campaign to “cultivate the seeds of vanity and ego, of putting the ‘I’ before all else, and of fascination with godly risk rather than the puling weakness of self-preservation.” Men swayed by this and by Aspern’s efforts to foster “unrest” through “desire for growth beyond the limits of what Arcadia could provide” join Pavo’s band of power thirsty followers.

Sound familiar? Aspern reminisces that he and Livia discussed the danger of “independent thought,” recalling that they agreed that “Even one moment of independent thought can overturn years of centralized power.” Ah, the hope. Aspern knows, “Independent thought, independent life, independent story — this was the complete teaching of Devindra Vale.” Will these survive?

I won’t give away how it all turns out, but I’ll tell you I stayed up late trying to find out what happened. Just as I’ve said before, this series is for readers who like their fantasy injected with a good dose of ethics and philosophy. There’s plenty to discuss about the parallels between this story and other great tales of the struggle between political systems, value systems, and world views, from Frankenstein to Star Wars, not to mention the world we live in.

I’ll leave you this thought: reading a book from a small press like Exterminating Angel, supporting independent publishing, local bookstores, your library, all of this is a strike against the Megalopoleis (I declare that the plural of Megalopolis) of our own world, and a source of strength for our own Arcadias. And I’ll leave with you with this image, found in the a note from of Isabel the Scholar, friend of Shanti Vale (Devindra’s granddaughter) , and founder of the “Evolutionary Movement” at the end of this book:

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A brief and amusing backstory to this book: I bought The Accidental Pilgrim by Maggi Dawn along with an embarrassingly tall stack of other really intriguing books at the Yale Divinity School Student Book Supply, which is a terrific independent bookstore at YDS, last February when we were visiting the former Teen the Elder. He was in class, and joined us for the completion of the purchase since he’s a member. We then proceeded to the Marquand chapel for worship, which that day was a baptist service with very beautiful music and a wonderful sermon. I was into it, I admit, and sang along where I could and moved with the music and clapped — especially to a South African song I’ve sung with Songweavers & Songhealers (Siyahamba/We Are Marching in the Light of God). A woman who seemed roughly of my generation was seated next to me and we exchanged smiles. She also seemed moved by the service and the music.

Afterwards we had lunch, and I was showing our son the books I bought. Two were by Maggi Dawn, and he remarked casually, “Oh that’s who you sat next to in chapel.” Oh. Gosh. And swayed and clapped like a  slightly awkward privileged white middle class woman (which I am). Ahem.

Anyway, The Accidental Pilgrim is one of those books. I read it over the past couple of days at a time when I’m feeling a little at loose ends. My family is on a journey not of our own choosing right now, and the summer has been very wrapped up in it. In the end it will have changed our lives (hopefully for the better) and strengthened us individually and collectively, will have changed the way we see the world and our place(s) in it, and will have helped us see who we are and how we want to live. I hadn’t thought of it as a pilgrimage, and I hadn’t thought I needed to read about pilgrims. When I picked this up, I was here in the house alone (the Computer Scientist was away at a conference) and I made myself a comfort food dinner (poached eggs and beet greens on toast) and browsed my bookshelves. One book after the next seemed not quite right until I landed on this one.

Dawn organizes The Accidental Pilgrim around three times in her life when she was a pilgrim of sorts: in graduate school at Cambridge when she went to the Holy Land on a summer study trip, when her young son was still in a pushchair (stroller to we Americans) and she was facing doubts about what she could and couldn’t do as a woman priest and a new mother, and when she was laid up by an illness just as she and her son were going to embark on a weeklong walk on the Camino. In none of these instances did she embark on what she consciously thought of as a pilgrimage, and in each that is what she came to see herself doing.

I loved this book, and it was, like the sermon I heard that day in Marquand chapel, just what I needed. Some passages resonated with me; others spoke to me like the sort of straight talking friend who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth when you’re resisting the inevitable. For example: “. . . such a journey not only removes you from home comforts, but also forces you into the constant company of others. . . . sometimes uncomfortably so, for some dither about while others stride ahead like sergeant-majors, barking instructions to others to keep up. . . . And of course, it doesn’t take long to realize that you yourself are being seen close up by others. Any false impressions of noblesse or spiritual maturity is soon whittled away until the true picture becomes visible, but more often than not, in the midst of this dose of human reality there emerges a deepening sense of affection for, and dependence upon, others.”

I’m partway through an experience like that, at the painful realization of being seen close up by others part. Anyone who has done something challenging (intellectually, emotionally, physically, spiritually, any which way) in community will recognize the truth in Dawn’s assessment. She writes beautifully and thoughtfully on the desert fathers, famous pilgrims and pilgrimages, “‘thin places’ where earth seems to touch heaven,” poetry, theology, travel, motherhood — all in a book that’s only 151 pages including notes. A smart book, a good read, and one that has given me plenty to think about.

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My friend Peg lent me this book after reading my review of The Enchanted April Elizabeth von Arnim wrote many novels, and The Caravaners was the eighth, published in 1909. It is meant to be the diary of Otto, Baron von Ottringel, an officious German army major who tells readers he is writing a book about his caravan holiday in England. Besides Otto and his wife, Edelgard, and their neighbor, the widow Frau von Eckthum, they traveled with an aristocratic German-English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Menzies-Legh, a niece of that couple and her friend, a Socialist MP named Jellaby, and a man “going into the church” named Browne, who Otto later learns is also Lord Sigismund, younger son of an aristocrat.

Otto has very definite ideas about women and the English, none of which are favorable. He believes Germany to be superior in every way, and looks forward to a time in the near future when he believes Germany will conquer England. Von Arnim was clearly writing with the impending World War on her mind. And with Otto, she satirizes German alpha masculinity as Otto appears more and more ridiculous throughout the book. Edelgard enjoys the holiday and comes into her own, even shortening her very proper skirts. By the end readers may wonder why she stays with him, when he is such a disagreeable, bullying, sanctimonious, self-absorbed man, but perhaps von Arnim knew what that was like.

At any rate, while the book is funny, it was less funny to read this past week as a similarly self-absorbed, misogynist alpha male blundered around Europe in America’s name. I enjoyed it, but my sense of humor is low at the moment. Still von Antrim is wickedly observant and I found her comparison of Anglican and Lutheran practices at the time interesting. Otto tells an Anglican priest “And Lutherans . . . do not pray. At least not audibly, and certainly never in duets.” I chuckled at that.

A good read, although maybe one not perfectly matched to my present mood.  I’m glad Peg thought of me though, and shared it.

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The former Teen the Elder is in New York this summer, and I’m glad for him. I wanted to get down to see him but it’s looking unlikely, so I’m taking a field trip of the mind instead. I picked up Letter from New York at the Five Colleges Book Sale in April, and was very excited to read it. I love 84, Charing Cross Road. Letter is a collection of six years of BBC Women’s Hour scripts (each a five minute broadcast) that Helene Hanff recorded from 1978-1984 about her “everyday life.” Much like the letters she sent to Frank Doel, they are full of her particular observations and somehow those add up to a lovely composite view of New York. Her descriptions of block parties, communal living as an apartment dweller, all the glory of Central Park throughout the seasons, the myriad free or low cost cultural opportunities in the city, doormen who drive little old ladies to the beach, and more will make you nostalgic, even if you, like I, have never lived in NYC. It’s just a charming book, a slice of Americana, from a witty and thoughtful writer who captured the humanity of living in a a place many people think of as impersonal and imposing.

I’ve read Here is New York by E.B. White before; I can’t recall where I got my copy, but it’s the original hardcover edition from 1949. it’s even briefer than Letter from New York, just 50 pages. While Hanff intends to tell her BBC listeners about life as it is, White tells readers a little about the New York he’s visiting during a heat wave, and also reminisces about a New York he knew as a younger man, before the Depression and World War II. In fact, as this small book ends, he reflects on the recent advent of advanced airpower and its potential to “quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers . . . The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.” He predicted that “In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning,” “New York has a certain clear priority” as a target.  He predicted 9/11, in 1949.

So Hanff’s book is less frightening, but both books are a delight for people who love words. Hanff, describing her good friend’s Old English Sheepdog, Bentley, in Central Park after a blizzard: “Bentley loves the snow, but the drifts were high enough to bury him, and he had a special technique for surmounting them. What he did was, he hopped over the snow like a vast furry rabbit, his huge bulk curving high in midair, his four feet landing lightly and then leaping onward.” White, on a summer night, also in Central Park, “In the trees the night wind stirs, bringing the leaves to life, endowing them with speech; the electric lights illuminate the green branches from the under side, translating them into a new language.”

They both emphasize that New York is special because it is such a diverse place, teeming with people from everywhere doing everything. Or as White so eloquently describes, “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain illusive.” Makes me want to hop on a bus or train right now!

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My church is offering a 19th century British literature book club. The first choice is Adam Bede and I figured I’d give it a try — summer is a good time to take on a thick classic. I didn’t realize this was George Eliot‘s first novel. I’ve read both Middlemarch and Silas Marner each a couple of times.

Eliot really dives into the time and place of her her novels — when Adam Bede opens, she tells us, “With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr. Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the eighteenth of June, in the year of our Lord 1799.” And then with a great deal of evocative detail, she describes to us exactly what the room looked, smelled, and felt like, who was in it (including our hero, Adam Bede, and his brother, Seth) and what they were doing and saying.  “A scent of pinewood from a tent-like pile of planks outside the open door mingled with the scent of the elder-bushes which were spreading their summer snow close to the window opposite; the slanting sunbeams shone through the transparent shavings that flew before the steady plane, and lit up the fine grain of the oak paneling . . . . ” And so on.

Throughout the novel this level of detail enriches the story and takes modern readers into Hayslope and its environs. Adding to the clear view of Adam Bede’s world are the  asides from the narrator filling in views on the Methodist church, realism in Dutch paintings, the annual harvest dinner at Hall Farm and the society found there, the loss of leisure as best exemplified in “a sunny walk through the fields from ‘afternoon church,” lost in a world where “Even idleness is eager.” Eliot’s dialogue, from the local gentry Arthur’s “. . . dip my cravat in and souse it on my head” to Adam’s mother Lisbeth’s patios, “An what wut do when thy mother’s gone, an’ nobody to take care on thee as thee gett’st a bit of victual comfortable i’ the mornin’?” Gorgeous. Hard to read, though, which is why it took longer than a contemporary book.

The story itself is a dramatic one, based partially on real people in George Eliot’s life and a story her aunt told her. Adam loves Hetty, a silly young woman living with aunt and uncle, the Poysers, at Hall Farm and helping in the dairy. Hetty and Arthur fall in love, even though Arthur can never marry down. Adam demands Arthur quit toying with her, and believes Hetty will recover and might eventually love him. A dramatic twist to the story, a tragedy, and time lead Arthur eventually to care for Dinah, a young Methodist preacher, also related to the Poysers, who is as smart and kind as Hetty is selfish and shallow. But, Seth also loves Dinah, and Dinah only wants to care for the poor and the godless. I won’t give away how it all works out, but it’s a satisfying tale, with a great variety of characters.

While none of the women ends up defying convention quite as much as their author, several of them have their say, which I enjoyed. There’s a scene where Mrs. Poyser tells off Arthur’s grandfather, the Squire, who is her landlord on the estate, and then tells her husband (who Eliot describes as “a little alarmed and uneasy, but not without some triumphant amusement at his wife’s outbreak”) ” . . . I’ve had my say out, and I shall be th’ easier for ‘t all my life. There’s no pleasure i’ living, if you’re to be corked up for ever, and only dribble your mind out by the sly, like a leaky barrel. I shan’t repent saying what I think, if I live to be as old as th’ old Squire. . . . ” Between Hetty’s ignorance of what is happening to her and Mrs. Poyser’s tart truth, Eliot seems to sum up the polar extremes of women’s positions in nineteenth century society.

I also love Mr. Irwine, the local rector, and Eliot’s description of how he’d been the subject of some criticism for being a little too comfortable to be a good clergyman. She allows that he has no “theological enthusiasm” and “felt no serious alarms about the souls of his parishioners” but “He was one one of those men, and they are not the commonest, of whom we can know the best only by following him away from the market-place, the platform, and the pulpit, entering with them into their own homes, hearing the voice with which they speak to the young and aged about their own hearthstone, and witnessing their thoughtful care for the everyday wants of everyday companions, who take all their kindness as a matter of course . . . .” That’s an apt description as we see Mr. Irwine care for both Adam and Arthur, Hetty, and his own elderly mother and ailing sister.

Adam Bede is a wonderful read, and I’m looking forward to discussing it next week.

 

 

 

 

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Lauren Groff is coming to my local bookstore tomorrow, so yesterday at work I decided to check out Fates and Furies, which we happened to have. I read Arcadia several years ago and had always meant to read more of her work. I’d heard this book was about a marriage, so I think I was expecting something a little more down to earth. This is no novel about a mundane marriage. The people in this book are quite beyond anyone you know. And the telling is, too.

Which isn’t usually my thing, I realized as I read it today. It’s not that I dislike reading about the unusual — in this case, Lotto, heir to a fortune, disowned by his unhinged mother for marrying Mathilde, who Lotto believes to be the purest most virtuous person he knows. Lotto, it turns out, is the genius his mother always thought he’d be, and becomes a famous playwright. Mathilde, it turns out, has a number of unsavory secrets. But ordinarily I’m not very interested in stories about wealth and fame and privilege, even with a dash of tragedy thrown in.

And yet, I spent my holiday reading this book to the end, and couldn’t stop. Not only because I wondered what craziness would come next, but because Groff is just the kind of writer who compels the reader onward. Her writing is also intriguing. Sentences like “The sun shifted to reclining. It was eight at night.” And, “Hot milk of a world, with its skin of morning fog in the window.”And, “For a long time afterward, Mathilde was clammy on the inside. A grayish clay, crumbling on its surface.” Somehow these interesting ways of describing things didn’t slow me down, they made me curious to see where they were leading.

So, a good read, full of too many twists to reveal, with characters I enjoyed very much. The good and the bad aren’t caricatured, even when they could have been; you’ll probably find something to admire and loathe in most of the characters. The little details — Lotto’s sister Rachel and her wife have matching turnip tattoos, for example — give them three dimensions, warm breath. And the perspective, one part of the book showing the marriage as Lotto sees it, one part showing it as Mathilde does, is intriguing.

I’ve had it on good authority (several people in my book club!) that The Monsters of Templeton is fantastic, and I still remember listening to Richard Russo, who was in town for an author event, say that one of the best things he’d read was Delicate Edible Birds. It’s nice when you enjoy an author’s work to know there is still more to read.

Back to the 19th century and Adam Bede!

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