Friday, June 24, 2011

I Heart JA

It's been quite a while since I read an Austenprose pick - Major Pettigrew's Last Stand was the last - so I'm certainly due for one.  And this one is a true Austen, not just some tangentially related female-geared novel.  Claire Harman has written Jane's Fame - subtitled "How Jane Austen Conquered the World". Really, you say? Jane Austen rules the world? Well you know I think so at least :) (to the non-existent readers of this blog, I refer you to an old joke, the tagline of which is "Rochel thinks she's the whole world" - see, girls? I'm not the only one!)  The premise of the book? Tracing the growth of Jane Austen's popularity from her lifetime until now.

Now you know I'm not going to argue about Jane Austen's (or, as we Janeites would have it, Jane's :)) popularity or supremacy is the world of literature.  But it's funny to find that so many of my ideas are shared by others, and have been shared for ages.  The idea that one can be judged on their like and dislike of JA - I have said repeatedly that when it comes to girls, I don't get why anyone wouldn't like P&P.  And I consider it a negative trait to dislike it, of course :) And I certainly feel strongly enough about why I like the book to be offended when others try to interpret it in other ways.  And I get a kick out of hearing how all these famous literati worship Austen.  Okay, maybe it makes me a little cliche, but you know what? I don't mind being cliche.  Besides, there aren't *all* that many people who like JA enough to actually read this book... right?

The book itself is a lot of fun to read.  It starts out as a bit of a biography, since it talks about Austen's notoriety during her lifetime.  But, unlike a biography, it talks mostly about Austen's relationship with the public, meaning it largely avoids the speculation necessary to write a comprehensive biography of the author's personal life.  There were a few occasional indulgences in fancy, but nothing to get me too distracted.  And once the book passes into Austen's posthumous reputation, it becomes almost all fact.  There is certainly a liberal sprinkling of interpretation here and there, but mostly forgiveable.  Only the last chapter, talking about Austen's current rise in popularity starting with the '95 P&P reads more like literary criticism than straight fact.

I have to say I'm often skeptical of what there are of Harman's interpretations/musings, so I'm glad they're kept to a minimum.  She's definitely in sync with me in wanting to paint Austen in the best possible light, but at times (a lot of times), she had me thinking, really? Couldn't I write the exact same book about Charlotte Bronte? To some extent, the answer is definitely yes - the Brontes have their fans, and at times, I'm sure, a much larger fan base.  Still... I bet Jane's is bigger :) In the end of the day, I don't need a book to prove to me that Jane Austen is a universal favorite - I have her books as proof that there's every reason she should be.  Hearing the reasons everyone else thinks so (her writing, her wit, her perspicacity, her exquisite touch, her realism, her feel-good bent...) are a fun confirmation though, most definitely.

Verdict: 3.5/5

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Disappointingly True to Life

Dipping my toe in the waters of something different, I next picked up another multiply-renewed, off the shelf choice, Karen Joy Fowler's The Sweetheart Season.  Now I, like everyone else, know about KJF solely for her The Jane Austen Book Club, which I naturally read, since it has Jane Austen in the title and the movie adaption stars Hugh Dancy ;).  She also wrote a bunch of other books, apparently starting quite a while ago, and for some reason I took it into my head to give them (or one of them) a try.  KJF is definitely not chic lit, she's far more serious than that, but she's also definitely women's fiction, which is never a bad thing :) The Sweetheart Season, unlike The Jane Austen Book Club, is historical fiction, which is also usually a positive factor in the genre-weighing.

The interesting thing about the book was that it was not only historical fiction in the sense that it takes place in post WWII small town America, it is also almost historical in the sense that it was written (I think) in the early nineties.  It's really funny how I felt like the tone was so different... I don't know that I can really put my finger on it, or that it wasn't at least somewhat imagined, but I felt like the sensitivities of the author were really at least somewhat different than ours (that's ours as in us 21st-century-ers of course :)).  It could also have been that the setting was admittedly falsified, painting a rosy-simple picture of the war and post-war feel prevalent in the American midwest.  But whether it was real or not, it's certainly more what I want to read about - that time when there were heroes and good defeated evil (that's a good example of a nineties sensitivity, a preoccupation with the comparatively stark picture of good and evil of WWII vs. later).

But don't get me wrong, this book was not about the war at all, or even about trying to get back to normal afterwards.  This book was about the characters.  The back cover references Lake Woebegone, I don't really see the connection between this mostly sympathetic crew and the completely comedic Prairie Home Companion bunch, but they definitely have their funny side.  The girls, their families, their adjunct men, and the head-of-the-mill family each have their own strong and distinct personalities to make sure things get mixed up.  And they do get mixed up, at least enough to keep me entertained.  The book is ostensibly about baseball, but luckily doesn't spend too much time on any sporting detail at all.  It's really more about the girls finding their own way, which they do with varying degrees of success.

In the end, the question of course comes down to where the main character, Irini, ends up.  Irini is supposed to end up with Walter, that's for sure, and she does.  Unfortunately, instead of them getting together in a nice and satisfying finish, they just kind of fade into it, and then not really at all.  Actually they don't even really get together until two years after ending, and then it's pretty much off the scenes.  Irini's father gets a nice enough wife in the end, Irini herself gets out of the town, and lots of other good things happen, so it's not all bad.  But it's not really anything to celebrate either (and that's besides a really bizarre twist involving some early McCarthyism).  And that's before the epilogue... which we are in fact *warned* not to read, because it contains the information that Irini ends up breaking up with Walter :( (after they have a daughter, the narrator).  Way to bring us down to reality, dude.  So basically, I was fully prepared to enjoy this book, but that ending did not make it easy.

Verdict: 2.9/5

Friday, June 10, 2011

Surprising- (and Pleasant-)ly Down to Earth

After my mad May frenzy, I calmed down a bit, secure in my ability to finish all my library books once and for all.  Next on the list was Cecilia Ahern's Book of Tomorrow, which I have to date renewed... wait for it... 7 times :) (it's considered new, so each renewal is only two weeks).  No more though, I am DONE :) (not that it was such an accomplishment, don't get me wrong).  You all know Cecilia Ahern, even though I haven't reviewed her books yet, I don't think.  She's a bit on the chic lit side, but only because I don't think many men are reading her books.  They have a bit of romance usually, they are *all* about relationships, they end happily enough for the most part, have some serious-ish soul searching thrown in, and to top it all off, never fail to sprinkle a little fairy dust.

The Book of Tomorrow is no exception to all that.  It starts off angsty, with the suicide of the main character's father, and continues with her realization that she is, in fact, not a very nice person.  But it's not dark, just maybe a bit obvious.  On the plus side, the main character is sixteen, so she's allowed to be an idiot, which makes her naive amorality a little more believable, and definitely more funny.  Since the tagline of the book was something about knowing what tomorrow will bring, and would you want that, I was afraid the plot would descend into that sort of philosophical morass, but it stayed surprisingly fresh of such uncomfortable questions.  Though the diary tells Tamara some notion of her future, it never gets her in trouble.  Instead the book morphs into a sort of mystery, with Tamara exploring her own and her mother's hidden past.  And in that respect, it becomes surprisingly compelling.  While I don't think I would have had any patience with Tamara drawing herself further and further into the trap of using "magic" for the wrong reasons, I was genuinely curious to find out what in fact were the real relationships among the shadowy figures populating the novel's backstory and how they relate to those in  the foreground (;))

I guess in the end I was a little disappointed (I think the ending was a lot more obvious to all of us than it was to Tamara), but overall, I don't think Cecilia Ahern did a bad job at all with this, more mysterious, storyline.  I almost don't remember what she usually manages to fill out her books with, but I have a feeling it involves a lot more discomfort and tension than this little number.  In that sense, this book definitely compares favorable to some of her other recent ones... I suppose it is less emotion-wrought than her other ones, which could be viewed as a  bad thing, but of course does draw the reader in, if annoying at the same time.  This book didn't have that same level of shut-up-already-it-ness as a lot her others, but it also is slightly more boring I think.  I'm not really complaining about this, it was a nice little story in its own right.  And if it wasn't that romantic either, well it had something, and I don't know that I was expecting more.  So basically, didn't disappoint, because not many expectations :)

Verdict: 3/5