Longbourn

cover image via GoodReads

cover image via GoodReads

There are easily more spin-offs of Pride and Prejudice than any other of Jane Austen’s novels. I despise the majority of these novels, so it was with carefully-guarded skepticism that I read all the raves about Jo Baker’s Longbourn. One critic at BookRiot hailed it as the “best new addition to the Austenverse”, and even Kirkus listed it as one of the best books of 2013. But somewhere in the midst of all the hype, I decided I had to lay aside my own prejudice against the greater canon of Austen spin-offs and give this book an honest try.

Longbourn is the story of the Bennet family’s servants. In her Author’s Note at the end of the book, Ms. Baker says: “When a meal is served in Pride and Prejudice, it has been prepared in Longbourn. When the Bennet girls enter a ball in Austen’s novel, they leave the carriage waiting in this one.”

This note probably would have gone over with me better if she’d couched her statements in the realm of imagination (“…imagine it has been prepared in Longbourn…”); as it was, it felt a bit presumptuous to me, so it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t see it until after reading the whole book. I tend to take issue on principle with anyone who tries to give life to the story “beyond the text”, which is my primary complaint about Austen spin-offs generally. But this sticking point, ironically, is ultimately why I forgave Ms. Baker and ended up enjoying Longbourn: the principal characters in Austen’s novel are mere sketches of supporting characters in Baker’s (the sole exception being Wickham, but I don’t like Wickham, so I don’t mind if she paints him in slightly greater detail as the lech that most readers already know him to be). I may not choose to think of her novel as being the Truth about the servants in Pride and Prejudice, but it’s an entertaining story, nonetheless.

Like Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn is a love story. It’s the story primarily of Sarah, the principal housemaid, and the Bennet’s mysterious new footman, James. It’s also the story of Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper and cook. Ms. Baker certainly did her research into the times; this novel is very much about below-stairs life — the cleansing of literally dirty laundry and the stink of smells and the servants’ chilblained hands.

My other primary complaint about most Austen spin-off books is that they sound desperately unintelligent to me: either they try to mimic Austen’s prose style and can’t carry it off successfully, or they use modern language without modernizing the setting and characters and it just doesn’t work. They’re all too often poorly-written, in other words. So I’m fully aware of the irony in announcing that my biggest complaint about Ms. Baker’s novel is that I frequently felt she was hitting me over the head with her PhD*.

For example, very early in the novel (page 21 of my copy), Sarah’s chilblained hands are washing the breakfast dishes and we learn that she “watched the glair whiten and lift.” If you, like me, had no idea what “glair” was, please allow me to enlighten you: it refers to the white of an egg or a concoction made therefrom. This may have been the first word I had to look up, but it was certainly not the last (cf. stour, gallinies, scrofulous, frowsty).

Normally I like having my vocabulary stretched by a novel; perhaps it was just the overall tone that in conjunction with the vocabulary seemed pretentious. Or the fact that the same author who used the word “clayey” (really!) also used the word “medicaments”. Or, and I realize this is the rabid Austenite coming out in me, using “calash”, an alternative spelling of caléche, when I would guess most of us are more familiar with the French spelling from Austen’s novels, or even “barouche” (a similar, if not identical, vehicle also already familiar from Austen’s novels). (I do realize it might have been an editorial rather than an authorial decision to use the Anglicized form of the word.)

But truthfully, my complaints about the book are small. Jo Baker did none of the things I despise: she didn’t try to reimagine Darcy and Elizabeth or re-tell their story, putting her own spin on it, and she didn’t try to imitate Jane Austen’s voice. No, Longbourn tells its own story. I think it was better when it was telling that story than when it was dwelling on the sights or smells in a scene — and it was rather more George Eliot in tone than Jane Austen, but I enjoyed it.

* After reading page 21, if anyone was to ask me how the book was they would have heard: “I feel like the author is hitting me over the head with her MFA!!!” Then I looked the author up online and discovered she actually has a PhD.

Ffffffffebruary

Winter came early where I live. I marked the descent of this most frigid season to our clime around mid-November last year, and it’s hung around with its usual persistence. The thing is, before Christmas, I don’t mind at all. I expect and might even occasionally delight in snow before Christmas. No, the worst thing about winter is how much of it is left to go after Christmas passes (essentially, all of it).

009The area I live in hasn’t even been hit as hard as other areas, like New York. We’ve had temperatures in the single digits, snow, and wind chills below zero, but it never makes national news. Maybe because I live in the Pacific Northwest, which everyone just expects to have grim, interminable winters.

You try to find ways to make winter bearable. Like telling yourself that these snow-covered trees might be something like what Lucy saw when she emerged from the other side of the wardrobe into Narnia. Or, on a particularly grim-weathered evening, as freezing rain edges into snow, one might imagine oneself inside that Howard Nemerov poem, just watching for the moment when the falling things fly instead of fall.

In post-Christmas winter, it can be hard work to find beautiful, magical things, and most of my coping mechanisms, for better or worse, involve my inserting myself into stories and poems. It’s a reason to read, after all, not that I needed one.

I mostly spent February watching the Olympics (yay Charlie and Meryl!) and cooking. I toyed mercilessly with three different blog posts for you all month long, trying to find fewer, better words. My reading last month was frenetic at best: I tried to read about four different books, but the only one I managed to finish, I essentially hate-read: by which I mean I hated nearly everything about the book but continued to read, bitterly, out of spite and a vague notion that Winter Is For Suffering.

At one point in this book I hated, the “heroine” (it pains me to apply that term to her) burns her winter coat because it got blood on it (don’t ask), but she throws it, whole, onto the fire. WHICH WOULD SMOTHER THE FIRE. BUT IT DOESN’T. LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE IN THIS BOOK OF GIANT GAPS OF PLOT LOGIC, IT MADE NO SENSE. She says she’ll make some excuse and get a new winter coat (implying she has no secondary backup coats), but the very next day she’s pulling on a new one with no explanation of how she got it.

But this raises a question I’ve been struggling with for a while: how do you talk about books you hated? I shy away from being super-negative here on my blog because I don’t want to invite negativity here, but sometimes a book just doesn’t work for me and I’d like to talk about it. If you have any ideas, please share!

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with these links: the stages of winter rage (thank you, NPR!), and 5 Reading Rules for Books Lovers of All Ages, from Reading Rainbow. We can do it, guys. The first day of spring is technically two weeks away, so we’re almost there.

Notes of Meringue

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I for one would like to harangue Trader Joe’s until they correct the spelling of meringue on their chardonnay.

Actually, I wouldn’t. I’m not one given to haranguing; I was just swept up in enthusiasm for the idea of juxtaposing words which end in the same sound spelled differently. More likely, as enchanting as “notes of lemon meringue” sound in a chardonnay, I’ll refuse to try it until this spelling travesty is corrected.

Truth in Advertising

cover image via Goodreads

cover image via Goodreads

I’d like to open this post with a disclaimer. (Truth in blogging.)

Disclaimer: My copy of Truth in Advertising, by John Kenney, was provided to me by First Reads. (I entered a giveaway on Goodreads.) However, these opinions are entirely my own and I’d like to think that getting it for free had no influence on my opinions’ development.

I didn’t love it. I started it, felt very unpersuaded generally to continue reading, and set it aside for a few weeks. But if getting it for free did influence me in any way, I did feel more obligated to read it than if I’d paid money for it. (Is that weird?) Anyway, the other day I picked it up and started it again.

The book opens with the story of how the main character, Finbar Dolan, once fabricated an entire paper in high school. The teacher loved the paper (didn’t notice it was completely false) and gave him an A. Cut to the next scene, which opens with Finbar on set at a commercial shoot, and the only reason I can think of that we even got the story about the made-up school paper is that Kenney is trying to make it seem like the obvious career choice for anyone who told believable lies in their papers for school is that of advertising. If you, like me, indulged in an inner eye roll at that, well, you’ve come to the right review. The backstory about the fabricated paper was, to me, completely unnecessary and only predisposed me to dislike Finbar.

In these opening scenes, we also learn that Finbar and his family are estranged, about which the author feeds us this cliché: “Some families grow closer. Others are Irish.” This was the first in a long succession of clichés, as shortly thereafter, Finbar walks through an outline of all the major characters he works with (bolded headings and everything), and it’s all the stock stereotypes you’ve come to expect inhabiting a story about advertising: the gay creative director who looks like he stepped out of an Armani ad, the serious female producer who isn’t “nice”, and frankly it’s even boring listing them out for you.

Maybe it was the rapid succession of stereotypes forced down my throat in the first fifty pages, but tactics like these just leave me cold. I know stereotypes exist because so often there’s a degree of truth in them – but it reads like lazy characterization to me. Anyway, it was at this point the first time that I stopped reading. The second time through, it was at this point that I skipped ahead: first to the end, and then back to the middle to start reading again. Because parts of the book were worth reading.

So Finbar works in advertising, and he doesn’t speak to his family. His mother died when he was young, not long after their abusive father left them. The four children were left on their own and despite their early closeness, they no longer speak to each other. There are a number of flashbacks throughout the book, to fill in Finbar’s family history. We soon discover that Finbar’s father is dying in a hospital, alone, and Finbar’s decision to go sit with his father as he’s dying becomes the catalyst for him to finally decide what it is he really wants out of life. It was only after Finbar made a few halting steps outside his emotional paralysis that I was able to connect with this book at all.

It’s entirely possible that this book just came to me at the wrong time — that I’m being too hard on it. I might just be fresh out of patience with the Man-Boy’s Struggle to discover What Matters Most in Life. Thankfully, I don’t think Kenney intends to glorify that struggle. I think instead he’s showing us the humor and pathos inside and around that struggle: that he was ultimately successful (even with me, see aforementioned lack of patience) is a singular triumph.

Reading Resolutions Revisited

Happy New Year! The time when so many of us resolve anew to Do Better in whatever ways we feel we need to! While I’m always hesitant to set goals like “lose 10 pounds!” (losing weight is really, really hard!), I do try to make the New Year mark a return to reformed eating. The holiday season (which I define as the week of Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve) is a time of guiltless indulgence on my part, in which I eat sugar and other things that are not necessarily good for me with some degree of abandon and almost zero feelings of guilt.

So today at work I brought one of my typical “reformed eating” lunches: Greek yogurt, grapes, and a portion of crackers. I am a very picky eater: the only brand of Greek yogurt I can stomach is Liberté, and if I’m eating yogurt for lunch I prefer Greek because it’s more filling than other types of yogurt. As it happened, when I was at the grocery store, the only Liberté yogurt they had was labeled “Méditerranée”. “How different could it be,” I thought to myself, and put two in my cart without further review.

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Look at my grown up lunch!

Today, I walked back from the fridge to my desk feeling so proud of my responsible and adult-y ways, with my baggy of grapes and container of yogurt. Running high on not having to do the Dance of the Microwaves with all the other people crowded into the tiny kitchen on our floor, I admittedly thought things like “Maybe I will lose five pounds without even trying!”

I popped out to the Liberté web site as I stirred my yogurt to find out the difference between Méditerranée and Greek yogurt. Whereupon I discovered that my “healthy” yogurt lunch was actually made with whole milk (gag) and contained 37% (probably more) of my daily allotment of saturated fat. So, in other words, pretty different from their fat-free Greek yogurt (which also has about half as many calories as this Méditerranée stuff).

As my mother and her mother would remind me, “Pride goeth before a fall.”

On the other hand, the Liberté Méditerranée lime yogurt was absolutely delicious.

The same optimism which inspired me to try the Mediterranean yogurt leads me to make my 2014 reading resolutions, in spite of the fact that I only achieved approximately half of 2013′s resolutions. Which half, you wonder?

I read some nonfiction last year, but nothing that jumped out to me as something my brother-in-law might enjoy. (In the spirit of New Year’s optimism, I award myself partial credit for this one.) I finished Middlemarch in literally the final moments before my thirtieth birthday. (Double points, because it’s Middlemarch.) I read one book originally written in a language other than English (Danish), translated into English (it wasn’t quite blog-worthy; still, full credit awarded). And if my grand plans for a long-distance book club never got off the ground, well, I think maybe that’s on Life, and not on me, so I awarded myself partial credit for this one too (I came up with a list of books we ought to read).

Starting fresh for 2014…should I bite off another classic to try my patience (and yours)? Should I resolve to finally commit to reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell?

According to my Goodreads profile, I read approximately 30 books in 2013, which frankly seems low. I feel as though I must have read more than 30 and simply failed to log them, but in reality, that’s probably true. I certainly started more than 30 books in 2013. So, in 2014, I’m going to try to finish more than 30 books. I’ve certainly got enough material: my electronic stack of books to be read (these are books I’ve already purchased) is nearly forty titles long, and that doesn’t even touch on the list of books I want to read (100+) or the physical books at my bedside, which stare in judgy disappointment at me whenever I choose to re-read Mary Stewart or Georgette Heyer on a quiet evening rather than try something new. Like Nick Hornby once said in the delightful column he wrote for The Believer about the books he bought and the books he actually read in a month, my book-buying policy is almost always “ludicrously optimistic”. So let’s shoot for 40 books read in 2014: at least two originally written in a language other than English and one straight up nonfiction non-memoir book.

I’m also planning to train for (and run in) a half marathon in 2014. And generally to Do Better, which is really more of a daily resolution for me, but it bears repeating.

Here’s to ludicrous optimism! Happy 2014!

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