Monday, January 26, 2009

My Weekend with Jane Austen

As I have been getting progressively busier at work and the weather was bad this weekend, I decided to indulge in a little Victorian getaway to JaneAustenLand. (Those of you who do not understand this reference should watch Red Dwarf more. It would do you good.) Basically, I stayed home and watched every Jane Austen film adaptation in my collection and read my favorite excerpts from all of her books while soaking in a bath. It was delightful.

While on my staycation, I re-discovered a book I picked up several years ago entitled Sanditon, an unfinished novel that was completed by "Another Lady" who chose to remain nameless so she could ride Jane Austen's petticoats to success. The writing style is fairly close to the original Austenian voice, and the setting is in a would-be sea-side resort, an admittedly welcome change from the drawing rooms of the country on which a less ambitious writer might have settled. "Another Lady" had certainly done her research and the novel did not feel forced as one might have expected.

On the other hand, it is chock-full of dialogue. While I enjoy reading dialogue in an internal British accent, I cannot say that the original six Austen novels have anywhere near as much dialogue as this book. In addition, there is a fair amount of action in the climax of the novel and, as anyone who has ever read an Austen novel can tell you, there is never any action on stage in JaneAustenLand. While very exciting things may happen (the Napoleonic war, various elopements, death), they are only mentioned in a sideline inasmuch as they affect the main characters.

I cannot claim to have enjoyed the novel the first time I read it--I was distracted by the many ways in which the book differed from how it would have been had Austen finished it herself. There is no lesson learned by the main female character as there was in Austen's other bestsellers (Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility, to be precise). In fact, if anything, the main character takes on what Victorians probably would have classified as undesirable character traits by the end of the novel, abandoning her common sense in a way that would have made Elinor Dashwood blanch.

On the other hand, the novel was written in a contemporary world by a contemporary writer for contemporary readers. "Another Lady" admits that she did not write the book for critics, but for Austen fans. While the main love interest would probably not have appealed to a true Victorian lady and the action scenes toward the end would have made her swoon if her corset was too tight, it is very much along the lines of what modern readers enjoy--dialogue and all. In addition, "Another Lady" did not cross any lines of appropriate behavior on the part of her heroine--there are no steamy sex scenes and no inappropriate language, which I feel would have ruined the book entirely for me as it has Jane Austen's name emblazoned across the front cover. I would recommend this book as an excellent addition to anyone's Jane Austen staycation as long as she approaches it as a reader and a fan--and not as a critic.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Leading Men of Literature

So Mental_Floss recently featured "7 of Literature's Most Desirable Leading Men," and the following characters are listed:

1) Mr. Darcy (from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen) 2) Gilbert Blythe (from Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery)
3) Almanzo Wilder (from Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder)
4) Mr. Rochester (from Jany Eyre by Charlotte Bronte) 5) Edmond Dantes (from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas)
6) George Emerson (from A Room with a View by E.M. Forster)
7) Enjolras (from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo)

While I don't disagree with the list, I haven't read The Count of Monte Cristo or A Room With A View, so I'd have to say neither of those characters would be on my own personal list of Leading Men. My own list would consist of the following:

1) Alexander "Mac" Campbell (from Rose in Bloom by Louisa MayAlcott)
I know, he's totally Rose's cousin, but something about the glasses-wearing, poetry-reading academic warmed my pre-adolescent heart. Plus, I always thought it was so romantic how he gave Rose statues of Cupid and Psyche. (How sad is it that I still remember that much detail?)

2) Captain Frederick Wentworth (from Persuasion by Jane Austen)

Mental Floss can keep Darcy--while he's all well and good (especially when he sticks it to his aunt at the end), Captain Wentworth has always been my personal favorite of the Austen heroes.

3) Gilbert Blythe (from Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Margaret

What girl didn't love Gilbert? I think anyone who read the Anne of Green Gables series identified so closely with Anne that it would have been impossible not to feel at least a passing affection for Blythe.

4) Diggory Venn (from The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy)

I believe it's already been established that I love this man. If he weren't a figment of a Victorian author's imagination, I'd totally hunt him down and make him marry me.

5) Almanzo Wilder (from Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder)

My only complaint is the fact that Almanzo began "courting" Laura when he was in
his twenties and she was fifteen. I don't remember if that bothered me the first time I read the series, but what the hell did I know? I was eight, and it bothers me now.

6) Mr. Rochester (from Jany Eyre by Charlotte Bronte)

I hemmed and hawed about Mr. Rochester, because he wouldn't be on Lindsay-with-an-A's list right now, but when I was fourteen I was all about this gothic romance. So mysterious... sigh. Now, however, I think it's creepy that he keeps his wife locked up in the attic and then she dies "mysteriously" in a fire and he's the only one around to see it. Can you say suspicious?

7) Jay Gatsby (from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

I know that most people automatically picture Robert Redford when they think of this character, but the movie never really did anything for me, while the book was excellent and I really loved the character of Gatsby. (Out of the "leading men" on this list, he's probably the most interesting and complicated, but I'm not sure that "leading men" need complexity as much as they need nice abs... just kidding.)

Check out the comments on the Mental Floss article, though. Some of the commenters' suggestions were definitely turning me off. Howard Roark from The Fountainhead? When every love scene read like a rape and he thought all people and emotions were superfluous? Blech. And Heathcliff? Edward Cullen? Pathetic.

Friday, January 2, 2009

My Penpal, Brandon Sanderson

I have another penpal! Please find below my letter to Brandon Sanderson:

Dear Mr. Sanderson,

I was recently introduced to your novel The Final Empire and was very impressed by your characterization of the unnamed author of the journal entries, the Hero of Ages. While he was largely absent from most of the book, he still holds a place of importance in the plot and in the general energy of the story.

My question, then, is this: while I know that there is fairly obvious Christian imagery surrounding Kelsier, did you deliberately imbue the Hero of Ages with a Christ-like aura, as well? When I read the final scene between the Lord Ruler and Vin, I immediately connected Rashek with Judas Iscariot, despite the fact that Rashek was never the Hero's right-hand man and friend. Perhaps this connection is due to the running theme of betrayal throughout the book. Regardless, in my reading of the book, this led me to believe that The Final Empire is more than just an exploration of, "What if the hero failed?" Instead, it is (to me) an exploration of, "What if Judas had usurped the earthly role of Jesus?"

I would be curious as to your thoughts on this subject.

Sincerely,
Lindsay Phillips

And his response:

Lindsay,

Thank you so much for the kind words! It's still a little odd for me, sometimes, to look in the bookstore and see my novels sitting beside some of the great works by my favorite authors. Hearing from readers who have liked my novels gives me a little boost of confidence and lets me know that maybe I really do deserve to be on that shelf.

I worked hard on the logbook author's part in the book, and so I'm gratified that you enjoyed reading about him. (His name is Alendi, by the way. There's more about him in the second book.)

I put the Christian imagery in intentionally because I think it fit so wonderfully, and I think the savior metaphor is larger than just the Christian faiths. I think it's somehow part of our nature as humans. (Those who are themselves Christian would say it come because of our connection to Christ.) Either way, I think that it's very powerful, and I thought it would be very interesting to see that imagery being co-opted by characters and themes, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally.

The Judas imagery, however, was probably unconscious on my part. I didn't sit down and say that I'd use it, but as I look at the book, I can see that it's there! Thanks for pointing it out to me, and for enjoying the book enough to think about it in this way. You humble me.

Best,
Brandon

I'm really enjoying the fact that, by writing to the authors I've enjoyed, there is much more of an interactive nature to the entire act of reading. It's not just a one-way transfer of information, but can in fact be a kind of two-way path.

Who Says Memoirs Have To Be True?

Well, folks, it looks like Oprah got bit in the ass again by promoting a memoir that turned out to be false. Those of you who were paying attention three years ago probably remember the ruckus caused by James Frey's memoir, A Million Little Pieces, which turned out to have, shall we say, some details that were embellished. (For example, in tracing his downward spiral into drug addiction, Mr. Frey wrote about spending several months in jail, when in reality he rivalled Paris Hilton by spending only hours in the pen.)

This time, the culprit is Herman Rosenblat, a Holocaust survivor who entered a "best love story" contest in The New York Post. His tale, a "story of meeting as children while Mr. Rosenblat was a prisoner at a subcamp of the infamous Buchenwald," is certainly moving, but it is weakened only by the fact that it isn't true. Mr. Rosenblat's memoir, Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived, has been cancelled, and the second printing of children's book based on his story, Angel Girl, has been withdrawn. He has been nationally exposed as a liar, a fraud--and it all was made possible by Oprah, who had him on her show to celebrate his moving story.

This brings up several issues: first, has anyone heard of fact-checking? While I make no claim to perfection and have been guilty of mistakes on more than one occasion, I'm not Oprah Winfrey, one of the most powerful women in the nation. You'd think she'd be able to get an intern to check up on the stories she covers.

Secondly, this type of story shows just how voyeuristic American society is today. We want to hear gruesome, bloody stories of pain and suffering--but only if it has a happy ending. A memoir cannot be published unless its writer has overcome "amazing odds," so it is inevitable that writers should feel compelled to exaggerate certain details. Why would Mr. Frey admit that he spent a couple hours in a cell thinking about what he did when he can tell just a little bitty white lie and say that he was in there for months? The public is unimpressed by several hours in jail--several months, however? Well, that is a story worth hearing.

In Mr. Rosenblat's case, he still beat the odds. He survived the Holocaust, for God's sake, and that is no small thing. But in selling his story as true when it is, in fact, embellished, he won't be remembered for that. Take, for instance, the response to the news of Rosenblat's deception: "'We run out and buy these books and then we get kicked in the teeth,' someone using the identification 0423dee wrote Monday on Ms. Winfrey’s Web site, oprah.com." The fact that these people feel so betrayed by the falsehood shows just how invested they were in revelling in another's suffering. Surviving the Holocaust? Unlikely but not interesting. Surviving the Holocaust because a little girl threw apples over a fence for you and then meeting that girl again in New York years later? Nearly impossible, but interesting.

For my part, I feel sorry for the Rosenblats, a little Jewish couple who undoubtedly got swept up in a storm they didn't see coming and didn't intend to create.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

11% of New Year's Resolutions...

... are broken in the first week, no matter how likely they may seem during that magical second at the stroke of midnight. Happy New Year!

Regardless, I think everyone should resolve to read at least one specific title this year, be it a book you've tried in the past or a book you've always meant to get around to reading. (Cough--1984--cough.) The following are the books I'm resolving to read this year:

Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse
Not only does it come highly recommended from a friend of mine, but I stumbled across several references to it in my literary exploits this year (including The French Lieutenant's Wife, though it was admittedly referencing the story of Siddhartha rather than this specific book, but I'm still counting it.) I've tried the book once or twice, but I've been having problems with the episodic organization of the chapters (which is also my problem with Huckleberry Finn.) I'm still bound and determined to read it, however.
On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
I've already read The Dharma Bums and other various examples of Beat literature, but I want to read On the Road sometime before I leave Denver, if only to be able to say that I did so.
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte
I'll be damned if I'll let Heathcliff and all those Catherines get the better of me. This one I'm resolving to read just so I can chuck the book and never have to think about it again. Sadly, I'm having problems getting rid of it when I've only finished half of it and am still determined to read the rest at one point or another.
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
Heard it was good. That is all.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
This is another book I'm about a quarter of the way into that I would like to finish sooner rather than later. It's so dense that I often feel as though I'm missing something, but I do intend to finish it this year.
And there you have it. Meet me here in a year so we can recap whether or not I actually managed to read them all.
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