About Sarah

I am not afraid of Dragons. Balrogs do have wings.

On Reading Trollope: Simple Pleasures & Managing Expectations

Bowling for Jane just met to discuss our second Trollope read, The Warden. (Our first was Barchester Towers. Why did we do that backwards? No one knows.) I think it’s safe to say that, as before, the reaction was mixed. Speaking only for those in attendance, no one in the room appeared to actually dislike the book, and some went so far as to like it very much indeed and perhaps (am I putting words in their mouths?) even to love it. But from those who didn’t appear to actually dislike it, well, there was still plenty of criticism.

I think I see the appeal of Trollope, although I’m not one who particularly likes him. The Warden was enjoyable in a (to me) surface sort of way. Good characters with nice complexities, very human without drastic extremes, sympathetic and understandable. There was nice writing, some humor, some pointed opinions. As one person said, it’s a book that pushes and nudges. It’s gentle. It doesn’t burn down the house with drama. And I can easily imagine that Trollope’s world becomes a familiar and comfortable one to sink into with the entire six novels of the Chronicles of Barsetshire at your disposal. Not to mention the other 40+ books he wrote.

But you won’t find me there.

I don’t think Trollope is Great. And I think that’s very, very okay! I also think that it’s good and important to admit that sometimes what we love isn’t masterful, groundbreaking, genius, etc. Let me go on record right now and say that I do not AT ALL read books I only consider to be Great. Like anyone else, I read for many different reasons.

The fault lies with me when it comes to my fairly neutral reaction to Trollope. You see, somehow he got built up in my mind as being better or more than he actually is. And what is he actually? A very good (and apparently efficient) author, who wrote a lot of books that people really liked to read. He’s agreeable, not particularly deep or challenging, and he’s really quite skilled at what he does. But it has its limits, and I think it’s fair to acknowledge that.

As I was thinking about Trollope, Barbara Pym came to mind as a decent comparison. I LOVE Barbara Pym. She has been described—not by me—as the Jane Austen of the 20th century. Like Austen, her novels are primarily about women and the domestic sphere. Middle-aged spinsters volunteer at the church, cook meals for curates, and contemplate love and marriage. She is funny and witty, and her social commentary can be biting but delivered in a manner that makes it palatable. But her writing lacks the depth of Austen’s. She is wonderful! But she is not great. Her characters and their worlds are delightful, but in all honesty, many of them have blurred together in my mind over time. I have recommended Barbara Pym to countless people, given her books as gifts, and I’ll continue to do so. Frankly, I think most Trollope lovers should give her a try! Just don’t try to make her out to be more than she actually is, and I think you’ll really, really like her.

Okay, Trollope fans. Let’s hear from you!

New Favorites

Yesterday I realized something pretty cool: In the past two months, I have read three of the best books I’ve ever read in my life. This would be amazing in any case, but it’s particularly exciting to me because I’ve lived with the (somewhat reasonable) fear that I’ve maybe already read all the books that I will ever truly, deeply love. I’m so glad that fear is unfounded! So, in the order in which I read them:

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

This H_is_for_Hawk_(Macdonald_novel)book was on my wish list (my literal Amazon wish list, in fact) ever since it was first published in 2014 and I read review after incredible review. Michelle gave it to me for my birthday, and it lived up to all my expectations. And not just mine–it’s won tons of awards.

Primarily a memoir, the book details the year or so after the sudden death of the author’s father. It follows the evolution of both her grief and her relationship with a young goshawk (Mabel) she purchases and begins to train. At the same time, there is more than a hint of biography as Macdonald weaves in the story of author T.H. White’s (The Once and Future King) failed efforts to train his own goshawk, Gos, which tells more than a little about the man. And it is part nature-writing. The books combines these three genres in a really unusual and beautiful way. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything like it.

There is an immediacy to Macdonald’s writing that drew me in from the first. There is urgency, rawness, a spareness of words. I utterly loved this book and cannot think of a single person I know who I would not recommend it to.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

downloadThis is the first Neil Gaiman novel I’ve ever read. It was so perfect, I’ll probably never read another. It’s an adult fantasy, but one that I am eager to read with my children. It is short. In it, a middle-aged man returns to his childhood home and remembers events that occurred there when he was seven years old. But most of the story is told from his point of view as a seven-year-old. It is terrifying in all the best and right ways, I think, that stories of magic and fantasy should be dark and frightening. Parts of it have a dreamlike, or nightmarish, quality. I can only tell you that at the end of the book, as I was turning pages and wanting everything that was happening while not wanting it to end, my heart felt bigger.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

download (1)This was my second attempt at reading this book, which comes so highly recommended it’s a little ridiculous, and I’m so glad I made the effort! It had a few things working against it. Namely, it was gigantic. I don’t mean it was too long; I mean it was too big! At more than 800 pages, it’s huge, heavy, and difficult to carry around. You can’t read it in bed; you can’t hold it one hand while you read; and people are so impressed with its size that they constantly interrupt your reading to ask you about it! Apparently, it can now be purchased in three volumes.

It takes place in the Regency period, during the Napoleonic Wars, in an England in which magic is real. Strike two. I don’t generally like magical realism, it makes me feel uneasy. But! Clarke has given her magical England an entire history with a set of rules. This depth makes it feel almost like a plausible setting, and the structure helps to define it. Within this world it is fairly clear what is possible, what isn’t, and what is at stake. After I’d figured this out, at about 100 pages in, I was pretty much in love.

The writing style is kind of like Austen. There is wit and social commentary. There is also a strong narrative voice. There are well-drawn characters. I loved it. It is intimidating and smart and imaginative. She needs all those pages to do what she’s doing with this story, and it is so tightly constructed.

I wish I was still reading this damn book! Fortunately, it sounds like she was writing another that takes place a few years after. Unfortunately, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell took ten years to write, and the second one has been delayed due to illness. At least there’s the BBC series to enjoy in the meantime.

Also? John Childermass is my new boyfriend:

Programme Name: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - TX: n/a - Episode: Ep1 (No. 1) - Picture Shows:  Childermass (ENZO CILENTI) - (C) JSMN Ltd - Photographer: Matt Squire

Another look at the 2013 JASNA AGM, Minneapolis

Michelle has done so much justice to our JASNA AGM experience in Minneapolis, it’s not even funny. It was an amazing four days away from it all—so much so that we didn’t even usually bother to stop and recall that we were, indeed, away from it all. We were just there, immersed in all things Austen, all things Pride and Prejudice, and it was great.

Like Michelle, I came away with two things at the forefront of my mind: 1) I am only a fan and avid reader and lover of Jane Austen; I do not approach the level of serious, scholarly, and academic thought that goes into a real and deep study of her novels, although I desperately admire it and have just enough knowledge to be excited by it; and 2) Jane Austen is even more awesome than I realized. I suppose we’ve become very used to her. Her novels and the film/mini-series adaptations of them are a sort of comfort food for me, and she and her characters have been embraced by contemporary culture. That in no way diminishes what she does, and I now stand more in awe of it than ever. I can maybe imagine that her stories don’t speak to everyone—really, I can try to imagine that—but her writing is genius. Trust me, it just is. Or better yet, don’t trust me, trust John Mullan!

The plenary speakers were all so incredible, they alone would have been worth the trip. On top of that, I enjoyed several break-out sessions on array of topics including: performing to strangers, the militia in Austen’s time, Charlotte’s back parlor, and what was the matter with Anne de Bourgh. I don’t want to go into too much detail about any of these, but I think a taste of each is in order.

Performing to Strangers: Being, Seeming, and Courting in Pride and Prejudice. This was a good talk with a lively Q&A at the end. It’s going to stick in my mind, however, as the paper read by Ted Scheinman in place of his mother, Deborah Knuth Klenck, who had broken her leg and couldn’t attend. Fortunately, Ted is a British literature scholar, and he gamely read his mother’s paper—and ably responded to questions about it—including all the pronouns as they had been originally written. I recall a memorable opening line about when he was a young girl, and a passage near the end about his worries of one day becoming a dowager trying to marriage off her children… Highly amusing. Or perhaps I’m just simple.

“I liked a red coat myself very well—and indeed, so I do still at my heart”: The Role of the Militia in Pride and Prejudice. Blame the fact that I woke up at 3am, or that I’d already been to the opening session and one breakout session, but I can’t recall a lot of detail on this one. I found it really interesting at the time! But it’s all left my head. I can tell you that there was a much higher proportion of men in the room for this particular talk.

Charlotte Settles in the Back Parlor: Her “pleasantest preservative from want”. I quite like Charlotte Lucas/Charlotte Collins. In fact, I find her practical outlook on life easier to relate to, in some ways, than the impetuous idealism of Elizabeth Bennet. And we are meant to sympathize with Charlotte, her plight, and her actions. Elizabeth condemns her choice, but the author and the reader do not—or not so strongly. Her situation was all too familiar and realistic. One interesting point of the talk was how Charlotte devalued herself with her pursuit and acceptance of Mr. Collins—something Elizabeth would never have done. And we must, of course, never forget that poor Charlotte has to sleep with Mr. Collins. I don’t know why it’s important to say that, it just is.

What’s the Matter with Anne de Bourgh? This was, by far, my favorite break-out session, and it was presented by a three-person panel, each of whom had different theories on what was the matter with Anne de Bourgh. The first suggestion was rheumatic fever, which affected many young girls and could have been the cause of many of her physical symptoms—to the degree that we can identify them (thin, small, pale, sickly, cross). The second was that she is proud and rude and the luxury of being “ill” is a mark of her social class. She is, after all, seen talking to people she is close to, just not to Elizabeth. The third is that she suffered from childhood depression which, as she grew older, became situational depression—the situation being her mother. This was such a fascinating talk, and there’s no way I describe it all, so if you want to know more, just ask me! One of my favorite suggestions was that perhaps Anne de Bourgh uses her illness—real or imagined—as a way to escape her planned marriage to Mr. Darcy. After all, she is wealthy and will inherent (no entailment away from the female line in her family), and she has no need to marry at all. Perhaps she does not wish to—not even to Mr. Darcy!!

Before I wrap this up—and I’ve gone on too long already—I wanted to mention The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. The closing session featured several people involved with the creation of that Emmy Award-winning project, a modernized Pride and Prejudice that aired 100 short YouTube segments and took place across a variety of social media platforms, including: facebook, twitter, tumblr, pinterest, and many others. (You don’t have to use any other social media platforms to follow it, although they enhance the stories and the characters.) I watched a handful of episodes when I got back, and they’re engaging enough, but I doubt I’ll end up watching the entire thing. I can see, however, that the appeal might really rest in its immediacy—kind of like reality television—and the project has now been over for several months.

But! We are in luck. Tomorrow, October 7 is the start date for Emma Approved, a similar project updating…Emma. I think I’ll check it out. Agree or disagree with their version, I assure you that the creators are very thoughtful about the decisions they make with these beloved stories and characters.

I am now extremely excited about Montreal in 2014! Mansfield Park. So get your outfits ready! We will have SO much fun.

Photos: white soup, regency dress

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Visiting Orchard House, Concord, MA

A long time ago, way back at the end of July, Michelle and her daughter invited me and my daughter to accompany them on a trip pilgrimage to Orchard House, the home of Louisa May Alcott, in Concord, MA. While she did not live there growing up, it was where she wrote the book Little Women and where she chose to set the events of the story.

Michelle and I have, of course, read Little Women, and both of our daughters were about halfway through the book at the time of our trip pilgrimage. It was one of the books I loved when I was younger, and I hesitate to even take a stab at how many times I’ve read it. It has meant a lot to me, and I think I can even say that it was been a strong influence in my life.

There was, however, a time when I was embarrassed by my love of Little Women and probably wouldn’t have included it in a list of top ten books. Nevertheless, my old and well-worn copy has traveled with me from bedroom to dorm room to apartment to home and sat in prominent display on each of my book shelves. I think my embarrassment might have stemmed from the sincerity of the story and the characters and the values. We live in a more jaded time, and our self-awareness (and maybe our literature) can be more ironic and less genuine. But I still read Little Women now the way I did when I was eleven years old—with complete sincerity—and I think that’s the best and most honest way to approach the book.

There is lot that can be said about Louisa May Alcott, her life, her heroines, and Jo March in particular. I think I’m going to save all of that for another post—or for Michelle. I’m going to end this with a few pictures.

This first one is Michelle and the girls in front of Orchard House. No photos were allowed inside the house, but if you’ve ever seen the film version with Katherine Hepburn as Jo, then you know almost exactly what it looks like. And if you haven’t, you can still get a pretty excellent idea from the book itself. I found it remarkably moving to be in the house because I recognized so much of it from my countless re-reads!

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And here are a couple of pictures of Louisa May Alcott:

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Women as the Heroes of Their Own Stories

Yet more food for thought in the discussion of modern heroines (i.e. major female characters who don’t die, marry, or go crazy by the end of the book). This article in The Atlantic by Kelsey McKinney. The first half, in any case, since the second describes a book I have not read.

I do take issue with certain examples the author uses, such as her suggestion that Jane Eyre and “all of the Bennett sisters” were blinded by love. That strikes me as a misreading of Jane Eyre’s character—although one that is probably shared by other “readers”— as well as a (deliberate?) misunderstanding of the social forces at work in Jane Austen’s novels that required women to be well married in order to have any status or agency. The very fact that some of the Bennett sisters not only desire love in their marriages but are willing to reject secure but emotionally unsatisfactory relationships can be viewed as a principled and brave choice, given the possibly quite stark alternative—penniless, homeless, dependent spinsterhood.

And of course, there’s the argument to be made (as we have made here previously) that so many great works of literature that focus on men also involve a love story. Her first example of “Nick Carraway’s lurid account of the 1920’s” strikes me as a bit off, since The Great Gatsby revolves around one man’s obsessive love of a particular woman.

On the other hand, I really see her point, although I disagree with some of her specifics. I have most definitely normalized for myself the idea of male heroes that we are all meant to relate to (and I have) because “man” means mankind, both men and women, or so I’ve been told, and the male experience is meant to be understood as the universal experience. I’ve been willing to go along with that, and it’s been to my edification to do so, or so I believe.

But! The very wrongness of this—why should women not be heroes, too, in stories with supposedly universal themes?—was brought home to me in a big way when I recently stumbled across this post (several years old now) that proposes a genderswap version of The Lord of the Rings films in which all the major characters were actually portrayed by actors of the opposite sex: http://october-26.livejournal.com/371384.html?format=light. Just look at it! Some of this “casting” is brilliant, and I can totally see it. But more than that, I want to see it! Or read it. I would watch the hell out of this movie. Or read those books.

As some of you may have heard me claim before, The Lord of the Rings is my bible. It’s my moral text. I read and internalized it for myself at a fairly young and impressionable age, and that is something I am still happy about. But how much more powerful or meaningful might it have been with more women characters? How different might it be with all women? Not so much in substance as in impact? What might that have meant to me? And why is there still no real literary equivalent that I’m aware of?

Anyway, just revisiting the old conversation here because it’s one I don’t have good answers for but don’t get tired of having. Looking forward to your thoughts!

Achilles and other things

Bowling for Jane is on a temporary reading hiatus, and it’s been good! I mean that in the best possible way. Our next meeting at the end of August will feature our first ever joint read/discussion of a Jane Austen novel—Pride and Prejudice, in honor of both the 200th anniversary of its publication and Michelle and Sarah’s pilgrimage to JASNA’s 2013 AGM. I’m going to translate that into English now. Michelle and Sarah will be attending the Jane Austen Society of North America’s 2013 Annual General Meeting in Minneapolis, September 27-29. It will be Pride and Prejudice-themed, and yes, we will be wearing Regency dresses to the ball.

We didn’t get around to discussing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn here on this blog back when we read it in May. I’m not sure I have a lot more to say about it at this time except that I am so glad to have had the opportunity to read it again, as an adult. It has stayed with me this time, and I thought about it quite a lot in the weeks following our meeting. I think it’s a Great Book, for reasons which I find sort of difficult to articulate, but which have something to do with putting the story in the mouth of a child. I loved Huckleberry’s voice from page one, and I soon came to love his sweetness. Even if the story seemed to drag in parts, there were so many wonderful payoffs both in terms of humor and poignancy. Mark Twain walked a very fine line between not being openly judgmental and at the same time not letting anyone off the hook. I suspect I’ll read it again someday.

song of achillesIn the meantime, I tackled one mind-numbing brain-vacation of a book, and then I read The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It was so, so very good. I cried through the end. Tears are not the measure of good book, of course, but if they are appropriate, I certainly want to be moved to offer them. They were, and I was.

I love Greek mythology, and I love how she told the story of Achilles through the eyes of Patroclus, his friend, closest companion, and lover. At first I wasn’t certain how I would feel about the first person narrative—I sometimes find it limiting—but by the end it was just so deeply intimate. (I don’t entirely understand why the tense sometimes veered back and forth between past and present. Perhaps another read would make that clear?) Miller took everything familiar about the story and more or less left it alone, changing very little. The funny thing being, of course, that the more wild and less believable aspects of the tale are original to it—things like Achilles hiding and dressing as a woman to escape going to war in Troy. (There is no mention of Achilles’ heel being his only weakness, which is kind of interesting considering how prevalent that metaphor is, and yet it doesn’t really seem to be missing.)

Miller immerses us in a strange world where gods, both greater and lesser, observe and intervene in the lives of humans, choosing favorites, choosing sides, sharing prophecies, demanding sacrifices. Kings are heroes, and heroes are larger than life—stronger, louder, more fearless, more gifted than common men. This world of gods and heroes collides with the human one, where concerns like love and friendship, loyalty and honor, fear and pain and death are things that matter across time, and that we as readers can still understand and sympathize with.

She is a beautiful writer. On nearly any page I could pick out a perfectly glorious sentence that I would give anything to be able to write myself. The language feels simple, sparse in places, but it is incredibly evocative. We know Odysseus, we know Deidameia, we know Thetis—even though all of these characters are secondary to Patroclus and Achilles. Thetis, in particular, comes to life. She terrifies Patroclus, and she terrifies me!

The story really isn’t about the Trojan War, although that is the backdrop for a good portion of it. It is about the love between Patroclus and Achilles. Patroclus makes a choice very early on to follow Achilles. He sees and brings out what is best in him. Achilles’ love for Patroclus is his most humanizing quality. There is a threat hanging over them because they know through prophecy that Achilles will never leave Troy alive, but in the ten or more years they spend fighting the war there, they manage to carve out a life and protect their own happiness. Eventually it becomes clear that they do so at the expense of other men’s happiness—others who are separated from their homes and families, who are wounded and killed—but it seems that they do so innocently up until the end.

All men, of course, must die, but few know the time or means of their death or have the power to waylay it. Their love is precious and intense because they know and fear that its dissolution must come with the death of Achilles, and yet it never diminishes for this very reason. It spoils nothing for those who know their mythology to say that neither of them seems to seriously consider that it might be Patroclus who dies first.

I will say that Patroclus, as a character, pales in comparison to Achilles, which is actually pretty natural given that he’s not the child of an immortal! He sells himself short, as do most others, except for Briseis and Chiron. At first, I felt his death most strongly because of the pain it caused Achilles, but in the end it was he himself I cried for. Patroclus, caring and loving and loyal, the best of the Greeks.

I am now very tempted to read other retellings of Greek mythology. Does anyone have any suggestions? I don’t think I can tackle translations of Homer, but versions of the Iliad or the Odyssey that you particularly enjoyed and would recommend?

Pleasure & Joy

I don’t think I’ve ever posted before just specifically to make a recommendation, but I’m doing it now: this essay, Joy, by Zadie Smith. I think she’s uniquely wonderful—as opposed to wonderfully unique, although she might be that, too. I like everything about it from her musings and her memories to her voice and her conclusions, as well as the personal nature of it. Well, just read it. And if you like it, look up her other stuff! She’s always brilliant, and she loves E.M. Forster.