Anne Bronte, the youngest of the family of literary lions, spent most of her adult life working as a governess. She didn't love the work, but it proviAnne Bronte, the youngest of the family of literary lions, spent most of her adult life working as a governess. She didn't love the work, but it provided a lodestar of material for her two novels. She died at 29, a few months after her tempestuous sister, Emily, who was her closet friend and confidante. Charlotte, the eldest sister, a celebrity, survived them by 5 years and used her influence to shape and defend their reputations.
Anne's first work, Agnes Grey, is a fictional narrative of her working years. Agnes, like her creator, is a reluctant governess, but she perseveres and dutifully records her impressions of the families she serves. The parents come off badly, but the children are even worse. Her descriptions of the turmoil in her school room are as humorous for us as they are humiliating for her. Eventually, Agnes' virtues are rewarded, but not before she remonstrates against the foibles of the idle rich. Although her sisters famously mocked Jane Austin, Anne seems to be echoing aspects of Mansfield Park and its virtuous, long-suffering Fanny Price.
In her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne congers up an exhausting study of the constraints and potential dangers suffered by society women as they negotiate the perils of finding a husband. Her narrator is a gentleman farmer who comes under the spell of the tenant in the title, Helen, a mysterious, seemingly impoverished widow with anti-social tendencies. By shunning her neighbors she becomes a victim of their censure. Anne shows a keen eye for the hypocrisy of life among the gentry: alcoholism, adultery, debauchery and battery are only a few of the social ills she explores. Helen is guilty of self-delusion and disobedience, but her Christian values are so deeply imbedded that her privileged status is ultimately restored. The villains are presented in various shades of gray, and the decent folk are just as liable to behave badly whenever they deviate too far from the teachings of Scripture.
Anne possesses a facility of expression, especially in her descriptions of nature, but, unfortunately, her characters are prone to speechifying and her plot is too predictable to build much suspense. Faint impressions of Emily's misanthropic madness are detectable, but not nearly as delectable: Anne's characters inhabit a far more conventional world than the denizens of Wuthering Heights. It isn't surprising that she attained more success as a governess than Charlotte, or that she experienced a more grounded life than Emily, but as an author she should have colored her work with more of their gothic imperatives. Had she relied less on her commendable sense of morality and more on the intrinsic magic of their imaginary muck, her novels would be easier for modern readers to digest. Unless you're stubbornly working your way through all the Bronte novels, as I am, of Anne's work only Agnes Grey is recommended, more for its brevity than for its wit.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a middling writer hoping to write a bestseller should steer clear of Jane Austen. Having read and enjoyedIt is a truth universally acknowledged that a middling writer hoping to write a bestseller should steer clear of Jane Austen. Having read and enjoyed Sittenfeld's first novel, Prep and greatly admired American Wife, I decided to wade warily into Eligible , praised as a modern reworking of Austen's most famous work. Sittenfeld is attempting something audacious by borrowing Austen's plot, characters and approximations of much of her dialogue, and setting them down in 21st Century Cincinnati, Ohio. Liz and her sister Jane, who is about to turn 40, are single and living in NYC. They've come home after Mr. Bennet suffers a heart attack. What they find in their family Tudor, which should have been a Neo-Regency, is utter chaos. Their younger sisters are unemployed, self-indulgent and vulgar, their father is a loafer who has squandered his inheritance and their mother is a country club matron with a serious addiction to catalogue shopping. The house and yard are a mess, yet Mrs. Bennet is obsessing over her role is the chairwoman of a charity luncheon.
They soon meet Dr. Chip Bingley, a star from the reality show, Eligible-think The Bachelor-his sister and agent, Caroline, and his best friend, Fitzy Darcy, a brilliant neurosurgeon from Palo Alto, at their neighbors' barbecue. Charlotte Lucas, an overweight, mid-level manager and Liz's best friend, has such a good time with her old and new friends that she invites all the "young" people over to her apartment for Charades. Except for Jane and Liz, the Bennet "girls" embarrass themselves and appall Caroline and Fitzy, but Chip is smitten with Jane until he discovers a secret about her which causes him to sign on for another stint with Eligible which is taping in California. In the meantime, Liz takes charge of her hapless, hopeless family. When she isn't rehabilitating them, she and Fitzy engage in spectacular "hate sex."
Besides pandering to modern audiences with the introduction of topics like transgender marriage, promiscuity and interracial dating, Sittenfeld manages to create a contemporary America which seems foreign to me. Furthermore, she re-imagines Austen's most captivating character, Elizabeth Bennet, as a dull, judgmental scold who is lacking in self-esteem. When she and Fitzy finally confide in each other, he commends her for her unfaltering family loyalty; it seems more like misguided masochism to me. The great comic characters, Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins, are sanitized beyond recognition and all the Bennets, except for poor Jane, are far more interesting to read about than Lizzy, or for that matter, Fitzy.
Sittenfeld squanders the comic possibilities of turning the Bennets into reality show stars, while satirizing the conventions of those shows. This segment is the climax of the ambivalent relationship between Liz and Darcy and it is excruciatingly boring. It made me question just how spectacular their hate sex really was. Sittenfeld Is more successful imagining how everyone reacts when the episode is finally broadcast, and her final chapter, about Mary, the "bookish" middle daughter, is a hoot.
Part of Jane Austen's genius was that she used descriptive passages sparingly. We came to know her characters through their thoughts, words and actions. Sittenfeld fills her novel with endless descriptions of clothes, food, hair dos and popular Cincinnati hot spots. At times it seems more like a Rick Steves' guidebook than the retelling of a masterpiece. If you agree with Mr. Bennet's famously cynical line from Pride and Prejudice: "We live to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn." you should skip reading this and organize a neighborhood croquet tournament instead. Apparently rich, stylish Californians are crazy about croquet.
I prefer to think of myself as a "people" person, rather than a Nosy Parker (I am, however, a proudly skillful Facebook stalker). Fortunately, I'm notI prefer to think of myself as a "people" person, rather than a Nosy Parker (I am, however, a proudly skillful Facebook stalker). Fortunately, I'm not alone; J.B. West is my kind of guy. His engrossing bestseller about his years as a White House usher is packed with gossipy tidbits about America's First Ladies. He seems particularly smitten with Jack's Jackie O and Dwight's pretty, petite Mamie, yet he finds nice things to say about all of them - even Eleanor Roosevelt - and drops more than a few bombshells.
Apparently, Give 'Em Hell Harry's nocturnal romps with No Nonsense Bess were so wild that they broke their bed. President Kennedy used the White House pool to skinny dip twice a day, after which he padded up to his bed chamber clad only in his robe. Speaking of bed chambers, Winston Churchill liked to lounge around his during WWII without any clothes, much to the distress of the unlucky staff required to attend to his needs.
I don't want anyone to get the idea that this is only about implausible bedmates and immodest heads of state. West is equally concerned with the challenges of maintaining the integrity of the house without sacrificing the privileges and privacy of its inhabitants. He is respectfully sympathetic to the tensions faced by first families as they struggled with the pressures of everyday life while living in a fishbowl. He accepts the changes which accompanied the arrival of each new family, but he also laments the consequences of some of their decisions:
"The house “belongs” to whoever lives there. But I hate to see history disappear....For that reason, I was sorry to see the swimming pool go....It was a gift to President Roosevelt from the schoolchildren of America who collected millions of dimes to pay for constructing the heated indoor pool, which that President used every day in his first years of office for post-polio therapy. I remember President Truman swimming there, his glasses all fogged up, as part of his fitness regimen; the Eisenhowers’ grandchildren, coming over on weekends, splashing around with the greatest glee; the mural, a colorful sailing scene, commissioned by Ambassador Joseph Kennedy and painted by artist Bernard Lamotte, that brightened up the walls for the swimming races between President Kennedy and his Cabinet; the scores of bathing trunks hanging from the hooks for President Johnson’s guests—in all sizes from King Farouk to Mahatma Gandhi."
Ironically, it was Nixon who turned the pool into a press room. Something he would live to regret. ...more
I'm not very familiar with speculative fiction. I liked the classics: 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale and, more recently, Margaret Atwood'sI'm not very familiar with speculative fiction. I liked the classics: 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale and, more recently, Margaret Atwood's The MaddAddam Trilogy: Oryx and Crake; The Year of the Flood; MaddAddam A few years ago, I was smitten with Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White, a sort of post-modern shakedown of the Victorian novel. It succeeded on so many levels, but most importantly, as a superimposition of modern sensibilities to scrutinize and annihilate the inhumane hypocrisy of Victorian social structures. Its protagonist was a streetwise prostitute with the ability to manipulate the weaknesses of others to advance her position. Faber used her story to contemplate and compare 19th Century and modern notions about morality simultaneously.
Here, he envisions a futuristic world, where the social structures on Earth are imploding. He focuses on an unlikely Christian missionary, Peter (as in on this rock I build my church) who embarks on a journey to convert souls on a distant planet in another galaxy. Ironically, technology has failed to ameliorate imminent environmental disasters on Earth, but has figured out the science to send humans hurtling through space. The corporation funding the operation is suspicious, but not overtly nefarious. The aliens, while living in primitive circumstances, seem much closer to Christian ideals than any of the humans in the settlement. Peter faces all kind of obstacles, not in his missionary work, but in his social ties to the other earthlings at the base, and, more significantly, to the wife he left behind who is facing a cataclysmic environment while expecting their first child.
It all makes for a fascinating and compelling reading experience. Faber seems comfortable writing in a multitude of genres-think Joyce Carol Oates-and I'm waiting anxiously for wherever his imagination takes me next.
Reading Purity Jonathan Franzen's latest tome, reminds me of dutifully sitting through one of Verdi's less popular operas. There are moments of brillReading Purity Jonathan Franzen's latest tome, reminds me of dutifully sitting through one of Verdi's less popular operas. There are moments of brilliance, reminders of why he's celebrated as the great American novelist, but surrounding them are long, discursive passages and conversations that seem to go on for eternity. Like Verdi, Franzen has imagined a complex, convoluted plot and has placed a muddled, self-loathing, Millennial at its center. Her nickname is Pip, but she's more rooted in the world of Jane Austen than that of Charles Dickens. She is an impoverished, precocious misfit with serious Daddy issues; "she was fundamentally far shyer than her self-presentation led anyone to imagine, and she kept alienating people with her moral absolutism and her sense of superiority, which is so often the secret heart of shyness."
The major problem for me is that she isn't nearly as interesting as the daddies she encounters. We spend an equal amount of time with all the characters and the clashes between the men and their mates is riveting and unforgettable-almost Wagnerian in power:
"Don’t talk to me about hatred if you haven’t been married. Only love, only long empathy and identification and compassion, can root another person in your heart so deeply that there’s no escaping your hatred of her, not ever; especially not when the thing you hate most about her is her capacity to be hurt by you. The love persists and the hatred with it."
Pip, aka Purity, eventually achieves self-knowledge, financial security and the promise of a satisfying life, but I wanted more time with her elders.
It's tempting to criticize Franzen for relying on coincidence to drive his plot, but he is redeemed when we learn that one daddy, a charismatic hacker who grew up in East Germany, has been manipulating Pip for his own paranoid reasons. In his depiction of the Sunshine Project and its founder, Franzen lacerates the rarified world of the Internet whistle-blower and illustrates the danger of inundating the world with too much information without the tempering impact of context and analysis. He is equally effective when he questions the role of social media in toppling traditional notions of privacy and choice and the corrosive influence of heredity and fame. Dave Eggers attempted something similar in The Circle, without as much success. This is recommended for committed Franzen fans, but if you're not familiar with his work, I suggest reading The Corrections or Freedom first. ...more
Everything I Never Told You is an enigma. Hailed by critics and readers, it is Ng's (pronounced Ing) debut novel about a dysfunctional, interracial faEverything I Never Told You is an enigma. Hailed by critics and readers, it is Ng's (pronounced Ing) debut novel about a dysfunctional, interracial family living in a small Midwestern town in the 1960's and 70's. We learn in the first sentence that Lydia-the middle child-is dead. Enough said. The rest of it is a muddled attempt at tracing the origins of her unfortunate situation.
We learn that her Chinese-American father, a Harvard-educated historian, is a neglectful parent who can't make peanut butter sandwiches or find acceptance and that her ambitious, frustrated mother is an unfit parent and a terrible daughter. Their three children all suffer as a consequence, but only Lydia is so divorced from reality that she foolishly jumps into a lake without being able to swim.
If you care about feminism, read Erica Jong. If you're interested in the experience of Chinese-Americans, read Amy Tan. If you find family dysfunction fascinating, read almost anything, fromJane Austen through Jonathan Franzen. If your book club picks this, stay home with a cold. ...more