Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sense and Sensibility Wrap-Up

We finished up for Sense and Sensibility today and Austen neatly resolved everyone's love lives — Edward got out of his engagement to Lucy because it turned out she was actually in love with his brother, making him free to marry Elinor, which he promptly does. Marianne became a changed woman after her disastrous love affair with Willoughby and marries Col. Brandon.

I was going to write a long post about marriage in the novel to finish things off, but I'm going to leave it to someone else to succinctly state. As Molly pointed out in the comments Monday, "Elinor has a sensibility-based marriage and Marianne has a sense-based one. In both cases they felt somewhat out-of-character, but they're a logical progression of the arc of the novel, as Elinor and Marianne start at the extremes and need to adjust towards the middle to find happiness."

What did you all think about the ending and the novel as a whole? Share any last thoughts you have about Austen's first novel in the comments!

And a big thank you to everyone who read along with me and shared such wonderful insight into the novel — I knew this would be more fun with a lot of people participating. Check back tomorrow for a reading schedule for April's book: Pride and Prejudice.

Catching Up With An Old Friend: Lindsay Calhoun on Paradise

Catching Up With An Old Friend is a series in which readers, authors, and other bookish people share their favorite books. Read more about the project or see all the past entries. To participate, e-mail


Today's favorite book is from Lindsay Calhoun, a nonprofessional book lover who lives in Washington, DC. She is eternally grateful to come from a family that loves to read, and would especially like to thank her great-grandmother, Nina Hatfill, for making both reading and education such an important part of the lives of her entire family.

Paradise is the final book in what Toni Morrison unofficially dubbed her “love” trilogy, and like all great finales, it begins the most provocatively: “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” With this opening line Morrison intrigues her readers and keeps them pressing forward to find answers to the many questions the first chapter raises – who is the white girl? Who is the shooter? And what has prompted this scene of violence? Paradise is a thematic continuation of the central idea in Morrison’s first and only short story, “Recatatif” – without visual clues, how do you identify race in literature? Can you tell if you’re reading the thoughts of a white or black woman? Does race matter less when you’re reading words on a page rather than interacting with someone in person?

Of course, racial representation matters deeply to Morrison (as it should to any scholar of US literature), and this novel is not here to convince the reader that race is inconsequential to identity. We are given, in great detail, the racial makeup of all but four characters in the text. Among these four – Mavis, Gigi, Seneca, and Pallas – is the white girl victimized in the opening line. They, along with a fifth woman, Connie, inhabit a mansion nicknamed the Convent by locals, seventeen miles outside the small, all-black town of Ruby, Oklahoma. On my first read of Paradise, unlocking the identity of the white girl was paramount to my enjoyment of the novel – I wanted to unveil all that the novel had to offer and somehow master the text. It was the last book I read for my last literature course as an undergraduate, and when discussion of Paradise wrapped up, I filed it away, confident that I had an answer to the mystery.

Nine months later, as a Master’s student in literature, I wasn’t so sure. It was on my second reading of the novel that I realized that although the opening line invites the reader to focus on themes of race, gender, and violence, these are offshoots of broader issues at the heart of Paradise. Morrison has something much bigger in mind – most notably, revealing the danger of selective readings of history, particularly histories that are rooted in pain or trauma, and how privileging the past can stifle the present. Within the limits of one small town, Morrison tackles virtually all the major themes of 20th century American fiction – not only race and gender, but also religion, war, power, capitalism, diaspora, history, violence, segregation, patriarchy, American politics and empire, memory, and finally, the art of storytelling itself. The very kitchen sink-ness of such a novel ensures that Paradise ultimately cannot succeed with the polish of Morrison’s more focused novels, like the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning Beloved or her most recent work, A Mercy. Yet it is the flaws in this sprawling, ambitious novel that has me returning time and time again to look closer – to leave no adjective or description unscrutinized.

Morrison’s prose is magnificent – it echoes the sermonizing, frantic style of William Faulkner. Plot-wise Paradise borrows elements of magical realism from Gabriel Garcia Marquez and shares Faulkner’s emphasis on history and memory. Yet despite the authorial influences, the style is unmistakably Morrison’s own. In its grandness, its ostentatious nature, it runs a very thin line between brilliance and pomposity. But for me, the rhetorical grandeur always manages to evoke awe, rather than leave me rolling my eyes. Such a rhapsodic description as, “Unbridled by Scripture, deafened by the roar of its own history, Ruby …was an unnecessary failure. How exquisitely human was the wish for permanent happiness, and how thin human imagination became trying to achieve it,” undoubtedly borders on heavy-handed, but succeeds in that it refuses the reader passivity. The characters’ impassioned ruminations urge you to care about the future of Ruby and its townspeople. The richness of the world Morrison creates through her elaborate descriptions, or even the occasional unsettling of grammar within a sentence, imbue the text with a weightiness that its multitude of themes demands.

The novel is broken into six segments, each named for a female character, in which the history of Ruby is revealed through the perspectives of several townspeople, while the stories of the titular women themselves – all six outsiders in some way to Ruby’s insular community – unfold. The narrative reveals the women’s histories, including what prompted them to seek refuge at the Convent, as well as the far-reaching, at times painful history of the town itself. The more that is revealed, the closer the stories of the women and the townspeople inch toward collision. Like many of Morrison’s novels, the narrative tracks a circular pattern – we both begin and end with the shooting described in the first line. What comes between may or may not answer any questions raised by the initial scene of violence. At the heart of both the stories of the Convent women and the Ruby townspeople are deep traumas.

Paradise was not as critically successful as some of Morrison’s other works, probably because tackling so large a topic as all of US history through the microcosm of an all-black town in the middle of nowhere is too much to ask of one novel. And yet the compelling way Morrison attempts it – with the provocative nature of beautifully described violence, the sublimity of her rhetoric, the sympathy with which she crafts even her least sympathetic character, and with the power, or as she might put it, the roar of history (true history, not just the history of the victors) on her side, this novel is impossible to ignore. I love this novel not despite its flaws, but for them. To create a piece of art that can so viscerally connect to the painful history of both racism and sexism in the US while remaining a unique and eloquently written piece of fiction is an extraordinary feat. For a work that can be read again and again and interpreted differently each time (after all, who is the white girl mentioned in that very first line? What really happens in both the opening and closing chapters?), Paradise is unparalleled. I just finished it for the fifth time in less than four years. I’m sure I’ll be back again.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Sense and Sensibility, Chapters 35-44

We're winding down our reading of Sense and Sensibility, with only six chapters remaining. This week we saw more engagement mess for Edward, a departure from London for the Dashwoods, and a surprise visit from everyone's favorite cad.

While Mrs. Jennings is off helping Charlotte have her baby, Lucy visits the Dashwoods to talk about how much Mrs. Ferrars likes her. While she’s doing this, Edward arrives and all three start acting pretty awkwardly, while Marianne is still in the dark about what’s going on.

It’s time for another party, and the Dashwoods receive an invitation since the couple throwing the fête think the sisters are staying with their brother. Robert Ferrars makes a dull appearance, and John Dashwood tells Fanny they should really invite his sisters to stay with them. Fanny overrules him and invites the Steele sisters instead.

Mrs. Jennings returns and shares the shocking news (to her and Marianne) that Lucy and Edward have been engaged for a long time. When Elinor tells Marianne that it is true, and that she’s known for months, Marianne is amazed that Elinor has held herself together, and that she was able to talk to Marianne about Willoughby despite being so upset herself.

John Dashwood tells the sisters that Fanny is in a state about the engagement and that Mrs. Ferrars intends to disown Edward if he goes through with the marriage and will give the estate to Robert. Edward keeps his word and plans to become a curate. While he won’t be rich from the position, he and Lucy will be able to sustain themselves. All the characters fall into a tizzy over Edward’s impending pauperdom and his nobility in keeping the engagement.

By this point the Dashwoods are desperate to get out of London, but the Palmers invite them to spend Easter at Cleveland. Since Cleveland is on the way to Barton, they go and plan to return home after the holiday. But before they depart, Col. Brandon visits Elinor and tells her that Edward can have the parsonage at Delaford, his estate, if he wishes. Mrs. Jennings overhears snippets of the conversation, and assumes Elinor and Brandon are engaged, as John Dashwood still assumes as well. Elinor starts to write Edward a letter telling him of the Colonel’s offer, when Edward himself arrives. He’s thrilled, as can be expected.

The Dashwoods leave London, but once they arrive, Marianne becomes quite ill with a fever. After Col. Brandon goes to fetch Mrs. Dashwood, Mr. Harris, the apothecary, tells them that Marianne is out of danger. Elinor hears a carriage that evening, and assuming it is Brandon and her mother, is surprised to see Willoughby. He heard that Marianne might be dying, so he came to apologize for how he treated her. Willoughby admits that he married for money, since he was living an extravagant life he couldn’t afford, and that he still loves Marianne. He asks Elinor to relay his apology to Marianne when she is well, and Elinor agrees.

These chapters drive home the idea of marriage as an economical decision. Willoughby declares that he married Miss Grey for her money and that she “knew I had no regard for her when we married.” Mrs. Ferrars disowns Edward for choosing to marry for love and not money, and John Dashwood tells Elinor that Miss Morton will marry Robert Ferrars and not Edward. When Elinor comments that “the lady… has no choice in the affair,” John replies, “certainly, there can be no difference; for Robert will now to all intents and purposes be considered as the eldest son;— and as to any thing else, they are both very agreeable young men, I do not know that one is superior to the other.”

Miss Grey must have married Willoughby for love, but aside from her and the Edward/Lucy mess, unions in this novel are not formed out of love, but rather formed as a result of economical considerations. Women did not work, and in cases like the Dashwoods, who should have gotten more money after their father’s death than they did, the only way to get more money and maintain a standard of living is through marriage. Austen’s works represent a break from the 18th-century novels that sentimentalized romance. She advocates practicality, but with a caveat — marrying for money is fine, so long as there is a deep attachment to go along with it. With marriage, as with everything in this novel, Austen is pushing for balance: sense is great, so long as you have some sensibility to even things out, and vice versa.

What do you think about marriage in the novel so far?

We're going to finish up the novel on Wednesday and start Pride and Prejudice on Thursday, so if you're reading along with that one, make sure you pick up a copy.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Review: The Girl With Glass Feet

Ali Shaw's The Girl With Glass Feet is one of the most beautiful debut novels I've read in some time. The layered fable, which takes place in the past and the present, is set in St. Hauda's Land, an archipelago way up north (we never find out where exactly it is) where strange things happen. It's a dark and evocative novel about transformation, loss, and the things that trap us in the past.

The girl with the glass feet is Ida Mclaird, a visitor to St. Hauda's from the mainland. On her first visit she runs into Henry Fuwa, a hermit, and sees him with a small moth-like creature that has the body of a bull. He also mentions, in passing, "Would you believe… there are glass bodies here, hidden in the bog water?"

Ida returns home and realizes that her lower extremities are turning into glass. Thinking that Henry may have a clue about her condition, she heads back to St. Hauda's to find him. While there, she meets Midas Crook, a young, shy, photographer whose help she enlists in finding Henry. It's a simple premise, as many fairy tales are, but Shaw wraps the past around his characters in a way that makes the narrative neat but the relationships messy.

On the archipelago, Ida is staying in the cottage of her dead mother's old friend Carl, who was in love with her and knew Midas' father. We also learn that Henry had an affair years ago with Midas' mother, who turned into a recluse after Midas' father committed suicide. Shaw uses flashbacks to explore the relationship between Midas and his father (also named Midas), and gives readers insight into why Midas senior did what he did (he was also turning to glass, beginning with his heart), information that his son never learns. We see how quickly opinions can be formed without access to all the necessary information, and how difficult, even impossible, it can be to let go of these initial impressions.

Ida's mysterious plight is, like any serious illness, a catalyst for confronting long-held beliefs and finally talking about those things buried beneath the surface. In this novel, that includes Midas' overwhelming anger against his father, a tentative love affair between Ida and Midas, and Carl's suffocating love for Ida's long-dead mother. But Shaw, by giving Ida a strange problem, acknowledges that this isn't simply a metaphor for ilness; Henry tells Midas "This isn’t a disease. The glass is now a part of her." Turning to glass, becoming see-through and open to the world, isn't necessarily a bad thing if viewed symbolically, as Shaw makes his characters realize in different ways throughout the novel. It also roots his work in the tradition of fairy tales, making the novel feel like it was glossed over by Hans Christian Andersen — in a good way.

It's a compelling work, steeped in meaning and told elegantly. I had difficulty with Shaw's early chapters, which were heavy with description of outdoor scenes, white animals, and dark shadows. But these descriptions, less frequent as the book progresses, serve both to create a stark, harsh setting for the novel and to offer us a metaphor for the crushing isolation that can occur when you don't follow your heart, as none of the characters in the novel are wont to do. The color at the end of the book, for both the characters and us, makes it all worth it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Catching Up With An Old Friend: Andrew Foster Altschul on The Book of Daniel

Catching Up With An Old Friend is a series in which readers, authors, and other bookish people share their favorite books. Read more about the project or see all the past entries. To participate, e-mail

Today's favorite book is from Andrew Foster Altschul, the author of the novels Lady Lazarus (2008) and Deus Ex Machina (2010). His short fiction and essays have appeared in Esquire, Ploughshares, McSweeney's, Fence, One Story, StoryQuarterly, and anthologies such as Best New American Voices and O. Henry Prize Stories. He is the books editor of The Rumpus and lives in San Francisco.

I’m always a little envious – and a little suspicious – of people who say they have a favorite novel. I mean, it’s fine to have, say, a favorite color, or a favorite sushi roll; but beyond that it’s so hard to narrow things down to “the one.” I have lots of favorite restaurants, depending on what kind of mood I’m in; maybe The Big Lebowski is my all-time favorite movie, but on another night Mulholland Drive would be just the thing; sometimes my favorite TV show is Six Feet Under, other times it’s The Wire, or The West Wing, or, hell, even Seinfeld.

Lots of novels have changed my life – as a writer and a human being – and they all feature powerful narrative voices, unconventional structures, and absolute confidence in their material. Absalom, Absalom!, The Satanic Verses, Infinite Jest, Beloved – these authors didn’t so much write their novels as engrave them, in a way that defies you to imagine a literary landscape in which they’d never existed.

But maybe the novel I come back to the most often, that continually yields up new joys and amazements, that moves me to grief, humility, wonder, and righteous anger, and that inspires me to push harder and deeper in my own work, is E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel. The story of Daniel Isaacson, son of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, working-class Jews arrested, tried, and executed for espionage and treason in the early 1950s, The Book of Daniel closely mirrors the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – but not too closely, walking a very fine line that allows it to draw on a reader’s presumed knowledge of the history while simultaneously inventing characters and situations that allow Doctorow to explore not only the politics of the McCarthy era (and its bastard offspring, the 60s student-radical movement) but an entire American century of immigration, assimilation, disillusionment and suffering. It closely examines the idea of America – America’s idea of itself, its dearest principles and its regular failure to live up to them – an investigation as crucial in the age of waterboarding and extraordinary rendition as it was when poor Brooklyn Jews could be sacrificed on capitalism’s altar for the crime of believing in the rhetoric of a happier, fairer life. After reading the novel’s excruciating account of the Isaacsons’ lives and deaths – raised in tenements, excluded from Gentile society, scratching and clawing to get an education at City College of New York, fighting for their country in World War II, and finally being subjected to a legal proceeding for which words like “travesty” and “mockery” are insufficient – I read everything I could find about the Rosenbergs, and was frequently brought to tears at the undeniable evidence of my country’s failings, even its malice. It was maybe a year later that the World Trade Center was destroyed, maybe a week after that that I began to feel the rumblings of another terrible era being born and recalled Daniel’s prophetic and devastating indictment of America’s professed ideals: “If justice cannot be made to operate under the worst possible conditions of social hysteria, what does it matter how it operates at other times?”

For all its political relevance, though, what I love most about The Book of Daniel is the writing, Doctorow’s high-wire act of structural contortion, his ventriloquism, and the slippery point of view he employs to bring this troubled and troublesome character to life. The novel poses – sometimes – as Daniel’s memoir, or as his graduate thesis on radical politics, or as his case study, or his confession. He’s grown up, not surprisingly, into a complicated, shambling mess of self-loathing and rage, a rage which he takes out on everyone who loves him even while clinging to them desperately and poignantly in fear that they, too, will be taken from him without warning. His narration moves in and out of several time frames – his parents’ lives as young, poor, ambitious Jews swept up in Communist dreams of utopia; the unbearably painful period of their trial and executions; his own salad days as a 1960s Columbia University radical and incompetent husband; his sporadic but urgent attempts to find out: Why? – oscillating between an agonized first-person and an ironic, hypercritical third-person that inspires enormous empathy and pity by making clear the depths of Daniel’s fear and self-hatred. Despite the historical baggage, and Doctorow’s own obvious political sympathies, he somehow never allows our relationship to Daniel to be simple or sentimental; we feel empathy for Daniel’s suffering, and that of his parents and sister, and sympathy for his anger, his politics, his desperation to understand what happened, but the novel never stoops to pat justifications, never tries to explain the inexplicable. Were the Isaacsons guilty? And of what, exactly? And is there any guilt sufficient to justify what was done to them? Doctorow’s too smart and brave a writer to be snared in such literary irrelevancies, preferring instead to explore the connections between the personal and the political, the historical and the emotional, to distill all the self-contradictions and naiveties and ironies and cruelties of the “American Century” into one devastatingly brilliant character.

Fredric Jameson calls Doctorow “one of the few serious and innovative leftist novelists at work in the United States today.” And it would be silly to argue that The Book of Daniel, like Ragtime and Billy Bathgate and others, isn’t a political novel. But its refusal to reduce its subject matter to right and left (or right and wrong), or to upstage its painstakingly drawn characters with irresolvable arguments about what America is, or should be, are what elevate it above the level of artful polemic and into the realm of the literary masterpiece. Perhaps its most political gesture of all is its insistence that the individual – his pain, his confusion, his fear, his need – is more worthy of our concern than the great historical tides in which he may be swept up, or drowned, a position which makes Doctorow something much more important than a leftist. It makes him a writer.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sense and Sensibility, Chapters 23-34

We read through Chapter 34 this week, and wow, is Willoughby a cad or what? Volume Two starts with Elinor deciding to get to the bottom of what exactly is going on with Lucy and Edward, and she plots to pull Lucy aside one night. Elinor is convinced that Edward's engagement to Lucy was the result of a youthful infatuation, and that he cannot possibly still care for her. Lucy tells Elinor that Mrs. Ferrars would not approve of their marriage, and since Edward only has £2,000, they must wait to marry until Edward inherits her estate.

The Dashwood sisters head to London, where Mrs. Jennings will be showing them around town and taking them to dinners and parties. As soon as they arrive, Marianne expects that Willoughby will call and gets increasingly agitated when he does not respond to her letters or come to visit. To Marianne's chagrin but Elinor's delight, Colonel Brandon is in London, and he visits the sisters frequently. The Middletons also come to London and throw a ball, inviting Willoughby, who turns down the invitation.

Soon, though, the Dashwoods run into Willoughby at a party, where Marianne confronts him. He's cold and rude, and Marianne leaves the party immediately. She sends him a letter the next day, and with his reply he returns her letters and the lock of her hair that he snipped while they were in the country. When Marianne shows Elinor the letter, we learn the truth behind her relationship with Willoughby: they were not engaged, as it turns out, and Willoughby never exactly told Marianne that he loved her. Making matters worse, he says that he has been engaged to another woman for a long time, and he apologizes if he lead Marianne on. His fiancée is an heiress and the Dashwood's social circle, appalled by the turn of events, quickly rejects Willoughby — including Mrs. Palmer, who has never even met him — excepting Lady Middleton, who thinks Mrs. Willoughby will be a sophisticated friend to have.

Elinor soon learns that Willoughby is even worse than she imagined, when Col. Brandon tells her a story about his former lover, Eliza, who ended up marrying his brother. His brother didn't love Eliza, and the couple divorced, setting Eliza on a path of destruction. She had a child and then died, but Brandon supports her daughter and sends her to school. This girl followed in her mother's footsteps and unfortunately met Willoughby, who took her virtue and then abandoned her. Elinor is appalled and relays this story to Marianne, who laments Willoughby's loss of character.

The next couple to arrive in London are John and Fanny Dashwood. John tells Elinor some interesting things, including that he expects her to marry Col. Brandon, and that Edward is engaged to a girl named Miss Morton, not to Lucy Steele. The Steeles conveniently come to town as well, and the Dashwoods decide to host a dinner. They invite Elinor, Marianne, Mrs. Jennings, the Steele sisters, the Middletons, Col. Brandon, and Mrs. Ferrars, a most appalling woman. Mrs. Ferrars insults Elinor's artwork and praises Miss Morton's artistic abilities. Marianne is outraged and tells her off, while John Dashwood tells Col. Brandon that Marianne has lost her beauty.

A lot happens in these chapters, and it looks like Willoughby's involvement in the novel is done. We learn that Edward is apparently engaged to two women, one publicly and one secretly, depending on who is to be believed. From these chapters, I'm most interested in Col. Brandon, who seems to be the only honorable man in this entire novel. After all, he challenged Willoughby to a duel for how he treated Brandon's ward.

What I can't figure out yet is why Brandon is so infatuated with Marianne and not Elinor. Though he thinks she resembles his long-dead lover, each time Brandon visits the sisters in London, he sits and converses with Elinor for hours, while Marianne flees upon his arrival. The pair have never held a substantive conversation, and Marianne has never been anything but rude to him. But Elinor is not taken with Brandon either, despite the fact that they are the only two characters who seem to have a shred of common sense. Though she says that his visits are the best part of her day, and looks forward to them, she is astounded when her brother suggests that she might marry him. Brandon seems like the only one of the Dashwood's beaux worth marrying, yet neither sister wants to.

The other thing that struck me from these chapters is how cautious characters are about asking each other things, and how quickly they form assumptions. No one asks Marianne whether or not she is engaged to Willoughby — this includes her own mother and sister, who tip-toe around the question — yet they assume the couple are betrothed. Marianne herself doesn't even ask Willoughby what his feelings are, and makes assumptions of what she thinks they are. Elinor's appreciation for Edward is also assumed by the other characters, and no one asks him where his affections lie either. Mrs. Jennings does grill Col. Brandon about his ward, but when he refuses to answer her questions, she makes up her own story about what's going on. Are these characters making assumptions and gossiping simply because they have too much time on their hands and want to have a little fun? Or do they think they're being proper by avoiding these potentially awkward conversations? Or does Austen keep things secret for as long as she possibly can in order to fuel the plot?

Next week, you should read through Chapter 44.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Let me get right to the point: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, a 2009 mystery by Alan Bradley, is pretty darn charming. And really, what else could it be, when you have obsessive stamp collectors, a 30-year-old mysterious death, a tiny English hamlet, and a narrator who is an 11-year-old chemistry genius?

Flavia de Luce (I forgot to mention that all the names are amazing), narrates the story from Bishop's Lacey, a small town in England. She lives in Buckshaw, a rambling old mansion complete with man-made lake and island. Precocious and witty, Flavia lives with her older sisters, vain Ophelia and bookish Daphne, and their father, Col. de Luce, who is retired and collects stamps. Rounding out the household are Dogger, a jack-of-all-trades who suffers from PTSD, and Mrs. Mullet, who comes each day to make the family some truly hideous pies.

Notably absent is Harriet de Luce, Flavia's mother. She died in a mountaineering accident when Flavia was three, and she continues to haunt every character in the novel. It isn't a literal haunting, but her presence is everywhere, from her old car that Flavia and the Colonel sit in when they need to think to her untouched sitting room, which serves as a sort-of shrine. But more on her later.

Flavia's life takes an exciting turn the day she finds a dead bird with a stamp impaled on its beak on her doorstep, and she witnesses her father arguing with a strange man. Later that night she hears the strange man's last words as he dies in the family's cucumber patch. Flavia decides to investigate the mystery herself, and she rides her bike all over Bishop's Lacey, making several visits to the archives of the library and interviewing townspeople who met the dead stranger.

As Flavia pieces together her investigation, she learns that her father went to school with the dead man, and that the two were involved in some very shady dealings relating to a missing stamp. This connection leads to her father's arrest, and Flavia goes right to the police station and hears his side of the story. Learning of his innocence fuels her desire to complete the investigation and clear his name. She's one step ahead of the detectives on the case at all times, and while I stayed ahead of Flavia on a few points, the solution was satisfying.

There are flaws here, to be certain, including the writing. I have never seen such an incredible use of similes in my entire life, and some are laughably bad. Some examples:

"Taking care not to jiggle the curtains, I peeked out into the kitchen garden just as the moon obligingly came out from behind a cloud to illuminate the scene, much as it would in a first-rate production of A Midsummer Night's Dream."

"Feely and Daffy were sitting on a flowered divan in the drawing room, wrapped in one another's arms and wailing like air-raid sirens."

"At first Father's unaccustomed words came slowly and hesitantly — jerking into reluctant motion like rusty freight cars on the railway.'

Besides the distracting nature of the constant barrage of comparisons, Bradley needs to do more with Harriet. She is a thoroughly compelling character, in part because her death seems mysterious — she was climbing mountains in Tibet with no one else from her family. As more Flavia de Luce mysteries are on their way, I forsee Bradley delving into her life and influence on her husband and daughters.

Despite its flaws, The Sweetness of the Bottom of the Pie is fun. Read with tea and don't put it down until you finish it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Catching Up With An Old Friend: Amy Cavanaugh on The Secret History

Today kicks off Catching Up With An Old Friend, a series in which readers, authors, and other bookish people share their favorite books. To participate, e-mail


"What's your favorite book?" That's a question that anyone who studies literature and writes about books is bound to hear repeatedly, and it's a question without an easy answer. There are many contenders for the title of my Favorite Book — I love Moby-Dick and consider it the Great American Novel, and I think The Portrait of a Lady's Isabel Archer is fascinating — but my very favorite is a book that each time I read it offers something new. The writing is bewitching and the characters are compelling, while the plot draws you in immediately and doesn't loosen its grip until you've finished reading it — and not even then. It is Donna Tartt's thoughtful, intelligent The Secret History.

Thinking about the impact a single book has had on my life got me thinking about other people's favorite books as well. Is your favorite a book that you've passed around to your friends and loved ones, eager to share the joys you've found inside it with others? Or is it a book that you keep to yourself, so that it's your favorite and no one else's? Has your favorite book changed over the years, or has it been your favorite for decades? What about the book makes it your favorite? What these questions all boil down to is: what does our favorite book say about us?

These are the questions I was thinking about when I decided to launch this series. I've asked writers, editors, book reviewers, book bloggers, and just plain lovers of literature to contribute to Catching Up With An Old Friend, and I'll be publishing their responses here weekly. If you'd like to participate, please e-mail your response to

I first happened across The Secret History in July 2002, in the basement of the Old Lyme Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library, but given that it was a New York Times bestseller in 1992, I really can't believe I didn't hear of it sooner. The books in the basement of the library were for sale, and when I came across my copy, which featured a Roman head on the front and no synopsis on the back, I was intrigued. I added it to my purchase pile, and bought it for $2.

I read The Secret History over the course of a few days in Old Lyme that July, and finished the book back home in Holyoke. As soon as I finished it, I began to press it into people's hands, roping my brother and mother in almost immediately. I've since shared it with many friends, and all have loved it, often as zealously as I do.

Tartt's story of a group of college kids studying classics at Hampden College in Vermont — and who happen to commit a murder — is beautifully written and cerebral. There's brilliant and multi-lingual Henry, flamboyant and cosmopolitan Francis, friendly and beautiful twins Charles and Camilla, and comical, tragic Bunny. Richard, who is starting fresh at Hampden after an unpleasant childhood in California, narrates the whole tale from years in the future, and shares the story as it unfolded for him.

The first half of the book explains how Richard falls in with the other students, who take classes exclusively with Julian, an arrogant yet charming professor. As a novel about students studying Classics, it's not surprising that the (easily influenced) students will adopt the "high cold principles" they're learning about: "duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice," along with Classical philosophies like hedonism. The first murder occurs, after all, when the group attempts to convene with Dionysus and holds a bacchanal. The second murder occurs later, but Tartt has already told us it will happen, announcing on the first page that Bunny will die and that the other students murder him; it's a risky move that ends up working perfectly.

Richard, who never quite fit in anywhere before, desperately wants to be part of the group. He never loses this desire to fit in with the Classics clique, and at one point in the novel, he muses about how he simply turned Bunny over to them, a move that he knew would lead to Bunny's death. In the epilogue he comments that "you would think, after all we'd been through, that Francis and the twins and I would have kept in better touch over the years." The "thread which bound us" is cut, and the assistance with murdering Bunny that Richard provided the others was all for naught. He's an unreliable narrator, given his intense feelings about and admiration for the other students, but he's a narrator you're rooting for, if only so he'll provide you more access to this rarefied world.

The second half concerns the fall-out from Bunny's death and the existential questions and deep-seated resentments it brings out in the main characters. Ultimately an exploration of good and evil, The Secret History shows how easy it can be to move between the two.

Part of my affinity for the novel is due to timing. The summer I read The Secret History was the summer before I went off to college and the book delved deep into a world I was ready to inhabit — not a world of murderous classmates, but a world where literary conversations happen over tea and where people could wander down the hall to where their best friends lived. It was also the last summer I really went on an extended summer vacation, so the book bridged an ending and beginning. Even now, when I pick up the book, I'm transported to the time I read it, but I bring to each reading all the things that have happened in the interim. That's what's great about re-reading a book. It's like catching up with an old friend, a friend who has changed just a little bit since the last time you saw him.

I always used to hope that I would see someone reading the book, so I could run up to him or her and ask, "Isn't that just the greatest book?" I've never been able to do it, but the summer I worked at the Mount Holyoke College Library it happened to me. Sitting at the circulation desk, plowing through the novel, a professor stopped by and nodded at my open copy. "Don't get any ideas from that," he said, and carried on his way. I didn't have time to ask him what he thought about it, but I have to imagine that if he felt compelled to say something, he also appreciated Tartt's beautiful novel. That's what great books (or great song or great movies) do to us — they make us want to sing their praises and share them with people. I've shared mine with you, now it's your turn.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sense and Sensibility, Chapters 14-22

We've now finished the first volume of Sense and Sensibility and things are starting to get juicy. Two important things happen in these chapters — first Willoughby leaves abruptly, sending Marianne into a funk. His departure causes Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor to speculate about whether he and Marianne are engaged. Mrs. Dashwood thinks that Mrs. Smith (Willoughby's relative, from whom he will inherit the house) found out about the engagement and unhappy about it, sent him away. Elinor doubts that the couple is engaged at all.

The second thing of note is that Edward Ferrars comes to visit for a week. While he's there, the Dashwoods spot a ring with a lock of hair in it. Marianne suspects it is Elinor's hair (and Elinor thinks he "procured it by some theft or contrivance unknown to herself,") but Edward says it is his sister's hair. Edward is lying here, as we find out later.

The Palmers, a young couple, come to visit the Middletons and have dinner with the Dashwoods. Mrs. Palmer, the daughter of Mrs. Jennings and therefore Lady Middleton's sister, is pregnant and bubbly, while Mr. Palmer is rude and ignores his wife. Elinor asks Mrs. Palmer if she knows anything about Willoughby, and she replies that she knows about his engagement to Marianne. The Palmers leave and more visitors arrive in the form of the vulgar Steele sisters, who are also related to Mrs. Jennings.

The elder sister, Anne, is nearly 30 and quite plain, while the younger, Lucy is very pretty and clever. The Dashwoods don't especially enjoy their company, but are forced to spend time with the sisters nonetheless. Things get more interesting when Lucy pulls Elinor aside to ask if she has met Edward's mother, which Elinor doesn't know what to make of. She soon learns that Lucy has been secretly engaged to Edward for four years — they met at the home of Lucy's uncle, who was Edward's teacher — and that it is her hair in Edward's ring. The engagement is a secret, as the couple thinks Edward's mother would not approve of Lucy's lack of fortune.

The first volume ends with these two anticipated engagements going awry. While we don't know whether Marianne and Willoughby are engaged, we can assume that his sudden departure does not spell good things for the couple. It's interesting how little Marianne wants to talk about him, given her propensity for sharing feelings. After Elinor hears that news about Edward's engagement, which causes "an emotion and distress beyond any thing she had ever felt before," she is "mortified, shocked, confounded." This is the first instance where Austen has Elinor really feel something, though Elinor remains calm around Lucy and does not betray how deeply she apparently cares for Edward.

Two lines in these chapters give us some insight into the main characters', well, character. In Chapter 18, Edward, Elinor and Marianne are walking and admiring the scenery. Edward cuts Marianne off when she asks him which part of the scenery he most admires, and he says that he can only speak about those aspects of the landscape he knows about and does not want to "offend" her with his "ignorance." A bit later, in Chapter 21, Marianne falls silent in a conversation with the Steeles about Lady Middleton. Austen tells us that "it was impossible for her to say what she did not feel, however trivial the occasion; and upon Elinor therefore the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it, always fell."

Though Edward and Marianne insist on only saying those things they firmly believe/feel, they are both, in a sense, lying by omission — Edward keeps his engagement secret, and Marianne keeps whatever has transpired between her and Willoughby a secret. So while they will only talk about those things that are true, they do not talk about all true things.

We also start to see how the Dashwood sisters each embody sense and sensibility — Elinor may have sense, but she finds herself hurt by a man whom she gave her heart to. Marianne, meanwhile, chooses to stay out of a potentially uncomfortable conversation with the Steeles by holding her tongue since she couldn't agree with them. Austen is starting to show us how important it is to attain a balance between sense and sensibility.

What did you think about the first volume of the novel?

This week's reading assignment is to read through Chapter 34. See you here next Monday to talk about them!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Cover Candy: Penguin (RED) Covers

Penguin Classics has gussied up eight of its paperbacks to raise money for AIDS relief through (RED). Each cover replaces the black band at the bottom with red and features a quote from the book emblazoned on the cover. All the designs are done in red, black and white. Below, my favorites, but see more here.

The Secret Agent, designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith

The House of Mirth, designed by Nathan Burton

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

In the Attic With Ben H. Winters

I recently interviewed Ben H. Winters, author of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and the forthcoming Android Karenina. The interview, originally published in the Washington City Paper's Arts Desk blog, is excerpted below. Read the full interview here.

WCP: What was your relationship to Sense and Sensibility before writing the book?
BHW: I hadn’t read it in many years, but I loved it and I had seen the Emma Thompson/Ang Lee film version. It’s hard to express what’s so great about that book—it has a classic, almost Shakespearean feel to it. There’s something bewitching about Austen’s writing and you really get drawn into the world of her characters. I hope by adding the zany stuff I’ve done justice to the original by retaining what makes it great and having fun at the same time.

WCP: How did you change the world of the Dashwood sisters to incorporate the monsters?
BHW: The book really doesn’t take place on the water at all, so I moved the central location to a deserted island, and changed London, the fashionable place they go in the middle of the book, to a sub base. There were places I stepped back and let Austen do the heavy lifting, and I tried to get monsters in there at the points where Austen’s characters are experiencing their deepest emotional peril. I equate the dangers of finding and losing love with the dangers of sea monster attacks.

WCP: What do you say to someone who says you’re negatively affecting Austen’s legacy?
BHW: First of all, I can’t get upset about it, because the reason they get so upset and lash out is because they love Austen so much. I hope people understand that a work like this is no higher form of flattery. Her work is worth enjoying in new ways and I hope people come to it from this spirit.

WCP: Your next mash-up, Android Karenina, besides having such a cool title, is also based on a favorite book of mine. What do I have to look forward to when it comes out on June 8?
BHW: I’ve tried to make this a great science fiction novel. It’s a really intriguing, dystopian, steampunk world with Tolstoy’s intricate and beautiful love stories playing around. Tolstoy was concerned about love and humanity, and I mix that with graphic science fiction—robots, aliens. It was so much fun to see what I would come up with and I think readers will dig it.

Read the full interview here.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Sense and Sensibility, Chapters 1-13

In the first 13 chapters of Sense and Sensibility, we meet most of the novel's main characters, and the major conflicts have also been set into motion. We're introduced to Elinor and Marianne, the Dashwood sisters, who have been forced with their mother and little sister out of their house  upon the death of their father. Mr. Henry Dashwood bequeathed the property to his son from his first marriage, though he exacted a promise from this son to care for his half-sisters and step-mother. John Dashwood plans to do this until his wife, Fanny, convinces him that he has no obligations to them. The women stay on until they can secure new lodgings, and it's here that they meet Edward Ferrars (Fanny's brother), whom Marianne is convinced that Elinor loves.

When Sir John Middleton, a relation of Mrs. Dashwood, offers the displaced women a cottage on his property to stay in, the action of the novel shifts to this new house, where the Dashwoods meet some charming men and a terrible busybody, and attend parties. The men include Colonel Brandon, who is in love with Marianne, and Willoughby, with whom Marianne fell in love after he came to her rescue after she twisted her ankle in a rainstorm. Willoughby courts Marianne and raises the neighbors' eyebrows when he takes her on a carriage ride and a tour of the house he expects to inherit. Elinor is convinced that her sister is making poor decisions and jeopardizing her reputation.

That's where we leave the Dashwood sisters at the end of the first 13 chapters. These early sections are concerned with various expectations the characters have for themselves and each other, and Austen introduces the idea of "sensibility," a term that doesn't quite mean what it means today. "Sensibility" is  present in varying amounts in each the novel's female characters, and this term is, I think, one of the best ways to enter into our discussion of the novel.

The title is about more than equating sense with Elinor for her practicality and theories about marriage, and linking sensibility to Marianne for her belief in sharing feelings ("'Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor!… Use those words again and I will leave the room this moment.'") and the idea that the only love that matters is the first attachment one makes (we'll get into this at a later point). To contextualize sensibility, we can look to Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which it is argued that men kept women dependent on them by insisting on their sensibility, or their alliance with feeling instead of reason. Ros Ballaster notes in the introduction to the Penguin Hardcover Classics edition that according to Wollstonecraft, "women who have been enslaved to sensibility… either neglect or indulge their children, whereas women given the opportunity to exercise their capacity for reason would educate them to become full rational citizens themselves."

We see a woman enslaved to sensibility in Mrs. Dashwood, who gossips with Marianne when the two interpret Elinor's feelings about Edward, and who cannot make a practical decision when finding a new house. Elinor saves the day with her "steadier judgment" and rejects "several houses as too large for their income." Marianne seems destined to follow in her mother's footsteps — her courtship with Willoughby is based on sensibility — while Elinor's mother and sister worry that her inability to show feelings means she'll never marry.

Wollstonecraft refers to Samuel Johnson's 1755 definition of "sensibility," which is "quickness of sensation; quickness of perception; delicacy," and writes that "the definition gives me no other idea than of the most exquisitely polished instinct." Both Elinor and Marianne possess this sharp instinct but they show it in different ways, allowing Austen to turn the popular sentimental novel on its head and usher in a new era of writing. Austen picks apart contemporary society and satirizes the novelistic conventions that sentimentalize romance. With Sense and Sensibility and the novels that follow, we're dealing with a very astute writer — one who will charm us with her wit and humor while dissecting the society in which she lives.

What did everyone think of Sense and Sensibility?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Cover Candy: Silhouettes

A hot new trend in cover art is the silhouette, with figures in black popping off the cover and hinting at an (often) historical setting for the novel. The idea may be retro — very retro, as silhouettes were all the rage in the 18th century — but these covers look fresh and pretty.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Review: Scar Tissue

With the exception of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, I don't read much poetry. But after I kept seeing Charles Wright's name pop up various places, I checked Scar Tissue, his 2006 collection, out of the library. Wright, who won the Pulitzer Prize for 1998's Black Zodiac, has published 19 volumes of poetry, two since Scar Tissue.

In Scar Tissue, Wright explores nature and God, though language is also a subject here. He writes in long lines, uses inventive metaphors and regularly employs assonance. Wright's poems have a lovely lyrical quality and share observations and ideas that seem almost preternaturally wise.

Wright was born in the South and spent time in Italy both in the army and later as a Fulbright scholar. In his poems, Italian cities and landscapes intertwine with Southern ones — the two locations factor in to the theme of nostalgia that's an undercurrent in some poems and front and center in others: Nostalgia arrives like a spring storm, / Looming and large with fine flash, / Dissolving like a disease then / into the furred horizon, / Whose waters have many doors, / Whose sky has a thousand panes of glass.

Wright's work is lovely and deeply visual — it's easy to imagine someone painting a picture to match his words — but the sound of his words together is even more beautiful. It was all I could do not to read the entire collection aloud.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Jane Austen Challenge kicks off today!

Attic Salt's Jane Austen Challenge kicks off today, with Sense and Sensibility. Readers around the Internet will be joining together to read Austen's first novel, which was published in 1811 in three volumes.

Originally published anonymously (the title page attributes the work to "a lady," Sense and Sensibility was a later version of Elinor and Marianne, an epistolary novel Austen wrote in 1795. Austen paid for the book's publication herself and would have had the cover any losses, but she ended up earning a profit of 140 pounds from the first edition.

As a reminder, here is the schedule:

Saturday, March 6 - Chapters 1-13
Saturday, March 13 - Chapters 14-22
Saturday, March 20 - Chapters 23-34
Saturday, March 27 - Chapters 35-44
Wednesday, March 31 - Chapters 45-50

So next Monday, I'll be posting on the first 13 chapters of the book, and I'll welcome comments/posts/what-have-you on those chapters or anything else you'd like to say about Austen. Happy reading, all!