Saturday, August 21, 2010

Persuasion Update

Since I've gone ahead and just finished Persuasion like I did with Northanger Abbey (this is what happens with shorter books!) I'm going to save my thoughts for a final post on the novel at the end of the month. I'm also brainstorming ideas for a couple of posts for September that will address themes and topics in all six of Austen's books. If you can think of something you think would be fun to discuss here, please let me know or leave a comment! Good luck finishing up your Austen reading!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

In Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, food emits the feelings of the person who made it to 9-year-old Rose Edelstein. Distraught when she realizes that her mother is unhappy by tasting the emotion in a lemon birthday cake with chocolate frosting, Rose's happy-go-lucky nature begins to dissolve as she starts to question what's going on around her. Food, for Rose, lays bare the dark secrets of everyone she knows years before she should know them.

It's a strange family. Besides Rose, there's her oddball mother, who tries to follow various passions, her loving but distant father, and her unusual brother, Joseph. Joseph is older by a few years, and to Rose he's a genius who somehow can't get into the handful of colleges he applies to. Secretive and always irritated, he spurs the novel's tension with his disappearance shortly after he moves out.

Bender tracks Rose through those years when food tells her particularly startling things -- her mother's affair, her brother's strange disappearance -- ultimately until she's in her early twenties and trying to find a way to use her "gift" for good. It's been a barrier between Rose and a normal life, as she forgoes college and other things in order to save herself trouble, but she ultimately learns to accept both her taste buds and her brother's situation. His "gift" is one that divides the family and can't be hidden, as Rose's can. If the symbolism seems heavy handed, it can be at times, though Bender balances it with the mystery that each "gift" produces.

Food is a terrific character in its own right. Its personification is sometimes twee and at other times seems to mock food criticism and obnoxious food blogs, but its main role is the conduit for change and self-discovery as Rose grows up. There's nothing gimmicky about this, just a novel way of getting to the heart of family issues. As strange as Rose's abilities are, Joseph's are even stranger, but the family is unwilling or unable to talk about them. The one person who will listen, Joseph's friend George, is Rose's crush and the only character who provides some balance to the family's troubles. As a food writer reading this book, I wanted Rose to embrace her strange ability and launch a new type of food writing, one that explores the passion in restaurant's kitchens and whether they use locally sourced ingredients like they promise.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is engaging and Bender creates a world that's easy for readers to inhabit. I've always been drawn to magical realism, and this book is no exception.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Cover Candy: F. Scott Fitzgerald Editions

You've probably noticed that Attic Salt has become pretty much just a Jane Austen/Coralie Bickford-Smith appreciation blog. Well, the Austen project may be winding down, but at least we've always got great Coralie content to post. Herewith, some gorgeous new covers she designed for F. Scott Fitzgerald's books. I would like them all.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Persuasion, Chapters 7-12

This section begins with Captain Wentworth’s arrival in the neighborhood. Anne and Mary are invited to meet him at Uppercross, but Mary’s son falls and dislocates his collarbone, prompting them to cancel their visit. Henrietta and Louisa, Mary’s sisters-in-law, are smitten with the Captain, who will be dining with them the next day. Mary and Charles attend too, with Anne staying home to care for her nephew and conveniently avoiding Captain Wentworth.

He comes to call on Mary the next morning and he and Anne meet briefly. Mary tells Anne that the Captain found his old love “so altered he should not have known her again” -- yikes. Anne’s hurt by it, understandably, but we learn that he hasn’t forgiven Anne, although he’s now ready to move on and get married.

Even though Anne and the Captain are frequently thrown together in social situations now, they avoid each other, speaking only when necessary. Anne still finds him charming -- she thinks they’re well suited for each other, and he’s kind to Mrs. Musgrove. Anne thinks the Crofts have a perfect relationship, as she travels with him on his ship, something the Captain says he wouldn't let his future wife do. Everyone is smitten with him.

Next we meet Charles Hayter, a cousin of the Musgroves (Mrs. Hayter and Mrs. Musgrove are sisters) and Henrietta’s suitor. The Hayters are an inferior, uneducated family, in contrast to the Musgroves, who are educated, but they get along well and encourage Henrietta and Charles. While everyone is wondering whether the Captain will choose Louisa or Henrietta Musgrove, Charles feels left out and upset. Anne doesn’t believe that he loves either of them, but is just reveling in their attentions.

The party heads out for a walk the next morning -- the Musgrove sisters make it clear they don’t want Mary along, but she goes, along with Anne, Charles Musgrove, and Captain Wentworth. Louisa flirts with the Captain and Charles and Henrietta visit the Hayters. She tells him that Charles wanted to marry Anne, but that she refused him and he married Mary, which interests the Captain. Charles Hayter now joins the party with the others, so it’s clear that Henrietta has decided he’s the one for her, leaving Louisa for the Captain. On the way home, the Crofts pass by in a carriage, and the Captain tells them to drive Anne home, since he guessed she might be tired. Anne sees that the Crofts drive the carriage together, and notes that it is representative of how their relationship works.

Anne heads to visit Lady Russell while the Captain goes to visit his friends, the Harvilles in Lyme. That makes everyone want to visit Lyme, so they set out for there. In Lyme, we meet the Harvilles -- he’s a captain too -- and Captain Benwick, whose fiancĂ©e, Captain Harville’s sister, died the previous year. Benwick is depressed and interested in poetry, which means Anne has a lot to discuss with him and makes reading suggestions, including reading more prose.

The next day, the group heads out for a walk, and they run into a man who stares at Anne He’s very attractive and happens to be Mr. Elliot, Anne’s cousin and heir to Kellynch. On a second walk, disaster strikes -- Louisa jumps down from a wall, hits her head, and is rendered unconscious. She’s brought to the Harville’s home, where a doctor sees her and says that while her injury is severe, she’ll be okay. Anne and the Captain head back home, while the others remain to help. That’s where we leave our friends.

There are some parallels between Persuasion and Mansfield Park -- vapid girls encroaching on the heroine's man, our heroine set adrift from her family and taken in by those who can care better for her/understand her, and a heroine who isn't in the spunky Elizabeth/Emma/Catherine school. What Austen does best between her third novel and her sixth is creating a more balanced heroine:

Where Fanny was timid and meek, Anne's quiet only because she knows when to get involved and speak her mind and when to let things slide. She recognizes the inanity that surrounds her, and unlike Fanny, whose youth made her unable to navigate the social world successfully, Anne knows what she has to do to be successful socially without comprising the best parts of her.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Persuasion, Chapters 1-6

Jane Austen's final novel, Persuasion, is the only one of her books that I couldn't have told you a darn thing about going into it. I may not have known anything about Mansfield Park or Northanger Abbey, but I at least knew Fanny Price's name, and that Northanger was a take on the contemporary Gothic genre. But Persuasion? Zip. Then I posted the schedule of readings for this month and got this:

So while I know nothing about this novel, it happens to be two people's favorite Austen book. My curiosity was piqued.

The novel begins with Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall making a record of his family. His wife died 14 years ago, and of his grown daughters, Elizabeth, Anne, and Mary, only Mary is married, to Charles Musgrove. Elliot’s fortune will be passed to his nephew, William Elliot. Sir Walter has become self-absorbed in the years since his wife’s death, so Lady Russell, a friend of Lady Elliot, has stepped in to offer the Elliot girls some guidance. She takes a special liking to Anne. Elizabeth Elliot is beautiful but vapid and her father’s favorite, Anne is a lovely person but her family doesn’t pay much attention to her, and Mary is self-important, thanks to being the youngest sister and the only one who is married.

A few years back, everyone had hoped that William would marry Elizabeth, but he chose to marry another woman. Compounding the family problems is that Sir Walter is low on funds, having lived beyond his means for years. He calls in Lady Russell and Mr. Shepard, a lawyer, to come fix his situation.

They tell him that he has to “retrench” -- save money and get out of debt -- in order to save his reputation. He refuses to cut back on expenses, instead opting to leave Kellynch Hall and rent it out. They decide to go to Bath, despite Anne’s dislike for the city. Lady Russell supports this plan, since  it’ll save money, but also because it’ll break up Elizabeth’s friendship with Mrs. Clay, Mr. Shepard’s widowed daughter and bad egg.

Mr. Shepard says that the Navy will be returning home, since England is at peace, and suggests that a sailor would make a great tenant for Kellynch. The family discusses the Navy, and after Anne says that everyone should be indebted to their service, but Sir Walter says the Navy brings “persons of obscure birth into undue distinction" and weathers their appearance beyond their years.

Admiral Croft is interested in renting Kellynch, and they learn that his wife’s brother, Mr. Wentworth, is a curate nearby. This sets Anne aflutter when she realizes that her old love may soon be standing where she is. Her old love is Captain Frederick Wentworth, Mrs. Croft’s other brother. Years ago, they fell in love and wished to marry, but Anne’s family and Lady Russell told her it was a bad idea, since he didn’t have a fortune or high birth. Anne, believing that her elders had her best interests at heart, ended the relationship. He left the country and Anne has regretted it for seven years. She hasn’t fallen for anyone else in this time, though Charles Musgrove, who later married Mary, proposed to her.

The Crofts and Elliots hit it off, and the Crofts decide to take the place. Sir Walter and Elizabeth take Mrs. Clay with them to Bath, which angers Anne and Lady Russell. They worry that she’ll form an improper attachment to Sir Walter.

Mary writes to say that she’s unwell, and asks Anne to come stay with her at Uppercross Cottage. Anne’s glad to avoid Bath for a while, and heads to her hypochondriac sister. Mary’s in-laws live nearby and while they aren’t educated or elegant, they’re friendly -- Anne finds them a welcome change from her family.

Anne and Mary go to visit the Crofts, and they find them to be lovely people. Anne learns that Captain Wentworth will soon be visiting them. This upsets Mrs. Musgrove, who is reminded of her troubled son Dick, who served under Captain Wentworth until his death.

Once again, unsuitable parents are the cause of much turmoil for their daughters. Sir Walter’s inability to manage his money has broken up his family, for the time being, and diminished his and his daughter’s reputation. He’s the complete opposite of Anne, his practical daughter, and has passed his undesirable qualities onto his other daughters.

As a heroine, Anne is a little different from the others we’ve seen. For starters, she’s older (27), and she’s loved and lost, unlike the other heroines, who realize/meet the man they love during the course of the novel. The passage in which she’s mulling over her failed relationship is devastating and so true, that you have to believe that Austen has also loved and lost:
She was persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing -- indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success, and not deserving it… More than seven years were gone since this little history of sorrowful interest had reached its close; and time had softened down much, perhaps nearly all of peculiar attachment to him, but she had been too dependant on time alone: no aid had been given in change of place, (except in one visit to Bath soon after the rupture), or in any novelty or enlargement of society. No one had ever come within the Kellynch circle, who could bear a comparison with Frederick Wentworth, as he stood in her memory.
It’s easy to imagine a contemporary Anne Elliot sitting at her computer, following Frederick’s actions on Facebook and stewing over her giant mistake. Austen has given us something timeless and great.