Friday, August 4, 2017

July Reads

Jane Austen at Home: A Biography by Lucy Worsley

Synopsis: Take a trip back to Jane Austen's world and the many places she lived as historian Lucy Worsley visits Austen's childhood home, her schools, her holiday accommodations, the houses--both grand and small--of the relations upon whom she was dependent, and the home she shared with her mother and sister towards the end of her life. In places like Steventon Parsonage, Godmersham Park, Chawton House and a small rented house in Winchester, Worsley discovers a Jane Austen very different from the one who famously lived a 'life without incident'.

My take: Jane Austen at Home is a must read for all Austen fans, particularly since this is the 200th anniversary of her death. If you're not a Jane Austen fan because you think all her novels are about finding a rich husband,  read this book and learn about the role of women in Georgian society; maybe you'll get a notion of why her characters were so revolutionary.

To be honest, I never delved deeply into Austen's life; I cruised along on the snippets I learned in English classes. All I had was my love of her words. And what a love it is: I still read at least one Austen novel a year. I'm up to about 10 read-throughs of some of them. So, this book seemed an obligatory read.

Speaking of English classes, OMG, was I asleep when they were talking about how the sea was a symbol for sexual pleasure in Austen? I mean, I know it is in general, but sex and Austen? So, Louisa Musgrove's fall from the sea wall was a warning about what flirtation leads to? And, well, I certainly get what it means for Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth to sail off to sea.  But, I also clearly remember an English friend of mine turning up her nose at American Jane Austen films and announcing "There is NO snogging in Austen." Apparently, she was wrong.

OK. That's out of my system. Now, back to do you really need to read this book? Yes, if  you're either a reader or a writer.

If you're a reader,  you'll come away with a richer understanding of the world in which Austen novels are set.

If  you're a writer, Jane's trials and tribulations of getting published will be familiar to you. (Hint: a form of self-publishing was the key.) Also, her work habits and how she processes her daily life into a novel are sure to be of interest.

One always hears about the family influence on Austen. As you read about her tortured/lovely interactions with her family and friends, you'll probably have a piece of paper where you keep track of real people versus characters. Mr. Knightly, check; Jane Bennet, check; Lady Catherine, check. You come away with a great appreciation for Austen's insight and ability to snark.

For me, the most interesting part was how Jane moved down in class circles as she grew older. (Think of Miss Bates in Emma.) Choosing not to marry (which Jane knowingly did several times) in Georgian England was bold, and  it pretty much put an end to any notion of comfortable, stress-free living as soon as your father died, unless you had inherited a lot of money, or as Emma Woodhouse says: a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else.  But without a good fortune, you were in trouble. The book certainly informs you of how "gentry" in Georgian England (and the Austen's were no exception) scrabbled and plotted to obtain and maintain a good fortune.

The Austen women's scrabbling for a place to call home is sobering, and it informs many of the characters that Austen wrote. As the author said many times, the goal of getting married in an Austen novel is not so much finding love and happily ever after-ing, but finding a home. Or as Charlotte Lucas said in Pride and Prejudice, I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins' character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.

After reading Jane Austen at home, I was once again putting her novels back on my to-be-read list, and I will look at them differently.

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

Synopsis: One day in early spring, Dorrit Weger is checked into the Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material. She is promised a nicely furnished apartment inside the Unit, where she will make new friends, enjoy the state of the art recreation facilities, and live the few remaining days of her life in comfort with people who are just like her. Here, women over the age of fifty and men over sixty–single, childless, and without jobs in progressive industries–are sequestered for their final few years; they are considered outsiders. In the Unit they are expected to contribute themselves for drug and psychological testing, and ultimately donate their organs, little by little, until the final donation.

THE UNIT is a gripping exploration of a society in the throes of an experiment, in which the “dispensable” ones are convinced under gentle coercion of the importance of sacrificing for the “necessary” ones. Ninni Holmqvist has created a debut novel of humor, sorrow, and rage about love, the close bonds of friendship, and about a cynical, utilitarian way of thinking disguised as care.

My take: THE UNIT is one of the best books I've read this year!

Part Handmaid's Tale and part Never Let Me Go, it grabs you by the throat and never lets you go. It was depressing, yes; but also beautifully written. I found myself underlining passage after passage. Some of the most beautiful passages were written about Dorrit and her dog, and tears came to my eyes. The dark tale of loss, love, loss, and love opens the door to many questions, not the least of which was  "What is the value of a life?"

The writing and the plotting was top notch. I was pleasantly (and emotionally) surprised by the ending, which I always count as a plus. I had predicted another ending entirely. I gobbled up this novel in one sitting at the airport and on the plane, but it haunts me. I will probably read it again to enjoy the deliciousness of the prose. And to contemplate the meaning of life.

The Family by Marissa Kennerson

Synopsis: Just like any average seventeen-year-old, Twig loves her family. She has a caring mother and a controlling father. Her brothers and sisters are committed to her family’s prosperity…

All one hundred eighty-three of them.

Twig lives in the Family, a collective society located in the rain forest of Costa Rica. Family members coexist with values of complete openness and honesty, and they share a fear of contagious infection in the outside world.

Adam—their Father, prophet, and savior—announces that Twig will be his new bride, and she is overjoyed and honored. But when an injury forces her to leave the Family compound, Twig finds that the world outside is not as toxic as she was made to believe. And then she meets Leo, an American boy with a killer smile, and begins to question everything about her life within the Family and the cult to which she belongs.

But when it comes to Family, you don’t get a choice.

My take: The Family is a good serviceable read for vacation. If you've read any novels about cults, you know from the get-go where this novel will end, and there are very few surprises along the way. Nonetheless, it is good journey, and you won't be disappointed. Kennerson is a competent writer, and she gives Twig an interesting character arc. The ending, although predictable, left a few hanging threads that should have been snipped.

Ramses: The Battle of Kadesh by Christian Jacq

Synopsis: The powerful Hittites have declared war on Egypt, and Ramses must do the impossible: seize their impregnable fortress at Kadesh with his ragged army, even as his powerful bodyguard and right-hand man has been arrested, suspected of treason.

My take: The series is finally moving into a phase of Ramses's life about which we know something. I am no scholar when it comes to this battle, out of which the first known peace treaty in history emerged, but Jacq hits a stride here. The battle to-and-froing is fairly compelling, and (at least) it feels like it could have happened. I'm still a little annoyed by the evil brother sub-plot and the fact that the love scenes between Ramses and Nefertari have the emotional depth and heat of a snow pea. For me, the real take-away from these books is getting a feel for the character of Ramses.

Do Not Become Alarmed: A Novel by Maile Meloy

Synopsis: The sun is shining, the sea is blue, the children have disappeared.

When Liv and Nora decide to take their husbands and children on a holiday cruise, everyone is thrilled. The adults are lulled by the ship’s comfort and ease. The four children—ages six to eleven—love the nonstop buffet and their newfound independence. But when they all go ashore for an adventure in Central America, a series of minor misfortunes and miscalculations leads the families farther from the safety of the ship. One minute the children are there, and the next they’re gone.

The disintegration of the world the families knew—told from the perspectives of both the adults and the children—is both riveting and revealing. The parents, accustomed to security and control, turn on each other and blame themselves, while the seemingly helpless children discover resources they never knew they possessed.

Do Not Become Alarmed is a story about the protective force of innocence and the limits of parental power, and an insightful look at privileged illusions of safety. Celebrated for her spare and moving fiction, Maile Meloy has written a gripping novel about how quickly what we count on can fall away, and the way a crisis shifts our perceptions of what matters most.

My take: Right up front, I'll say I liked this book. It was both compelling and easy to read. I finished it in two nights.  I identified with the parental characters in the books and at various times with the different children. After reading some of the reviews, I came to the conclusion that I must be a privileged, first-world ninny to have that identification. So, be it. The book is still a good read.