Jane Austen and the Author Photo

by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810
by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810

Jane Austen died on this date in, 1817,  not in possession of an author photo. This sketch by Cassandra is the most we know  about  what she looked like. I would say that I am fine with that, except I wrote an entire book in the effort to imagine what Jane Austen was  like, so clearly I am not.

I’ve been thinking about the  notion of the author photo a lot lately, a strange artifice that I had until recently accepted as a given: Continue reading

‘Eligible’ and the Tradeoff of Updates

eligible-by-curtis-sittenfield-2016-x-200Characterization is the problem I keep worrying like a bone, as here.  I stayed up too late reading “Eligible”;  I snorted with laughter; I rejoiced in Curtis Sittenfeld’s clever updates  to plot points in the original and in her cool, dry wit.

But all the while I kept thinking about characterization.

Sittenfeld, an accomplished creator of her own plots and characters, here  was given the literary counterpart of a paint-by-number kit: Austen’s people, Austen’s plot, Austen’s wit. But make it modern, please.

Some things are obviously funny, like making Lydia and Kitty crass devotees of CrossFit and paleo diets; others more subtly so, Continue reading

I Picture Colm Toibin Laughing…

…alone at his desk while he writes the following:

Once she discovered she was not pregnant, she thought of the night with pleasure, especially after she had returned to the priest, who somehow managed to imply that what had happened between her and Tony was not hard to understand, despite the fact that it was wrong, and maybe a sign from God that they should consider getting married and raising a family. 

Ambiguous ‘Brooklyn’

Brooklyn

Lots of books I read and enjoy but rarely think of again; it’s a rare few that take up residence,  that I find myself revisiting either in rereading or just thinking about, those books that I urge friends to read, both because I think they will like them and because I want the pleasure of discussion. Some of these I’ve written about here: “Middlemarch,” “Anna Karenina,” “The Golem and the Jinni,” “Mrs. Engels.”

“Brooklyn” by Colm Toibin fits in this group, but  I did not, upon finishing, immediately start urging people to read it.  I felt its peculiar force very vividly, but it did not occur to me this feeling would scale. It seemed to me then like a book particularly written – not just for me, that would be ridiculous – but for people like me, who grew up in families like mine. (I was wrong; it’s since become a best-seller, a major motion picture and Toibin’s best-known novel.)

I started it around 10 p.m. one weeknight, thinking I would read a chapter or two before bedtime. Continue reading

‘Longbourn’ and Pig Shit Realism

 

Longbourn

All the time I was reading Jo Baker’s “Longbourn” I had the sensation of not being able to decide if I liked it.  This is unusual;  feckless and tentative as I am in most realms of human activity, I am generally confident in my literary judgments.  Now come to the end, I am still not quite sure.

The story, in case anyone  missed the large splash it made upon publication in 2014, is “Pride and Prejudice” from the viewpoint of the Bennets’ servants. A brilliant, can’t-miss idea. I like to imagine Ms. Baker, tormented by insomnia and casting around for her next idea for a novel, sitting up in bed.

HOLY SHIT! I’LL CALL IT ‘LONGBOURN!’ Continue reading

‘Mrs. Engels’ and the Triumph of Voice

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It’s been a couple of weeks since I read “Mrs. Engels” by Gavin McCrea, but it’s stayed with me. The memory, not the actual book, which I immediately mailed it to my brother-in-law upon completing, because it’s also the sort of work one feels compelled to share. In short, it was amazing. Continue reading