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The Real Jane Austen: A Life In Small Things


By Paula Byrne

Harper Collins, 2013

Whenever I think the world is going to hell in a handbasket, I find myself turning to Jane Austen.

Often dismissed as a writer concerned only with domestic dramas, Austen’s work accurately depicts her times as well as universal human nature. That’s why she still fascinates after two hundred years. Over the Christmas holidays, I read The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Bryne. Taking an unusual approach, the biographer uses objects known to Jane Austen to create a rich picture of her life and the world she lived in.

That world was not quite as parochial as the fictional world she created.

After all, England was at war for Jane’s entire adult life. Two of her brothers were actively engaged in it as naval officers. Her family counted itself amongst the gentry, were related to minor nobility. Yet as Austen’s novels show, women, and to a lesser extent, men, were completely dependent upon a “good” i.e. financially comfortable, marriage for survival. The professional, who makes his or her way in the world through training, intelligence and experience, as opposed to birth, was a new type of person. Byrne points out that Persuasion’s Captain Wentworth, my favorite Austen hero, and possibly Jane’s as well, was just such a person. For women to earn their own living was a rare, even dangerous thing. To be a novelist was more respectable than to be an actress, but still, to live publicly was daring. Jane Austen published her novels anonymously.

Each chapter in this book is headed by an image of an object or a painting which scholarship has unearthed as being familiar to Jane Austen. Through these objects, “The Ivory Miniature” or “The Topaz Crosses” we learn about Austen’s attitude to slavery and to religion. In “The Marriage Banns,”, “The Royalty Cheque”, and “The Laptop”, we learn of her attitude to marriage and her work.

By describing her society so deftly, and with such humor, showing the bind women were in, Jane Austen can be seen as a proto-feminist. She chose not to marry, despite its financial costs, and tried to support herself through her writing. It is not exactly true to say her writing came before her family, but she wrote all the time, using a “laptop”, or portable writing desk, wherever she went. In this chapter Ms. Byrne describes Jane Austen’s attempts to get published, a struggle so familiar to authors.

Because most of her correspondence was burned after her death, she left no notebooks and because her books are so full of irony, “Jane Austen remains the most elusive of all our great writers with the exception of Shakespeare…” says Byrne. This book is an ingenious way to get inside Jane Austen’s world.

Little Gods

By Andrew Levkoff
Peacock Angel Publishing, 2017

Readers of this blog know how fascinated I am with the ancient world. In his trilogy, The Bow of Heaven, Andrew Levkoff introduces us to Alexandros, the Greek-born slave to Marcus Licinius Crassus, Rome’s richest man. Crassus, along with Pompey and Caesar, formed the first triumvirate. Naturally these three ambitious and competitive men were soon at odds. At the end of Levkoff’s trilogy Crassus undertakes a disastrous campaign against the Parthians and is killed. Levkoff ends the book by introducing us to a new character, Melyaket.

Little Gods is the story of the childhood and young adulthood of Melyaket and his rival, Scolotes. As children in the remote village of Sinjar in Parthia (modern day Iran) Scolotes and Melykalet play together. But Scolotes is always an outsider, regarded as being cursed because he was born with one gray and one brown eye. If the circumstances of Scolotes’ birth were unfortunate, Melykalet is blessed. He seems always to have the favor of the gods. How this plays out is the crux of this story. Because of Levkoff’s skilled writing, the reader feels empathy for both characters.

Today the Middle East is still mired in war. So the author does not miss the opportunity to bring the reader into the modern world too. In Little Gods, Andrew Levkoff harnesses his extraordinary story-telling powers to take the reader into the same place, two thousand years apart. In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, helicopters circle the land inhabited by Kurds. Their aim seems to be to annihilate anything that moves. Two thousand years earlier, the same area was also a place of seemingly endless conflict.

The senselessness of war is an underlying theme of Levkoff’s work. Sadly, his book illuminates the fact that humans have not yet learned to live and let live, even two thousand years after the empires of Rome and Parthia fought for domination of this harsh desert.

This rather bleak view of human nature is mitigated by Levkoff’s compassion for human frailty. And by setting his story in a war-torn part of the world, he reminds us that our good fortune is just that -an accident of birth.

This is a fast-paced story you won’t put down.

My Favorite Books of the Year

When I launched this web page it was an exploration. As an unknown author myself, I began to notice how many really good books were published with very little attention. Many of them were by women. I also began to notice how many really famous women writers got their publishing start (which is different from starting to write) at a relatively advanced age. For all the wunderkind, there are many more writers for whom life experience forms the building blocks of a literary career.

So I began to review books by relatively unknown women. As a way to help this community,
and as a way to help my own writing. Writers are always avid readers.

Here are some of my favorite books from 2017, reviewed in these pages:

News of the World by Paulette Jiles. Reviewed in August, this book tells the story of the return of a Texan white child from her Kiowa captors from the point of view of the middle aged retired army officer who’s tasked with returning her to her family. Among the fascinations of this book is the author’s choice of point of view. By choosing that of a well-traveled adult who has experienced war and the rapid changes inflicted on the so-called Wild West, Jiles allows the reader to reflect on much more than the child’s experience.

Also in August, I reviewed The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson. In the summers of 1888 and 1889, the Lintvayov family, doctors, teachers, devoted to one another, rented out a guest cottage on their prosperous Ukrainian farm to the Chekhov family. One of the daughters, Zinaida, blinded by a brain tumor, fell in love with Anton Chekhov, and their daily conversations, recorded in Zinaida’s fictional diary, become the linchpin of the novel.

Addressing the translator’s difficulty of getting across meaning through the barrier of time and language, and the publisher’s task to disseminate the writer’s vision, this book is also an elegy for a moment in history, for a slower, more natural world, for the need for connection, for literature as the pathway to understanding our fellow human beings.

Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King. The ancient world happens to be a nerdy fascination of mine. I even have a book of recipes from imperial Rome. So it was with delight that I picked up Feast of Sorrow, a debut novel by Crystal King. King includes recipes (flamingo tongues anyone?) in this story of Thrasius, the celebrity chef of Marcus Gavius Apicius. A slave to the patrician Apicius, it could have been Thrasius who actually wrote the famous first cookbook. Reviewed in May.

My own literary highlight of the year was of course, the publication of my novel Lipstick on the Strawberry, in July. I’m so grateful for all the positive reviews and comments! On to the next book in 2018.

Wishing everyone a happy New Year!

Consolation


At Thanksgiving my friend Linda Larson sent me Annie Prouix’s National Book Awards Speech, given November 15. Some called it gloomy, with its lamentation about the present state of the world. But Prouix ended on a hopeful note. She read this poem by Wislawa Szymborska. As in the third stanza, maybe all of us who’ve lived long enough have “earned the right to happy endings, at least in fiction”.

That’s why I write romance, or rather, its sister, Women’s Fiction. I disagree with those who say it doesn’t deserve its own genre (but that’s another discussion). After all, it is women who must stay positive, as we’re the ones who bring forth the next generation.

Consolation
By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated by Clare Cavanagh

Darwin.
They say he read novels to relax,
But only certain kinds:
nothing that ended unhappily.
If anything like that turned up,
enraged, he flung the book into the fire.

True or not,
I’m ready to believe it.


Scanning in his mind so many times and places,
he’d had enough of dying species,
the triumphs of the strong over the weak,
the endless struggles to survive,
all doomed sooner or later.
He’d earned the right to happy endings,
at least in fiction
with its diminutions.

Hence the indispensable
silver lining,
the lovers reunited, the families reconciled,
the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded,
fortunes regained, treasures uncovered,
stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways,
good names restored, greed daunted,
old maids married off to worthy parsons,
troublemakers banished to other hemispheres,
forgers of documents tossed down the stairs,
seducers scurrying to the altar,
orphans sheltered, widows comforted,
pride humbled, wounds healed over,
prodigal sons summoned home,
cups of sorrow thrown into the ocean,
hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation,
general merriment and celebration,
and the dog Fido,
gone astray in the first chapter,
turns up barking gladly
in the last.

The Miniaturist


By Jessie Burton

Harper Collins, Ecco Paperback Edition, 2015

Sometimes you read a debut novel and you think, this simply cannot be the work of a first-time author. The originality of the subject matter, the world building, and the believable growth of the characters are all marks of a very experienced writer. Yet all these characterize this book by English writer Jessie Burton.

No wonder it was a New York Times best-seller.

In the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, is a “cabinet house” or large dollhouse, once owned by a woman name Petronella Oortman, who lived in the seventeenth century. As lovers of this historical period know, the late 1600’s was the apogee of the United Provinces of the Netherland’s influence in the world. The merchants of the VOC, the Dutch East India Company, brought wealth and fame to Holland. The comfortable lifestyle of its wealthy and middle classes have been conveyed to us through the paintings of the Dutch masters, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch, Judith Leyster and others.

In The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton imagines the life of Petronella, “Nella”, the bride of an Amsterdam merchant named Johannes Brandt. He gave the cabinet to his wife as a wedding gift. In Burton’s telling, the cabinet’s maker is not only an artistic virtuoso, but prescient as well. The tiny items created to be set inside the cabinet include uncanny likenesses of the house’s human and animal inhabitants. They also offer jarring portents of future events. Nella’s disturbance at these weird gifts mirrors her growing unease at secrets she fears are held by her husband and his sister, Marin.

As Nella uncovers the truth about the family she has married into, she grows in maturity and compassion. Burton’s skill in portraying this is remarkable. As the story progresses we learn much about the social repression that accompanied the commercial success of Calvinist Holland. At the same time, the quasi-democratic values held by the Dutch, their belief in capitalism rather than a class system based on aristocracy, and their emphasis on domestic cleanliness, order and financial security make this era more accessible to us than other periods of history.

When we look back at history, we can only imagine what it was like to live then and there. The novelist’s job is to bring the past to life. Burton has taken liberties in that the real Petronella Oortman was a wealthy widow by the time she married merchant Johannes Brandt, while in the book Nella is a naïve eighteen-year- old, and the fate of Brandt propels the book’s plot. Burton has taken an historical person and surrounded her with a dose of magic, both literally, as told in this story, and metaphorically, as in the skill of her writing.

This is a wonderful book.

The All-Americans

The All-Americans
By Angela Farley

Amazon Digital Services, 2017

We live in an age of terrorism. We live in an age of gun violence. When the two are combined on American soil, with innocent hostages slated for execution, our sense of safety unravels.

In this gripping story, twelve random strangers are kidnapped in movie theatres across the United States. They are imprisoned by operatives intent on punishing Americans for the violence they’ve inflicted in other parts of the world during the war on terror. Oddly, the terrorists themselves are for the most part not foreigners, but mercenaries hired to execute the victims one by one. And, foiling their plan to kill all-Americans, the victims are not all native-born citizens of the United States. This is the first twist this author introduces to her plot. It is a telling one, because it indicates the real nature of our diverse society. What truly, does it mean to be an American, she suggests. As the book progresses, it becomes a fascinating study of the relationships that develop between some of the captives and their captors. If the captor can begin to see his victim as a human being, then there is a possibility of hope. But that is not all. The captive too, can shape the narrative if given time to think, observe, and above all, have someone else to live for.

I had the pleasure of meeting Angela Farley when she shared an author event with me at Orinda Books, California, on October 21. She is a nurse by profession, and her knowledge of physiology gives her story a lot of credibility as she describes the reactions of the victims to their predicament. Angela also remarked during her reading of passages from The All-Americans that she reflected on her time in the Emergency Room. Patients would come in with life-altering illnesses or injuries, all of them shocked to find themselves in this situation. Some would fight for their lives and some would give up. The will to live is what enables some victims of threatened death to survive. In another twist on the expected, Angela Farley shows us that this will can change throughout the ordeal; a chance to live given up one moment may not be the end, and conversely, a determination to survive may be snuffed out by a captor’s quick trigger.

Angela Farley has written a movie-worthy thriller, as much a psychological study of captives and captors as an action-filled story. This book kept me up for hours as I read it in a single sitting.

The Myth of You and Me

By Leah Stewart
Broadway Books, 2006

As the novels of Elena Ferrante prove, books about the friendships of girls are having a moment. Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is in realist mode, a realism so acute that people have obsessed about Ferrante’s true identity, as if to out her as a memoirist rather than a novelist.

What is the role of one’s own experience in fiction, and what comes from tapping into a universal subconscious or semi-conscious experience? Ah, the slippery mind and even more slippery memory! Memories shape our present, and unconscious motivations formed from memories push us in ways we are not aware of. The past and the present weave together, all acting on us at the same time. Ferrante’s characters have four complete novels in which to complete their psychological tasks based on the events of their childhoods. So, the novelist who sets herself the task of unpacking the mystery of motivation in one book has my sympathy.

A dream-like quality of past and present interacting infuses The Myth of You and Me.
Leah Stewart begins her story eight years after Sonia (you) and Cameron (me) have ended their girlhood friendship. The book moves back in forth in time, showing how the choices each of these girls made is due to her own need for self-affirmation in the face of parental disapproval or indifference. As I read Leah Stewart’s author bio after I read this book I realized that she’s lived in all the places she writes about, and had the peripatetic childhood of her protagonist. But this is fiction, and the setting was, I felt, a sideshow to the plot. Which concerns a power dynamic between two very different girls, a dynamic that fuels their subsequent lives. As close as they are, they, like everyone else, make choices they can’t fully explain.

I won’t be a spoiler, because this story is complicated. But the truth is that the friendships
of girls are intense, way more intense than male friendships. In this hyper-sexualized age, that
closeness may be misunderstood. I’d say that when girls undergo together the utter sea-change of puberty their relationship can be as close as any known to humans. It’s a mental communion in which best friends can say absolutely anything to each other. Sometimes, of course, those spoken words can be hurtful. This intimacy between teenage best friends cannot be replicated in later life. It has to start young, and if we’re lucky, can continue for the rest of our lives. The mysteries of changing bodies, the secrets, the boyfriends, the sometimes inexplicable choice of life partners, the tests all of us endure as we grow up, all become tolerable because we have a friend to tell. When a friend does something unforgivably hurtful to the other and the relationship ends, that can haunt a girl’s future.

Leah Stewart, in her afterword to the book, speaks of writing it as she awaited the birth of
her child. So she is still close in time to the memory of her bestie. I am an older woman, and I
felt tears rising as I ended this book. I have lost too many friends in the past few years. Now, my dear friend, whom I have known since I was thirteen, has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

I cannot imagine life without her. Everything we’ve shared, all the secrets and the longings and
the disappointments and the triumphs – who else will be able to remember these? All those
things will happen to other girls as they grow up, but our story will be gone. I can only take
comfort from the fact that these close relationships will continue for those to come after us.

Leah Stewart has hit upon a universal truth in this story. She’s written several more books
and I intend to read them.

The Makioka Sisters

By Junichiro Tanizaki
Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker
First Vintage International Edition, 1995

Mrs. Bennet, meet Sachiko Makioka!

The Makioka Sisters, a twentieth century Japanese classic by Junichiro Tanizaki, came to my attention through a literary blog I follow, Whispering Gums. I’m so glad to have read it.

As in Jane Austen’s books, this story takes place in a time of pending and actual war, yet focuses on domestic life. Just as Jane Austen is criticized by the misguided for writing books in which nothing much happens, this story meanders through the life of the four Makioka sisters in the years 1938 to 1941, with the overarching theme being the need for a woman to find a husband. As in Austen’s works, the author critiques prevailing social mores. Perhaps even surpassing Austen in its leisurely and detailed scene-setting, Tanizaki’s final chapters deliver a quiet bombshell.

Sachiko Makioka and her older sister Tsuruko are married with children. The two younger sisters, Yukiko and Taeko, are single. It is the family’s responsibility to get Yukiko safely wedded. For until the third sister is married, the fourth must wait.

Marriages were arranged at that time in Japan. The families of eligible young women would be approached by intermediaries suggesting a suitable spouse. After “investigations” by the families on both sides, a meeting would be arranged. This was often a dinner party. The idea was to allow the potential couple to meet in a chaperoned setting but in an enjoyable and relaxed way, so that conversation could flow. Decisions could be made in a very short time following this “miai,” with little time for the couple to really get to know each other.

Junichiro is a master of dialogue, particularly of the light, bantering, dinner party kind. Gentle jokes from a foreign culture and a different century must be hard to get across, but translator Edward G. Seidensticker does a marvelous job of this.

When the story starts, Yukiko has a history of failure in the marriage market. While her sister Taeko is shockingly independent, trying to support herself through making dolls and later through learning to be a seamstress, Yukiko is extraordinarily passive. Now in her thirties, she is so extremely shy she cannot make conversation. Yet, in a response that is sadly familiar today, Sachiko worries that Yukiko’s problem must be a physical imperfection. The only possible blemish is a transitory brown spot above Yukiko’s eye, and Sachiko obsesses about this – allowing others to define a woman’s attractiveness. For Yukiko’s part, she seems happy enough in her role of unpaid baby-sitter and nurse for her sisters’ children.

A sub-text of this story is how much harder it is for women with many children, like Tsuruko, than for women with one child, like Sachiko. Yet this theme is very much linked to the main problem of the novel, which deals with the eligibility issues of the younger sisters. Tsuruko and her husband and six children have moved to Tokyo, where they must cope with an expensive big city lifestyle, finding it very difficult. Sachiko, on the other hand, still lives in Osaka, where everything is familiar. Sachiko is happily married to the thoughtful Teinosuke, one of the most attractive characters in the novel. She spends her days practicing calligraphy, goes to the beauty parlor, sees a lot of movies, often dines out. It is a very recognizable life to us, and yet aspects of it are ritualized and slow to change. There are some wonderful scenes of excursions to see cherry blossoms and fireflies, in which certain clothes are worn, and we see the expectation that year after year, elaborate services, with entertainment and catering, must be provided to honor the anniversary of parents’ deaths.

Yet war is coming, and as the novel progresses, the once comfortable Makioka household becomes depleted of its fine wines and the older sister, Tsuruko becomes more and more desperate for the financial burden of the younger sisters to be lifted by their marriages.

Sachiko, though, is the classic unreliable narrator. She is half aware that it suits her very well to have Yukiko available to help her with her daughter, Etsuko. She is much more worried about Taeko, who has had undesirable relationships with men, but cannot marry until Yukiko does. Taeko’s reputation is such that it sullies Yukiko’s by association, and eventually the family takes action, which only makes matters worse. Sachiko’s frantic yet indecisive behavior towards the naughty Taeko reminds one of the Bennets’ despair about Lydia in Pride and Prejudice.

This novel builds slowly, showing us a world which is both modern and stultified. It protected women, but also bound them in convention. Symbolically, the female characters wear Western clothes when they want to be comfortable, but in situations like the marriage negotiations, sit stiff and uncomfortable in rigid Japanese dress. Both the old-fashioned, obedient Yukiko and the independent Taeko are caught in impossible positions.

Junichiro Tanizaki, 1886-1965, lived through the great upheaval of the Second World War. Without making an overtly political point, Tanizaki shows the beauty and appeal of traditional Japanese culture, and its dark side, in which non-conformity is punished severely. A moral failure or just an inability to think independently? That’s for the reader to decide.

Sophie and the Sibyl


By Patricia Duncker

Bloomsbury, 2015

It is a bit daunting to start a novel about a famous novelist by an academic who specializes in teaching the Great Works of the famous novelist to generations of undergraduates.

Will it be tendentious, pedantic, or insist on a post-modern reading of a world view shared by the famous novelist and her readers a hundred and fifty years ago? These were my thoughts as I began Sophie and the Sibyl. The Sibyl is George Eliot. Sophie is a fictional countess, young, beautiful, energetic, the eldest daughter of loving, lenient and wealthy parents.

Well aware of her potential reader’s apprehension, Duncker addresses them in her book, taking little omniscient pauses throughout the narrative to explain, like a Greek chorus. The tone is playful, amused, learned. Despite this, her flawed characters are fully realized and original.

Like the Bronte sisters, George Eliot took a male pen-name in order to get published. She also “lived in sin” with a married man, G.H Lewes, and took his name. Yet her identity was well known to the English intelligentsia, which nevertheless snubbed the great author and her lover for this sexual crime. The Lewes found a better reception in Germany, where her German publisher, Duncker und Duncker (no relation of the author) was reaping handsome profits from her work.

In the story, Wolfgang Duncker, heir and now manager of the publishing house, has been asked by his father’s oldest friend, Count von Hahn, to persuade Wolfgang’s younger brother, Max, to seek the hand of the count’s rambunctious daughter, Sophie. Max and Sophie had been childhood friends, but Max’s army training has kept them apart for a couple of years. In the meantime, Sophie has blossomed from child to spirited and beautiful young woman. Meeting her again, Max is captivated and a little afraid.

Max is also captivated and a little afraid of the Sibyl. Her astonishing intellect, coupled with her “wonderful” eyes, pair with a remarkably unattractive face, her jaw “massive”, her teeth like “tusks. Sophie, too, is a huge fan of George Eliot, desperate to meet “Mrs. Lewes” and forbidden to do so for the conventional reasons.

So begins a strange menage a trois, with the Sibyl at the center. Duncker, who knows Eliot’s novels inside out, is at pains to point out that Lewes was a hypocrite. Her novels punish wayward women who want their own way. As a counterpoint Duncker has created Sophie, who not only gets what she wants, but berates Lewes for never letting women win in her books.

But we can only write what we know, and we cannot anticipate the world-view of future generations. Eliot was ostracized for her unconventional love life. She made a fortune, yet was not able to parlay that into anything other than being able to afford a nice house and to travel with Lewes when things got too difficult for them in England. She could not vote, she could even use her real name to make her voice heard on the social issues she appeared to care about.

For all that, in this novel, the character of Lewes/Eliot is the least understandable. Perhaps that is because she was a real person, and real people behave inconsistently at times. The others characters, the befuddled and adorable Max and the extraordinary and delightful Sophie are wonderful fictional creations.

Interestingly, I read a review of this book which stated that it was hard to empathize with Sophie, an “immensely privileged heroine.”

Really? Perhaps this remark proves Duncker’s not-so-subtle point. In our own day, as in Eliot’s, women are still punished for acting as freely, and with entitlement, as men do.

Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling and Preserving

By Kevin West
Alfred Knopf, 2013

I’m one of those people who read cookbooks for pleasure. I picked this one up from our local library because I was seeking directions for making jam, and had misplaced my Ball’s Blue Book.

Little did I realize until I opened the book that it would be a visual treat with gorgeous photographs, written by someone who knows his way around the keyboard, and with apt poetic snippets to start each chapter.

Kevin West alludes to his Southern heritage in this book, but he now lives in Los Angeles. Blessed with a temperate climate, denizens of his city could find fresh food any time of the season, but West’s aim is to teach us how to use up all that excess. Even if the weather is mild all year, seasons still turn; warm and foggy, hot and dry, damp and even frosty in the winter.
Produce there may be, but fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ markets and home gardens must be picked and preserved at their freshest to allow the full flavor to be savored at a later time.

Like me, West has taken his state’s university cooperative extension course on how to garden in his particular climate. In true master gardener fashion, he has included a very helpful guide to the peak seasons for fruits and vegetables in various regions of the United States. He’s also a certified Master Food Preserver. The recipes are beautiful. They work.

I kept thinking about time as I read this book. The practice of “putting up” food safely in sterilized jars is about three hundred years old. Under West’s guidance, it takes a leisurely hour or two to preserve a flat of strawberries. Time seems so short in our crowded lives, and time taken to home canning could be considered wasteful to some. Yet it keeps rhythm with our ancient need to honor the earth and what comes from it to sustain us. West begins his book with a quotation from the Roman poet Virgil, translated by the American poet David Ferry. In our querulous twenty-first century, it speaks to us still.

0 greatly fortunate farmers, if only they knew
How lucky they are! Far from the battlefield,
Earth brings forth from herself in ample justice
The simple means of life, simply enjoyed.