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review 2018-09-30 14:48
Cambridge by Susanna Kaysen
Cambridge - Susanna Kaysen

London, Florence, Athens: Susanna, a precocious young girl growing up in 1950s Cambridge, would rather be home than in any of these places. Uprooted from the streets around Harvard Square, she feels lost and excluded in all the far-flung cities to which her father’s career takes the family. She always comes home with relief—but soon enough wonders if outsiderness may be her permanent condition. Written with a sharp eye for the pretensions—and charms—of the intellectual classes, Cambridge captures the mores of an era now past, the ordinary lives of extraordinary people in a singular part of America, and the ways we can—and cannot—go home.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Kaysen takes the confusing route and writes a novel featuring a protagonist with the author's name, so keep in mind when reading this -- the Susanna of this story is fictional (but kind of not...wow, I'm not helping here, am I? LOL)

 

At the novel's start, 1950s era fictional Susanna is the precocious, book loving daughter of an economics professor and a former professional pianist. The family relocates often, but wherever they set up home base always seems to be a house full of music, learning, and comedic matchmaking attempts among the house staff. Even young Susanna comments that home life is such a warm and fun environment, she dreads time spent having to attend school. Kaysen offers so many heartwarming interactions within this family, the reader almost begins to feel cheated they're not a member themselves!

 

Even though the child version of our protagonist clearly displays a dreamer's soul early on, full of curiosity about the world, part of her also longs for a stable, established place to call home once and for all. This yearning becomes the basis for her attachment to the college town of Cambridge, Massachusetts. But as she moves beyond childhood into adulthood, she comes to find that even such a town as this with, its picturesque exterior, is not guaranteed to have all the answers her soul craves. 

 

There's no clear-cut, linear progression, per say, to this novel's plot, more like  strung-together episodes of the character's remembrances over a lifetime. What this book does really well is illustrate that sense of nostalgia that people tend to develop when they become increasingly distanced from their memories over the years. Hard disappointments, given enough time, tend to morph into these glowing vignettes that have the older you smirking, "Those were the days."

 

There is something in Susanna (the character) that rings very relatable to many: boredom with school, struggles with math, a love of books. Readers even get a bit of a crash course in Ancient Greek history! There's one section I found especially charming, where little Susanna offers her nine year old perspective on things after her first experiences with reading Greek mythology. 

 

Where the story gets a bit bogged down is in the background minutiae ... great at first, but in some portions of the story the richness turns to overindulgence and ultimately "reader bellyache". Examples: Susanna's teen years -- the description of her first period went on for several pages. Then the environmental details. At first, it's lovely. Especially for any readers enamored with all the best of Massachusetts life: walks around Cambridge parks, vacations on Cape Cod, etc. But after so many pages of it with not much else going on, it can border on tedious. Though this could be argued as a case of reader preferences and what you're in the mood for when you dive into this book. 

 

Cambridge is not the easiest book to explain or class, and it might not be for everyone, but I'd argue there is a definite audience for it. There are for sure some great take away lines I was noting, such as a pessimist being "a disappointed optimist" or the Daria-esque "my long, agonizing apprenticeship in failure had begun." LOL  

 

University town setting, bookish references... a bluestocking's dream! The opening sequence alone -- that first whole page of an artistic deconstruction of the novel's first line -- just screams " word nerds unite!"

 

 

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review 2018-09-10 19:52
My Life In Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
My Life in Middlemarch - Rebecca Mead

Rebecca Mead was a young woman in an English coastal town when she first read George Eliot's Middlemarch, regarded by many as the greatest English novel. After gaining admission to Oxford, and moving to the United States to become a journalist, through several love affairs, then marriage and family, Mead read and reread Middlemarch. The novel, which Virginia Woolf famously described as "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people," offered Mead something that modern life and literature did not. In this wise and revealing work of biography, reporting, and memoir, Rebecca Mead leads us into the life that the book made for her, as well as the many lives the novel has led since it was written. Employing a structure that deftly mirrors that of the novel, My Life in Middlemarch takes the themes of Eliot's masterpiece--the complexity of love, the meaning of marriage, the foundations of morality, and the drama of aspiration and failure--and brings them into our world. Offering both a fascinating reading of Eliot's biography and an exploration of the way aspects of Mead's life uncannily echo that of Eliot herself, My Life in Middlemarch is for every ardent lover of literature who cares about why we read books, and how they read us.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Journalist Rebecca Mead uses My Life in Middlemarch not only as a platform to revisit George Eliot's classic novel, one that proved to be one of the pivotal reading experiences of Mead's teens and twenties, but also as a way to get better acquainted with the famous author herself. Because Mead provides a respectable amount of thoroughly researched material, though this work initially presents itself as a memoir inspired by a great writer, the biographical portions on Eliot are nothing to scoff at. 

 

A book may not tell us exactly how to live our lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book. Now when I read the novel in the light of Eliot's life, and in the light of my own, I see her experience of unexpected family woven deep into the fabric of the novel  -- not as part of the book's obvious pattern, but as part of its tensile strength..."The secret of our emotions never lies in the bare object, but in its subtle relation to our own past," Eliot wrote in Adam Bede. The bare object of a book -- of a story -- might also have a subtle relation to our own past. Identification with character is one way in which most ordinary readers do engage with a book, even if it is not where a reader's engagement ends. It is where part of the pleasure, and the urgency, of reading lies. It is one of the ways that a novel speaks to a reader, and becomes integrated into the reader's own imaginative life. Even the most sophisticated readers read novels in the light of their own experience, and in such recognition, sympathy may begin.

 

 

Born Mary Ann Evans (though she preferred going by "Marian" in her youth), George Eliot grew up in the rural region of southwest England. A whip-smart girl, she was already working her way through the works of Sir Walter Scott by the age of seven! Letters she penned during her teen years show a kind of forced maturity. Her opinions are markedly prudish, pious and judgmental. Surprisingly, she claimed to find dancing and novel reading silly frivolities. But Mead has a theory: she points out that at about the same age Eliot was when she wrote these bold opinions, Mead herself would also strongly preach on topics she actually knew little about -- sex, feminism, politics. Mead suspects that at this point in her life, Eliot was likely just a teen working through the standard growing up period of trying to figure out who you are exactly. Part of that means maybe sometimes making claims you might not necessarily whole-heartedly believe in, simply for the sake of trying the idea on for size. 

 

 

Mead might be onto something, as she goes to show that later on in life Eliot swapped out her religious fervor for an equally intense passion for pseudosciences such as phrenology. Around this point in the book Mead also throws in an interesting bit of relevant trivia: turns out the very term "agnostic" was coined in 1869 by a friend of Eliot's! Eliot goes on to settle into what we'd now likely view as a common law marriage with George Henry Lewes. They weren't officially married (by church standards) but cohabited and behaved as an established married couple would, and many a neighbor gave the two a heavy dose of side-eye for it. Eliot & Lewes were both described as being quite ugly by the times' standards (even Eliot's friend, Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev claimed she "made him understand that it was possible to fall in love with a woman who was not pretty"), but haters be damned, they had the ultimate swoon-worthy bookish beginning to their romance when they met in a bookshop!

 

Henry James on Eliot (in a letter to his father): "She is magnificently ugly -- deliciously hideous. She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth, and a chin and jaw bone qui n'en finissent pas (never-ending)...Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a few very minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you may end as I ended, falling in love with her. Yes, behold me literally falling in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking."

 

Mead's words on Lewes: Lewes, who was two years Eliot's senior, was "the ugliest man in London" according to one member of his literary circle. He was slight in stature, with a receding jaw, protruding teeth that were concealed by a bushy mustache, and dark, intense, intelligent eyes. Jane Carlyle unkindly called him "The Ape," though her husband gave testimony that Lewes was "ingenious, brilliant, entertaining, highly gifted and accomplished." He was quick and clever. The novelist Eliza Lynn Linton, who was not fond of Lewes and thought him coarse and vulgar, nonetheless said that wherever he went there was "a patch of intellectual sunshine in the room." Lewes' bohemian manners and radical precepts were partly inspired by (Percy Bysse) Shelley, of whom as a young man he had described himself as a worshipper, and whose biography he had tried to write when he was just twenty, a project that foundered because he could not get the approval of Mary Shelley, the poet's widow.

 

 

Image result for George Henry Lewes

Lewes & Eliot

 

 

Eliot hoped to find friendly support in her older, married half-sister Fanny Houghton, but Fanny -- having been displaced from her home as a child by their father when he took up with Eliot's mother -- ended up severing communication with Eliot altogether. 

 

Also incorporated in this work are some extra booknerdish gems where  Mead shares details on Eliot's literary friendships or at least run-ins with other greats of the era. Not only is there a discussion on Eliot's friendship (mostly through correspondence) with Harriet Beecher Stowe, but Mead also ties in connections to the works of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. here and there throughout the whole book. 

 

She (Eliot) was sometimes satirical, as in her secondhand report of Dickens' house on Tavistock Square: "Splendid library, of course, with soft carpet, couches, etc. such as become a sympathizer of the suffering classes," she wrote. "How can we sufficiently pity the needy unless we know fully the blessings of plenty?"

 

So yeah, not quite a full biography of Eliot, not entirely a traditional memoir for Mead, but somewhere in between. I will say it seemed to be closer to an Eliot bio than memoir, thought the title and synopsis would suggest something different. Mead DOES have her own personal connections in here, just maybe not as much as you might expect. Some reviews suggest this was a disappointment to a percentage of readers, but I myself wasn't hung up on that so much. Mead at least keeps things consistently interesting, which, for this book at least, was good enough for me.

 

 

 

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review 2018-08-22 11:01
Midnight In Austenland (Austenland #2) by Shannon Hale
Midnight in Austenland - Shannon Hale

When Charlotte Kinder treats herself to a two-week vacation at Austenland, she happily leaves behind her ex-husband and his delightful new wife, her ever-grateful children, and all the rest of her real life in America. She dons a bonnet and stays at a country manor house that provides an immersive Austen experience, complete with gentleman actors who cater to the guests' Austen fantasies. Everyone at Pembrook Park is playing a role, but increasingly, Charlotte isn't sure where roles end and reality begins. And as the parlor games turn a little bit menacing, she finds she needs more than a good corset to keep herself safe. Is the brooding Mr. Mallery as sinister as he seems? What is Miss Gardenside's mysterious ailment? Was that an actual dead body in the secret attic room? And-perhaps of the most lasting importance-could the stirrings in Charlotte's heart be a sign of real-life love? The follow-up to reader favorite Austenland provides the same perfectly plotted pleasures, with a feisty new heroine, plenty of fresh and frightening twists, and the possibility of a romance that might just go beyond the proper bounds of Austen's world. How could it not turn out right in the end?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Charlotte Kinder's life seems to be fraying at the seams. First her marriage breaks up after her husband's infidelity, now her daughter is flirting with a questionable male of her own. When Charlotte tries to start up a conversation about the boy, her daughter gives her an "ugh, don't you remember what it was like to be young?!" moment. Spurred by the hurt of such a comment, Charlotte gets all nostalgic and starts digging through photos and old papers, where she finds a journal with an entry marked "Things To Do Before I'm 30"... a list that includes reading all of Austen's works and, at some point, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Charlotte admits to herself that Kilimanjaro might not be quite the thing to tackle at this particular moment of unrest in her life, but maybe the Austen idea is still doable.

 

While she doesn't delve into the Austen novels themselves, Charlotte does decide to take a vacation to the exclusive Austen-themed resort, Austenland. Maybe there, she can find the old Charlotte, the one that was a bit more than the bland, simple "nice" everyone seems to label her. She doesn't want to be just good ol' reliable Charlotte, she wants some edge! But, you know, old habits die hard. 

 

This Austenland 2 revisits Pembrook Park and brings back a few characters, mainly Mrs. Wattlesworth and Miss Charming, but also offers a whole new cast of characters as well. And this cast brings the edge Charlotte thinks she's missing... but maybe more than she bargained for! Also returning is resident lush Mr. Wattlesworth. 

 

"Attempted murder is becoming so mundane."  ~ Charlotte

 

Taking inspiration from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, Midnight In Austenland toys with the same themes Austen did in her novel, namely our main character getting caught up in a possible murder mystery, leaving her not knowing who to trust. But is there an actual threat or is it Charlotte's runaway imagination? So as you might notice, the plot here is a bit darker in tone than its predecessor. Once again, author Shannon Hale has her characters struggling with the question of what is or isn't real in this recreated Regency world.

 

Instead of ex-boyfriend recaps at the start of each chapter (as seen in Austenland), Midnight in Austenland prefaces each chapter with flashbacks of moments from Charlotte's childhood or marriage, memories she thinks back on that might hold clues to how / where / why her life took a turn for the worse. 

 

 

 

I read Midnight In Austenland shortly after watching the film adaptation of Austenland starring Keri Russell. Though the film naturally pulls largely from the first book, after reading a few chapters into this second book, I suspected that some minor details were taken from this book as well and incorporated into the film (on which author Shannon Hale was an associate producer)... lines from the film like Mr Nobley uttering "you make me nervous" or him being related to Mrs. Wattlesworth... those details actually appear in this second book, not the first (although it is character Mr. Mallery who is related to the proprietor, not Nobley, as presented in the film). Also, there is a speech Charlotte makes near the end of this second book that incorporates details that make up part of the ending of the film. All that said, these two novels, though linked by the setting of Pembrook Park, can easily be read as stand-alone novels. 

 

 

Though much of the inspiration for this story comes from Austen's Northanger Abbey, a heads up to readers: there are a few spoilers here for Austen's Mansfield Park as well. 

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review 2018-08-22 09:43
Austenland (Austenland #1) by Shannon Hale
Austenland - Shannon Hale

Jane Hayes is a seemingly normal young New Yorker, but she has a secret. Her obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is ruining her love life: no real man can compare. But when a wealthy relative bequeaths her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women, Jane's fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly become realer than she ever could have imagined. Decked out in empire-waist gowns, Jane struggles to master Regency etiquette and flirts with gardeners and gentlemen―or maybe even, she suspects, with the actors who are playing them. It's all a game, Jane knows. And yet the longer she stays, the more her insecurities seem to fall away, and the more she wonders: Is she about to kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Jane Hayes is a graphic designer for a NYC lifestyle magazine. Obsessed with all things Jane Austen, and especially Colin Firth's portrayal of Mr. Darcy in the BBC miniseries adaptation, Hayes feels she's been ruined for any real chance at love with REAL men. A conversation one night with her great-aunt Carolyn, where Carolyn, in so many words, tries to convey the idea that living life to the fullest is the truest fantasy life, leaves Jane wondering if she is maybe missing out on something.

 

Not one to leave the girl wondering forever, when Carolyn passes away she leaves Jane something special in her will: an all expenses paid trip the uber-exclusive, eye-poppingly expensive Austenland, a theme park (of sorts) catering to those who wish to fully immerse themselves in Austen's era. 

 

Upon arrival, Jane is immediately greeted by the park's proprietor, Mrs. Wattlesbrook. There is a bit of a snubbing on Jane right off the bat. Since her trip was pre-paid for, Wattlesbrook underhandedly treats Jane a bit like the child attending an exclusive boarding school on scholarship. Wattlesbrook proves to be a stickler for historical accuracy and loathes deviations from her rules. Still, there are a few modern conveniences allowed in Pembrook Park, the estate that makes up much of the "theme park" {in all honesty, the characters never veer very far from the front door other than strolls around the gardens.... kind of a lame theme park IMO, but moving on... }: flame shaped bulbs in the lamps versus more historically accurate kerosene ... because modern people are clumsy and Regency folk never had to worry about liability insurance on businesses lol ... and indoor plumbing, for the sake of the housekeeping staff. 

 

On her first full day at Pembrook, Jane meets Martin, aka "Theodore" the estate's cute gardener, and at dinner, Mr. Nobley, who serves as the resident quietly salty Mr. Darcy. Jane develops what she thinks is a taboo friendship with Martin, as he provides elements of the 21st century right when she needs it the most. Nobley tries to warn Jane that there might be a side to Martin she should be wary of, but she laughs off his words as just a speech he makes in character. As the story progresses, both men become important to Jane in different ways and she finds herself struggling to make out what is real and what is scripted... leaving her to wonder if this cookie tin lid kind of world is really what she wants after all. 

 

Pembrook Park had done its job -- it allowed her to live through her romantic purgatory. She believed now in earnest that fantasy is not practice for what is real --- fantasy is the opiate of women. 

 

Each chapter in Austenland starts with a profile of one of Jane's "exes" as she thinks of them, though the reader will note that most of these men would hardly qualify as any sort of meaningful relationship in most peoples' book. Even so, the men are presented in chronological order from Jane's earliest experiences in childhood on through, noting what went wrong in each situation that possibly left a little chink in her self-esteem to the point of obsessing over seemingly perfect, chivalrous, Regency era men. 

 

 

There is quite good humor in this novel, a lighthearted wit which only gets more pronounced as the story progresses. The ending might strike some as a little syrupy sweet, but in this instance, with these particular characters, there was something about it that was just... kinda perfect. 

 

If you've ever seen the reality series Regency House Party, this story very much reminded me of that setup, especially the whole "what is real, what isn't" experience cast members went through on that show. So if you were / are a fan of that program, this is one I would recommend for you.

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review 2018-08-21 09:12
Falling In Love With English Boys by Melissa Jensen
Falling in Love with English Boys - Melissa Jensen

Sixteen-year-old Catherine Vernon has been stranded in London for the summer-no friends, no ex-boyfriend Adam the Scum (good riddance!), and absolutely nothing to do but blog about her misery to her friends back home. Desperate for something-anything-to do in London while her (s)mother's off researching boring historical things, Cat starts reading the 1815 diary of Katherine Percival her mom gives her-and finds the similarities between their lives to be oddly close. But where Katherine has the whirls of the society, the parties and the gossip over who is engaged to who, Cat's only got some really excellent English chocolate. Then she meets William Percival-the uber-hot descendant of Katherine-and things start looking up . . .

Amazon.com

 

 

 

This epistolary novel spans two centuries (through alternating chapters, all of Cat's chapters headed with song titles), combining the stories of two young women, Cat and Katherine. Cat, who shares her adventures with the reader via a blog format, is a modern day American teen who travels with her mom to the UK so that her mom may study the life of Mary Percival, whom Cat describes as "some woman who did absolutely nothing of import and has been dead for two hundred years."

 

*In the story, this Mary Percival character died before the age of 45, like Jane Austen. The reader will pretty quickly notice that this novel is heavily influenced / inspired by Austen's work.*

 

Katherine is a teen in 1815 England, whose story is provided through journal entries. While reading the excerpts from the journals of both Katherine and Mary Percival, Austen fans will likely notice that those journal scenes are basically remixes of plot points from Austen's Sense & Sensibility as well as Pride & Prejudice, but with some changes to make it Jensen's own unique imaginings. For one, a character in Katherine's era drinks too much at a party and suffers a sexual assault... which helps make even this fluff piece a bit of timely reading material.

 

While it may be easy to dismiss this as an easy breezy read, there are some respectable moments of character growth to be had here as well as some important, and as I said earlier, timely, topics to think on. Cat outwardly comes off as spoiled and obnoxious, but as the reader gets to know her a bit better, we learn that there's actually a fair amount of emotional hurt in her that she's struggling to address. But I did enjoy her sense of humor.

 

For example, visiting the Tower of London and the National Portrait Gallery and coming back with the hilariously simplified "King Henry (VIII) was rather hard on his wives... and I gotta say, after Anne Boleyn, they all look a bit anxious."

 

Continuing on in the NPG: "Winston Churchill didn't always look like a bulldog... Queen Victoria kinda did..."

 

Meanwhile, Katherine in her own time is struggling to maintain her sense of self when it's expected that she should just go along with her father's plan for her. I grew to really like Katherine's mother, who did her best to keep her daughter distanced from the gross choice of a suitor Katherine's father had picked out for her.

 

Mama curled in her favorite cushiony chair, feet tucked beneath her. In the moment, with the fire behind her and her face softened by shadow, she was familiar, like a mirror.

 

"Promise me something, Katherine," she said in a quiet moment.

 

"If I can."

 

"Oh, you can. Promise me that you will think, in every moment possible, what you want for yourself. And you will stand for yourself, especially in the times when no one seems interested in standing for you."

 

I did not understand, not really, but I promised nonetheless.

 

One moment in the story also illustrates a good point regarding double standards to think on: If we can acknowledge that some women may be fine pursuing fat, ugly or socially odious men simply for monetary gain, why is it so baffling to think men might likewise pursue plain women for THEIR wealth?

 

If you only get through the first few chapters of this, it'll be easy to dismiss it as forgettable froth, but there is a layer of depth here I found impressive and entertaining. Admittedly, I did prefer Katherine's portions of the book, but I'm a history junkie, not to mention I just found her story, that of a young woman so desperately trying to show others she has plenty of worth as an individual, not dependent on nabbing a husband, much more interesting than Cat's humorous but somewhat privileged ramblings around London... but Cat, though maybe a little irritating at first... she grew on me :-)

 

 

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