All Roads Lead to Austen

I shouldn’t complain about getting free books.  That would make me no better than those people that I secretly scorn who complain about free food. “Why is it always pizza?” “But I don’t eat turkey sandwiches!”  Grr.  Free stuff is free stuff.  So I shouldn’t complain about Nook’s “Free Book Friday” program.  But what I will say is that it’s been months since there was a book on Free Book Friday that I actually wanted to download.  Maybe I’m just going through a lull.  For a while, I was downloading them every Friday and loving them!  Hopefully, things will go that way again soon.  For the time being, I can be comforted by the memory of my first ever Free Book Friday download – Amy Smith‘s All Roads Lead to Austen.

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Embarrassing confession: I began reading after the briefest skim of the summary that Nook provided, and I had to stop several chapters in to confirm that this book is a nonfiction account of Amy Smith’s year-long trip through South America to see how Jane translates literally and culturally. I knew that trip was the premise of the book, but I had no idea that the trip was real – that this was a memoir. Maybe the idea of spending a year devoted to reading Jane and visiting beautiful counties seemed too good to be true.

Here is what Publishers Weekly has to say about All Roads Lead to Austen: In this humorous memoir, devoted Austen fan Smith, a writing and literature teacher, sets out to discover whether Austen’s magic translates for readers in six Latin American countries (Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, and Argentina), where she organizes book clubs to discuss Spanish translations of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. Though Smith continuously calls attention to her limited Spanish language skills, she skillfully highlights how and why certain Spanish words are apt for describing Austen’s world and characters. Austen’s work provides a touchstone for surprising discussions about class, gender, and race, as well as history and literature. Smith’s account reads like an educational travel blog, full of colorful characters, overviews of the history and the traditions of each culture, as well as reflections on her own preconceived assumptions and stereotypes.

I thought this book was wonderful. It’s full of great moments where the members of Amy’s discussions say things about Austen’s characters that we just don’t have words for in English. Here’s one of my favorite examples: “‘[Lydia’s] behavior was una mulada but [Wickham’s] was una cabronada.’ There’s no way to translate these words exactly, but for starters, una mula is a mule and una cabra, a goat. The basic idea is that Lydia behaved like a stubborn mule, acting without a sense for the consequences, but Wickham behaved like a horny goat, with deliberate malice.” The members of Amy’s reading group brought great new perspective to the books, and it was interesting to hear all the responses to the one question Amy asks in every discussion: “Could Jane Austen’s novels have taken place in your country?”

Jane aside, I enjoyed reading about Amy’s travel experiences. She realizes again and again that, despite her best efforts, sometimes we just can’t help believing we understand things better than we actually do. There is a hilarious incident where she invites a doorman at her hotel out for coffee “just as friends,” and he responds by sweeping her off her feet and kissing her. Some of her cultural slip-ups are more sobering – she makes a casual remark to an acquaintance in Chile about how she loves to walk on the banks of the Rio Mapocho, and his reaction is stunning. He tells her, “After the coup, that river is where people went to look for their brothers, their children. Their mothers… The banks were stained with blood because that’s where those bastards would throw the people they’d murdered.” Amy learns (and re-learns every time she moves on to the next place) that spending a few weeks in a country does not make you an expert on that country’s culture.

Other things I loved about this book: Amy’s style is quick, straight-forward, and honest. Also, the illustrations that mark each chapter are adorable, and they are different for each country Amy visited. Check out Jane in Guatemala:

ImageAnyone who is a fan of Austen or enjoys travel memoirs could find something to connect with in this book.

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