The Marvel that is Jane Austen

What is it that fascinates us so much about Jane Austen? I know there are Lauren fans out there who aren’t big on Jane or haven’t read any of her books, but I would say that the majority of us are pretty enthusiastic about her.

Lauren has a short story in an Austen-inspired anthology called Jane Austen Made Me Do It. Reviews of her books frequently contain snippets like “Pride and Prejudice lives on” or “Jane Austen meets James Bond.” Lauren has spoken at meetings of the Jane Austen Society of North America (which has state chapters, y’all – this is serious) and is a frequent guest on Laurel Ann Nattress’s blog Austenprose, which is “a celebration of Jane Austen novels, movies, sequels, and the pop culture she has inspired.” So I am not exaggerating when I say that conversations about Jane and Pink frequently go hand-in-hand.

I love that Lauren included Jane in Pink V. I think it works well because Jane’s role is so small – just a few brief appearances, really, and several sweet references to how Arabella and Turnip may influence her future novels. This way, Jane fans get to be pleased to see her without feeling like any of Lauren’s descriptions are challenging a preconceived notion we have of Jane. I don’t know about you, but I never experienced a moment of “Wait a minute – Jane would NEVER have…” in Pink V. Congrats, Lauren! An impressive feat, considering many of Jane’s fans consider her our imaginary friend.

I think that if “Teen Paranormal Romance” can have its own section in Barnes and Noble, “Austen Inspired Novels” should get some space too! Have you ever noticed that you can’t walk down a row in a bookstore’s fiction section without coming across at least one of these Austen adaptations? These adaptations tend to fall into six basic categories:

  1. Continuations of the Austen novels (Death Comes to Pemberly, Mr. Darcy’s Little Sister)
  2. Austen novels rewritten from other perspectives (Colonel Brandon’s Diary, Darcy’s Story)
  3. Stories where Jane is a character (like Pink V or Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen Mysteries)
  4. Stories about Jane’s influence (Austenland, The Jane Austen Book Club)
  5. Modernizations of the Austen novels (Bridget Jones’ Diary, Persuading Annie)
  6. Just plain crazy (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters)

Am I missing one here?

As with all genres, some of these books are wonderful, and some are unbelievably dreadful. But here is what I want to know. What is your favorite Jane Austen novel? What is your favorite Austen-related novel? I’ll play fair and tell you mine first. Sense and Sensibility is my favorite of Jane’s books, and Janet Aylmer’s Darcy’s Story is my favorite Austen-inspired novel. Your turn!

Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas

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Thanks to NetGalley and Soho Press, I had the chance to read Stephanie Barron’s latest installment in her Jane Austen mystery series: Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Jane Austen, her mother, and her beloved sister Cass are trying to summon up their holiday spirit to spend Christmas of 1814 with Jane’s brother James at Steventon Parsonage. All three are determined to enjoy themselves, but James’s tendency to see any sort of revels as paganism and his wife Mary’s constant nervous complaints are sure to put a damper on their celebrations. So it comes as a delightful surprise when all the Austens are invited to spend Christmas day at the Vyne, the beautiful ancestral home of the wealthy and exceedingly kind Chute family. When a snowstorm strands all the Chutes’ visitors at the Vyne for several days, everyone is prepared to relax and enjoy Mrs. Chute’s plans for fine dinners, parlor games, and a Twelfth Night Ball. But the atmosphere shifts from festive to tragic when a military messenger to the Vyne is killed in a fall from his horse. Jane finds the circumstances surrounding this messenger’s death suspicious, and when she examines the scene of the accident, she realizes that she and her family are snowed in with a murderer. It’s up to Jane to convince her host to take her suspicion seriously and discover the murderer in their midst, because Jane suspects that another guest at the Vyne is danger as well.

I’ve never read any of Barron’s Jane Austen mysteries before, and evidently this is the 12th book in the series. I do love Jane Austen though, and mystery novels are my favorites. Sometimes starting a series after so many books are already published can be a bad thing – you feel lost with all the characters or backstories referenced that you don’t really know. But that wasn’t the case with this book. I feel like all you need is the most basic knowledge of Jane Austen, and you can pick right up where this book begins.

The mystery was definitely interesting. There is a fair amount of political detail involved, and Barron does a nice job of summarizing Napoleon’s exile to Elba and the British occupation of Washington D.C. without belaboring them. There are incidents of blackmail, mistaken identities, and love affairs, which all make the resolution more interesting. The only thing that was missing for me was a sense of urgency – I never really could get myself too worked up about whether the murderer would strike again.

Narrating your book from the perspective of such a popular and beloved author is a risky choice. For those of us who have read Jane Austen’s novels (and probably read them more than once), we already know what Jane’s voice sounds like. I thought Barron did a fairly consistent job of staying true to Austen’s tone and style, and there were a few gems in her writing that could have come straight out of Emma or Mansfield Park. Here’s a great example: “The little fever of envy, once caught, is the ruin of all happiness.” Also, there are funny moments when Jane has a realization about the people around her that she knows will make her a better writer. For example, when Mary is describing their Christmas at the Vyne to others, she tells the story as though she was “hounded by violence from first to last” and in immediate danger of being murdered at any moment. Jane thinks to herself: “It was a lesson in writerly humility. We are each the heroines of our own lives.”

If you like Regency mysteries, or Jane Austen adaptations, you should give this series a try. The first book in the series is Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor.

And while we’re on the subject of Jane, this past Saturday, a crowd of more than 500 people turned out in Bath (where Austen lived for a few years) in Regency period dress.  Their goal: break the Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of people in Regency costume.  It looks like they did it!

Manga Classics: Pride and Prejudice

Let’s be clear about this right from the beginning – I love a good Jane Austen adaptation. I love the movies, the BBC productions, the audiobooks. I love the modern spin-offs like Bridget Jones’ Diary and The Jane Austen Book Club. I’ve read plenty of the Austen continuations (my personal favorite is Darcy’s Story by Janet Almer). I gobble it all up, but it never occurred to me that someone would take one of Austen’s stories and turn it into a graphic novel.

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UDON Entertainment Production is evidently planning to release a whole line of Manga Classics. The first two books of the collection, both published on August 19, are Les Miserables and Pride and Prejudice. What a fabulous idea. Evidently, this isn’t even the first P&P adaptation of its kind. I poked around Amazon and found that Marvel Comics (you read that correctly) has a version of P&P as well. Mind blown. The only graphic novels I have ever read are Maus and Hyperbole and a Half, and my experience with manga is limited to a brief (though surprisingly intense) obsession with Sailor Moon as a child. But when I saw this title on NetGalley, I knew I had to try it.

The text was adapted by Stacy King, and the artist is Po Tse. According to UDON, these Manga Classics are intended for young adult readers, “with strong and accurate adaptations that will please even the toughest teacher or librarian!” As I was reading this one, it reminded me of the Great Illustrated Classics I read as a kid and loved so much. They really opened the door for me as a reader, and I think that these adaptations will do the same thing for kids who love comic books.

I have to start off my thoughts on the experience of reading this by saying that the artwork is absolutely beautiful. I have no idea how long it took to illustrate this, but the amount of detail included on each page is astounding. Take a look at this drawing of Elizabeth and Jane:

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I could have spent hours looking at the illustrations, just soaking up each facial expression and clothing detail. Really, really beautiful.

Beyond the gorgeous artwork, Austen’s story that we know and love is still what keeps you turning the pages. The good stuff is all there – Mrs. Bennet is as irritating as a swarm of gnats, Mr. Collins is ridiculous, Lady Catherine is imperious, and Wickham is dangerously charming. Since this adaptation is geared toward a younger audience, King occasionally took some liberties with the story. These instances were rare though, and I understood how simplifying certain plot points or making the occasional small change could make the adaptation easier to follow.

Every once in a while, King will make a shift in the language that feels abrupt. The occasional exclamation of “No way!” doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the dialogue that King has obviously tried to keep as close to the original as possible.  But even these moments are not enough to distract you from plowing ahead.  I found myself itching to flip ahead a few pages to see how some of my favorite moments in the story would be illustrated.  For example, here is Sir William Lucas pairing up Lizzy and Darcy for a dance:

PPmanga darcy2

As a manga newbie, I appreciated the guide at the beginning of the book that explained to me how I should start at the back of the book and read the pages right to left. It wasn’t that hard to adjust to, and after the first few pages, I didn’t find it at all distracting. I think this is a great new medium for appreciating an old favorite story.

What do you think?  Would you be willing to give this a try?  What are your favorite Austen adaptations?

Top Five Friday: Authors as Characters

Anyone who knows my reading habits or has ever looked at my bookshelves knows that I have a definite preference for historical fiction. I’ve gotten accustomed bumping into historical figures like Anne Boleyn, Napoleon, and King George in my books, but it still surprises me when well-known authors pop up as characters. Sometimes they just have little cameos, but in some books, they can be major players in the story. For today’s Top Five Friday, here are my favorite books where authors appear as characters.

mistletoe 1. The Mischief of the Mistletoe, by Lauren Willig. Without a doubt, this book is my favorite in Lauren’s Pink series, and who should put in an appearance but one Jane Austen, friend and confidante of Lauren’s heroine, Arabella. Although Jane only appears in a few chapters, I loved that she was present to be Arabella’s sounding board for everything from her new career in teaching to a developing romance.
 alice 2. Alice, I Have Been, by Melanie Benjamin. This is the story of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, who the world remembers as “Alice in Wonderland.” Benjamin tells the story as an 81-year-old Alice looks remembers the events that would turn out to be the most formative of her life, in both positive and unforeseeably damaging ways – her early friendship with Lewis Carroll.
 good hard look 3. A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano. Although she is not the main character, all of the action in this book hinges on Flannery O’Connor. At twenty-five, Flannery is struggling with lupus, and her mother has insisted that she leave her life as a famous author in New York City and come home to Georgia where her family can look after her. When her mother drags her to the wedding of a family friend, Flannery sets into motion a chain of events that will impact the entire town. Flannery once wrote that “the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it,” and the cast of characters in this book is forced to acknowledge her truth.
 wide and starry 4. Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan. In 1875, the only socially acceptable way for a woman to leave a cheating husband was to travel to Europe. So when Fanny Osbourne realizes her husband Sam is having yet another affair, she takes her three children and boards a ship to Belgium with the hope of attending a painting school. Fanny’s trip to Europe leads her from Belgium to Paris and, when tragedy strikes, eventually to a house in Grez where a group of poets and playwrights are taking a few weeks of vacation. It is here that Fanny meets Robert Louis Stevenson, and though are initially skeptical of one another, they forge a passionate relationship that will survive terrible illness, betrayal, relentless traveling, and the disapproval of Stevenson’s friends and family.
 paris wife 5. The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain. This is the story of Hadley Richardson, who was quietly resigning herself to spinsterhood when she met Ernest Hemingway. From the minute they meet, they have an undeniable connection. Their whirlwind courtship and wedding take them to Paris, where they fall headlong into the social circle that will become the “Lost Generation” – Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and the Fitzgeralds. Hadley loves Ernest more than anything else in her world, and she constantly rearranges her life to accommodate him, but she finds that life with Ernest, even though he confesses that he “would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley,” is not the romantic adventure she anticipated.

Does anyone have good recommendations for books where authors are characters?

Happy Friday!

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.

Top Five Friday: Movie Adaptations

I found out a few weeks ago that a movie adaptation of The Giver is coming out in August. I remember really liking The Giver when we read it in school, and I’m excited to see the movie. Since it’s been so long, unless I reread it before I see the movie, I probably won’t have any kind of opinion on how good the adaptation is. This got me thinking about my favorite movies that are based on books (of which there are dozens, but this is Top Five Friday, not Everything I Ever Loved Friday).

much ado 1. Much Ado about Nothing: This is such a great play, and Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branaugh are absolutely amazing as Beatrice and Benedick. If you can overlook a very weird performance by Keanu Reeves as Don John, the whole cast is great. My favorite monologue of any Shakespeare play is Benedick’s speech when he finds out Beatrice is in love with him. If you’ve never seen it, you can watch the scene on YouTube.
 mice and men  2. Of Mice and Men: I saw this movie for the first time in sixth grade, and I remember sobbing loudly through the last twenty minutes while my classmates all gave me weird looks and wondered what was wrong with me. John Malkovich is the PERFECT Lenny. It’s his voice I hear in my head now as I reread the book. I just want to give him a big hug. When my students watched this movie, it was always funny for me to sit back and wait for them to realize that George was Gary Sinise. I think the longest I ever waited for someone to ask, “Hey, is that Lieutenant Dan?” was about 10 minutes.
 order  3. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: I’m a huge fan of the HP books, but this book really rubbed me the wrong way. I thought emo, teenage angst Harry was incredibly annoying. So I was surprised by how much enjoyed the movie, and then I realized that most of Harry’s “nobody understands what I’m going through” nonsense came from internal monologues in the books – unless the director wanted to punish us with a lot of voice-overs and sad violin music, that all had to go in the movie. Harry still had some anger issues, but I had much more patience with them when I wasn’t reading about them constantly. Also, the scene where Harry & Co. basically destroy an entire floor of the Ministry of Magic was pretty awesome, even if I didn’t remember them wreaking quite as much havoc in the book.
 pride  4. Pride and Prejudice: I’m sure Jane Austen purists everywhere would be grabbing their torch and pitchforks to see this one on the list, but I adore it. I feel like you get a much clearer picture of how far apart Lizzy and Darcy really are on the class scale from this version. The Bennet house, the Bennet girls’ dresses and the ball at the ball at Meryton look a little shabby and really country when you compare them to Pemberley, Caroline Bingley’s gowns, and the ball at Netherfield. I don’t think you get that distinction with the BBC adaptation. This movie is beautiful to look at, it has a great cast, and I think it’s true to the spirit of the book.
 julie  5. Julie and Julia: Even though the movie has the same title as the book by Julie Powell, the movie is actually based on the book Julia and Julia and Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France. Amy Adams (who I love) manages to bring some likability to Julie’s character, and Meryl Streep is at her most adorable as Julia Child. Watching this movie makes me HUNGRY. There is food in almost every scene. It also makes me want to try some recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

 

Happy Friday!