A Latter-day Bluestocking

For the love of reading

Category: General Reading

Out and About with Jane and the Sordid in 7 hours

A corned beef sandwich from Katz's Delicatesse...

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This weekend is again shaping up to be perfectly literary.  Today I meet with my book club, The Petty Rebuttals where we will be discussing Room by Emma Donoghue and tomorrow is the Brooklyn Book Festival where I will be manning the Jane Austen Society of North America’s table for an hour in full Regency dress!!  But more about that later because I want to tell you about last weekend that proved to be very literary as well.

Saturday began quite bookish.  Its scope spanned the centuries beginning with Jane Austen and ending with what was promised to be a sordid foray into international erotic writing.

My day began with the New York Regional meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA).  A group of like-minded admirers of the works of Jane Austen who come together at regional meetings throughout the year, an annual national general meeting, and at splinter group meetings such as a monthly discussion group, book reading groups and the Juvenilia (a group for the young and the young at heart).  This meeting was especially enticing for me as it would be a lecture on fashion of the Regency era and how best to outfit yourself at any budget entitled, Dressing the Miss Bennets.  The speaker was Lisa Brown who led the informative lecture with modeling (which I happily participated in).

I had such a wonderful time, catching up with friends, volunteering, and talking about an upcoming general meeting which our chapter is hosting in Brooklyn next autumn.  It was exciting to discuss Jane Austen with other enthusiastic readers.  It is a wonderful place to socialize with the scholarly as well as those who have newly discovered our favorite author.  I was able to discuss with fellow members of the Juvenilia the possibility of a lending library amongst our members of our personal Jane material and the possibility of leading a group discussion in November of Catherine, or the Bower an unfinished fragment written in August 1792.  This is an important fragment as it is believed to be a segue between Austen’s youthful juvenilia to her mature published works.

After tea and cucumber sandwiches with the group-at-large, myself and members of the Juvenilia group headed to Manhattan’s lower east side to participate in the 4th Annual Lit Crawl NYC.  This event is sponsored by the Litquake Foundation, founded in San Francisco, to give readers more against the back-drop of technology by promoting readings, classroom visits, youth projects all “to foster interest in literature for people of all ages and perpetuate a sense of literary community.”  The Crawl was broken up into three 45 minute phases in which you chose from several topics and venues (coffeehouses, bars and lounges).  The first venue we decided to attend was sponsored by The Center for Fiction in which authors came up with he first line of books based only on the title and a blurb.  Audience participation involved trying to guess what the correct first line was.  It was very fun and sometimes raucously hilarious!!  The second venue we chose was Nerd Jeopardy presented by publishers Farrar, Straus, Giroux.  This one is pretty self-explanatory and one would be led to believe a fun choice but because of the lack of organization and slim audience participation it proved a bit boring and pretentious.  The best part of this venue was the Heineken Dark Lager.

Next venue, in the hopes of more than just intellectual stimulation we chose to attend Down and Dirty Round the World the blurb read as follows:

“…an evening of hardboiled, pulpy, and erotic international literature read by some of our favorite authors and translators…”

It proved less than exciting.  None of the selections even came close to being pulpy or erotic.  Halfway into the first reading my friends and I were wondering if we should just bail.  One author/translator read so poorly that if she were to read hard-core porn her monotone voice would fail to titillate.  At last it was over!  It had one thing going for it, it gave us something to talk about.  The only thing about that evening to arouse my desire was the to-die-for pastrami Reuben at Katz’s Deli!  That succulent pastrami, its juicy goodness tantalizing my tongue, the tender flesh melting in my mouth… See what I mean?

Drop Everything and Go Get a Library Card

New York Public Library Reading Room

Yesterday was, apparently, National Buy A Book Day.  Oh well, missed that.  But not to worry because the American Library Association (ALA) has declared September to be Library Card Sign-Up month.  So, if you don’t already have one go to your nearest library and apply for one.  They are free and give you access to myriads of books and other media.  And for all you parents out there:  Hands down, it’s the most important and inexpensive school supply you can get your children!

Jane Austen and Firefly. Wait!!…What??

Title page from the first edition of the first...

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Folks who know me are aware that besides being a literature reading junkie I am also a sci-fi fanatic.  My reading in the genre has been meager and I am remedying that.  I have read and loved Starship Troopers, Fahrenheit 451, and The Left Hand of Darkness.  I have to admit that the majority of my fondness for science fiction has come from the medium of television and film:  Star Trek, Star Wars, Space 1999, Battlestar Galactica, and Buck Rogers.  Yes, I’ve dressed Trek (Original Series only, thank you) and Star Wars (Princess Leia, slave Leia if you’re lucky) but don’t hold that against me.

The one sci-fi preoccupation I love the most and simply cannot live without is Firefly.  Yep, the defunct, didn’t make it a season, space-cowboy, all chock-full of goodness television show.  Love it, love it, love it!  That’s right if I were stranded on a desert island that just happened to have a DVD player and a television and presumably electricity there are two things I must have so I don’t go all-Lord of the Flies:  the book, Pride and Prejudice and the DVD boxed set of Firefly.  I know what you are thinking:  “Wow, that woman is totally out of her mind!!”  But before you run with that allow me to explain why I feel these two very different genres may not be as incompatible as one would presume.  And, no, it’s not because of Mr. Darcy and Capt. Reynolds.

Characterization!  Jane Austen is a genius when it comes to her characters.  Despite the fact that her stories are confined to a limited society she spans the width and breadth of human mettle as well as foible.  Who hasn’t chanced upon someone as arrogant and pedantic as Lady Catherine de Bourgh or an insipid flatterer as Mr. Collins.  It has been written in a contemporary criticism that Jane Austen handled character with a masterly “perception of its more delicate shades.”  In other words, the men and women Jane Austen describes are true representations and not caricature, not two-dimensional and her characters do not lack fault but are nonetheless charming.  G.H. Lewes wrote of her writing in 1847:

“What we most heartily enjoy and applaud, is truth in the delineation of life and character:  incidents however wonderful, adventures however perilous, are almost as naught when compared with the deep and lasting interest excited by any thing like a correct representation of life.”

And characterization is what is most appealing about Firefly.  The creator, Joss Whedon, has created dramatis personae who are engaging and interesting; every role has depth and more to it than meets the eye, again no two-dimensional characters here.  The nine people on board Serenity are not perfect (except Kaylee, “I don’t believe there’s a power in the ‘verse that can stop Kaylee from being cheerful.”) and yet they have a dynamic that is genuine, they too struggle with self-reproach, doubt, and questions of right and wrong.  These characters exhibit the same shortcomings that we can relate to and because of this, the canceled show which only consisted of 14 episodes (only 11 were actually aired) has taken on a life after death existence amongst devotees (called “Browncoats”).

So as you can see, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Joss Whedon’s Firefly although very different are not very dissimilar when it comes to characterization and each’s ability to transcend the story and make each character a genuine entity.  I think this is why they appeal to me, the inhabitants of each genre speak to me and I can see myself in them.  But it doesn’t hurt that they have:

Him

and Him

Quote of the Day: Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut speaking at Case Western Reserve...

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“All these people talk so eloquently about getting back to good old-fashioned values. Well, as an old poop I can remember back to when we had those old-fashioned values, and I say let’s get back to the good old-fashioned First Amendment of the good old-fashioned Constitution of the United States — and to hell with the censors! Give me knowledge or give me death!”  Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., 1922-2007

Books Should Never be Banned, EVER!

1933 May 10 Berlin book burning -- taken from ...

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I just read an article at Care2.com entitled “Student Runs Secret Banned Books Library from Locker” which needs no explanation.  I, for one, could go hours ranting about this one.  Once in high school I had an English teacher who passed out a list of past and present books that had been banned.  This list included The Wizard of Oz, The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and The Great Gatsby!  I remember being horrified and asked myself what could possibly have been in these books so subversive that we, the American reading public had to be protected.  My horror turned to anger and abhorrence when I discovered that my school library had banned all Judy Blume books which recount tastefully and poignantly the concerns of adolescent girls.  I decided right then and there to embark on my own personal crusade to read every book on that list.

That was the extent of my militancy and I have to say my interest flagged after a while because many of the books didn’t pique my interest enough.  So when I read this article describing a Catholic school student’s subversive library I was thrilled.  Here is a kid who is doing something about banned books that makes a difference!  In the article the reasons for the school’s banning such books as Paradise Lost and The Canterbury Tales are based in religion, a premise I find disconcerting as it suggests aggressive control and apparently so does Nekochan (the student’s preferred avatar name).

Nekochan states that she now has a locker filled with 62 banned books which she loans out to fellow interested students and realizes that she is at risk for getting into trouble.  But her belief that she is right in her stance encourages her to continue her rebellious activity despite the danger of getting caught.

Continue, Nekochan, to “Fight the Power!!  Knowledge is a gift and we should be allowed to make our own choices about what we should and should not read.

The Best of Read Alouds

Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear from Uncle Remus, His...

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The days are getting shorter and there is a hint of crispness in the air.  Soon, too soon, the languid days of summer will be over and autumn will be here.  Naturally, my mind has begun to turn towards preparing my son for his inevitable return to school.  Its been a flurry of clothes and supplies shopping, arranging for after-school, and the return to routine.  Once again, I will begin to mandate a time for reading, both alone and together.  Ever since he was a baby he’s been read to and although my son will be entering the 5th grade this year we will choose and put aside books especially to be read aloud.

Presumably one would think he’s too old to be read to, that it’s too babyish.  I disagree.  An article at the website Education World (Reading Aloud: Are Students Ever Too Old?) corroborates my belief.  Not only does reading aloud to your child promote reading literacy but it’s also great bonding time.  Some of my greatest childhood memories were of my father reading to my sister and I.  My Dad was a master of reading with character voices, he had the wonderful talent of becoming a persona; I remember with great fondness his reading, in the vernacular, the adventures of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox and his interpretation of Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi made real for me the epic life and death battle of the stalwart little mongoose with the evil snake Nagaina.  The latter so fondly remembered that a few years ago while reading aloud with family I coerced my Dad to read, once again, one of my favorite stories.  And for a moment, at the age of 40, I was able to relive a wonderful childhood memory.  I don’t think he truly understood what a wonderful gift he gave me that summer evening.  (Dad:  If you’re reading this now, Thanks).

I too, want to give this gift to my son.  I try very hard to do voices; my pirate voice is pretty good (but I recommend having a glass of water on hand) and some of my very favorite characters to read have been those of Roald Dahl.   It feels so good to become the deliciously bratty Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the sinister Grand High Witch from The Witches.  I suppose I must be doing something right because my tween still looks forward to laying in bed listening to Mom’s interpretation of stories, bad accents and all.  At least, I haven’t yet had any complaints!

A Brief List of past, present and future read-alouds

  • Rudyard Kipling, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi
  • Roald Dahl, The Witches
  • Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • Roald Dahl, The BFG
  • Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox
  • Edward Eager, Half Magic
  • E.B. White, Stuart Little
  • Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia
  • Walter D. Edmonds, The Matchlock Gun
  • Grace Lin, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
  • C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
  • Elizabeth George Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Quote of the Day: a poem from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Portrait of Roald Dahl

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“So please, oh PLEASE, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install,
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.”

Roald Dahl, 1916–1990 (from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

Why Jane Austen? Why, indeed!

I have just finished Why Jane Austen? by Rachel M. Brownstein.  It is a scholarly book, a serious discourse that attempts to interpret why Jane Austen is considered such a great writer and why she has become such a phenomenon in this day and age.  The author strives to explain and understand from many viewpoints: Jane Austen’s contemporaries, her family, the young girls who are looking for a simple courtship story, women who see early feminist messages á la Mary Wollstonecraft, white-haired ladies who ooh and aah at the neat writing of her manuscripts and letters, and the zealots who would defend, to the death, her genius.  It is a well-written book; the author, a professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center and who has lectured at meetings of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), knows her stuff.  I enjoyed reading it but found parts of the book dry and, at times, confusing.  I am wondering if my dense reading of this book is because it wasn’t what I expected.  The well-known axiom, “don’t judge a book by its cover” is appropriate here as the cover picturing a Jane Austen “action figure” atop a stack of books belies its content.  I thought it would be a “light, bright and sparkling” book appropriate for summer holiday reading.  Beach reading it was not.

No sooner had I read the last page I began to question why I love Jane Austen so much.  Oddly enough, it is a tough question to answer, most likely because my outlook towards her has changed over the years.  I must admit I came to her quite late.  I never read Pride and Prejudice as a giddy schoolgirl; I discovered her in college.  I am embarrassed to say that my introduction to Jane Austen was through the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth as Elizabeth and Darcy.  I remember loving it as I tried to watch while being teased by a neanderthal who felt that the highly mannered society, the clothes and stately settings, and period language were pretentious.  I read the book and soon after the other five novels.  I fell in love.

A small part of my Jane Austen collection

Since then, I have read the biographies, the Juvenilia, the letters, magazines, articles, on-line blogs, and have re-read the books countless times.  I would rather go hungry than not purchase the newest edition of any of the novels, biography, or critical essays.  I even watch and enjoy the cinematic versions of the books and Jane Austen’s life.  My favorite P&P is no longer the Firth one; he being much too Byronic for my tastes and not the Darcy of the novel.  I have read each book in different ways, sometimes I focus on character, sometimes it’s the language, I like to focus on reading between the lines to gently uncover Jane Austen’s witty and humorous and very accurate assessments of the people we still come into contact today.  She was a master of language; her writing so exquisite and at the same time so humble.  Unless you are looking for it this can be easy to miss.   Virginia Woolf summed it up best in A Room of One’s Own,

“Anyone who has the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware…that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.”

So why Jane Austen?  Because I am the giddy girl seeking romance, the intellectual woman looking for discourse on the perfect novel, the feminist fighting for female independence and a break from the accepted docile rendering of womanhood, the gray-haired lady who values penmanship, civility, and manners.  Jane Austen answers to all of these various parts of my personality and so much more.  I’ve never been let down by her and have always been able to find a kernel of wisdom, laughter, and joy no matter my mood.  Her words have uplifted my spirits, answered difficult questions, and given me an understanding of people through the behavior of her characters.  She is great.  It is as simple as that.

Quote of the Day: Jane Austen

Title page from the first edition of the first...

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“All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”  (Pride and Prejudice, Vol I., Ch. VIII)

Read to the end if you want to know what this entry has to do with literature…Maybe.

Chicken fried steak covered with gravy, corn (...

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This all begins with my watching Pioneer Woman on the Food Network.  The cowboys were so cute and her recipe for Chicken-Fried Steak and Gravy made me drool.  Okay, I admit so did the cute cowboys!  Today I Googled “Pioneer Woman” and “Chicken-Fried Steak” and found Ree Drummond’s blog.  I found my recipe.  I began to read.  And then I noticed that she has a tab for Homeschooling.  Now I am not an advocate of homeschooling, not because I think it inappropriate or wrong, but because the people who tend to homeschool are about as annoying as vegetarians.  Those I have come across (which I confess are not many (homeschoolers not vegetarians), so I do apologize now for my opinion) are preachy and tend to be holier than thou and exhibit the “I am better than you” or “I love my kids more” vibe.  And truth be told, I am lazy and am a single parent with a 9 to 5 job and you just make me feel guilty.

I clicked on the tab because 1) I was curious and 2) because I want to help my son do better in school.  I figure where better to get home reinforcement information than from a mother who has taken on the task of teaching her children, right?  So I started perusing English/Literature under the heading Homeschooling Materials with this intention and was waylaid by an entry about a grammar book.  A grammar book that I now want…with a vengeance, My Grammar and I…or Should That Be Me?:  How to Speak and Write It Right by Caroline Taggart and J.A. Wines.

I am a militant proponent of grammar and writing and nothing peeves me more than bad grammar.  I also know I probably make lots of grammatical mistakes and it irks me to no end.  There is nothing more heart-wrenching than proofreading and editing one’s own words and clicking the Publish tab to only find seconds before it goes live that there is a glaring grammatical or spelling error.  In my most humble opinion, the collapse of good grammar began with the advent of e-mails and text messaging (followed by tweeting and Facebook status updates).  The immediacy of the medium has made us all a bit lazy and, quite frankly, I am sick of it.  I yearn for the days when we took our time to write and actually used a dictionary.  But I digress. 

Bottom line:  I need this book on my shelf (next to dictionaries and style guides), for Me, for my Kid, and most importantly for my Sanity.  Oh, and for my Writing too.

Also, I feel I need to apologize to Homeschoolers, the well-written entries on this blog are witty, funny and informative without a hint of condescension.  As for you vegetarians…well, I better get back to what I initially set out to do and discover how to help my kid love reading books and write well.

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