11.10.2009

Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombie, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Yes.

I think we've established that I'm an avid - uhh - Jane Austen....ite. What can I say? I like 'er. Anyway. What you may NOT realize is that I also like zombies. Maybe not as much as Jane Austen, but I can't make everything my favorite, you know? Anyway. I'm glad I finally got to read this book. Hilarious from the very first second. I'm not even talking about the text - I'm talking about the cover! I hadn't really taken a good look at it before I bought it so when I actually got the book in the mail I was kind of surprised to see this:


when I own a copy of Emma that looks like this:


Hilarious, yes? I thought so.
Anyway. The book is great. It's the original story mashed up with zombies. eewwwww. Yeah. It's a good time and it's a good bit of fluff. There are even some pictures:


I really can't say too much more about it, except that I enjoyed the incorporation of the Shaolin stuff (having gone to see Soul of Shaolin at the Marquis this year) and I wish there had been more drama...more people turning into zombies and such. Also, I wanted Lady Catherine to be a total sham because that would be awesome.

Review: Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia, by Michal Viewegh

This was my first dip in the pond of Czech literature. Again, just one of those books that I picked up at the library. My whole literary life (for some reason) I've been drawn to authors who appear earlier in the alphabetic registry. Austen, Barrie, Bronte, Byatt, Dickens, Dumas, Fitzgerald, Jacques, Kerouac. In recent years, I've dabbled in the McEwans and McCarthys, Pearsons and Vonneguts. So to now have a Viewegh in the bunch is not necessarily new, but it's fresh. I only wish the translation was better.

It's got some great humor, parody, parody of parody, pastiche. On one hand, when you begin the novel, it feels like Viewegh desires a reader with incredible literary prowess. He quotes everyone on everything and uses it as irony, criticism, cliche and fact. If you want to "get it" you should probably know who these people are. That's what I thought. On the other hand, having now finished the novel, and being able see the whole picture, perhaps he's using his quotes to prove who is master holding all of the strings, and who (the reader) is at the end of the strings. The book is like a literary diabolical dynamo that just pulses quotations, generating and regenerating the responses of every reader.

Published in 1994, the book seems like a perfect way for me to incorporate my nonfiction reading on post-1989 Germany and Eastern Europe into fiction. It offers a fairly familiar plot of boy meets girl, but crossing economical, taste, and generational barriers. Viewegh manages to see the world through his narrators eyes which are inevitably wearing the sunglassed filters of the 20-year-old suicider, Beata. We see what the professor sees, but we feel what the 20-year-old dumpee feels. She's a disaster. But the quotes hold her in place, just as Viewegh wants them to.

"The heartbeats of a lover dead" (p. 124) The novel is a like a musical composition notebook. Each quote is the bass line of the next bar. One of my favorite quotes from the book amused me because it was me....and I know that sounds weird, but to be able to identify oneself in an obscure Czech novel is worth some points in my book: "Chvatalova-Sukova... rushed out to the school garden with the glass jar and a U.S. Army retrenching tool. As always, she moved her limbs in time with an inaudible composition playing somewhere beneath the dome of her skull." I think that's the nugget. I think that's what the book is. The quotes - the beat, the pages - the skull. Get it?

11.06.2009

Review: Catharine and Other Writings, Juvenilia by Jane Austen

I’ve been reading Jane Austen for 14 years. I own all of her major works as well as the minor ones (Lady Susan, the unfinished The Watsons, the unfinished Sanditon). I have read Emma and Mansfield Park twice, Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice and Northanger Abbey multiple times, Persuasion about…. 70 times (give or take a few). I’ve read numerous essays and opinions on her work. I’ve read the histories on her life. For a few years now, I’ve owned a published collection of her letters. Unfortunately, there are only so many – Cassandra burned many of them when Jane died. I’ve only ever gotten so far as the introduction to the collection.

Something kept stopping me from reading on. I thought a part of it was that I had let her get into her head so much, I was almost afraid of her letters. After reading Charlotte Brontë’s Unfinished Novels, I decided to take a quick sweep by the letter A in the Fiction section of the library. And there, wedged between Emma and Mansfield Park was Catharine. I knew immediately that this was what I’d been waiting for.

Ever since Patricia Rozema’s 1999 treatment of Mansfield Park, I have craved Austen’s juvenilia. And this was the very first time a copy had been readily available at the library. It’s titled Catharine and Other Writings. Essentially, it’s the transcription of the three notebooks that Jane kept in her adolescence (age 12 to 18). It does for the Austen lover what Charlotte & Branwell’s stories of Angria do for Brontë lovers.

It reminds me very much of when I was younger, playing Barbies with my sister. Making up stupid-ass stories about their families; brushing out Ken-doll John Smith’s hair so he looked like Michael Bolton. There’s such resonant disregard for propriety that you do not see in her novels among the heroes, heroines and admirable side characters. Northanger Abbey is the exception, because she wrote it when she was still quite young. But even there you feel her reining in the silly girls and making them into strong women.

The main characters in these works are the infrastructure for all of her accessory characters. The Bennet sisters, the Musgroves, the Bertrams, the Elliots, Mrs. Elton, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Marianne Dashwood, Lady Susan, General Tilney, Admiral Croft, Willoughby: they are all there. You can feel the wheels turning in her mind as you progress page by page.

This is what I have been missing. This is why I could not move on into her letters. It wasn’t because I was afraid to let her into my head; it was because I didn’t have the foundation. You can read all you want about Jane. You can read every history and every commentary by Deirdre Le Faye, you can read every opinion, every essay, ever finicky and sorely balanced sequel to her novels, you can watch every treatment of her works on film from every angle; still you will not understand.

Her juvenilia from dedications at the beginning of each volume down to every pen stroke that she edited, up to the spot in her prayers where you can feel (without even looking into the notes) the author change from Henry to Jane; every one of these things are hers.

This is the magic of Oxford World’s Classics. I’ve discussed this before in the case of Dumas – why I won’t read translations by other publishers, etc. OWC breathes life back into Jane’s lungs. If you’ve ever seen the Rozema “Mansfield Park”, you’ll know Jane’s “A History of England” (as well as “Love and Freindship (sic)”: “Beware of fainting-fits....Beware of swoons—Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint—“. ) OWC gives you not only what history she’s speaking of, but why she speaks in such a tone; why she was atypical in preferring roman Catholicism; why she characterizes herself as anti-Tudor. It defines every questionable word and motive, and not in a condescending way.

It is as if 16-year-old Jane were sitting next to you in 1792 explaining her word choice. And now I know I can move on, into her letters. Now that I know not what she has written, or been, but who she is.